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How do I handle art school rejection?

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Not being accepted into art school is a massive disappointment. It’s arguably one of the biggest challenges a beginning artist can face: the institution that you dream to enter in order to deepen your artistic voice, the institution that you want to become a part of, isn’t even willing to collaborate with you – could there be anything worse?

If art is an enigma, then art schools can be fantasized to be that enigma’s initial gatekeepers. A rejection by such a gatekeeper often can’t easily be brushed off. In addition to being a real rejection, it’s also a highly symbolic one.

1. Reasons for art school rejection

The reason for art school to reject you can’t usually be known, and can be entirely different than you imagine. Most artists will interpret a rejection as their work lacking the right attitude or quality – this can’t really be known though. Consider the following alternative explanations that might cause a rejection:

  • Tunnel vision: Although art is a limitless platform for self-expression, art schools often are not. Instead, each institution usually stands for a specific formal and aesthetical view of the world: some strongly focus on theory, others on craft – with endless gradations in-between. Your work might be totally acceptable for one art school, but might simply not fit the (often unverbalized) vision of the school you got rejected from.
  • Randomness: Your portfolio might never have been seen, or it might not have been seen by the jury member most likely to understand and want it: a professor’s lack of attention in a critical moment (when your work gets shown) can be devastatingly detrimental to your acceptance. The jury members who might have wanted to work with you could have gotten sick, have a family emergency etc – and their replacement might not share their semantic and aesthetic preferences.
  • Statistics: Art schools usually have way more candidates than available places; a specific art school might accept 70 students per year, but receive 1500 applications – resulting in you only having a 4.67% chance of getting accepted. Applying to art school means that a group of people get placed first (those who are accepted), while everyone else gets no place at all: if there are 52 seats available, being ranked 53th equals rank 1500. When applying to art school, statistics always work against you.

  • Diversity: Art thrives on diversity, which begins in promoting voices that don’t usually get to be heard. As a result, a jury can favor someone whose work might be similar to yours, but whose personal background might seem more fitting to their vision of diversity: someone with a marginalized background, or from a country whose cultural background makes them seem more interesting than you do. Although potentially working against your self-interest, any push towards more diversity is to be applauded – it would be one of the better reasons for rejection: to know that it might be the result of an institution’s push to promote marginalized voices.

2. Accept loss, and increase agency

Understand that art isn’t objective, and neither are art schools or their application processes. Questioning one’s work is normative for artists, but being rejected from art school shouldn’t automatically strengthen this attitude.

Instead, take time to heal. Understand that rejection is always a form of loss: you lost the opportunity to begin your life’s next chapter. It can feel as if all agency has been taken from you. Understand that this isn’t true though: if art school is about deepening your involvement with the arts, about connecting to others and getting feedback to your work, then you can establish structures to have all of these in your life autonomously, without art school; and by doing so, your work might become more focused than it was before, which might make it more likely to get accepted the next time you apply.

Of course, this cannot lessen the ego blow of having been rejected. Considering what you aimed for, and what you got, it’s OK to see yourself as a victim (of hope, of fate, of randomness, of art world politics, etc). Transcending victimhood requires the establishing of agency – which can be achieved entirely on your own. Some might even argue that the only way to transcend is by your own proactivity.

Consider the following strategies:

  • Deepen your artistic practice
    • Show up: Continue establishing a long-term work structure that can exist in parallel to your existing life obligations – even an hour of work per day will make a difference when judged after a year. Understand that showing up (in the studio, in front of the material), is the one requirement that you can usually influence on your own. It’s the base challenge that artists have to face, entirely independently of their level of success.
    • Work: Continue focusing on your work’s multitude of quality ideals: what is your work about, and how do you manifest it physically (or virtually)? Understand that any work you create represents progress, even if the specific piece might feel like failure. You might not yet understand the many approaches to art that you have within you.
    • Collaborate: Consider connecting to others with the intention to collaborate. While shared authorship and processes create a mutual dependency, they also offer the potential for a shared, and thus lower creative burden. In addition, collaborations can lead to unexpected ideas and energies that might feed back into your core artistic practice.

