Lessons from a former art student
Business | 6 February 2012

Lessons from a former art student

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As you might already know, apart from designin’ I also have been lucky enough to teach courses in photography, video and digital media. This Spring 2012 semester I am teaching a course in the photography department at Tyler School of Art. Recently a conversation with one student evolved into a sort of round-table with the entire class about goals, graduate school, business taxes and the like. This conversation was sparked by students who are just a few weeks into their final semester in college. And they are asking themselves the inevitable question: What do I do next?


I can relate. Just 8 years ago I was a senior photography major at Tyler School of Art. Oh, I’m getting old. Take a look at “young, pensive Beth” in this polaroid from around 2003 or so. Deep.

Hearing my students express their concerns for the future reminded me of my own fears at that point in my life.

If you want to make art not only your passion but also your profession, prepare yourself for a truly fulfilling and challenging life. I decided to make being creative on a daily basis my number one priority. The creativity part came easy! It was all of the other stuff that required a bit of a learning curve. In the spirit of offering some advice to current art school students, here are five tips that I wish I had known when I was 22.

1. Don’t listen to your parents, you know better.

Mom, if you’re reading this on your iPad… sorry!

Let me preface this tip by saying that my parents have always been extremely supportive. For the longest time, they just didn’t “get it.” Throughout my four years of college, they expressed their valid concerns about what I would do with an art degree. They had similar concerns about my attending graduate school, but again they supported me and my decision.

The point here is that if you really want something, you need to go for it despite what most people will tell you. Many people will think it’s foolish to not want a full-time, nine-to-five office job. But those people do not know what’s right for you. If I had been swayed by parents’ fears, I would be living a very different life.

2. Get smart, ASAP.

Are you going to work as an independent contractor or set up an LLC? Do you need business insurance (tip: wedding photographers do)? What about your personal health insurance? There are lots of questions to ask, so educating yourself is extremely important.

As an independent contractor, you’ll need to figure out hourly or per project rates. Want to work as an independent contractor or start your own business in Philly? Well then you better start putting aside 30-40% of what you bring in for taxes. That’s right, you might owe up to 40% between federal, state and local city business tax. Get yourself an accountant, or at least go and meet with one (most accountants will set up a free consultation with you). Don’t forget to consider how taxes, insurance and other expenses might effect your net income. Take all of this into account when you determine your hourly rate!

3. Love what you do and make friends.

If you don’t love what you do then it’s probably not going to work out. You will need to perform so many roles from marketing associate to financial coordinator and everything in-between.

Along with loving what you do, you need to “make friends.” Seriously, start meeting people – surround yourself with people that are doing what you want to do. Set up meetings, go to lunch or treat someone to a coffee if it means you get to pick the brain of someone who is living the life you want. It’s so simple but it works; it just requires a strong personality. You can also join networking groups, local business associations and attend events and seminars that are related to your business. I am a member of the Young Professionals Network in Philadelphia and the yearly dues I pay are well worth the multitude of opportunities the organization provides to meet people. I also attend Philadelphia Interactive Marketing Association and Philly Build Guild networking events to meet fellow freelancers and potential clients.

4. Be Alec Baldwin.

I don’t mean 30 Rock Alec Baldwin. I am talking about Glengarry Glen Ross Alec Baldwin. If you haven’t seen this amazing 1992 film, get on that pronto. Although the film deals with real estate sales, Alec Baldwin’s classic phrase “A-B-C, Always Be Closing” is a mantra for everyone to live by. To be successful, you will need to eat, sleep and breathe your business.  As Blake (Baldwin’s character) says, it takes “brass balls” to sell real estate. I’d say it takes brass balls to run your own business!

On a side note, the salespeople that work with my Dad have compared him to Baldwin’s character in Glengarry Glen Ross. This fact makes me extremely happy.

5. Don’t work for free.

The idea that a project will be “good for your portfolio” and therefore you should do it for free is a myth. If a potential client wants your talent and unique skill set, then they have to pay for it! How much money went into your education? How much debt are you now carrying on your back? Most people who strike out on their own to offer creative services take a lot of time to build the confidence necessary to demand the price they are worth. I know it was hard for me. But you need to assert yourself. Make that expensive education MEAN something! And don’t let a condescending tone from a potential client who assures you that their niece could do this project for $50 bully you into lowering your rate. Stay strong and determined, and you’ll find clients who appreciate your talent and hard work, and will pay accordingly.

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