Carving out a future for the ‘Art Job’

I believe we need to take more accountability as a field for our future. This is business. Education, craft shows, even a single potter depend on the bottom line for their future. Our advantage is what lies behind that bottom line: a love of making and connecting to others through art. There seems to me to be no reason that we can’t use the latter to strengthen the former.

From my perspective, the craft world is at something of a crossroads. Built and supported by Baby Boomers and now crumbling under its own history, the fine craft market is ready for a change of leadership. There is a younger generation making excellent contemporary work who don’t fit in at the fine craft shows or the DIY ones. They are in the middle, trying multiple ways of getting their work out there, slowly building their own market, but based on the old one.” Brian Jones, from his essay “Carving out a future”, delivered at the NCECA conference in Huston.

Its a fine essay, full of interesting ideas and examples for ways that individual artists can ‘carve out their futures’. But as helpful as I found these insights, the one thing that was not specifically addressed was the relative depth to which the majority of pot makers can carve. Not everyone who wants to make pots will be able to do it full-time or as their entire income. Its a crowded field, and a full-time commitment may simply not be possible for all comers. The ‘future’ of pot making may have to depend on strategies that are not as wholly wrapped up in the ‘bottom line’ or the success of building one’s own market.

So, while Brian’s essay provides generally good and true advice, by being directed at the vicissitudes of aspiring full-timers its not a panacea or magic pill that will of itself make creative self-sufficiency possible for more than a handful. Its not a magic brush that will paint a bright financial future to any and all who set out on this path. Perhaps 19 in 20 (99 in 100?) will fall by the wayside, or stop somewhere short. Not through a failure of the ideas, mind you, but through an obstruction in the field of the arts industry itself. Its like thinking that if we keep adding fish to this small pond everyone will all survive equally if we can only get the right strategy for acquiring subsistence….. Its a view that has been implicit in potters’ rosy tinted gospel about leading the romantic life of a full-time craftsperson. Until rude reality shows us something different. And by then its almost always too late. And the implication is that if you didn’t make it you did something wrong, when the truth is simply that there is not enough food in that pond for every belly to get full on. Why not avoid the myth from the start, and go into it with eyes wide open? Yet we continue to idolize and seek inspiration from the glamorous ‘successful’ artists……

In an interview with Ben Carter, Bobby Silverman points out that Ceramic artists and potters in particular have often failed to think deeply about the way forward for our community. He says, “I think we in the clay community have marginalized ourselves to a great degree because we haven’t asked very rigorous questions of ourselves. We’re okay with the way things are. I think the studio potter has a great future, but its a question of how it perceives itself in relation to contemporary culture, and the relevance of that. And that’s where I think we have a lot of work to be done…. I have no problem with the handmade. Its a question of how the handmade is applied, what context, and how it goes forward in the world.”

It may be especially difficult to challenge points of view when we personally have so much at stake in the status quo, but not asking questions is often worse than the mere threat of change. Some of the first challenges I’d have to upset the balance would examine the myths surrounding the full-time potter. It seems the default view is that it is somehow essentially desirable or necessary for successful pot making. But is it even something that the majority of pot makers should aim at? Its the view implicit in Brian’s essay. Are we ready to challenge this idea? Here’s how I responded to Brian in an email:

“Great essay, Brian!

I agree that there are so many options for ceramic artists to reinvent themselves, and that with the changing landscape we need to be adaptable rather than simply entrenched in the ‘traditional’ ways of making a living, i.e., making and selling our work. The evolution of our industry faces its own crisis of fitness, but it may not be solved by anything as simple as merely finding new venues and customers for pots.

One thing I worry about is that we seem to focus primarily on professionalism as meaning full-time at what we do creating and marketing our work, and I am wondering whether this is just another vestige of outdated values. For instance, is it possible that part of our adaptation and versatility will include not just making and selling our wares but other activities, some of which may or may not be specifically pottery related? When Rocco Landesman, the then head of the NEA, stated a few years ago that there was an oversupply of art and artists he seemed to grasp an essential difficulty facing many of us today: If overall demand for the arts is at best steady or declining the money that can support professional artists is from a diminishing pool of resources.

One strategy that you explore in this essay is new ways of inventing ourselves to access these funds, but that still leaves the same resources just spread out in different ways to different people. Another option you suggest is to broaden the audience, tapping new sources of consumers, and this too will make a difference. Its still a question, though, whether even this can truly offset the loss of the old-time collectors. If more people are making and selling pots, and demand is at best holding steady, what is the overall picture of our industry’s health?

The way our field tends to promote celebrities perhaps guarantees that there will be at least a few who continue to eat high up on the food chain. But this still leaves the problem that these artists are the exception and not the rule. For every full-time potter scrapping for the patronage of existing and new collectors how many fall short? How many have outside jobs to support themselves while making pots when they can? How many fall by the wayside because they’ve been taught that its all-in, all or nothing? That if you can’t make it just selling pots you can’t make it? Is finding new ways to sell pots the only way forward for the potting community?

