The Aprofessional Artist

A few weeks ago, a singer wanted to talk about something that had been worrying her. She had been offered a contract to perform—the first in well over a year—but it paid poorly (a few hundred dollars) and required a significant time commitment and extensive travel. Despite her excitement at the thought of a professional artistic opportunity, she did not want to take the job because she would lose so much income from other work. Yet, the thought of saying ‘no’ overwhelmed her. She had been trained in school to say ‘yes’ to most opportunities, and she worried that if she declined the job she would be seen as unserious or ungrateful, which would ruin her chances to work in the future. But even more, she was concerned that if she said ‘no’ she would no longer be considered a ‘professional artist’ by colleagues, and friends and family. However, she simply couldn’t afford to take the gig, and thus ironically chose to risk her identity as a ‘professional’ in order to pay her bills.

Unfortunately, this singer’s dilemma is all too familiar to me. Practically each week it seems a gifted, dedicated, skilled, and hopeful person who loves the arts and is trying to make a living in the field expresses similar issues. From the singer who questions the viability of an understudy contract that requires daytime rehearsals but doesn’t pay enough to cover bills, to the performer who balks at accepting a high-profile role because the company is notorious for disregarding vocal health, performing artists echo worries that if they say 'no' to any offer—even when it is a bad one or simply not the right one for them— they risk losing their professional identity.

Hearing these artists’ concerns, I am struck by the rather twisted definition of ‘a professional’ in the arts so many of them seem to share. Does the term really mean working for any amount of pay in any conditions just to keep working as so many of these artists indicate?  While it is true that one meaning of ‘professional’ is simply being paid for services, these artists’ desire to be recognized as a certain kind of artist (professional) indicates they mean something far more than just being paid. I think their concern for identity and professional status shows that they are in fact using the primary definition of ‘professional’, meaning “belonging to a profession”. [1]

These differences may seem pedantic or even confusing, but they are significant.  When we speak about being a profession, it is easy to make assumptions—about the nitty gritty details of our work, what to expect in our careers, and even how we define success or our own happiness. Thus, to my mind the turmoil surrounding ‘being a professional artist’ demonstrates that we are using the language of an arts profession without investigating its full implications or even addressing whether such a thing exists. I suspect we are conflating professionalism with the idea of a profession.

Although these terms appear synonymous, they are quite different. Professionalism can manifest in numerous ways: when an artist arrives on time at rehearsal with music and lines learned, is courteous and reliable, and takes feedback with grace—or at least doesn’t argue. An artist who acts with professionalism doesn’t talk during rehearsals and she doesn’t trash talk her cast mates because that is how artists expect each other to act. These practices and attitudes reflect the shared norms and values of our fellow artists. We could even say that we believe in behaving this way. Ultimately, professionalism is a set of behaviors and beliefs—it is an ideology.

On the other hand, a profession is defined by a specific set of qualities that reflect expertise, organization, status[2], social responsibilities, and a kind of reliable work. In the 21st century sense of the term, this means full-time employment[3], often with “high levels of personal or financial reward”[4],[5]. Therefore, since ‘professional’ means belonging to a profession, when a person uses the term, it is likely to bear the weight and carry the implications of each one of these elements. If one acts professionally, presumably they belong to a profession. No wonder these artists feel bad.

I am not convinced the performing arts are a profession—at least not across all aspects of the disciplines. Yet, I see signs that we are teaching that they are and doing so without properly investigating what a profession is and how it operates, which is causing unnecessary pain and hardship for artists across many levels of the field.

I think there is a different way to present the skills artists need to work in the arts over the course of their lifetime that better reflects our occupational and vocational fields, and the kind of lives people live. I propose that in place of teaching the arts as a profession, we should teach how to live a life in the arts with professionalism.

An arts profession?

By most standards, a profession is an “organized body of experts”[6] that serves a societal or cultural need and has both “technical and moral aspects”[7]. For example, to become a doctor, a person must study for years over the course of medical school, residencies, and internships, to acquire elite knowledge and skills, and then pass a challenging and regulated exam. Physicians have national associations and licensing bodies that certify expertise so that we know that when we need a doctor’s care, we can trust them to help us. The medical profession has an ethics code outlining the shared values and responsibilities physicians have to their patients, the public, and each other. When a physician is accused of wrongdoing, other doctors refer to this code along with their expertise to determine what has happened and what to do about it. This expertise justifies the social contract that the medical profession has with the public. Because medical knowledge is required to understand medical problems and we are not medical experts, we rely on doctors themselves to identify and address malpractice up to a certain point, and subsequently physicians have both the freedom and responsibility to self-regulate.