  • Network
    • Connect to others: although healing can require solitude (and take time), being embedded in an atmosphere of trust and encouragement can offer advantages. A proactive step after art school rejection could be to consider joining a group studio or to self-organize meetups with fellow artists (to discuss life and art, and your artworks), or even to organize a group with which you can visit art openings. This can enable you to feel more embedded, and ultimately more at home with your work (and the industry you want to be a part of).
    • Deepen your knowledge about local galleries, art spaces and artists: Instead of focusing on your rejection, you can try to focus on art – since that is what initially made you want to make art yourself. Try to increase your knowledge about the places that show art locally: galleries, art spaces etc. You can even contact other artists and ask whether they’d have time for you to visit their studio. Connecting to the world like this can be empowering, since it enables you to form your own opinion about what you see and experience. 
  • Get feedback for your work
    • Find sparring partners: Consider connecting to others with the intention to mutually discuss your work. This can be a low-threshold strategy to get external feedback to your work. Make sure that principles of safe space are adhered to, and consider reading What’s the anatomy of art feedback? and its various subchapters.
    • Consider mentorship: Consider finding a mentor to safely discuss your work – someone with an increased understanding of art, artistic processes and art world dynamics, as well as an intimate sensitivity to your progress and potentials. Similar to a personal trainer in a gym, such a person can help you see what you yourself might not yet have the capacity to sense.
      Understand that this always comes at the risk of you trusting that external voice more than your own – art isn’t a gym. It requires the artist to become ever more sensitive to themselves, which always turns mentorship into a balancing act of the mentor’s versus the mentee’s voice.
    • Visit professors who you wanted to get accepted by: Communicate with those who rejected your work: This is a tricky one: depending on your courage and assessment of the situation, it can make sense to reach out to the specific professor(s) you hoped to get accepted from. Note that they might not be interested in this, and that contacting the institute itself usually isn’t of any help at all; the proper way to try this is to go there in person, and to see whether there’s a moment to ask about feedback: how could you improve, does this make sense, etc.
      Understand that this is as much a networking opportunity as it is a feedback opportunity – it might even be more of the prior than the latter: where the professor might only have seen the portfolio up until now, they now get to see the person behind it – which can benefit you upon reapplication. Take care to reflect sensitively about the potential feedback – it might not actually match your ideas about art (consider reading What’s the anatomy of art feedback? and its various subchapters).

Independently of the above points (working, networking and getting feedback), consider the following strategies to increase your chances:

  • Reevaluate your ideas about the school you applied to: Considering your recent experiences, how does your today’s knowledge compare to your initial projection? It might make sense to take a step back and compare your recent experiences with the potential of other art schools that you didn’t yet consider.
  • Reapply: It might feel unrealistic to consider reapplying right after a rejection, yet (a) you always lose all challenges that you don’t rise to, and (b) there’s usually no necessity to reapply right away – this usually takes close to a year. If you want to get accepted, you definitely need to reapply. In addition, you can consider applying to other art schools as well.

All the while, you need to stay sensitive to the pain caused by the rejection. Is it too strong? Does it trigger you? It can make sense to interpret art school rejection as the first step into a profession of rejections: the artist’s professional life brims with these situations: solo shows that get cancelled, residency rejection letters, dismissed project proposals, etc. If your ego is hurt too badly, it can make sense to reconsider whether your current strategy suits you. Think and discuss deeply whether art school is the right path for you. What alternative approaches are out there that might suit your expectations better? Does it make sense to deepen the various possibilities of being self-taught? There are endless ways of getting into the arts: art schools do not have to be the one for you.

How can I make my artwork (financially) accessible to non-collectors?

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The traditional art market aims to sell original artworks, with each piece having the potential to be sold exactly once (it can subsequently be sold again and again, but artists themselves can only sell it once). This gives the impression that (a) for any given time, an artist’s work will always only have exactly one price tag. It also gives the impression that (b) art can only be sold to “collectors” – people with the economic means to buy original artworks.

