This time last year, I was handing in my dissertation and preparing for the final exams of my undergrad degree. It was both a fulfilling and unnerving time. Many of my friends had the next stage of their life set-up and planned out. Studying for a masters, starting a grad scheme or going into employment. I, and a fair few others to be honest, were a little less prepared. The only concrete plans I had post-graduation were Glastonbury festival and moving back in with my parents. Career-wise I didn’t have a clue. All I knew is that I wanted to work in the arts and culture sector, but without much idea of doing what or where. I certainly wasn’t sure how I was going to get there, wherever ‘there’ was.
A year on and things are still uncertain, but I’m realising that I am much closer to knowing what it is that I want to be doing and I’ve learnt a hell of a lot in the mean time. Here, I would like to share a few of the things I have learnt from beginning to build a career in the arts. Perhaps they will be useful tips for someone who is currently in the same situation I was in a year ago, or perhaps they will simply help to reassure you that it’s ok not to have your entire career sussed out the same day that you take a dissy selfie.
- 1. You are not going to land your dream job straight away
I spent days applying for jobs that had the word ‘curator’ in the title and got pretty much nowhere. Because I didn’t know what the kind of job was that I wanted to apply for I naively picked out the ones that sounded glamorous and super-arty. Naturally I didn’t get a look in because it is competitive out there, in case no one has told you already. I decided to be more focused and think about the kind of experiences and skills I had developed over my time at uni. I applied for a paid internship at Tate in events co-ordination because I had experience organising fundraising events for RAG so had plenty to talk about in the application and interview. It was a dream opportunity and I felt privileged to have been offered the role, but I tell you now, it’s because I changed my approach to thinking realistically about what I could do.
- 2. Know how to sell yourself
After finishing my internship at Tate, I spent a lot of time filling out job applications and going to interviews. I cannot emphasise enough how important it is to be able to talk about your skills, experiences and knowledge in a way that demonstrates that you have many valuable things to offer. At the end of the day, being the “chosen one” comes down to you being more desirable that someone else and you only have a small space to convince the employer of that. It is definitely something that comes with practice. By the tenth job application or fourth interview I felt that sense of “nailed it” relief. I think some of that practice came from doing the York Award as that was basically a dry-run of the job app and interview process without the stakes. So get practicing!
- 3. Find part-time work that relates to your desired industry
Between graduating and starting my internship at Tate I worked as a Front of House Assistant at Lakeside Arts Centre in Nottingham. It was the flexible job I went back to during university holidays and was still there for me when I returned after graduating, which I am very grateful for. It bought me some time in the career game because it meant that I was not only earning, but also getting relevant experience, as well as the opportunities to develop useful skills. Instead of feeling stuck waiting for the ‘career’ job to take off, it was really rewarding having the part-time job to keep me busy and allow me to spend time in the right kind of environment with fellow arty people.
- 4. Use websites that are specific to the industry
Knowing where to look for work in the arts and culture sector is one of the biggest challenges of getting started. Luckily there are a handful of specialist sites that are the holy grail of job hunting. They are great because they advertise jobs at all levels and even give you the option to search by the area, salary and type of contract, saving you a lot of time trawling through job adverts. My favourites are the Arts Council England jobs website (http://www.artsjobs.org.uk/) and the University of Leicester Museum Studies jobs desk (http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/museumstudies/JobsDesk)
- 5. Sign up for a temping agency
It sucks being stuck in the cycle of being rejected from jobs because you don’t have enough experience, but not being able to get the opportunities to gain experience. I have recently discovered that temping is a good way to break that. Sign up for a recruitment agency, or a couple. They look at your CV and put you forward for roles they think you would be suitable for. You can even specify what kind of work you want to do, including the kind of client. I signed up for Val Wade Temping in London and was placed in the Marketing Department at Southbank Centre for four weeks.
- 6. Keep in the loop with the art world
It can be difficult to stay enamoured of the art world when you are getting rejections from jobs or simply out of practice with studying. It is really important to not get out of the habit of going to exhibitions, reading art journals and blogs and attending lectures and talks, just because you are not studying it any more. This is so because, yes, you must know what is going on in the art world and being able to answer the question “so which exhibitions have you been to recently?” in an interview without lying, but more importantly because you have to keep motivated and keep that art history mind ticking over. People work in this industry because they are passionate about it so it’s essential to keep that passion alive yourself.
- 7. Use your friends as a support network but don’t compare yourself to them
My friends have played many indispensable roles throughout my career development. They have been there to talk it out with, bounce ideas off and even proof-read my applications. They have been a bottomless pit of encouragement and advice, and I like to think I’ve done the same for them. In your early twenties, your friends are your support network. However, constantly having the “so what are you doing now?” conversation with every person you know from university can be a little overwhelming. My friends all seem to be moving at different paces, doing different things that are “successful” to them. It’s impossible to compare yourself to them and not feel like you’ve missed out or fallen behind on something, whether it’s the number of figures in their salary, the big name company they now work for or the cool places they’ve traveled to. You have to remind yourself not to compare what you are doing to them because we’re all taking slightly different paths to where we want to get to.
So that’s my (rather long) list of things I have learnt over the past year in terms of building a career in the arts. Please feel more than welcome to drop me a message if you want to chat. Alternatively, if you still feel like you need more encouraging words of wisdom, listen closely to Greg Dyke’s speech at graduation. He is a guy who knows.