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The myth of "the starving artist”: Reimagining a career in the arts

Wednesday, March 29, 2017, 7:30pm - 9:00pm
The Penthouse of NoHo 5259 Lankershim Blvd North Hollywood, CA 91601 Map and directions

On Wednesday, March 29, KPCC arts education reporter Priska Neely hosted a discussion on the realities and myths of building a career in the arts. Neely was joined by Justice Design Group creative director Adrianna Alise Arambula, Otis College of Art and Design provost Randall Lavender and author and Music Center president Rachel Moore. Together, Priska Neely and her guests examined the myth of “the starving artist” - that is, whether it is true that careers in the arts are never lucrative and, if not, what factors contribute to this assumption. The panelists spoke about their own journeys towards sustainable artistic careers and worked to paint a realistic picture of what it takes to use art to make a living. The event took place in the heart of the North Hollywood arts district at The Penthouse of NoHo.

Each of the guests at this event had a different artistic background and perspective. Adrianna Alise Arambula, who studied architecture and now works in residential and decorative lighting design, spoke about putting artistic training to work in non-conventional ways. Randall Lavender, who is a visual artist, spoke about how the Otis College of Art and Design works to prepare young artists to endure creative careers and about its research on the creative economy. Rachel Moore, a dancer turned arts administrator, spoke about the advice she gives in her recently published book, “The Artist’s Compass.”

We’ve compiled a few quotes that speak to the themes of the evening’s discussion. 

The Skeptics

Arambula: “I think to a skeptical parent…it’s important to note that everything’s difficult. Every career is difficult. And even more important is to realize that there are careers in the arts...You don’t need to be a starving artist…All of the artists and artistic people that I know, almost none of them are struggling. They’re arts educators; they’re screenprinters; they make t-shirts; they’re tattoo artists…There are plenty of ways that you can make money and really have quite lucrative careers in the arts.”

Lavender: “Self-talk talks people out of [the arts], as well as societal-talk and parent-talk and lots of other kinds that raise doubt. And those doubts lead people out of the arts who might well have passion and drive and talent and would do well in the arts.”

Moore: “I’ve spent a lot of time talking with kids and their parents about their pathway. And people don’t understand how the field works. That makes them more fearful. The first thing is to understand there’s a reason ‘showbiz’ has the ‘biz’ in it. It’s a business. And understanding that there’s a business piece to it and that you can understand it and learn it...I really hoped to demystify the field for people who are just starting out.”


The Baggage

Lavender: “I think that part of the baggage is associated with the competitiveness...It’s not a prescribed pathway. It’s not easy to say, like someone who’s a business major and they know there’s a certain kind of set vision they can rely on... With the arts, in some ways you’re crafting not only your medium but you’re also creating a career... It’s not that easy for young people to really see or understand ahead of time exactly what they will be doing or even what they might want to be doing.”

Moore: “How do you define success?... Part of this baggage is, especially in the performing arts, if you’re not a star, you haven’t had success and if you’re not a star you can’t have a meaningful career in the arts. And that’s completely not true...You want to really define what is special about your art form to you and why your voice is relevant to other people. And that can manifest itself [in] lots of different ways and lots of different mediums, and you can have a truly meaningful career based on that. But if your goal is just to have your name in lights, that’s much scarier and much more narrow, and frankly not as fulfilling as an artistic endeavor.”


Rejection and Persistence

Moore: “I think rejection is a piece of life all over...Because regardless of your field, you’re going to get feedback, some of it positive, some of it negative, and there’s lots of reasons why you may get the job or not get the job…[But] if you really believe that you have a special voice, you can endure that.”  

Lavender: “There really is this question [people] persist in the face of setbacks…Educational psychologists have shown that this is actually the thing that makes people successful or not. So we try in our educational really help the internal development of each student around persistence in the face of setbacks and self-efficacy and attribution of control.”   

Creativity is Transferrable

Moore: “Artists are, by and large, really, really smart and have a lot of skills that they don’t give themselves credit for...Think about it. These people understand deadlines...they understand how to work singularly [and] in groups; they take correction well; they problem solve. All of these are tools and skills that are transferrable to all sorts of fields...You’re really a very powerful future employee or entrepreneur.”

Lavender: “When corporate CEOs in this country are asked…‘What are the most important attributes in people who you seek for your company?”... Singularly, the thing that rises the most is creative problem solvers. In fact, creativity itself is the most prized and cherished attribute today in the western world.”

Arambula: “In anything that I start doing... My first reaction is to pick up a pencil and to draw it. So if I’m doing a catalogue layout, I’ll pick up a pencil and I’ll start sketching my layout. If I’m designing a light, I’ll pick up a pencil and I’ll start designing a light. And that’s true not only for me…but it’s true for lots of my colleagues in the creative field. Whether they’re animators, or shoe designers, car designers, filmmakers… they all consider themselves artists. They start with a pen and paper and an idea and it transforms itself.”


Starving Artist: Truth or myth?

Moore: “There are definitely fields, whether you go into the arts or you’re an educator, that aren’t as well paid as if you’re a hedge fund guy...For most it’s not going to be the most lucrative choice you could make, but that’s not really what most artists care about in life. It’s about creating something special or beautiful for the world that has your unique imprint. But you have to be not stupid about it either, you need to be thoughtful… There are lots of places to get wonderful educations where maybe you’re not going to walk out with 150,000 dollars worth of student debt. Because that’s going to limit your choices in how you want to be an artist. I actually think artists generally are really good with a buck. They’re really thoughtful. They’re told, “Oh, you don’t know anything about business. You don’t know how to take care of your own finances.” That’s not true…I think this broad-brushed starving artist [narrative] is, as I said at the beginning, unfair.”