Road Map to Working in the Arts
As someone whose art has made them tens of dollars in their lifetime, I can tell you I have no idea how to ‘make it’ in the arts. I have several failed bands behind me, an inbox full of rejection emails from literary magazines, one group art show from twenty years ago under my belt, and a house FULL of sketches and paintings that no one will ever see. I know my own work will never make me rich, and it is very unlikely anyone will ever stop me on the street because they recognize me or my stuff. But I still make art as much as I can in as many forms as possible and I love it.
I’ve worked as an art handler for places ranging from small galleries to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. I now work in film and television as a boom operator and sometimes mixer, and have worked on projects ranging from mixing zero budget movies all the way to booming Oscar winning films. The art of others has afforded me a house on the ocean and the ability to work between 6 and 8 months a year, leaving me time to work on my own projects. I have a little more of an idea how to get to a place where you can at least spend time devoted to making work, if not actually making money from it.
Just like a road trip, when you think of a career in the arts the end destination can’t be the only goal or you miss all the sights and weird turns along the way. Here are a few of the road trip lessons that have helped me on my meandering course thus far:
1. The only wrong turn is one that you don’t correct.
With every twist and turn on the road (in my case a number of side steps to ‘stable’ jobs that were passionless and unrelated to my real loves) have all given me skills I’ve drawn on in my creative work. I got a LOT of writing done working babysitting an empty building overnight, but I left with no notice the minute I was presented with an opportunity. Leaving a job building sets to go do that job was a bad fit and was the wrong decision, even though it offered me stability. When I recognized that I was miserable and missed being part of the making process, I started looking for, and then pursued, a new path as quickly as I could.
2. There’s no shame in being broke, but it sure is difficult.
Remember that when you look back down the road you’ve come along. The financial difficulty that often comes with starting out can be emotionally and physically draining. Acknowledging struggle is necessary and healthy, including gratitude to those who help along the way. Remember that no one succeeds alone, and be kind to those who might be at different points on their own path.
3. You don’t need to be the driver.
Hell, sometimes being the navigator, or even the passenger in the back is better. I couldn’t drive an 18 wheeler like the producers, directors, or showrunners of the shows I work on do even if I wanted to. I hold a microphone in the middle of a set with many more moving parts than I can fathom. I’ll happily take the money to ride in the back and do my part while the people with the skills to steer the thing do their work.
4. CAA is a great thing.
Arts unions are a safety net for arts workers just like the CAA is for a driver. Instead of tow trucks and coupons for hotels, they provide benefits and ensure you get paid properly for your work. I’m a member of SOCAN and IATSE. How they got SOCAN from The Society of Composers, Authors, and Music Publishers of Canada is beyond me, but the small cheques they send me quarterly help me to remember my little contributions to the world are at least reaching someone and make sure that I get money, however small the amount, for my creative work. IATSE, the film union, is why I can have a sustainable career in the arts. It was a slog to get into and took me time, but it is all the things my mother wanted for me, stability, sustainability, and a decent RRSP. Don’t let the process deter you, you start by just visiting the website of the local in your area and signing up for the set etiquette course. Then sign up as a permittee, which allows you to work on union sets while not being a member. This is when having worked on small projects is a help, it gives you some grounding on set. The Canadian Film Centre (CFC) in Toronto is a great place to find shoots that need volunteers. Once you’re on set as a permittee, be attentive, take direction well and show up a few minutes early and you’re already ahead of the game. Remember every trip progresses bit by bit. Don’t get deterred by the process!
5. Ask for directions, but don’t talk to cops.
Knowing when and who to ask for advice or help is tricky, especially at first, but if someone only polices you and tells you why you can’t do things, they’re likely not much help as a guide.
6. Pull over from time to time.
Again, there is no destination. Constant motion will burn you out. Stop, get off the path, take a day, a month, a year to let yourself love what you do again. If that love doesn’t return, try a new route.
7. Keep something for yourself.
Sometimes you just need to keep a bag of jelly beans in your suitcase to savour alone. The creative industries seem to demand so much collaboration and giving of the self and all of one’s ideas and inspiration, not to mention time and focus. Keep a bit of all it for yourself.
8. You don’t need to take Drivers Ed, but it helps.
Did I go to art school or film school? No. Do I wish I had? Certainly. I took the long way to learn many skills that I might have learned and missed so many ways of seeing that I could have used. My job as a professional sound person came from learning gear and processes in bands, transferring them to film, realising most of what I knew didn’t apply, then relearning new ways.
9. Pick up hitchhikers, to a point.
I did things for free to get experience, but then stopped doing things for free, opting instead for barter and trade situations. We should always help people realise goals, and be prepared to give of ourselves when we believe in the cause, but always know our worth. The value of the self really is the hardest thing to believe in and to quantify.
Remember, a road map isn’t a point A to B thing, it’s a picture of the overall geography. There are many ways to get anywhere, some are fast, some are slow. Some are scenic, some are on choked highways. Each path you take will not only shape how you see the journey, but also how you’ll feel about where you’re hoping to get to.