Getting A Job In The Arts: Pep Talks From People Who’ve Made It

Like any role, when it comes to getting a job in the arts, there’s often more than one way to get there, but with the recent federal budget announcement that the arts sector will suffer major funding cuts, it might feel harder than ever to pursue your dream arts career. We speak to five arts professionals who share their insights from the journeys they took to secure their careers.

Before beginning your daily ritual of scrolling through ArtsHub Jobs while eating your lunchtime porridge because your ‘for-the-meantime’ job doesn’t pay well enough to justify deli meats, take some time out to read the advice of five arts professionals in very diverse roles across the arts – from an events manager and actor to a Director of Archaeological Excavations.

Despite their diverse backgrounds in terms of education, career goals and the jobs they have now, all five offer similar soundbites of advice – surely that’s no coincidence, right?

It probably wont happen as quickly as youd like

Nicola James – actor, director, writer and producer at Golden Jam Productions – had to put in a lot of work towards her arts career, starting as early as school: “I studied full time at the Actors College of Theatre and Television and came out the other side as an actor…I wish! I actually started a theatre company when I was still in school. I produced two works in my first year after graduation but I was still doing a bunch of non-paid gigs acting in other people’s projects and working at my day job at the Griffin Theatre Company.”

Nicola James

Nicola James via starnow

Dont fight your interests 

Studying a law degree because your mother told you to is never a good idea. If you’re passionate about something then it will follow you; do yourself a favour and give in to it sooner rather than later. “All I wanted to do when I was in high school was to work in the theatre, but somehow I ended up working in IT, natural therapies and pubs,” says Nicola. “I’d been going through a quarter-mid-life crisis for too many years so I decided to take acting classes and found myself wondering why I hadn’t just been acting all along.”

Karina Libbey, manager of non-profit boutique production and events company The Festivalists, suggests trying out as many things as you possibly can if you’re unsure about how to turn what you studied at university into a career (she studied a BA (Hons) majoring in Film and History). “Be sure to always keep an open mind. Your dream job may not be what you expected, so be prepared to go with the flow and keep gathering experience,” she says. “I think it’s fantastic if you know what you want to do straight-up, but when I started out I had zero interest in running events.”

The Festivalists

Image supplied via The Festivalists.

Chris Jones doesn’t have the most common of roles being the Assistant Collections Manager at University of Sydney Museums, but he wound up there via a similar experience. During his BA at the University of Auckland, Chris majored in English but chose to study things that interested him “like films and ethnomusicology, anthropology and philosophy.” He worked in libraries for a while and, again, following an interest, decided to do some volunteering at Auckland Museum in the Applied Arts department. “One of my bosses once told me that you only understand your career path retrospectively. Working in libraries, archives and museums has given me a relatively unusual combination of skills and this continues to open up opportunities for me,” says Chris. “I didn’t plan this path, but I did follow my interests and embraced opportunities as they came up.”

Make (and communicate) the work that you want to see

Nicola is clear that sometimes, you need to make your own opportunities. “As much as you have to be open to opportunities I think you really need to figure out what is important to you and what work you want to create,” she says. “If the work you’re interested in isn’t coming your way then you need to grab creative buddies, put your heads together and make it yourselves.”

Chris Jones

Image: Chris Jones

Artist Lotte Smith believes it’s important to “let everyone you meet know what you’re about.” Communicating is basically networking which leads to unexpected opportunities. “My style of art isn’t for all, but it’s been great to discuss with people how my images have stuck with them and why. It’s in those moments that I’ve taken the opportunity to share a bit about myself and what my vision is for the future. I’ve been able to gain a fair amount of work through these sorts of conversations.”

Theres merit to work experience, so suck it up

“Trying to start a career in the arts can be tricky,” acknowledges Nicola. “You want to say ‘yes’ to all of the things and you don’t want to miss out on any opportunities. The problem is that many of those opportunities at the beginning of your career are unpaid.” But for the most part, that’s just what you’ve got to do. “I worked my ass off to get where I am now. I hounded all of the theatre companies in Sydney while I was still at college to try and get volunteer roles—that’s how I started working for Griffin Theatre Company before moving into a paid role.”

Craig Barker – Manager Education & Public Programs University of Sydney Museums and Director of Archaeological Excavations of the Paphos Theatre Site in Cyprus – agrees: “I volunteered on many, many archaeological excavations in my undergraduate days and did voluntary work for museums and for various archaeological organisations just to gain new experiences and new knowledge. Volunteering does help.”


craig barker

Craig Barker. Image: Day of Archaeology

Lotte also has a similar story. “I tried a bunch of things: I was a volunteer at the Campbelltown Arts Centre, I gave small workshops on cartooning and printmaking, and did some volunteering with an all-female creative collective Stayfly Sydney,” she says. This helped her connect with people with similar visions, and ultimately led to paid work.

Chris took up a volunteer job in the Applied Arts department at Auckland Museum. “The work was pretty simple – just filing artist biographical information. But because I was there, and I showed enthusiasm, the curator would ask me to assist with other jobs. That’s how I gained experience in object handling, then when a job came up to pack artwork I got it. It was a gamble leaving my full time library job but it paid off.”

Help your competition sorry, friends help your friends

At the start, Lotte struggled (like many) with the competitive nature of wanting to gain recognition for her art, but “Don’t let [it] get in the way…Over the years I’ve learnt to look out for opportunities not only for myself but for my fellow creative friends and the result is a close-knit network of people uplifting themselves and each other.”

lotte smith artwork nature of wallowing

Lotte Smith’s “The Excessive Nature of Wallowing

Karina champions getting out there and meeting people through volunteering but also from approaching people you admire and asking them for advice. “I have asked and have been asked to do this many times. You can learn a lot, make great contacts and even great friends! The arts is a tight-knit community and people are usually pretty generous with their knowledge and time,” she says.

Youve really got to love it because youre going to get rejecteda bunch 

“A career in the arts not only takes talent, but it also takes a lot of hard work and a huge amount of self-belief,” says Nicola. “As well as a crew of awesome people who join you for the ride.”

Craig also highlights the fact that rejection is normal and you have to persevere. “Jobs are not easy to come by, but they are there,” he says. “It is about putting yourself up each time you can, not letting rejection get you down.”

Karina stresses that working in an underfunded industry can be tough, so you’ve got to be enjoying yourself for it to be worthwhile. “The industry is underfunded; it’s no secret that working in the arts can be hard work. Follow your passion, but always make sure that you’re having fun and enjoying what you do.”

Sarah Little is a Sydney writer who spends most of her time working in museums, reviewing gigs, coveting other people’s pets and mastering the art of ‘bottom-of-the-fridge’ cooking.