To dissect these statements, you need to understand that collectors aren’t “one thing”: they can be millionaires just as much as they can have low-wage jobs; their unifying attribute isn’t their wealth, but rather their willingness to exchange money for original artworks: a collector is someone who wants to own the actual physical artwork. This has various consequences:

  • Original work: since collectors care about the original work, they will usually care a lot about its intactness – and will often insure it to safeguard their investment.
  • Economic investment: collectors will usually care about their investment, and closely survey the artist’s progression on the art market.
  • Emotional attachment: just because a collector loves one work of an artist, doesn’t mean they’ll be interested in any other work of that artist.

Making artworks accessible to non-collectors doesn’t necessarily require any changes to an artwork’s price level: non-collectors aren’t reached by making your work cheaper. Instead, they are reached by understanding their difference to collectors:

  • Lack of interest in original works: Non-collectors do not care about original works; this means they won’t usually care about the number of prints that were made (“edition size”), or the physical dimensions of a piece. They also won’t care about insuring artworks, because they will not have original artworks to insure in the first place.
  • Lack of interest in economic investment: Non-collectors care about the emotional attachment to the idea of an artwork way more than they care about the actual physical original. They might potentially be happier with an affordable reproduction on paper (or on their coffee mug or t-shirt) than having to worry about the economic intricacies of the art market.

Democratizing access to your world

To make your work accessible to non-collectors, you need to think about reproducing your artworks, which democratizes access to them. While your job is first and foremost about producing artworks (which always are physically unique), it’s important to also see these works as the basis for reproductions – which can then be printed onto coffee mugs, umbrellas, t-shirts, etc. Most often though, artists use reproductions to offer high-quality digital prints of their works.

Experiencing art

Understand that art is never only about the physical original, but always about the experience that this original creates. You can understand the original artwork as conduit towards emotions: while some will require its physical presence, others will already have feelings when viewing a digital reproduction on their mobile device. Compare this to the experience of watching a film in the movie theater vs. on your TV vs. on your smartphone: the experience will be similar but different, with everyone having their preferences. There might not ever be a “right” way to view the world, and thus art. Because of their physicality, experiencing original artworks will always be rare – offering reproductions immediately heightens access to your work, whether on your website, social media, in magazines, books – or through digital prints.

Art beyond investment

Independently of your original artwork’s price level, reproductions enable you to offer your work to an entirely different demographic: to people who don’t care to own an original artwork; who might not have enough space for the original artwork, who might not want to own (and have to insure) something of high monetary value. They might love your work, but not want to pay more than $€50-100. They might not even see this transaction as an investment – but simply might want to enjoy your work the same way they enjoy their favorite band’s poster. Where the art market cares about the number of available prints (since it defines the price of each print), non-collectors will not care about this at all, enabling you to offer open editions of your digital reproductions. You’re not selling something for its resale, but for its emotional value.

Reproductions and personal values

Some argue that offering reproduction to one’s art lowers the artist’s market value, risking the original artwork’s price level. Comparing the value of original artworks to the value of their reproductions seems to be illogical though; while both share a visual aesthetic (the reproduced visuality), they are structurally entirely different, catering to different interests and target audiences. A Porsche’s value doesn’t get diminished by the existence of a Porsche calendar or t-shirt. Instead, the latter are used to expand the brand’s visibility; someone who buys a reproduction today, might buy an original tomorrow: reproductions can turn out to be gateway drugs.

Reproductions are ultimately a question of personal values: 

  • Democratized access to art (and the heightened visibility this brings) vs. being able to only sell to a potential elitist art market. 
  • Artistic autonomy as a consequence of selling dozens (or maybe hundreds or thousands) of reproductions, vs. requiring the collaboration of a gallery to reach economically stronger target audiences.

Is there value in making my art affordable?

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In short: yes. There’s value in making your work affordable.

