How Do I Find a Job in the Arts?

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Bravo's reality show Gallery Girls followed art world wannabes trying to make their way in the New York art world.
Bravo’s reality show Gallery Girls followed art world wannabes trying to make their way in the New York art world.

 
Dear BURNAWAY,
I’ve been working as an intern in a small nonprofit arts organization, and now I’m ready to start applying to real (ahem … paying) jobs. I want to apply to jobs in major cities like New York, L.A., Chicago—but I also want to try to find work in some of the great art spots in my hometown. But to be honest, I don’t really know much about the jobs I should be looking for. I have a bachelor’s degree in art history. Can you tell me about some positions that I could consider applying to? I feel like I see so many people in museums, but I’m not sure exactly what titles they have. Anything would help at this point, Sara!
Thanks,
Gotta Find a Job


Dear Gotta Find a Job,
Welcome to the working world, pumpkin butter! I’m not going to lie to you, it’s not always the easiest world to navigate by yourself. In fact, the old Irish scribe Bram Stoker may have put it best in Dracula back in 1897: “It is a strange world, a sad world, a world full of miseries, and woes, and troubles.” Well, I suppose Stoker’s observation is a bit pessimistic for my taste, so perhaps we should call on Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms to balance it out: “The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” Still a bit too forlorn? Alright alright, I’m just kidding, I’ve managed to find work that I absolutely adore, and you will too.

A gallery assistant poses amongst paintings during a media preview of the “Allen Jones RA” at the Royal Academy of Arts in London November 11, 2014. (Photo by Neil Hall/Reuters)
A gallery assistant poses among paintings during a media preview of the “Allen Jones RA” at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, November 11, 2014. (Photo: Neil Hall/Reuters)

While the art world may not break you like Hemingway’s world broke him, it is an arena where the tenacious prevail. So keep that in mind as you look for jobs. Don’t get too downtrodden by rejections, and never be afraid to brag on yourself when you need to. You don’t have to pull a Ben Affleck in Good Will Hunting or anything, but you do have to be your own salesman in this lot, my little rosebud. No one will know how much you want a certain job unless you tell them. No one will know how qualified you are unless you tell them. No one will know how perfect a fit you are for their business unless you tell them. So, don’t be afraid to tell them.
That said, I’m glad to hear you’re interested in pursuing work in the art field. It’s a fun place to be; I wouldn’t stay here if it wasn’t! Of course, like most fields, there are people clamoring for all sorts of positions, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have a great chance at getting a foot in the door. People who have good attitudes, who are intellectually curious, and who show up on time are hot commodities in any field. I know all of those things apply to you, right? So you have nothing to worry about. Additionally, try to make some in-person contacts with the place you want to work. Meaning, take yourself into the gallery/museum/whatever and ask to speak to Person X (who’s name you know because you did your homework). It may not work out in the end, but it could potentially make all the difference between getting a call back and getting your resume tossed in a bin.
So, let’s take a look at some of your options. There are several jobs in museums and galleries that don’t have as much professional sex appeal as hot-shot curators and art dealers, but they are nevertheless great jobs that you should keep on your radar. Here are a few:
First, assistant registrar positions are great if you have a Type-A personality and love being extremely organized. You’d get to work with the head registrar to keep track of an institution’s entire collection.
Art handlers handling Portrait of the Artist's Wife, Vera Repin at Sotheby's London.
Art handlers hanging Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, Vera Repin at Sotheby’s London.

Second, consider art handling if you are a generally fit person who loathes desk jobs and needs some kind of physical element in their work life. Art handlers are responsible for installing and deinstalling exhibitions, transporting artworks, shipping and crating artwork, and various other fun things. P.S.: women can be art handlers. I’ve known more than a few, and they were fantastic at their jobs. You don’t have to be a burly guy to do it, you just need to be a team player and a careful planner who’s good at working with their hands.
Lastly, think about the world of art-related press. I’m going to wager that with a degree in art history, you probably have an inclination for writing about art. That said, look into public relations and marketing positions at commercial galleries, grant writing at nonprofits, or social media management positions in various art spheres. You’d most likely be qualified for all those positions, and some side-training in PR can really go a long way here. Along those same lines, I recommend checking to see if there are any art publications around you looking for art writers or editorial help.
Okay, dear, that should get you started on your hunt. Good luck!
Sara Estes is a writer and curator based in Nashville. She is the lead visual art writer at The Tennessean and an editor at Number, an independent arts journal of the South. She also works with David Lusk Gallery and Cumberland Art Conservation, and is cofounder of the gallery Threesquared. Her writing has also been featured in The Bitter Southerner, Nashville Scene, Nashville Arts Magazine, ArtsNash, ArtNow, and others. For more: saraestes.com.