The thing I’m wondering is that our conversation almost always seems to focus on those who ‘made it’, the ones in the limelight, the ones stamped with institutional approval. But the lessons of these select artists are rarely applicable to the potters who either aren’t aiming at collectors, make work unsuited to the collectors market, or who have shied away from the self-promotion that seems necessary for celebrity. There is, in fact, only enough room for so many at the top. Especially if the collector dollars are being spread so thin….

So the question I have is whether we are doing our field a disservice by perpetuating the myth that to make pots successfully you need to find a path that necessarily allows you to do it full-time. Sure, there will always be those who can, and do, but they are not the majority. And this is especially important if we recognize that there may in fact BE an oversupply of art and artists in relation to the actual demand for our products. How we reconcile those two things is the question, and it cannot happen if we pretend that the only legitimate way forward is full-time, with its seeming requisite semi-poverty…..

Artists in other fields are wrestling with this as well. Scott Walters, a theatre professor who was at that infamous talk by Landesman, has this to say: “I would argue that the idea that you can do art 24/7 and make a complete living from it is historically rare. You look at someone like Shakespeare. He wasn’t just one thing. He acted. He wrote. He owned the theater. He ran the theater. He did all of those things. This idea that you can be a specialist and actually make a living is absurd. Frankly. I just don’t think it is viable and sustainable. But that said, I do think it is possible to be involved in the live arts in a variety of different ways and make, if not all of your income from it, most of it from that. But you have to think of it more broadly than ‘I create these commodities that I sell tickets to’. There are other things you can do.”

Choreographer Jennifer Edwards had this to say about dance and dance professionals: “The bottom line is that dance is no different from any other industry — we must innovate or we will fade away. One potential model, which is certainly not the answer, might be to grow our brand as kinesthetic intellectuals — something that this country desperately needs. Applied-physical-awareness would help leaders command respect, school children focus, laborers and health care workers to work physically with less injuries. If dancers owned their skills — if we built a program and marketed healthy, body-centered, self-awareness practices that grew organically from dance — then we could do our work, make our art, grow students/clients and audience simultaneously. All while growing generations that naturally understood and appreciated dance — we could once again have value within the social sphere. However, we would first have to value ourselves and believe in the value our craft.”

It just seems that artists of every stripe are faced with the same issue: With more people practicing art for money, and with perhaps fewer dollars to support working artists, what besides selling our work can we do to make a living? Some potters teach. Some potters give workshops. Some potters run galleries. Some potters also work in production. Some potters run community studios. Some potters also work as artists in other media. Some potters have part-time outside jobs. Full-time outside jobs. Some potters have pensions from a life lived doing something else. Some potters have spouses who support them. The truth seems to be that very few potters just make and sell pots with no other sources of income….

The sooner we recognize this, how full-time potting is a special case only, the sooner the current and upcoming generations of aspiring potters will find their path without the onerous burden of only scrapping for the smaller and smaller slices of pie that are available. We need to be upfront about the real conditions for the majority of potters rather than hiding it. We need to own it. And we may need to do this despite it not being a good public relations move…. Our customers certainly do not want to hear about our struggles to make ends meet. But its wrong to keep this knowledge hidden for their sake. Other potters and aspiring potters simply NEED to hear this. Being an artist has so many obstacles as it is, without adding this deception to it…..

This was not meant to be defeatist or discouraging. The important thing is that we find a place for making pots in our lives, no matter how that happens. And realizing that there are very few who can pull it off without recourse to other sources of income is just reality come calling. The idea that a part-time potter is a failed professional is a pernicious untruth, or we concede that our field is swamped with failure.

Rather, I encourage us to embrace the many faces of work in clay and see ourselves as a field that is replete with successful part-time potters, amateurs, pro-ams, and hobbyists. The sooner we quit pretending that the only way to make serious pots is to somehow do it all-out full-time the sooner we open our eyes to the true diversity of career pathways in clay. Other fields in the arts have recognized this. Lets not be the last to shrug off the shackles of an outdated estimation at our profession……”


“Myself I cannot see the persistence of the artist type. I see no need for the individual man of genius in such an order. I see no need for martyrs. I see no need for vicarious atonement. I see no need for the fierce preservation of beauty on the part of a few. Beauty and Truth do not need defenders, nor even expounders. No one will ever have a lien on Beauty and Truth; they are creations in which all participate. They need only to be apprehended; they exist externally. Certainly, when we think of the conflicts and schisms which occur in the realm of art, we know that they do not proceed out of love of Beauty or Truth. Ego worship is the one and only cause of dissension, in art as in other realms. The artist is never defending art, but simply his own petty conception of art. Art is as deep and high and wide as the universe. There is nothing but art, if you look at it properly. It is almost banal to say so yet it needs to be stressed continually: all is creation, all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis.” Henry Miller

About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Arts education, Ceramics, Clay, Creative industry, metacognition, Pottery. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Carving out a future for the ‘Art Job’

  1. Ellen Mulligan says:

    I loved your post. It is a very thoughtful analysis of a difficult situation, and it may bring the joy back into making, which somehow gets lost as one’s skill improves.