While the art world loves to discuss the highest auction results, most artists sell their work for way lower prices. Is their work (or they themselves) consequently of lesser relevance? Since capitalism uses the price tag as the premier signifier of quality, pricing something affordably will create doubts about that thing’s quality – in some people. Their opinion doesn’t have to matter to you though; there really is value in making your work affordable. Your appreciation for an artwork doesn’t have to coincide with its market value: you don’t like an expensive object just because it’s expensive.

As an artist thinking about your work’s price level, think about your values.

It’s a valid strategy to derive your artwork’s price level from your core humanistic levels: what relevance does it have to you that a friend can afford to buy your art? Compare this to a different art market extreme: your artwork becoming an object of speculation, stashed away in an off-shore art bunker – how do these situations compare to you? As an idealist, you might derive legitimate personal value from knowing that your peers have access to your work, and aren’t left out because of their economic situation.

Pricing your work affordably is a straight-forward way to signal (to yourself and the world) that art matters, even though (or rather: because) it is priced beyond the art world’s economic elitism. An artwork isn’t important because it belongs to a museum or “collection” – it is important because it holds a dear place in someone’s heart. There’s value in making art available to the hearts of both millionaires and your mom. As an artist thinking about your work’s price level, think about your values.

An artwork’s emotional value doesn’t derive from its monetary value.

Rather, an artwork’s monetary level reflects what target audiences you have access to – it’s a consequence of your network, which always also is a consequence of luck. To put it a bit fatalistically: an artwork’s price level doesn’t inherently represent quality, but ultimately luck.

Consider the randomness that each of us gets born into: one’s home country (and its economy), one’s parents (and what they earn) – and their network. These conditions define the foundation from which to work towards visibility and success: are you the offspring of a wealthy family that knows art patrons, curators and museum directors? If so, you didn’t have to work for it, but your artwork’s price tag will reflect it.

Understand that not everyone has the emotional and economic capacities to transcend their geography and social setting. You’re rarely immobile – you can influence life. But you’re still always a product of circumstances – and so is your access to galleries, collectors and gatekeepers. As a consequence, depending on your initial network, there’s limited reason to be proud of creating artworks that sell at high price ranges. And for sure, there’s NO reason to be ashamed of low prices.

Consider reading the anatomy of art pricing, how to price your artwork as a newbie, and the formula to calculate art prices.

How do I handle overtime as an artist?

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Passion favors overtime: working beyond the schedule will often feel exciting and positive if you like what you do. When getting into the arts, all matters of craft are new and challenging; working additional hours leads to more progress, which in turn results in more happiness – it’s a perfect feedback loop. Yet over time, progress will always slow down in a way that additional hours can’t compensate for: the better you get, the less frequent heureka moments will be. Instead, it’s the downtime that often generates epiphanies about how to think or adapt one’s approach – when your brain can process what happened during its more active phases.

That’s why your work should happen within a specific structure in regards to time; for a full-time artist, 40h per week is the norm: this allows for your personal life to develop as well. Your personal life matters because the experiences you make there are ultimately the basis for your artistic output: we’re always humans before we are artists.

Whenever you work beyond your defined amount of weekly hours, you’re doing overtime. Self-employed individuals often don’t want to see this overtime, instead opting to interpret it as “time invested in their future”. Yet the more sensitive you are about overtime, the more sustainably you’re actually treating your job – and thus your future. You should notice overtime not “even though” you’re passionate about your work, but way rather because you’re passionate about it 

While your work is a marathon, overtime is a sprint – it needs to be temporary, with clearly defined reasons and bonuses.

Consider the following strategies to treat overtime:

  • Understand the reason for overtime: Your predefined number of weekly work days (and hours) can obviously be adapted if specific demands need to be met. Yet once you intend to work beyond these normative work hours, make sure to understand the “goal” towards which you do so: is it clearly defined, and thus obvious for you to realize whether it was reached? How many days or weeks do you intend to keep the heightened pace?
    Verbalize and write down the goal you want to reach, and the reasons why it matters to you. This helps you understand why overtime is required, and makes it less likely to misinterpret overtime as “normal part of the job”.

