You’ll never make a living as an artist

My parents would tell me, as a child, that I could be anything I wanted to be.  While encouraging, that’s not entirely realistic as demonstrated by my first selection for future career.  When my mother one day asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up.  I said I wanted to be a midget.  I think that started my life long pattern of tending to choose a more unusual option at every opportunity.  But then when I discovered theatre in high school, it became my new greatest interest and future passion.  As high school was coming to an end, my father told me that I could never make a living doing theatre and that I should study computers instead.  So much for “be anything.”

When I went to college I started out planning to major in theatre and minor in psychology (along with one computer class).  Psychology was the only other area of study I could think of that interested me at all.  Surely that might be a more lucrative career option of theatre didn’t work out.  But I still struggled.  I was doing well in school… a very expensive private school mind you, but I still had the feeling all the time that I was taking classes and my parents were paying all this money and yet I still wasn’t sure.  I wasn’t sure that I was making the right decision, and at the time that decision seemed like it was so important and so final in a way.  So I ended up deciding to take a break from college and work for a while with a plan to return to college later when I’d figured it out.

I expected my parents to be really upset at this decision.  With the divorce court having decided what percentage of my school costs each parent would have to pay, my father actually seemed rather happy.  He pointed out quickly that if I took this break that he was no longer obligated to pay for my college.  My mother was worried what it meant for my future, but supported me in the decision.

This is my personal example of the struggle I think many artists go through trying to figure out if they can pursue their interest and talent.  Am I talented enough?  Can I make a living at this, or is it just a silly unrealistic dream?  What is the path I should be taking if I do really want to try to do this?  On and on.

For me, my father’s words were always in my head… that I’d never make a living doing theatre.  He’s fairly correct in that regard.  The number of theatre artists actually making a reasonable living doing what they love is extremely slim.  So I never gave it my full effort and energy. I never ran off to NYC or LA to try to make a go of it as a starving artist.  Instead I satisfied my passion doing it on the side with a regular day job at the same time.  Also, I have been lucky enough to work around and with theatre organizations through most of my career, having jobs that support the arts in various ways.  But there likely will always be part of me that wonders if I could have made it my life’s work if I’d really taken the leap; taken the chance to try it and potentially fail.

It’s a sad thing that our culture doesn’t value and support the artists the way it does a doctor, a lawyer, an executive.  Every one of us enjoys the work of artists in nearly every moment of our lives.  Graphic designs in magazines, on book covers, on billboards.  The actors we see in movies and on tv, and the thousands of people behind the scenes making those programs happen.  The music we hear on the radio, or as a jingle in a commercial.  The design of buildings and cars.  These are all just examples of art surrounding our lives. Yet we make it incredibly difficult for young people with a creative spark and talent to pursue an artistic career, and offer little hope of that career being financially rewarding.  Why is this the case?  Why don’t we as a society realize that art and artists are integral to our economy, to our enjoyment of life, to shaping our daily experience?  We continue to beat it down as a frivolous pursuit in school, while sports are not?  We discourage our kids to follow their passion and potentially shine, and instead funnel them into the mainstream with all the others to be one of the many.   Why?

Perhaps it’s fear; fear that our kids will fail and we don’t want them to suffer the heartbreak and embarrassment.  Maybe it’s what we’ve been taught; that success is defined by money and a job title and position that impresses others.  Whatever the reason, those that actually break through and become the artist they want to be have to do it despite the stigma and lack of understanding and support.  This is something we should work to change.  We need to recognize the work of artists as highly valuable.  We need to encourage kids who develop artistic passion and talent to pursue it completely.  We need to support the potential artists just as we do potential accountants, potential business managers, potential engineers.  Without the artists, what would our world look like?  Our clothing, the decor in our homes that enrich our daily lives, everything.  What a bland and boring world that would be.


Patrick Spike - Marketing Director of Arts People


Patrick Spike is the Theatre Community Liaison, system expert, and one of the original architects of the Arts People software system, with over 30 years in performing arts creation and administration.