This list of characteristics encapsulates the common definition of a profession:

  • It requires rarified expertise that is usually gained through formal study and is considered to be societally valuable.
  • It has a national association.
  • It has some type of regulated licensure.
  • It has a code of ethics.
  • It is self-governing with responsibilities both to society and itself.

Even from a generous perspective, this definition does not line up with the performing arts. It is true that artists train for a long time often through formal study, we possess rarified expertise that has societal value, and some of us are even organized by kinds of associations or labor unions. Yet, these do not function in the same way legal associations and licensing bodies do[8]. Crucially, because artistic expertise does not involve the kinds of risks to human life that say medical, legal, and engineering expertise do, you do not need a license to sing an aria or guest star in a Dick Wolf production.

And although areas of the arts have ethics codes, they are not particularly referred to or frequently enforced in any legal way, nor do they all require higher standards than “required by morality and law”[9], which is a common feature of ethics codes in other fields.

Thinking all this over, you might say, ‘Well, the arts are nothing like medicine, so it makes sense that our professional elements are different.’ This is fair up to a point. But even if we agree the arts—or some specific area of them— are indeed a profession, ‘being different’ from other fields isn’t enough of a reason to excuse us from certain critical aspects of the professions, especially when we look more closely at, and consider the implications of, self-governance, finance, and career practices.

Typical careers and chaotic wages

It is hard for most people to imagine what it is like to be a professional outside of some prescribed path or common work experience because our society and institutions support that they are connected. In fact, one of the features of a profession is that it “has typical careers”. [10] For example, if you go to law school and pass the bar exam, you will likely find work at a firm or in a legal department of some kind and make a salary within the range of what attorneys are paid.

Yet, even those who follow a certain kind of prescribed, or typical path in the arts (Bachelors, Masters, Performance Diploma/DMA) are most likely still going to build their careers together piece by piece in a way that is unique to them, because most artists in the US work freelance contracts[11]. The lucky few will be able to secure the very best contracts, but even then, there is no guarantee that they will continue to be offered those contracts or others like them. The common adage that ‘every contract feels like it could be your last’ rings true for most artists, no matter how outwardly successful they seem. This lack of a certain kind of predictability contravenes a defining characteristic of a profession.

While it is true that schools and instructors, competitions, and young artist programs can help advance artists in some ways, there is still a great deal open to chance. An opera singer who attends Juilliard and the Lindemann Young Artist program is still not certain to have a non-stop (or any) performance career in the way that a top graduate of Harvard Law School would be offered good and reliably enduring jobs to work as a lawyer.[12] And while we could rightly say that chance is an element of every person’s career, the sheer number of well-paying jobs a performing artist needs to secure sustainable work significantly increases the risk factors. Even in the areas of the performing arts where people do follow some kind of prescribed path, there is no guarantee of a career at the end.  The performing arts are unreliable in a way standard professions are not.

Yet, many young artists (and their families) make incorrect assumptions about the kind of work life that awaits them because the common use of ‘professional’ implies full-time employment with a certain kind of constancy. Higher education in the arts reinforces this conception by aiming toward securing employment after graduation—a just concern. However, when programs use business language like the kind that appears in arts entrepreneurship curricula, it is easy for students to unwittingly borrow the mantle of other professional fields and come to expect more consistent and reliable work than is frequently possible. Furthermore, we cannot underestimate the impact our collective societal fascination with high earning potential has on what young artists imagine awaits them in the workforce.[13]

I often hear students share a post-graduation vision for themselves that indicates they will be welcomed into a profession of other artists in some way that doesn’t match up with current conditions. Beyond college students, I regularly speak with established artists who express feelings of personal or professional failure because they aren’t working in performance full time, despite their significant artistic achievements and creative output, and fulfilling personal lives. To be fair, some of these attitudes spring from an unsated desire to only perform, but artists do also reveal that they had assumed that working full-time as performers was more viable or sustainable than it is—even ones who attended programs with robust entrepreneurship and career-focused curricula.

