A Narrative Inquiry on Career Sustenance of Contemporary Artists (MA diss., 2021)

Artists are one of the professional groups that have been considered to be at an advantage in the contemporary context of the economy since the rise of the conception of protean career orientation, because the new context increasingly values creativity and innovative approaches. However, artists have continuously faced and are still facing challenges not only in attaining success but also in bare survival (UNESCO, 1980; Caves, 2000; Abbing, 2002; Bridgstock, 2007; Koll, 2013; UNESCO, 2015; Malik, 2019). According to the 2016 Data Report prepared by TBR’s Creative & Cultural team and commissioned by Arts Council England, 65% of 1,976 visual artists replied “No, definitely not” to the survey question asking whether they could make a living with their art practice in the year 2015. 17% of the same pool answered “No, it provides none of my income” (TBR, 2018). Art is undoubtedly an integral part of contemporary society regarding both culture and economy. Regardless of the fact that there are approximately 32,000 exhibitions taking place globally each year that attract over 303 million visitors (UFI, 2019), however, we as a society are witnessing the reality where the possibility of fundamental survival needs to be heavily questioned by the ones who wish to commit their careers to art.

 

The researcher, who herself is an artist striving to sustain her career in art practice, detected the imperative need to understand contemporary artists’ occupational behavior, characteristics of career paths in the arts, and the resulting sustenance of artists’ careers once again in depth. Although there have already been attempts to study the careers of contemporary artists to re-direct people’s attention and provide the groundwork for cultural policies (Flynn, 2015; TBR, 2018; Yang, et al., 2019; Hogan, 2020), research that intensely focuses on artists’ testimony about their experience of the actuality followed by a discussion on artists’ career sustainability is yet to suffice. Many scholars have pointed out that empirical investigation of new trends in career paths and sustainable careers has been scarce (Bridgstock, 2007; Cortellazzo, 2020; De Vos, et al., 2020), which adds to the significance of this probe. Furthermore, there have been scholarly analyses of how the professionals, especially those working on a freelance basis, are now concerned about whether their careers are systematically sustainable before thinking of ways to attain meaningful achievements in their careers (Louden, 2013). Thus, this research attempted to observe the naked faces of artists’ survival by carrying out a case study on contemporary artists’ career management while focusing on the paradigm of career sustainability, not success.

Major research questions that guided this research were: 1) Is it actually difficult to have a sustainable career as a contemporary artist? How does the reality agree with the scholarly analyses? 2) If yes, what are the major factors that hinder career sustenance for artists? 3) If yes, how do artists react to contexts and manage situations to sustain careers? 4) What are the characteristics contemporary artists’ careers share that must be known? To answer these questions qualitatively, this research employed the method of narrative inquiry and interviewed 17 early and mid-career artists who fall under at least one of the three categories of the definition of artist suggested by Jeffri and Greenblatt (1989), which are the marketplace definition, the education and affiliation definition, and the self and peer definition. The interviews consisted of seven large sections: 1) self-introduction, 2) opinion on career sustainability of contemporary artists, 3) investment for human capital, 4) investment for social capital, 5) prioritization of capital investments, 6) motivation and philosophy as an artist, 7) future anticipation and career goal. Each section had several smaller, more focused questions that naturally triggered recollection of narratives.

As a result, this research suggests the following six points that characterize the careers of contemporary artists. The first three points explain three factors that indicate and characterize sustainable careers that are specific to the profession of artist. First, contemporary artists’ process of career management cannot be represented with a linear conception of one clear beginning and end. In ideal cases, the process showed a cyclical pattern that repeats and can evolve into an ultimate virtuous circle that grants stability and security. Second, the definition of “happiness” for artists is very strongly grounded in self-satisfaction. Self-satisfaction could even be seen as a necessary and sufficient condition for career sustenance since the most important standard of success and achievement for artists is their self-evaluation, unlike workers of other occupations who most often have clear external targets or clients to satisfy. Third, artists not only professionally but also personally identify with their own artistic practices. To artists, their practices have existential significance and constitute identity to the point that without their creative works, they feel they would not be able to continue living as themselves. The latter half of the findings are three factors that arose during the research as potential hindrances to career sustainability for contemporary artists. First, artists are often faced with the need to adjust their identity to meet the needs of the art market. The most distinctive phenomenon under this topic was artists’ having to produce works of media that are preferred by the market and collectors, even when such works do not align with their self-identity. Second, artists crave reciprocal communication, which is relatively difficult for artists to attain considering how they are separated from their major providers of feedback, unlike other professionals who communicate directly with customers and clients. Third, artists often find proving their professionalism difficult in contemporary environments, specifically due to the rise of amateur artists who enter the art market through untraditional channels, especially SNS.

Considering the variety of backgrounds and contexts artists are from and put into, it is impossible to perfectly generalize these findings. Every artist has one’s own life, and every life has its own justified path. However, it is as valuable as it is arduous to try to understand art and its makers because art is fundamentally a human activity with which anyone can resonate. As an agenda for future studies, this research suggests carrying out quantitative research on a larger scale that could cover a wider range of backgrounds, especially cultural. In addition, a study on the understanding of artists’ career sustenance from sides of both the artists and society would be necessary to reach a more holistic consensus on the topic.

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© 2015-2021 Hyunjoo Cho.