Long before the idea of freelancing became common parlance, the lives and careers of artists have offered a window into what it’s like to forge a solo path. Perhaps because being an artist is seen more as a way of life than a form of employment, though, it’s sometimes forgotten that producing art is a kind of work, and correspondingly needs to work for the individual artist if they’re relying on it as their principal source of income.

The UK’s art schools are currently in the midst of the summer degree show season, with students across the country getting their first taste of public exposure. Many of them probably dream of having a similar impact to the YBAs who graduated from Goldsmiths in the late 1980s, but they will also be well aware that there is no guaranteed route to success in art and that not everyone is destined to become the next enfant terrible or feted star. 

The art world is well known for being a particularly idiosyncratic and stratified industry. On the private side, it is made up of mainly small businesses, in the form of independent galleries, while the industry’s creators and producers – the artists – are predominantly self-employed. The levels of remuneration for individual artists vary dramatically, from those barely able to make ends meet to an upper echelon where the sale of a single work can equate to a lottery win. The fate of the galleries that sell the work is somewhat similar, with many smaller outlets battling low sales and high costs, while a few blue-chip players operate from gleaming, multi-million-pound spaces alongside luxury brands, hedge funds, and property developers.  

New graduates will find that building a career on the back of artistic talent often involves taking some unexpected turns and can mean channelling that talent into creative industries outside of the art world, or combining it with the entrepreneurial nous to create their own platform for success. London-based artist Charlotte Posner is one artist who has certainly excelled in this latter category by collaborating with major brands and fashion labels and going on to set up her own company selling a gifting collection of merchandise decorated with her art. Posner admits that after graduating from Chelsea College of Art and Design she was “worried about getting her artwork out there.”

Not every art student whose work is being shown somewhere in a degree show this summer will go on to be a professional artist, and nor should they be expected to. 

“So”, she says, “ I built a website and made sure my art was available on the internet… I made blogs about myself and posted pictures online about me on some random art websites. I also used to go to galleries and literally pop in there and show them my artwork, email galleries all the time and ask for them to be able to make me part of different exhibitions. In the beginning, it was literally me going knocking on people’s doors. I have never had people really come to me, and now the situation has turned around a bit. My motto is: ‘go and ask’. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.”

Posner’s can-do attitude clearly paid-off, and her work featured in numerous exhibitions in the years following her graduation, both in London and abroad. She also spent time as an in-house artist with the likes of Louis Vuitton and established her own signature style, primarily through her Pop Doll series that playfully riffs on motifs you might find in a fashion designer’s sketchbook. That bridge into fashion has established Posner as a go-to artist for major labels and brands, but she still feels rooted in her artistic practice. As she explains, “I feel my industry at the moment is still Art. I don’t feel like I am a fashion designer at all. Although my work is very fashion-based and it can be perceived as ‘fashion’, I think it’s just creating and I think that if you are creating and do what you love, you can be in any industry.”

For the painter David Storey, it was the music industry that he happened to fall into after graduating from Hornsey College in the 1970s. Having first completed a foundation course at the college, Storey studied for a combined degree in art and design, giving him a grounding in both fine art and graphics. Feeling “overshadowed” in a “highly competitive atmosphere”, though, Storey says that he had “struggled on the course” and “was fortunate to land a job at Rocket Records (Elton John’s company) as a sleeve designer” when he left. The job, Storey continues, “proved to be my stepping stone to Chrysalis Records, at that time the Aston Martin of record labels. I joined Chrysalis at the same time that they signed The Specials and licensed their iconic 2 Tone label – and it was at that point that I started to work with Jerry Dammers, who was the brains behind The Specials and 2 Tone. This was 1979, I ended up working alongside Jerry for the next ten years until 2 Tone finished.”

Storey left his full-time role with Chrysalis in 1984 to become a founding member of The Bureaux, a trailblazing venture he describes as “a collective of 20 artists and designers working out of a warehouse in Farringdon, East London.” Continuing to work for Chrysalis as a freelancer, as well as designing sleeves for other big labels, his time at The Bureaux took him into fashion, working with brands including Zenga and Karl Lagerfeld. Spread over four floors of the warehouse, Storey explains that a core of around six headed up separate teams, with each employing freelance assistants to deliver projects. “The beauty of it” Storey notes, “was that we could work together on larger projects and share resources, so it was easy to flex up and down as required. It was very successful while it lasted and some of the assistants went on to be very successful designers as a result of their experience with us.”

