Don’t Be a Starving Artist: 8 Creative Careers in the Arts

In terms of career paths, art gets a bad rap.

While growing up, many young artists probably heard a concerned parent tell them, “The term ‘starving artist’ comes from somewhere, you know!”

Some aspiring artists lose interest as time goes on, while others heed their parents’ advice and choose “stable” or “real” career paths. Few decide to pursue full-time art careers — among those, success stories are pretty rare.

What makes certain artists successful? How do they earn money from their work while so many others fail? And for those who can’t make a living from their medium, what other art jobs are available?

If you’re interested in working in the arts, this is one post you won’t want to miss. Here are eight jobs to consider

1. Gallerist

Art gallery jobs seem like something straight out of a rom-com: working tirelessly to appease diva artists, hobnobbing with high society types… and wearing lots of flowy scarves.

To find out what it’s really like, we talked to Sherri Littlefield, the gallery assistant for JanKossen Contemporary in New York. After earning a master’s degree in fine art, she got a gig as a booth assistant during Art Basel week, right before the gallery’s owner opened a new location in New York City.

“We got along well during the art fair, kept in touch — and she hired me [a month later],” Littlefield says. She calls her job “phenomenal,” but Littlefield warns that the competition is stiff with low pay.

Littlefield works in Manhattan’s Chelsea district, where junior gallery assistants average $12-20 per hour, senior gallery assistants make $24-29,000 per year, and managers make $35,000 each year or more.

“In addition to the salary,” she notes, “many directors/owners will cover all travel and lodging expenses when sending their employees to various art fairs — meaning you could potentially travel internationally six to eight times a year.”

If the low pay doesn’t scare you, Littlefield suggests checking websites like the New York Foundation of the Arts for open positions. As for requirements, she says, “Most people in my position have a master’s degree in business administration or art business degree.”

Other than that, you need, “First and foremost, a good attitude — but organization doesn’t hurt either!”

2. Book Cover Designer

You may not think an undergraduate degree in political science would prepare you for a career in design, but Rachel Adam Rogers thinks it definitely helped. “What makes a really good design is a really good concept,” she says. “So knowing how to think and analyze is so important — especially when it comes to book covers.”

But that didn’t mean anyone was ready to hire her. So she spent four years studying graphic design part time at Parsons School of Design in New York, the program she thought would give her the “best portfolio.”  

“When it comes to graphic design, nobody cares what sort of degree you have,” she says. “You could’ve lived under a rock your whole life, and if you have a stunning portfolio, people are going to hire you.

In addition to a killer portfolio, Rogers also recommends internships. She started as an intern for her favorite book cover designer, where she developed relationships with all the different publishing houses. When she branched out on her own, she says, her name “was already out there.”

3. Potter

Did you know you could major in pottery at a liberal arts college? Peter Sheldon didn’t either — but after struggling to decide on a field he’d enjoy more, he went with it. After pottery residencies and apprenticeships in far-flung places from Montana to New Zealand, he started his own business: Peter Sheldon Ceramics.

Things are going well, he says. He recently moved into a 1,500-square-foot studio in Los Angeles and has a team of three. On his website, he sells several styles of tableware and vases, with individual pieces ranging from $30-300.

It undoubtedly has something to do with his stunning work, but Sheldon credits much of his success to fiancee Ellen Woglom’s smart use of digital media.

“She started our website and she launched our Etsy store,” he says. “And she started taking Instagram really seriously and using that as a great way to showcase and promote our work. Things have started to grow naturally from that — from putting the work out there and having a good response.”

If you’re seeking artpreneur success, Sheldon urges you to work with or under another artist. “It’s invaluable to see how their business works,” he says.

And underscoring the importance of business savvy, “you obviously need to be able to make pottery that people want to buy — but you also need to be a good businessperson or have people on your team that are good at business.”

4. Sketch Artist

Sketch artist and illustrator Candace Rose Rardon only started sketching in 2011, but she’s found quick success. Why? From the sound of it, because people really like her work.

“After about two years of sketching on my own, friends began to approach me about doing custom illustrations for them,” she says.

“My first clients were thus either friends or friends-of-friends…. slowly, I began to receive other commissions, and in 2014, I started creating illustrations not only for individuals, but also for brands such as BBC Travel and Google.”

If you’d like to follow in her footsteps, Rardon recommends compiling a portfolio and establishing a strong online presence. “Be sure to fill your portfolio with work that represents the kind of art that you’d like to be commissioned to create,” she suggests.

To find financial success as an artist, she says you have to be a “creative entrepreneur” and “think outside the box to develop a portfolio of income streams.” Creating a shop on Etsy or Fine Art America is also smart, as it will “help you reach a larger potential audience for your work.”

The bottom line?

“Just begin!… The more you practice and share your work, the more feedback you’ll receive and the deeper you’ll grow in your art,” she says.

5. Museum Worker

If you truly love being around art — world famous art — working in a museum might be for you.

