Finding Stability as a 20-Something Artist

Here’s a question that came from one of my readers:

As an artist 6 years into my career, I am making things work both financially and artistically, but I continue to be interested in finding artistic work that allows me to be upwardly mobile. Can you give me some advice for finding stability?

This question often comes up as I guide artists. On one hand, artists who approach their 30s are often faced with growing financial challenges, including the support of a family, house payments, and continuing to pay off college loans. On the other hand, many artists are truly in pursuit of stability in their art, seeking higher quality and more artistically satisfying opportunities for performance.

The pursuit of stability brings up an interesting dichotomy: Search for a financially stable life and risk sacrificing your artistic output; Search for an artistically stable life, and you risk sacrificing financial stability.

Like the featured photo on this post, the challenge we all face is how to strike a balance between the two. Here is a three step process for finding stability as an artist:

  1. Take stock of your current situation–Here are three questions to answer:
    1. List all of the work you have had in the last year and break it down into the following buckets:
      1. Work you love that is directly tied to your art.
      2. Work you love that is not tied to your art.
      3. Work tied to your art that you do to pay the bills.
      4. Work not tied to your art that you do to pay the bills.
    2. Assign the salary you made to each of the four buckets.
    3. Assign the number of hours you spent on each job.
  2. Create a personal strategy statement–One of the biggest challenges to upward mobility is that we often end up sacrificing artistic integrity to achieve financial success, or vice versa. Here are some questions that will help you create a strategy around your work:
    1. Based on your current situation, write down areas that you may want to develop in pursuit of upward mobility? (Tip: Is there a way to capitalize more on the work you love?)
    2. Identify the areas that you may want to let go in the pursuit of higher financial and artistic gains? (Tip: Can you replace horrible gigs with work you love but is not directly tied to your art?)
    3. What, specific goals do you have in regards to stability?
    4. What is your timeline for accomplishing these goals?
  3. Develop an action plan for upward mobility–This is perhaps the most important part of the process. If you don’t get something down on paper, you’ll likely end up spinning your wheels.
    1. Write down your personal strategy statement for accomplishing your goals.
    2. Set a timeline of 1-3 years to achieve your goals. (I’ve found that any longer than three years is too long)
    3. The main goal is to retain your artistic integrity while also making more money. Consider dismissing artistic work that is holding you back from your upward mobility and replacing it with work that is more satisfying but may not be directly related to your artistic output.

To help you, I’ve created this financial stability worksheet. The first page is completely filled in and annotated with a fictional character so you can see how it works.  I left the second page blank so you can fill it in on your own.

Thanks so much for reading and please let me know if you found the process helpful!

(Photo Credit: Börkur Sigurbjörnsson)

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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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