  • Schedule your “return to normal”: While your decision for overtime can be positive and necessary, overtime always needs to be temporary in order not to become a bad habit (never underestimate the power of keeping a bad habit). Once you adapt your work pace to more hours than ordinary, make sure to:
    • Discuss the heightened pace with your inner circle. This enables your colleagues, friends and family to be on board with your decision, and stay aware of your energy levels and mood changes.
    • Define an accountability buddy that reminds you about having reached your goal, and to return to a normal work week and pace: Make sure they understand their importance, but even more so, make sure you understand why it’s important to return back to normal; ideally, you’re always your first and most trustworthy accountability buddy.
    • Define and actively schedule personal gratitude activities to pursue upon having reached your goal: a weekend trip, going to the spa, organizing a BBQ: this event (or events) become another, yet personal goal to work towards, a symbol of transitioning back to your ordinary work rhythm.

  • Record your overtime: Any employee will be very sensitive to their employer demanding overtime; depending on their contract they’ll get financial compensation or compensatory time-off. Some countries or industries even have laws requiring the payback of hours to exceed the the overtime hours, with eg. one night or weekend hour leading to 1.5 or 2 hours payback.
    This payback requires a clear recording of overtime; so during overtime, make sure to always note the hours worked beyond your ordinary work structure. This enables you to get this time back – and even if such a compensatory time-off isn’t feasible, you still manifest overtime as a temporary anomaly.
  • Imagine yourself as your own employee: When considering overtime, try to imagine yourself as an employee of yours – someone who gets paid to work a certain amount of hours, who might love their job with you, but really also has their personal agendas to attend to (family, friends, after-work drinks, hobbies etc). As self-employed artists we’re often very easy-going with committing ourselves to overtime, accepting and glorifying it as a positive step towards success, a proactive attitude towards building a brighter future. While this can be true, we might not ask the same of our employees, whose rights for personal space we might respect way more than our own. Think about it: are you a good employer to yourself?

  • Don’t glorify overtime: We all know people who define themselves as chronically overworked. While some voice their concerns about this, the path towards being overworked often includes some sort of overtime glorification; after all, adamantly pursuing work can convey being a sincere, serious person. While an identification with work will add to a satisfactory life, this life must be balanced with one’s personal needs: sports, hobbies, meeting friends, etc. Although socially accepted, glorifying overtime can hint at someone not seeing their personal life’s value – which to an artist is the basis of their world experience; they feed on it.
    Be mindful about your willingness to work overtime. While it can enable projects that would otherwise never exist, and which can be a source of joy and pride, don’t let yourself glorify all actions leading to it. Understand that the more overtime you accept, the less likely your long-term usually vision becomes.

Consider reading the chapters about the anatomy of work-life balance for artists, structuring tasks, and structuring tasks.

How do I structure my work tasks as an artist?

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Structuring your work requires an understanding of the various roles you have: what projects are you involved in, and what tasks these include. Some projects are temporary, while your core artistic practice will usually have a more permanent place in your work life. You can define goals for the current year, and even think of where you want to be “x years” in the future. This enables a top-down approach, to derive yearly, quarterly, monthly and/or weekly goals to work towards.

Alternatively, you can implement a bottom-up strategy based on your current view of the tasks that require your attention. To do so, consider the following questions:

  • What projects are you involved in? Most artists pursue several creative strands, which can be seen as projects: you might focus on a specific work series, while also experimenting with a new medium. You might pitch a work idea to an open call, prepare artworks for an exhibition, and attend to your inbox. The better your overview of current (and upcoming) projects, the more accurate you can anticipate their workload, and schedule time for the tasks required of them.

