What Does It Mean to Be a Professional Artist?

Artists and writers often face a major reality check when they leave the confines of academia. It can be a sobering experience to question whether you have the commitment it takes to pursue a career in the creative world. This time can be particularly tough on women, who, as it turns out, represent the majority of graduates holding degrees in the visual, performing and literary arts.

Let’s not forget, as well, that income parity between men and women is still an issue across all industries. Women in the U.S. continue to earn, on average, 77 cents to every dollar earned by men. At that rate, a woman has to work roughly 52 years in order to earn what a man makes in 40 years. The arts are no exception to the pay gap and, adding insult to injury, according to the Department of Education, graduates from schools specializing in art, music and design rack up the greatest amount of student loan debt.

While the deck is stacked against women in the arts in many ways, until we change the system (and, until it’s all about the art, not the artist’s gender), it’s crucial for every woman artist to understand professionalism and develop a true entrepreneurial spirit to support her work. Assuming that the talent and vision are there, it is this mindset that can mean the difference between an amateur or hobbyist, and a professional who is making a living from her art — and, in effect, becoming an advocate for gender parity in the arts.

In addition to honing their craft, recent graduates and emerging artists — especially women — need to have a truly realistic view of the level of their proficiency and where it fits in the larger visual or literary art worlds. While there is no industry standard for what it means to be a “professional,” there are some important ways in which new and emerging artists can increase their chances of progressing their careers to the next level:

Build a network of mentors and advisers — Seek a network of master teachers and like-minded peers in the arts who can provide mentorship and guidance. These individuals should not only provide you with a supportive “community,” they should also push you to take your work to the next level, while consulting in a meaningful way on how you can gain recognition as a professional.

Seek appropriate avenues to expose your work — Determination, talent, and vision are prerequisites, but they don’t mean much if you can’t get your work before those who have influence in the marketplace. Exhibitions and publication venues are not all created equal. Enter competitions that provide a meaningful credential, are associated with a prestigious institution and provide a real platform to build a professional résumé.

Non-profit organizations and foundations that promote the arts, as well as civic and governmental groups that organize exhibitions based on themes or media are worth exploring — and there truly is something out there for every artist. Here in our home city there are a number of organizations, from the New York Foundation for the Arts, which offers fellowships in the visual and literary arts, to MTA Arts for Transit and Urban Design, which facilitates wide exposure through both permanent and temporary art projects and its Poetry in Motion programs. For artists born outside of the U.S., the Vilcek Foundation offers a variety of prizes and outlets for artists’ and writers’ work. Opportunities abound, if you do your homework!

Perfect the art of targeted self-promotion — Carefully manage your own connections and network using all of the resources available to you. You will be developing several constituencies: the public, collectors, media, and if you are seeking representation, agents, gallerists or publishers. With a multitude of social media channels at your disposal, develop strategies to help you engage with influencers and keep tuned in to opportunities appropriate to your level of proficiency, as well happenings in the arts at large.

At Pen and Brush, professionalism is key. We aim to spotlight strong work by women artists. Our advocacy is based on the belief that continued exposure of high quality work by women can, over time, influence market choices — and perhaps somewhat subversively, make the point that gender parity will be achieved when gender is no longer a qualifier.