    • Thanks Ellen!

      So true, sadly. Too often as we grow into sellers of our work we end up chasing the market rather than our own joys in making things. Its not always so obvious to us, but can happen in subtle and insidious ways. Its almost safer not to earn a living from our art. There’s less pressure on us to do the things that the market wants, less pressure to obey extrinsic motivations, if the reward is not linked to how much money we can get. Not that everyone falls into this trap, but you could say its another of those challenging questions we need to be asking ourselves….

      Thanks for chiming in!

  2. Gabe says:

    The same debates occur within poetry (where the majority of poets are also professors, teachers, or working in some other public-service capacity), because very few people buy poetry. But it’s also becoming more common in higher education in general – professors, and people who want to be professors, are finding it harder and harder to find full-time work. The problems there are institutional and could be avoided with a different attitude toward the role of the university, but in all the cases here – pottery, dance, poetry – it’s a matter of capitalist/market-driven value trumping humanistic value. And I don’t know how that’s going to change.

    • Cobbling together employment to support a career as an artist may just be the future we face. I don’t see any easy solution to change that. But at least we can be prepared. At least we can go into our passion for the arts with a clear understanding that this is NOT something that is likely to ever pay the bills all by itself.

      And of course the shame of it is that the professional class of artist lives such a marginal lifestyle or has so many other commitments that deflect from actual art making. Which is incredibly sad……

      And you are right, the root of the problem is precisely that by making it a capitalist venture art has been subverted by capitalist pressures. Not art for art’s sake on its intrinsic motivation, but art for the sake of the market…..

      I could go on and on with this little chestnut.

      Thanks for the insight from the world of Poets! Thanks, Gabe!

  3. There is a story that our culture has promoted of the ambitious hardworking grunt who starts at the bottom and through perseverance, timing, and maybe a little luck works his way to the top. He eventually gets to run the show, lead the industry, be celebrated in the field, or whatever. This survivor of all the hardships we must go through is our abject lesson in ‘making it’, that hard work pays off, and that the pot of gold is there at the end for those willing to take these 5 simple steps that guarantee success and financial security….

    So we look to all the folks that have risen to the top, who get to do what we think we should be doing, and try to base our goals and ambitions on theirs. These are the survivors. We don’t want to emulate the failures, the ones who couldn’t make it, couldn’t hack it, were not ruthless enough to do what it takes, whatever the consequences. Better to sell out than fall on your face. We know that the purity of the mighty is an illusion. There’s always some dirt under their fingernails, some blood stains on their jackets, some skeletons in their closets, some power brokering patron they had to ‘make nice’ to…..

    And so the story we tell is often a declaration of our bias towards survivorship: “Start out small, end up big”. The struggles we go through to get there are simply a rite of passage, a way-point on our road to ‘success’. Stepping stones. No one ever becomes an artist preformed full-time straight out of the box. But the story has it that that’s where we are aiming. “Keep your eyes on the prize” we are told…..

    What I’d say different from the survivorship bias is that all the ‘struggles’ we face are sometimes enough themselves. Just to be doing it. That they can be havens of artistic opportunity rather than career steppingstones. The only value isn’t being able to someday translate what you love into a money making occupation. That CAN”T be the only thing that keeps us going. It can’t be the only thing we aspire to.

    Rather, I’d say find some way to fit it in your lives, no matter if it takes working another job, only doing it part time, only doing it on the weekends. Find some way to keep doing it, keep the love burning.

    The only measure of that love is whether you still enjoy doing it, not that you get to do it for a living. Doing it for a living almost inevitably has trade offs and compromises that threaten the very fact of that enjoyment. The idea that it needs to be an occupation is the illusion of a stick dressed up as a carrot: Once we find that pot of gold, it turns out that instead of still following our desire we are often being driven mercilessly by an uncaring and callously perverting marketplace. The job we now have is usually not the thing we thought it’d be when we signed on……

    So embrace what you do, but don’t turn it into a job! Make money at it, sure, but don’t feel you need to depend on it for a living. Don’t put yourself in a position where its all or nothing, sink or swim. Swim, but also get out of the water and walk. We are not sharks that we need to keep swimming or we die. I have pity on the sharks. Isn’t it strange that the sharks are our inspirational totems? The survivors who chewed up all competition to sit at the top of the food chain? I’d rather be that tiny monkey that learned to climb down out of the trees and wander the savanna. I’d rather be that foraging adaptable ape that finds many ways to survive……

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