  • What tasks do you derive from your projects? Projects consist of tasks; it’s up to you to understand the level of granularity that benefits you in structuring your work life: naming every tiniest task will slow you down, while not naming them at all will make it harder to anticipate a project’s workload – and to understand whether there’s actually enough time to pursue this project. Some people have a good natural assessment of projects and tasks, and might thus not benefit from defining their workload this way. Experiment to find what suits you best.

While your core artistic practice might not require you to define specific tasks (you might simply continue working on what was left unfinished), other projects, especially new ones, can benefit from it: an open call might require tasks like writing a description, coming up with a schedule and a financial calculation. Pursuing a new collaboration for a sound-sculpture performance might require meetings, research, experimentation, setting up social media channels etc.

Understand that some tasks happen outside of projects, but are still important for your work – and require time: cleaning the studio, making and editing photos of your work, sending out newsletters, buying art materials etc.

  • Consider using a task management system: There are endless ways to schedule your work tasks – you can use your calendar, disposable post-its that include each day’s workload, or use online task management systems (like eg. Trello). Experimenting with various options will guide you in understanding what works best for you: do you want the haptic experience of striking through a finished task, or do you prefer the availability of an online history of your previous workload?
    Understand that managing tasks always requires time – time that can’t be used to implement one’s actual work. The idea is not to create too much management overhead, but to establish a lean system that supports your work habits: the structure must not become an excuse not to show up at work.

  • Understand when to pursue which projects/activities: The less projects you pursue, the easier it can be to assign them to specific time ranges; mornings (eg. 9-12am) could be for office tasks, writing or other activities that benefit from a clear head, while afternoons (eg. 1-5pm) could be used for production and artistic experiments. You could define Friday afternoons for cleaning your studio, or establish Tuesday mornings for studio visits.
    The better you understand your biorhythm, projects and tasks, as well as your network and their requirements, the easier it will be to come up with a timetable that works for you. This doesn’t mean that it’s possible to have one everlasting work schedule – the artist’s life is frequently too dynamic and unexpected for this. You will often benefit from an openness to some degree of randomness, which is an opposing force to a fixed schedule. Both forces are necessary though, and require some sort of embracing: total chaos is as inefficient and impractical as total order.

  • Consider timeboxing: Timeboxing is a strategy that defines specific amounts of time for a specific task (or project). This enables an urgency towards this task: instead of having “forever” to finish a drawing, today offers “four hours” to advance it (eg. from 1-5pm). This changes how work feels like, because the few hours that are available every day now matter more – it can be especially helpful to full-time artists, who usually don’t have a predefined daily work structure. It can make it easier to turn off the phone, and to disregard incoming calls. Experiment with various timeboxing durations for various tasks; there will be a sweet spot for every task: painting might not make sense if you have less than two hours, whereas a timebox that’s too big might not lead to a positive sort of urgency altogether.
    As a creative person, inspiration can hit you anywhere and anytime. Ideas will always also emerge outside of the timeboxes you intend for them, even in your spare time. Make note of these ideas so you can revisit them in the timebox scheduled for it, but return to your spare time (or whatever task you’re currently pursuing).

  • Understand work happening outside the ordinary working hours: The fine art industry constantly offers networking events, which often happen in the evenings: exhibition openings, artist talks, curator roundtables, studio invitations etc. Since artists need to network, these events are essential – yet also blend work and personal time, which often hides the fact that they require you to work overtime.
    Understand that such events are work events, even though they might offer drinks and the chance to meet friends. To an artist, an opening rarely is “just” personal pleasure. It pays off to realize that evening events require you to work overtime (if you already have a full work day behind you). Stay sensitive to doing overtime, and work on establishing a balance in regards to which events to attend to.

Consider reading the chapters about the anatomy of work-life balance for artists, structuring time, and handling overtime.

How do I structure my time as an artist?

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An artist’s life can sound endlessly romantic to non-artists: self-expression, focus on aesthetics and an unusual disregard for social norms. Yet there can be no continuous self-expression without a reliable, balanced work structure; without it, artists aren’t likely to pursue their practice long-term. This structure is the consequence of decisions regarding two main points: time and tasks.

