What to do with that art degree.

I recently answered a simple question on Quora:

What job do you have as an art major?”:

My answer was short:

I received a BFA and an MA in Education in 1969 and 1970. I taught at the secondary level while building and refining my portfolio, visiting numerous galleries, and developing my marketing plan. In 1979, I quit teaching and started painting full time. I retired a millionaire at 53 to a Caribbean island. I am now back in the States, painting again at age 68. “What job do you have as an art major?” A professional artist.

One commenter wrote the following:

Great but you have to recognize that your career is akin to being a movie star or professional athlete — very very few people succeed. And in the art field the main backup plan is teaching, a field that is about being a teacher rather than an artist.

My response was both quick and easy:

For many, that is true. I loved teaching and might have remained a teacher but for the fact that I had promised myself that I would make full use of my education and become a nationally recognized artist. I was successful in this endeavor because I studied the business, determined what I would need to do in order to succeed as others had, created and refined my plan, worked hard, remained focused, took calculated risks, adapted to changing conditions, and never lost sight of my goal. I was smart. I was clever. I was determined. Other art students who can be and do these things may still succeed as did I.

How to make that art degree work for you:

Life is hard. Things change. Shit happens. But those things do not mean that a plan is worthless or that it is OK not to have a plan. Sure, you can just blithely skip from day to day, free-spirited, waiting for inspiration and trusting that the world will discover your brilliance because you are… brilliant. Or you can take the reins and make a plan. And then you have to pay attention, because a plan that cannot adapt to changing circumstances is likely doomed to fail. The world is changing so much more rapidly now than in the 70s that it leaves me breathless. So I continue to be attentive and to innovate and to adapt my plan as necessary to take advantage of those changes that will further advance my career—and manage those changes that might conspire to move me off course.

I abandoned serigraphy for stone lithography. I abandoned stone lithography for giclée. I started selling online. I painted large paintings. I painted small paintings. I always knew the Pantone “Color of the Year.” I studied art law and copyright issues. I constantly evaluated and re-evaluated local, regional, and national art markets. I found markets that wanted my work. I altered my work to increase my reach into new markets that I could teach to want my work. I cultivated backchannel sources and always reached further and higher than I could possibly grasp. I refused to compromise when it was possible and compromised intelligently when only compromise would move me forward. I was constantly aware of my strengths and limitations and chose my weapons to match. I chose carefully my fields of battle and was always prepared. I managed my brand. I exceeded expectations.

Use your degree in art as a beginning rather than an end. Study business. Study literature. Study marketing. Study economics. Study biology and physics. Study people. Study yourself. Study the world that you think owes you a living because you are an artist. Then get real. The essence of one flavor of philosophical existentialism might be phrased thusly: “Existence precedes essence. You came into being through no act of your own. You are free to define yourself, and only you are free to do so. You make of yourself into what you will be.”

You have already proven that you can be creative. Now prove that you can be both creative and smart. The only person keeping you from realizing your dream and becoming a professional artist is YOU.


I am now sixty-eight years old and still studying my world and myself.

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