The second, and perhaps most obvious challenge to the arts as a profession is pay. While some performing artists command very high fees, and others even enjoy the benefits of the top 1% of the population, many who are paid for their work do not earn livable wages, sometimes despite working for notable institutions and organizations in their area, and receiving the top rates paid by those employers. In addition, many contracts are short, lasting anywhere from one event to a few weeks or months, and pay is set or standardized such that increasing income over time is not always a possibility. Even when an artist works consecutive weeks, factors like cost of living, travel, artistic expenses (lessons, coaching, classes, agent’s fees), and high taxes make fixed rates with no possibility for raises or bonuses hard to overcome.

Most artists accept the reality that the performing arts have variable and highly irregular pay rates. However, the concept that we might be a profession creates a problem: because a profession is attached to status and social prominence, a ‘professional artist’ can quickly come to mean a ‘better’ or ‘more important’ one—and idea with seductive allure. For beyond wanting to be paid for doing what you love, who doesn’t also want to be important? I propose that the combination of these factors (status + irregular pay) creates a condition in which receiving any amount of pay for performance (no matter how varied) can be considered the mark not only of a professional artist, but also a better one.  I witness this mindset often, like when an arts teacher confesses they feel they can’t call themselves a ‘real artist’ because they haven’t been paid to perform in a while— despite making their living in the arts, or when an artist regards a $350 stipend as a verification of their legitimacy—a sign that they are ‘making it’.

To be clear, I am not saying that artists shouldn’t be paid and paid very well. I am instead pointing out that the idea of being a ‘professional’ is often called upon to amplify the perceived value of otherwise unacceptable pay. Performing artists are often presented with this rationale alongside low fees and are told versions of: “I wish we could pay more, but at least you're working”. I think this is one of the reasons artists feel pressured into taking poor-paying jobs and are so conflicted when they turn them down, and it is rooted in the concept that the arts are a profession.


Expertise and harm

Beyond finance and career irregularities, issues related to self-governance are hard to square. As I mentioned earlier, because people’s lives are not at stake, and we are not at risk of severely harming the public when we do art badly, we do not need to prove our ability to make music, act, and dance to a performing arts or government board for licensure. Now, this does not mean that the arts can’t or don’t have critical effects on people, or that people are not sometimes harmed emotionally or psychologically by creative work. But because the general public can recognize and understand significant elements of our expertise without help, society doesn’t require us to self-regulate as a group. If anything, we depend on the public to assess and help determine if our performances are effective or even transformative.

Despite this, many artists use the language of self-governance, and believe they have a right to it as artistic professionals, ignoring the limits of artistic expertise. For example, while it makes sense for a violin teacher to evaluate another violin teacher’s instrumental and artistic knowledge, no significant musical knowledge is needed to recognize if a colleague berates and demeans his students, threatens them, or uses psychologically or even physically harmful teaching tactics. I believe that given basic contextual information, most people can recognize when others commit these kinds of wrongs, with or without artistic expertise.

Yet, there are those in the arts who claim that those outside of the artistic fields don’t understand the creative process or professional creative disciplines, and because of that they cannot judge our practices. It should be left to us artists alone to determine if a line has been crossed. I think this is wrong. While we have unusual discipline-specific norms that require us to be physical with and more emotionally open to each other, neither our technical nor affective expertise gives us moral permission to harm each other, nor does it shield us from society’s assessment of blame when we have done serious wrong.

These topics are admittedly bleak. However, they are also the openly discussed concerns of a large number of devoted people working, teaching, and learning within the performing arts, just presented from a new perspective. Like most of you, I believe that creative and artistic projects are some of the most rewarding and meaningful things we can do in our time on earth—they are essential to a good life. But I am worried by the number of performing artists who struggle in ways I think we can prevent. An answer to these problems lies in a new approach to our fields: while the performing arts have professional aspects and they are a meaningful occupation and can even be a calling, they are not a profession. Establishing such a distinction is the first step in making essential and consequential changes to artists’ lives.

What’s next?

So, how do we make these changes? To start, we should be much more specific when we discuss being ‘professional’ with the next generation of artists. We should be clear that we are teaching skills, discipline-specific norms, and best practices, but we should not imply that these are reliably direct routes to full-time work in the performing arts.

Beyond this, we should be explicit with students (both in school and studying privately) and each other about the ways we think we are and are not a profession. This may be difficult to do because these discussions demand an honest discourse that we may not always want to have, but these kinds of truthful investigations offer opportunities to innovate and prepare as much as they present pathways to reflect and even heal. Additionally, we should not wait until students are in their final year of school (irrespective of level of study) to introduce the complicated idea and sometimes painful truth that a person can both act with professionalism and be an artist, and not be actively employed in the arts. This is the way for many of us, and it can be a very good, and yes, even financially stable, life.

