Starting out as an artist

What first steps should an artist take when starting out in their career?

This article suggests some things to do like:

  • Build connections and networks
  • Get exhibitions
  • Understand the art world
  • Get more professional

For more information read our Primer ebook / Primer PDF for advice to new artists.

Listen to Michael Cubey of Bow Arts Trust about the first things that artists starting out can do.

Subscribe to email newsletters

Most arts organisations have an email mailing list you can subscribe to for free. These will tell you what projects and opportunities they are workign on and how you can get involved. A good way to build a professional network is to go to arts events and exhibition openings. These often happen in the early evenings. They can be hard for people with caring responsibilities to get to.

You can listen to artist Melanie Stidolph talk about the importance of networks for artists.

Some recommended newsletters are:

Promote yourself

It’s important to find a way to promote yourself and your work that suits you. Many artists use email newsletters or social networks to promote their work. Many also have simple business cards to give people they meet.

Listen to Artquest’s Nick Kaplony talk about different promotional tools for artists.

Email newsletters

You cannot add everyone you know to an email newsletter without their permission. This is illegal because of the General Data Privacy Regulations (GDPR) law. People have to consent to being on your mailing list.

There are lots of free email mailing list services. These will let people to subscribe and leave your newsletter themselves. Some examples are:

Set up a mailing list and then invite people to join it. If you have an exhibition you could have a sign-up book or a laptop / tablet with internet access for people to sign up.

Social networks

Although many artists use social networks, some artists do not like to use them. Only use social networks if it suits you and you can keep them updated. An empty social network profile looks like you’re not doing anything, and it’s better to remove it. It’s a good idea to keep your personal and professional social networks separate.

Artists tell us that Instagram is their most popular social network. Use hashtags to connect with other artists, galleries, curators, and buyers.

Business cards

They may feel out of date in a digital world but a good business card is still recommended. If you meet someone in person, business cards let you give your details even if your phone battery has run out. You can make them yourself by getting a rubber stamp made to print your contact details on anything. Or you can use a cheap printer like 123print, Instaprint, Trade Print or Urban Design and Print.

See our Mailing List and Social Networks article for more information.

Get a website

With the popularity of social networks some artists are choosing not to have a website. It’s better to have an online presence that suits you. If you prefer, only have a social network or a website. If you know you will have time to keep everything updated, you might have both.

If a buyer or gallery hears about your work they will search for you online first. However you want to be online, make sure it’s easy for people to get in touch with you.

Do some research

Think about the kind of work that you want to make. There are lots of different opportunities for artists including:

  • Exhibitions in galleries
  • Artist residencies
  • Commmissions
  • Selling work
  • Socially engaged practice
  • Community and education work

Take some time to think about what type of opportunities would work for your art and your life. Some kinds of art will not be suitable for exhibitions. Some artists prefer to work with people more than being in a studio. There are also a lot of different types of galleries that show different kinds of art. Start to research galleries and other opportunities to find out:

  • Which galleries accept applications from artists. Most galleries do not. If you send applications to galleries who do not accept them, you will be wasting valuable time.
  • What galleries show the kind of work that you make. Look for galleries that specialise in showing work using the same media you use.
  • Think about the other responsibilities in your life. Artists with significant caring responsibilities often can’t go on artist residencies, for example.

Invite a few gallery directors and curators who interest you on to your mailing list. You can also connect with them on social networks.

Learn about your rights

Artists should have a basic understanding of some parts of the law that affects them. Understanding the law means that:

  • You will get paid on time
  • You will know what to do if someone uses your work without your permission
  • You can make agreements about your work and sales
  • People will see you take yourself seriously as an artist

Artlaw is Artquest’s free online legal service. It has hundreds of articles written by art lawyer Henry Lydiate since 1976. Henry is one of the UK’s most important art legal specialists. They all focus on the law and artists. The main things that artists ask us about at Artquest are:

  • What copyright is and why it is important. Copyright law protects your work and tells you how you can use other sources in your work.
  • How to make contracts for work. A contract is a document that records what you have agreed with someone. It will record your fee and when you will get paid, and the details of what you will do. You don’t need a legal specialist to make one for you. Most of the questions artists ask us are about problems people have because they did not get a contract. Never work without one.
  • Artists in England and Wales can ask us questions about their work and the law for free.

You can listen to Aaron Wood of arts law firm Briffa talk more about your rights as an artist.

Decide if you need a studio

Around half of artists who contact us do not have a studio. Some artists have a space at home where they work. Some artists use specialist materials and get other people to make their work for them. Some artists make small work that they can make in their homes. A studio can be a place where artists think and plan more than making work. Although having a studio has a strong emotional meaning for an artist, it also comes with a cost. You can rent some studios can short term. Consider if you need a studio, or if you can work in a different way.

If you decide you need a studio in London you will have to join a waiting list. Waiting lists for subsidised studios are up to 2 years long, often more. Many artists keep their studio for a long time and very few few studios are being built.

Artists Studio Finder will show you vacant subsidised studios for rent. Artquest mostly works in London so we don’t have much information on studio providers elsewhere. Some large London studio providers include:

Register as self employed with the tax office

Most artists work in a mix of jobs and self employment. Self employment is also called working ‘freelance’. Self employment means that you work for yourself. You can work in different short-term projects with employers. When you work your employer won’t take income tax from your pay. This means that every year you need to report to the tax office:

  • How much you have earned
  • How much you had to spend on your business.

The difference in these numbers is your profit. You need to pay income tax on the profit of your self employment work.

Sometimes you will spend more on your business than you earned through freelance work. This means you will make a loss on your business. This might be because you used some of your earnings from another job to subsidise your art practice.

You need to keep accurate records of what work you have done and how much money you have earned. You also need to keep records of the money you spend on your business.

For an artist this includes things like:

  • Studio costs, which might be a proportion of your rent if you have a studio space at home
  • Utilities costs, which might be a proportion of your home utility bills if you work from home
  • Materials costs
  • Specialist equipment costs
  • The cost of professional services, like a lawyer or an accountant
  • Books and magazines related to your work that you need to buy
  • Professional memberships related to your work

Becoming self-employed means that you can get paid. You can only legally work freelance if you register as self employed.

Exhibit your work

There are an estimated 35,000 artists in the UK. About 10% of the artists who use Artquest did not attend art school. There are thousands of art galleries and each one shows slightly different work. It is normal to take a long time to get an exhibition.

As an artist at the start of your career you are more likely to exhibit in group exhibitions. A group exhibition shows the work of many different artists together. Generally a curator who thinks there is a connection between the artists or their work will organise the show. Group exhibitions are a good way for people to hear about your work when you are earlier in your career. But artists take part in group exhibitions at all stages in their career.

Bloomberg New Contemporaries 2020, installation view at the South London Gallery. Photo: Andy Stagg

Bloomberg New Contemporaries 2020, installation view at the South London Gallery. Photo: Andy Stagg

An exhibition that only includes your work is a ‘solo exhibition’. Solo exhibitions need a lot of art work to fill the gallery. A solo exhibition will not include all the art you have made, so you need to have enough to make a choice of what to show. If you are at the start of your career you may not have enough art to choose from. Galleries will usually select more established artists for solo exhibitions. More people will have heard of them and want to visit the show.

Many artists at the start of their career organise exhibitions themselves. This can be a good way to get a first exhibition but it can take a lot of work. Ask other artists you know if they will help organise a group exhibition with you.

Listen to artist, mentor and curator Rosalind Davis talk about showing your work.


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