Making it Work: 4 Approaches to Growing an Arts Career

Making it Work: 4 Approaches to Growing an Arts Career

As with most careers, in the arts you learn along the way. For some artists that means running into their career head on, while others take their time to become established.  Nancy Kenny, Melanie Yugo, Anik Bouvrette and Lynne Hanson each had different experiences which they shared during Artpreneur’s Making It Work panel. These four tips highlight the learning experiences of each panel speaker.

Throw Out Expectations and Make Your Own Way

Studying an art doesn’t immediately equal an arts career, as actor and writer Nancy Kenny discovered after graduating with a theatre degree. “I thought, I am an actor and I don’t want to do anything else. I assumed if I worked hard and got the audiences I would make it,” Kenny remembers, though she soon realised “no one was going to roll out the red carpet for me.” While being a full-time actor had been her goal, Kenny she soon accepted that “there is no shame in having a day job and having that financial stability, but I soon realised that the 9-5 wasn’t for me.” For Nancy, forging a career as an artist has meant forging her own way by creating her own shows and finding freelance marketing work that she can do remotely or from home.  The biggest help for her career to date has been the Fringe Festival circuit which has given her the space present her original work, growing both as writer and actor, and to learn more about the theatre industry.

Success Doesn’t Have to Mean Full-Time

While many think of “making it” as working in the arts full-time, real success is about creating, and this is something Melanie Yugo and her partner have done with Possible Worlds. Now a gallery space, Possible Worlds began as DIY craft night that evolved into a regular series, Spins and Needles, until it outgrew its bar-hopping stage and found a permanent home in Ottawa’s Centretown. “For me it’s about partnership and collaboration,” Yugo explained. “We reach out to people whose work we would like to showcase and build the exhibitions around their work.” Though the space has taken on a life of its own, it remains a side project for Yugo, who works at the Canada Council for the Arts. As a self-taught artist it is a place where she can explore and work with others, rather than about forging a solo career as an artist.

Marketing and Mentorship

Applying some of the core principles from business can help set the direction of your career, as is the case with singer-songwriter Lynne Hanson. Holding an MBA in Marketing, Hanson drew on the business principles she knew. “My approach was to go where the people wanted me to go and it turned out that people liked me more in Holland so I went over there. Then I found they wanted me in the UK so I went there.” In addition to seeking out the best market for her music, Hanson also sought out a mentor. “It was after the release of my second album, 11 Months, in 2008 that I really started to ask for career guidance and I recognized I could benefit from Lynn Miles’ experience. As my career began to develop, Lynn took a more active role in providing advice, as well as bringing me on several tours as an opener, which was extremely beneficial.  Finally, as producer of two of my recent albums, River of Sand (2014) and 7 Deadly Spins (2015), she’s actively helped me to hone my craft as a songwriter to the point where we are now co-writing an album together.”

Think of Success in the Long Run

Not every artist is successful right away, for some it can take years and new approaches before realising an arts career. This was the case for dancer and choreographer Anik Bouvrette who began her career in 1993, a time when there wasn’t much appetite for contemporary dance and already many established artists working in the marketplace. Bouvrette began working as a dance teacher but found there wasn’t enough work to keep her financially stable. So she took up an admin job, which she now views as her “parallel career.” In her parallel career she learned essential business skills: management, budgets, and networking. These business skills prepared Bouvrette to establish her artistic career when she founded Tara Luz Danse. “You have to find people who are like-minded and come up with new approaches. If you keep knocking on the same door you will keep getting no’s. You have to find your niche,” she explained. With the know-how and experience from her parallel career, Bouvrette is now able to manage her own company and to think strategically about its growth and development.

When it comes to arts careers there is no one size fits all and success is how you define it.  No matter what approach you take though, you have to make time for your art. Most importantly, if you are going to pursue it full time, Hanson says, “you have to have stamina,” because it won’t necessarily come easy.


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Nina Jane Drystek is a writer and content creator working in marketing and arts administration. She coordinates the Art Place program for AOE Arts Council and is the Social Media Manager for the Ottawa International Writers Festival. Previously she worked in public relations. Nina Jane is also a writer of miscellany such as poems, musings and fiction.