The Portfolio Career

The following is a definition from the website

A “portfolio career” is a “career based on a series of varied shorter-term jobs either concurrently or consecutively as opposed to one based on a progression up the ranks of a particular profession. The portfolio worker is frequently self-employed, offering his or her services on a freelance or consulting basis to one or more employers at the same time. However, a portfolio approach can also be taken to full-time employment with a single employer, if the employee chooses to expand his or her experience and responsibilities through taking different roles within the organization.

To critics, the portfolio approach to career development may appear unfocused and directionless. However, it is an excellent opportunity to experience the many different avenues available in modern life. It is important, in general, for the portfolio worker to maintain some overall sense of purpose or strategic direction in the work they undertake, and to view their portfolio career as a unified whole rather than a collection of “odd jobs.”


Although defined above in the business sense, these two words have real implications for those of us trying to balance artistry with work. Let’s face it, as artists, we look at that definition and say, “Yep, that’s pretty much what I do every day of my life.” Many, if not most, of us who identify themselves as “artists” strike a balance between teaching, creating, and administering—effectively drawing from each in order to make a living.

So why am I dedicating an entire blog post to this concept? The fact is that most artists entering the workforce today who are interested in carving out a career in the arts should probably be thinking about several “mini” careers that make up their full time job. It is not unreasonable to think about a career in which you balance a private teaching studio, perform in several small chamber ensembles, work as an administrator for a small arts organization and have that “side job” to round out your work!

The truth is that if you are a person who is passionate about your art and you would like to continue to create on a regular basis, the portfolio career may give you the opportunity to have that artistic outlet. Would your art be the “breadwinner” of your portfolio career? Possibly, but what is more important is the fact that this approach allows you to continue to create.

I’d like to think of the Portfolio Career as a “freelance” career on steroids. To me, being a freelancer means that you are focused primarily on your art as a means of sustaining your career while those seeking a portfolio career are balancing their art with jobs that feed their creative passion. This subtle, but important, difference allows 21st century artists to develop careers that are not completely reliant upon their art, essentially allowing them to continue to create without the stress of piecing together a career of gigs/exhibitions that are not necessarily “in the bag” from year to year.

It’s worth mentioning that, as artists or creative beings, our portfolio career can consist of jobs that still capture our creative passion even though it may not be creating a work of art in the studio or on a stage. In his book, A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink argues that, “The future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind – creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers and meaning makers. These people…will now reap society’s richest rewards and share its greatest joys.”

The time is now for artists to bring their creative abilities to the workplace as one spoke on the wheel of their portfolio career. Whether it’s working in a creative fashion to streamline a company’s day to day operations or it’s collaborating on a team in the spirit of true entrepreneurial business start-up, artists now can have a seat at the table with their business counterparts. The words “business counterparts” should not be viewed as a four letter word by artists. The truth is that we have a lot to learn from each other and if we each bring our strengths to the table, both sides have a greater chance of achieving true wealth in our lives.

What is exciting to me is the fact that if we assign a name to this type of work (portfolio career), we can also articulate a way to achieve the career goal. The most logical place to begin to explore a portfolio career to me would be at the university level where students can explore this mindset with little to no risk.

Interested in launching a portfolio career? Here are a couple of suggestions:

  1. Check out this blog: Starting a Portfolio Career
  2. Create a portfolio career exploration group consisting of artists, business people and educators. This cross-disciplinary, collaborative effort, will help you gain the tools necessary when launching this career.
  3. Join the Arts Enterprise network of chapters. Arts Enterprise is student run so YOU can bring the ideas that you would like to explore forward and create opportunities to develop your own portfolio career. Find out more by clicking here.
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Nate Zeisler is the Dean for Community Initiatives at the Colburn School in Los Angeles. He envisions a world where students majoring in the arts have a clear path to a sustainable career, where creative minds are empowered and inspired to rule the workforce, and where access to the arts is not just for the privileged few, but for all.

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