  • Time: How much time do you want to invest in work?
  • Tasks: How do you fit which tasks (or projects) into this time?

A balanced work life is the consequence of a balanced life

Work within a balanced life

Your work time’s “inner balance” is the consequence of the tasks you pursue: certain activities will make you feel more balanced than others (you might love to sculpt, but not enjoy the networking required to sell your works). Yet as a fellow human being, a more holistic balance can only be achieved by focusing on what happens beyond your work schedule:, work needs to be embedded into a (personal) life worth living. A balanced work life is the consequence of a balanced life; it’s hard to imagine someone who’s work time gives them pure pleasure, while their personal life feels like hell. What gives you joy and satisfaction outside of work? How do you replenish your energies? Is it meeting people or doing sports, family events or solitude? The better you understand your psychosocial needs (what relaxes you, what benefits your overall satisfaction), the easier you will be able to build a life around it.

How much time do you have?

Artists tend to love their artistic practice. They’re passionate about it, aiming to work as many hours as possible to dig ever deeper into it. This works for spare-time artists, because they have an undeniable day structure defined by their job or school or family requirements: when to get up, when to go to bed, etc. For full-time artists, every hour of the day could potentially be used for work – yet using every hour for work isn’t sustainable. Instead of trying to work as much as possible, full-time artists need to define a reliable long-term work structure. 

A straight-forward way towards this simply defines the time allotted for one’s work: (a) how many work days do you have per week, with (b) how many work hours per day? All work tasks should happen within this time: office work, transport and insurance of artworks, the actual artistic practice, cleaning the studio, hosting studio visits. You can see these numbers as most personal metrics of your professional life structure, since they ultimately define how your professional persona is connected with your personal life – and how sincere you are about taking your professional art role “professionally” (working more doesn’t make you more professional, but working sustainable might). Understanding these two numbers also allows you to make smart choices about temporarily ignoring them for overtime, while being unclear about them tends to enable an unhealthy work-life balance.

Structuring your time

To understand how much (work) time your week has, consider doing the following:

  • Define the number of days of your work week: The Western work week usually consists of five working days, with the weekend being used to replenish your energies for the upcoming week’s challenges. Is there a valid reason to  temporarily work a sixth or even seventh day?

  • ​​Define the ratio between sleep, professional and personal life: In a day consisting of 24 hours, how many hours do you need to sleep? If eight hours suffice for regeneration, the rest (sixteen hours) can be allocated for your professional and personal life. You need to define the general ratio between these two – is it 50:50? Do you temporarily change this towards more spare time (because of guests visiting you this week), or the other way around (because of an upcoming solo show)? This ratio shows you how many work hours you have; it might be six, eight or ten daily hours, and can vary from day to day.
    Every minute you work beyond this is overtime; are you sure there’s a valid reason for it? Strictness about not working overtime will benefit your long-term work motivation, and thus be beneficial to your overall life experience.

Stay mindful about your sleep/work/life ratio, and how changing it affects your moods and overall life experience – it really is the foundation of your work-life relationship.

Consider reading the chapters about the anatomy of work-life balance for artists, structuring tasks, and handling overtime.

What’s the anatomy of work-life balance for artists?

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An ideal work-life balance will have an equilibrium between the requirements of your professional and personal lives; instead of conflicting with each other, they have an equal, balanced position – which can enable synergies between the two. For people who over-identify with their job, this balance can be hard to reach and maintain. 

The creative safe space

Artists usually begin as idealists, with a deep yearning and passion for their work; their focus often isn’t about being pragmatic, but about enabling experiments, about creating a vision, about expressing something relevant. It’s not so much about money or economics, but about creating a safe space – for themselves. Who wouldn’t want to over-identify with this?

