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Chapter 4 : Alternatives to Academia – Living Beyond Academia

Living Beyond Academia & Thriving

essay by Jill Foote-Hutton

“Few things sadden me more than to hear an individual who is walking through the gallery begin to praise a family member for their “creativity” and passion, only to be closely followed by the concerned, “Too bad they can’t make a living at it. Maybe after they finish their degree in _______ (fill in the blank with a choice perceived of as sensible).”

The upside to such an encounter is the opportunity to seize a teachable moment and when I was employed in academia the topic was a banner I waived all the time to anyone who would listen. Students certainly, but first and foremost, parents and deans. What I believe IS required to have a successful life in the arts is as follows:

  1. An ear attuned to your spirit and natural skill sets.
  2. The ability to apply creative problem solving skills outside the studio.
  3. Vision to look at the periphery of your training and accomplishments.

Artists often get a bad wrap for being absent-minded, but any who is really making a go of a life in the arts will demonstrate myriad skill sets testifying to the contrary. Some of us are fiscally minded, some of us have strong organizational skills, some of us have better spatial sensibilities than others, some of us are networkers, some of us are mechanically inclined, some of us have not only a knack for chemistry, but a love for it…

On and on. Honestly, a successful artist usually has a combination of the aforementioned skills as well as serious discipline and perseverance.

A little over two years ago, I made a conscious choice to leave academia and step into the role of Gallery Coordinator at Red Lodge Clay Center. While I was lucky to have a full-time job with benefits only one year out of college, at the end of the day, the position did not have the professional future I was interested in pursuing. For five and a half years it was exciting, exhausting, challenging and rewarding. It was also teaching up to seven classes a semester, running a gallery, hiring adjunct faculty, developing assessment, explaining to my colleagues that Art Appreciation and Art History were not, in fact, the same class. I felt myself getting farther away from the field of ceramics with each semester. Slowly, as my frustration grew, I remembered the words my father-in-law shared with me upon receiving my MFA, “Don’t forget to look to the periphery.”

So I made an accounting of what it was I did treasure in the position: running the gallery, teaching (specifically I love teaching Art Appreciation and Foundations), coordinating visiting artist workshops and being in a position to give emerging*[1] artists a momentary spotlight and line on their CV. I looked outside of the usual circle. I tweaked my CV to target the markets I was pursuing. Most importantly, I knew in my last year, if I had to work a day job outside of art to support the studio and research career I envisioned for myself, I was ready. My mind had shifted and it allowed me to see potential in so many other places. I see the gallery as an educational tool and I feel lucky that the universe did not take me up on my offer to step outside of the arts.

Teaching is a calling and I believe I have that calling. I also believe, and have evidence to support it that there are many ways a calling can manifest itself. I am committed to continue defining my professional course on my terms, although it’s one of those lessons that can fade, it quickly comes back into focus. We are makers!! We define form. We create something from disparate parts. We can certainly choose to define our careers beyond the obvious path of Academia.

Here are some of the sites I keep an eye on:

Finally, a text I cannot recommend enough is Martin Atkins “Tour : Smart”. He wrote it for aspiring bands, but most of it is applicable to aspiring visual artists. Check it out!


[1] emerging is a loaded term, please take it to mean an artist who has not yet had much significant exposure for their work.
[2] A little google search will show you many states have similar sites.