Who Says Real Artists Don’t Have Day Jobs?

By Chris Enns in Misc > Art Opinion

I don’t think I really understood that people could make a living in the arts until I was well into my grad studies. I don’t know why it took so long. . . I honestly just didn’t really think about it.

Money isn’t something that gets discussed when you’re in school studying the arts. In another faculty you might have some idea what the average starting salary will be, or an idea of what you could make when you’re a partner at the law firm. But as an artist—not so much.

The one thing we did talk about was “making it” as an artist. That “it” may have been poorly defined, but we knew that what ever “it” was “it” was really hard to make.

In fact it was repeated over and over to us:

In this entire class only one of you might “make it.”


That meant nose to the grind stone. Learn those five arias. Perfect that pirouette. Learn exactly what the oxford comma is. We all wanted to make it. We wanted to be that one. A real artist.

And even though I can’t remember anyone specifically saying it, it eventually became clear what they meant by making it. . . and we started to believe a lie that does all of us artists a lot of damage.

What lie? That “making it” means making a living from your art.

It sounds so reasonable doesn’t it? In the art world, subjectivity rules all, but ability to make money can be a great measuring stick of talent or success. If you somehow manage to leverage your talent into enough salary to live on, well, you must be “making it.”

Bonus points for making enough to actually live a decent life. . . but even if you’re just scraping by as a bohemian, you’re “making it” as a real artist.

But where does that leave everyone else?? Is that really the story of the average artist? Do you either make a living, or stop being an artist all together?

Seriously, what does a life in the arts actually look like? And why isn’t this a question that comes up way more often?

Unfortunately the answer isn’t cut and dry. There’s not really such a thing as an “average” artist. There’s just a bunch of talented outside-the-box individuals trying to figure out how to balance their creative side with the rest of their life—like the need to pay bills, have strong relationships, and not be super stressed out all the time.

But if you actually look at any one of those individuals, I guarantee you’ll see one unifying truth: MOST artists don’t live solely off of their art!

“But. . . real artists focus solely on their passion! They definitely don’t have *shudder* day jobs!”

Sorry, that’s a lie. A lie that no one says out loud, but everyone seems to believe.

You can tell by the way we talk about artists who “sold out” or “failed.” The guy who got a day job and isn’t taking as many auditions anymore. The girl who decided the stress and instability really weren’t what she wanted in her life and is working at the Genius Bar. We whisper about them in a tone normally reserved for funerals.

It’s just too bad; they were so talented. . . (while inside we pat ourselves on the back for staying “true” to the cause.)

This needs to stop. Not only because it has caused wonderful artists to feel like they no longer can identify as artists, but because it’s a really blind way to look at the arts in general.

All of us in the arts are constantly complaining about the state of our industry. In opera we look at our major institutions, the Met, the COC and see cut backs and budget difficulties.

“What is the state of the arts?” we ask. “Are they dying?” But we’re looking at the top of the pyramid and totally missing the point!

The health of the arts is not dependant on the most visible institutions. The health of the arts rests in the grassroots of our communities. It rests in the thousands of artists across our countries that make so little in terms of dollars, while still managing to contribute so much.

It’s the little ladies that taught us piano in their living rooms. It’s the organizers of community choirs, the painting club, or the local theatre productions of Annie.

Is the art always world class? My goodness, no. (You should have heard me hacking at the piano for 14 years.) But that’s where the arts spring from, where great artists are inspired and fostered.

These artists aren’t making a living from their passion. They work on farms and in hospitals. They are diesel mechanics and engineers. I’m not just picking random places and professions; I’m talking about real people I’ve worked with!

Some of the most awesome (and most skilled) artists I know have day jobs like these.

FACT: There are a thousand ways to make a life in the arts. But no one will tell you that. And it’s never too soon to start thinking about how YOU are going to “make it.”

It’s fine if you want to try to make a living just off your art. Some people love it, some people don’t. Some people try it, and it’s just not for them.

It’s up to you to figure out what fits best with the life that you want. Maybe you want the stability of a day job, even though it takes away from your creative time. Or maybe you’re happy being your own boss, but want to find a few more non-artsy income streams to help you through the dry times.

There’s a great article by Stefanie O’Connell on The Broke and Beautiful Life called Diversified Income, Diversified Happiness. She makes the point that not only does having a few different income streams make you a more stable person, but it actually can be incredibly fulfilling to your creative side to have multiple outlets.

So what else do you love to do? Maybe it’s arts based, or something completely different. Start thinking about it now!!

As an artist, you might have a day job. . . this is the reality, yet for some reason we leave it out of the training. And let me say, I really don’t think it’s a sad reality. It isn’t the sob story of artists failing to “make it.” It’s the story of artists channeling their creativity into building the lives that they want.

Because being an artist has nothing to do with making money.

I write mainly for freelancers, for those in the artistic world who are trying to monetize their profession, for those who are balancing multiple sources of variable income and trying to leverage that into some kind of a stable life.

That being said, I am in awe of the day-job artists who have more stability in their finances: the doctors, the lawyers, and the 9-to-5ers. Their financial picture is a little less complicated, but their balance is more so. They give up evenings and weekends to rehearsal, take their vacations to put on shows, and teach on their mornings off.

In short, they’re absolutely insanely awesome. And they’re an essential part of our artistic community, which couldn’t last a day without them.

So, to all the young artists (or less young, if it applies) get a job, or don’t get a job. Work freelance in the arts, in a law firm, or construction. . . anything you’d like.

You’re not alone. We’re all doing it, and you’re not selling out.

You’re just an artist trying to make a life in this crazy world, and believe it or not, this is what “making it” really looks like!

For more from Chris Enns, please visit his website, Rags to Reasonable.


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