Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Make artWORK: How to Survive in NYC as an Artist

By Liza Green and Claire Baum

This November we were invited to do a life and career guidance seminar for Barnard College dance students as part of the Dancer Empowerment Project. Our task was to take the (slightly daunting) topic of “How to Survive in NYC as an Artist” and make it manageable for these soon-to-be college graduates to have a career in the arts. The ninety-minute workshop aimed  to provide these young artists with useful tools, skills, and resources to help them jumpstart their careers. Hosted by Gibney Dance, we opened the workshop to the public and ended up with a fierce group of early to mid-career dance and theatre makers.

We broke down this large question of “How to Survive in NYC as an Artist,” into four main categories:
  1. Finance;
  2. Relationships;
  3. Marketing and;
  4. Enrichment/Training.

Because of the impending Thanksgiving holiday, we naturally asked them to draw a hand turkey, like the ones we made in grade school, on a piece of construction paper. The “feathers” on the turkey provided space for the four points of our lives as art makers We asked them to dress up their turkeys however they liked, beaks, tap shoes, etc. and to put their name and their artistic discipline/role in the center. For example, the center of Claire’s turkey read “Claire Baum, Dancer, Choreographer.”
Below is a condensed version of the topics we covered on our turkeys, complete with helpful tips and links to even more resources.


Finance can simply be broken down into earning and spending. Artists typically earn their income in three different ways: earning money from their art, having a flexible day/night job (i.e. babysitting, bartending, temping, etc), or by having what we’ve coined a “co-career,” meaning a job that is not exactly your art, but feeds your artistic practice (i.e. teaching artist, arts management, graphic design, etc.). When assessing how you are going to earn your living, here are a few key points to think about:
  • Weigh your values with your needs. How much will you need to earn to not only meet your basic living expenses (rent, food, transportation, etc.), but to also address expenses linked to your values (eating out with friends, taking classes, seeing shows, etc).
  • Earning money from your art is possible. Samples of this income might include: artist stipends, rehearsal pay and/or performer stipends. In addition, you may want to find a fiscal sponsor (like The Field) so that you can apply for grants, create crowdfunding campaigns, and write appeal letters asking others to help fund your creative work.

The flipside of earning is spending. Spending is easy for many people, but managing the spending is harder. Here are a some helpful tips:
  • Create a spending diary to help manage your spending. Over the course of the month write down every item you spend money on. Label expenses “personal” or “professional.”  
  • Use your spending diary to assess your spending habits so that you can adjust accordingly to meet your goals.
  • Continue tracking your spending with a budgeting app like Mint or Budgt.
  • If you have expenses that are falling in the “professional” column and you are producing your own work, open a new account to keep your art and personal expenses separate. Budgeting for your projects is similar to budgeting for your life.


Building solid relationships is crucial for artists. Not only do relationships help you create balance and personal fulfillment, but your friends, family, and colleagues often become your first audience members and donors. Here are some tips on how to cultivate relationships:
  • Make a list of who you want to work with/what organizations you want to work for or get involved with (i.e. volunteering at a benefit, ushering for a show, or doing workstudy in exchange for classes, etc.)
  • If there is a person you want to get to know, or a position you want to know more about, we recommend asking that person for either an informational interview or just for cup of coffee. Be attentive, ready to listen, and able to about talk yourself in a clear succinct way (click here for more resources on how to talk about your work).
  • Thank yous, updates,and reminders can also be a great way to stay on peoples’ radar. Sending a reminder the day before your meeting tells the person you are on top of your game and sending a simple thank you note or email after a meeting keeps you in that person's thoughts longer. And be sure to add personal notes to your follow-up correspondence (a handwritten note can go a long way these days).
  • It is also really great to able to talk about something other than your field. It could be that you and the person you are having coffee with have more in common than just your art, and those connections go a long way both professionally and personally.


Being an artist means putting yourself in the public sphere and marketing yourself as well as the work you create. Creating a brand this way can be tricky. In the age of social media, we recommend being careful with what you broadcast on Facebook and other media. Here are some key ways to make your marketing materials work for you:
  • Start by creating a website. A few very easy to use website builders are Wix, Wordpress, and Squarespace. Be sure to buy your domain name. We also recommend buying your own name as a domain name as well, even if you are not going to use it.
  • Create a strong social media presence. If you don’t want your personal facebook and professional facebook getting mixed up, you can create a page for your art, or even create a whole separate account. If you start Twitter and Instagram accounts, be sure to stay active. Using a platform like Hootsuite can help you schedule all of your social media posts.
  • Thinking of starting a blog? The key to keeping a blog is keeping it up. Create a schedule and stick to it (i.e. post once a month, once a week, etc.)
  • Use a cost effective service like Vistaprint or find a local printer for business cards and postcards.
  • Work samples are also incredibly important for grant or showcase applications and your web presence. Photo and video work can quickly and succinctly tell your viewer what your work is about. We recognize that producing this type of media can get expensive so we recommend using skill trading sites to help produce high quality work samples while keeping costs down (try Our Goods or The Artsy Yenta).


Building a balanced life between your artist self and personal self is what enrichment and training is about. What it really comes down to is an assessment of your values, and how these play out in each aspect of your personal and professional life. Some ways that you work towards balance may include:
  • Continuing to take classes attend festivals, and workshops for your field. See shows, performances, and visit museums and galleries. Consider seeing work that is outside your field for inspiration.
  • Take care of your body. It is your instrument. This care could include cross training, cycling, running, yoga, pilates or massage. And don’t forget about health insurance. We suggest looking at, Oscar insurance, and The Freelancers Union to get a plan or shop for a better one.
  • If community engagement or spirituality is important to you, allow for time in your schedule to participate.

Once our turkey feathers were filled in, we asked these brave artists to set a three-year goal and a one-to-three month goal for the feather they felt was most challenging. The participants collaborated in pairs to come up with 3 realistic action steps for each one of their goals. You can do this for each of the 4 points we have covered in this blog. If keeping your turkey with your action steps on your fridge is a good reminder for you, then do it! If you’re more technically minded, make a spreadsheet that you can look at and update to check in on your goals and action steps. Ask a friend or collaborator to help you create action steps for your goals. They may have ideas you never would have thought of and bringing them into your goal-setting process will keep you on task. And finally, remember to make this kind of dreaming and planning fun!

Thanks to all of the artists who participated in the workshop. And best of luck with those action steps.

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