Most often an artist’s practice is subject to tight time constraints; you pursue it while attending school or university, or while also attending your career and/or family. This results in your artistic practice to organically always be timeboxed: it’s the one activity for which there isn’t ever enough time, plus the one thing that isn’t (yet) judged by the outside world. As a result, artists often dream of “going pro”, which most often is thought of as “being able to work on one’s art full-time”. This would enable them to pursue their work without having to fulfill the requirements of the outside world. It would enable them to live in their own safe space. 

Reality is usually different though – going pro changes the entire dynamic: suddenly work needs to be made visible in order for money to come in. A price-tag wants to get attached to what used to be one’s pure, personal expression. This can let the safe space crumble; where one’s artistic practice was a hiding place to process the world, it now becomes the economic basis to survive in the world. Since an emerging artist’s visibility is usually low (and the visibility of successful artists is always high), it can sound smart to “work more”. More hours, more days – benefiting an unhealthy, unsustainable work-life balance.

Part-time vs. full-time artists

Most part-time artists are acutely aware of the three roles that define their life, which tend to collide with each other – and usually demand each other’s time and focus

  • being a work professional,
  • having a personal life, and
  • pursuing one’s artistic practice.

For full-time artists these three roles can blend into one larger-than-life idea of oneself: “I am an artist, and an artist only. If art matters so much to me, then of course I will pursue it happily 24/7, 365, in all my roles”. But where does this leave the artist’s requirements for a personal life, and the energy, motivation and general input that one’s personal life can bring into one’s artistic practice?

It’s important to see that we are humans before we are artists.

Being “an artist, and an artist only” is usually not feasible for a multi-decade, long-term work practice. It’s important to see that we are humans before we are artists. We need to satisfy both our personal and our professional desires, with each of them potentially being diverse: an artist often won’t just paint and draw, but also pursue office tasks (invoicing, insurance and taxes, organizing work transport, etc.) and additional projects (a book collaboration, an illustration or teaching gig, etc.). In addition, there needs to be space for your personal life: sports and hobbies, dating and family, movie nights and vacations. There needs to be time and space for your personality to develop, for your tastes to refine, and for your mind to wander. You mustn’t just be an artist, if you want to be an artist.

Part-time artists often want to work on their art as much as possible, using any unused time to feed their hunger. Full-time artists have so much more time for this, that their work can take up too much energy – eating up time better used for their personal persona. Where part-time artists need to make sure that they find enough time for their practice, full-time artists need to make sure to frequently disengage from their work. To make room for life to happen.

The unlikeliness of a 40-hour art week

Being a full-time artist means to invest roughly forty hours per week into one’s work, which can never only be one’s production process. Instead, it will include experimenting (to find new avenues of investigation), but also more mundane tasks like networking, branding, social media and office work. It will be a rare week that allows for forty hours of production – this mostly ever happens at art residencies, which often absolve artists from their usual everyday responsibilities.

Part-time artists can sometimes implement non-production tasks in their other roles (writing an invoice or organizing a work transport while actually pursuing their paid office job), which can have the benefit of their studio time being exclusive to work production. This doesn’t work for full-time artists, since they tend not to have “other roles” in which to pursue these activities. This sometimes leads them to imagine that more work hours could help them produce quicker (and thus more) – the idea of overtime emerges. While overtime can work short-term, it’s a fallacy when considering its long-term effect: these newly gained work hours always reduce the artist’s personal life – and thus become a threat to a healthy work-life-balance.

Instead, one’s artistic practice needs to be understood as a life-long journey: a marathon, ideally of joy and excitement. This marathon can include sprints (overtime: longer work days or even more work days per week), which can make sense when working towards specific deadlines (a portfolio review, an exhibition opening etc.); but if the sprints become the norm, the whole marathon will be in danger.

You need to become mindful about the time you invest into your artistic practice. When as a part-time artist this means to work towards finding enough time, a full-time artist will often have to make sure not to work too much. You’re never just an artist, but always a person with a complex set of psychological and social requirements. The more balanced your life’s various roles are, the easier it will be to work away for years.

Consider reading the chapters for specific strategies towards structuring time, structuring tasks, and handling overtime.