Meghan Schindler got an internship at the National Gallery of Art in Washington right after college, where she majored in history and fine arts. She is now the head museum supervisor in the security department at The Phillips Collection, as well as a special programs educator in their education department.

When asked what the best part of working in museums is, she says, “You are surrounded by art every day — I studied many of the paintings and sculptures we have on display.” And the worst?

“You will be underpaid for your entire career,” she says. “Larger or government museums can pay more as they have more funding, but private museums do not pay well.”

If you don’t have connections in the museum world, she recommends internships to get your foot in the door.

“It is a very small world with very few job openings except for in development,” she says. “Two-thirds of the positions are filled in-house, so if you can get an internship and create wonderful relationships, they will almost automatically give you the position.”

She also recommends looking beyond curator positions: “We have a finance department, a facilities department, development, registrar, preparators, security, education and more.”

6. Print Artist

Laura Ann Elbogen was working on the administrative side of New York’s fashion industry when she decided to paint a note card with watercolors. Finding joy in her childhood hobby, she continued to paint in her spare time and came across an interesting opportunity a few years later.

“Over time, I honed in on a watercolor and ink style and developed a series of New York City landmark cards,” she says.

“I carried them around with me, and one day I ran into my old college tennis coach who had just gotten engaged. I showed her the cards, and she hired me to paint a custom save-the-date, which turned into a commission for her entire suite of wedding stationery!”

Today, she sells a variety of custom “landmark art” on her site, everything from cards to maps.

One key to Elbogen’s success? Consistency.

“Whether you are pitching your work to an art director for books, magazines or gift items, or trying to sell a collection or get a commission from individual clients,” she says, “A consistent style makes your sales story unique and memorable and instills confidence that you can deliver the desired outcome on a custom project.”

Her drive and willingness to hustle have also been key to her success. “As my dad says, ‘Dogs don’t bark at parked cars,’” she explains.

“That means the work doesn’t come to you — like any good business you have to be willing to put yourself out there by networking, sending letters, samples, postcards, social media updates, etc.”

7. Art Professor

After obtaining a master’s degree in fine arts, Brittany Metz applied for a gig as an art history professor. Since she’d previously demonstrated her work ethic to the campus dean, she landed the position.

“I knew if I wanted the job, I had to put myself out there, find out who was in charge and show face!” she says. “They needed to know I wanted it and was a go-getter.”

She’s continued to use this strategy, and now teaches as an adjunct art professor at two colleges and one university in the Orlando area. If you want to work as a professor, she recommends making your resume and artist website stand out, then apply “everywhere.”

Networking is also important. “Talk to everyone about your goals,” she says, “because you never know who might have a connection.”

Whereas long-term professorships pay well and are quite stable, adjuncts face a tough career path. You’re only paid for the hours you’re in class, which doesn’t include “grading, preparing or all of the communication with students outside of class,” she says.

In addition, schools limit adjuncts’ hours so they don’t have to provide benefits. “To make ends meet, an adjunct will usually have to teach classes at more than one college,” Metz explains.

Adjunct positions also lack job security: “You can be let go at any time if a class does not fill or you simply are not needed anymore,” Metz warns.

To her, it’s worth it: She loves the “flexibility and freedom” of working as a professor. She’s also “inspired” by her students. “I learn from them as much as they learn from me,” she says. “Educators have the power to change lives.”

8. Cartoonist

Cartoons aren’t just for the Sunday paper anymore. With the popularity of web comics like “The Oatmeal” and “Hyperbole and a Half,” the Internet has brought cartoons back to center stage.

Growing up, motivational cartoonist Steph Halligan always dreamt of working as an animator for Looney Tunes or Disney. “But like most adults,” she says, “I lost that childhood dream slowly as I grew older, replacing it with more practical things like a college degree.”

Many years later, when she started her personal finance blog, she realized she could use cartoons to “help motivate and inspire people when it comes to their money.” As it turns out, this was the golden ticket for her success. “Once I started infusing my childhood-passion and talent back into my work, things really started taking off,” she says.

Now Halligan earns money in lots of ways: collecting donations on her website and drawing graphics and whiteboard animations for clients. She also works with personal finance blogs and businesses to create cartoons that explain money concepts.

She attributes her success to the fact she “was consistent and creative and able to drive a message home that people needed to hear.”

If you want to be a cartoonist, Halligan urges you to, “Try something, anything! Don’t be afraid to experiment!” And perhaps find a niche. “If you could focus on being the artist for XYZ type of industry, you could find a lot of business,” she says.

As you can see, art jobs aren’t limited to painting and sculpting. If you’re passionate about art and willing to think creatively, there are plenty of ways to infuse art into your career.

Your Turn: What other art jobs would you add to this list?

Susan Shain, senior writer for The Penny Hoarder, is always seeking adventure on a budget. Visit her blog at, or say hi on Twitter @susan_shain.