After the collective split in 1989,  Storey became, in his own words, “a nomadic freelancer designer” hired by agencies to work on branding and corporate identity. Two identities he helped formulate, Barclays and Iceland, he says, “are still in use today”. Storey himself has come full-circle, now firmly established as a painter who has been nominated for the prestigious Threadneedle Prize and whose work is regularly exhibited across the UK. The transition from design back into art started two decades ago with a two-week summer school at the Slade School of Fine Art. There, Storey says, “I rediscovered my mojo from the Hornsey days and so from that moment on it was a case of slowly moving sideways from graphic design to fine art.”

Whereas Storey sojourned in the design world, Glasgow-born artist Ben Risk explored a number of different artistic avenues before eventually concentrating his practice on painting, beginning with his choice of undergraduate degree. As Risk explains, “I knew that I wanted to study fine art, but I made the decision to apply for a course that would offer some practical training, as well as allow an exploration of ideas. The Contemporary Craft BA at Manchester Met seemed like a good option and I was lucky to get the last place on the course.”

Having already taken a foundation course in art and design, followed by work at the RSC as a prop and set designer, the BA gave Risk three years to immerse himself in ceramics, textiles, metalworking and woodworking. “It was like heaven,” he says, “playtime from nine-to-five each day. In the back of my mind, though, I always wanted to paint and cherished the one day each week where we explored mark-making, maquette making and looked at different painters.” For Risk, the practical nature of the course felt like the right grounding: “Painting is a tough discipline to teach” he notes, “and, from what I gather, most painting courses leave you to your own devices. At nineteen, I would have felt lost!”

After graduating, Risk moved to Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire, where he seems to have arrived at an opportune time. As he describes things, he “rented a studio in an old mill, met some other painters, started a gallery” and apprenticed himself to a local, traditional blacksmith. “I was keen to keep exploring,” he says, “and held one or two small exhibitions locally of photography and poetry.” The ‘gallery’, which Risk helped set up with the painter David Wright, would become known as the Artsmill and staged exhibitions of work by local artists, as well as huge names like Paula Rego, Quentin Blake and Frank Auerbach. As Risk explains, despite starting out with a budget of only £100, “The gallery drew in audiences to Hebden Bridge from all over the world, which was pretty incredible and the gallery continues to support local and international artists to this day.” 

Risk himself left Hebden Bridge quite soon after the gallery had been started, moving to Bristol and a shared studio in an “old abandoned space”, where he has been working since 2003. In Bristol, painting became Risk’s primary focus, but he says that, “it wasn’t until about ten years after university that things really started to pick up and I was being offered some decent shows with galleries in London and abroad.” Producing work that is both bold and subtle in its use of colour, whilst also being rich in narrative and a theatrical quality, Risk’s recent career highlights have included being exhibited this year at the acclaimed Jerwood Gallery in Hastings.

Having followed his own winding path, Risk has some useful advice for anyone just starting out. “I would encourage any budding artist” he suggests, “to keep exploring, try things, fail, try again, and keep faith that eventually some things will stick. Meet other artists, visit their studios, organise shows together, criticise each other’s work, have some fun together.” And if you’re not sure whose word you can rely on, Risk says that one of the best pieces of advise he’s been given, offered by the Scottish painted Andrew Cranston, is “don’t take any advice from anyone who doesn’t smell of turps!” 

Not every art student whose work is being shown somewhere in a degree show this summer will go on to be a professional artist, and nor should they be expected to. 

There are plenty of other sectors that will benefit from the creative spark of migrating art students, while the increasingly professionalised art world offers an array of non-artist roles to explore. The collateral and sometimes unexpected benefits of art degrees are worth remembering in a climate where arts subjects are often viewed dimly in comparison to STEM alternatives, with the latter seen as providing a more economically productive post-education pathway. The recent government-commissioned Augar report on post-18 education continued in that vein by urging universities to “bear down on low-value degrees” and focus more on “courses better aligned with the economy’s needs”.

“I would encourage any budding artist” he suggests, “to keep exploring, try things, fail, try again, and keep faith that eventually some things will stick. Meet other artists, visit their studios, organise shows together, criticise each other’s work, have some fun together.”

While students should be able to expect value from the subjects they study, how much ‘value’ should be judged and over what length of time is hotly contested. STEM graduates may move more quickly into better-paid jobs, but the payoff of arts courses can come many years down the line, or else disseminate out into other areas. That might mean their value is less tangible, but it’s also likely that society would be a lot poorer without them. As a host of famous artists recently argued in a collective letter decrying the erosion of arts education in schools, the UK economy ultimately benefits hugely from allowing artistic talent space to breathe. The government’s latest figures, from 2017, value the country’s creative industries at £101.5bn per year, an increase of over 50% since 2010. Given the UK art market is also one of the three biggest in the world, we might all do well to wish graduating students the best.