Second, beyond teaching a more robust range of career skills (good and varied writing styles, networking, marketing and communications, project management, budgeting, etc.), we should present the many kinds of jobs an artist does over the course of her lifetime from a more holistic perspective than we currently do. For example, we should engage in conversations about the lived experience of artists, from the actor who does court reporting and the musician who works in tech, to the small business owner who gigs with a band at night and plays church services on Sunday mornings. We should be willing to discuss how these artists manage schedules, savings accounts, friendships, and family obligations, and we should be aware of the many costs involved (how time-consuming certain work is, cost of living in the major arts regions, good and bad pay rates, etc.) and account for them in these exercises.

Beyond teaching technical skills and providing students with polished audition techniques, showcase material and audition packages, we should encourage them to think about their artistic work within the context of their lives. Asking questions like: “Are you excited by starting life somewhere new with few connections, or do you thrive with the comforts of your support network/ family close by?”, “Do you have a dedicated practice space outside of school?”, and “Do you want to be able to take a vacation?” may seem overly simple, but they present the opportunity to have open-ended discussions about quality of life that impact careers and artistry, and are usually overlooked. These types of questions can be particularly useful to ‘first generation artists’—or students who are the first artists in their families— and are therefore especially in need of mentorship and truthful guidance.

We would also do better to integrate ethics into our teaching in an accessible way. Specifically, we should present students with the everyday hard choices we make as artists and ask them to think about them on their own terms. (What job should I choose? Should I go to this audition? How do I know how to identify the better choice when both opportunities seem similar?) These deliberations will require them to rely on their values, who they are, and what they want, and such exercises will reinforce the idea that the life of an artist is one of constant choices between a variety of options, not a predictable course toward a specific end.

But most of all, I think we need to impress on students that while the arts may not be a profession in the traditional sense, or perhaps any sense at all, this does not mean that we are not an engaged and supportive community of people dedicated to a hopeful or meaningful purpose, or that we do not have successful and fulfilling careers in the arts—quite the opposite. If we want to teach young artists to flourish, this should be our goal—not to prepare for a profession that exists in the imaginations of hopeful students or the memories of nostalgic teachers, but rather to build a sustainable way of life that supports the ebb and flow of creative work, and prosperity and stagnation most artists experience over and over again. Hopefully then, artists won’t question their legitimacy as artists when they aren’t being paid to perform.

[1] Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004, s.v. “professional”

[2] Brint, Steven. 1994. In an Age of Experts: The Changing Role of Professionals in Politics and Public Life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 23, 26.

[3] Abbott, Andrew. 1988. The System of Professions: An Essay on the Division of Expert Labor. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 10

[4] Cowton, Christopher. 2007. "Meeting the Ethics Challenge: Prospects and Proposals for Promoting Professional Integrity." The P.D. Lecture Chartered Accountants' Hall. 1-15.

[5] Traditional examples being medicine, law, and accounting.

[6]  Carr-Saunders, Alexander Morris, and P.A. Wilson. 1933. The Professions. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[7] Brint, 7.

[8] These elements reinforce that “to belong to a profession is a legal status” Burns, Edgar A. 2019. Theorising Professions: A Sociological Introduction. Cham: Palgrave MacMillan. 49.

[9] Cowton

[10] Abbott, 129

[11] While it is true that many top tier orchestral musicians have very good-paying yearly contracts, and some elite soloists make so much they worry less than the rest, they represent a small enough percentage of performing artists that I consider them to be outliers, not the norm. Yet, even with steady work and high pay, these artists still don’t meet all of the requirements of a profession, which I discuss in the section on self-governance.

[12]This is, of course not guaranteed, as in the case of Elle Woods’ ex-boyfriend in Legally Blonde (2001). However, while it is true that “Warner graduated without honors, without a girlfriend, and without any job offers”, he is both the exception that proves the rule and also not a real person.

[13] There is some evidence students across fields are overshooting the mark in this regard. Recently surveyed seniors expected to secure starting salaries near $104k—nearly twice the national average—which indicates young people are misperceiving the job market. I think it is foolish to assume that artists are somehow immune to this kind of thinking. (Thier, Jane. 2022. "This year’s college grads think they’ll earn over $100,000 from their first job. In reality, they’ll make half as much.") Fortune, April 27.



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