The ‘double jobbers’ making a living while working in the arts
The artist: Debbie Lawson
I work two or three days a week sub-editing, so for most of the week I’m in my studio, visiting shows or doing art-related stuff at home. I’m making reasonably good money but it’s not enough to live as I would like to. I probably could get by as an artist, but I wouldn’t be able to go on holiday or live in a nice flat. There are artists who are willing to give up every single luxury. I’m not prepared to live in a bedsit and work in a freezing cold studio. Most of my artist friends have a “bread-and-butter” job. I’m quite lucky to have a good job that I am proud of and which I find stimulating. I don’t have to work too many days – other artists have to spend a lot of time working in bars, waitressing or teaching. My part-time job doesn’t get in the way and is in fact quite good for grounding me. I can spend a lot of time in the studio flailing around and thinking and not doing a lot. If you have less time, you tend to use it more constructively.
The best thing to do is to diversify, which is what I like to do. You can make money from art through commissions; that way you have the creative freedom to do anything, within reason, and get paid for your time while also moving your practice on. I was commissioned by the Contemporary Art Society to make a sculpture for the Economist Plaza about three years ago, and I made two large pieces for the Bethnal Green old town hall commission.
I regularly sell work too. When I graduated from the Royal College of Art I sold two pieces to the Saatchi collection and I also had a call from Mario Testino‘s people wanting to buy the same work. About six months ago, I sold a large piece to the House of Lords Collection, but my gallery took 50%. If a gallery is taking 50% they should work hard for you, otherwise you might as well go it alone. I think the internet has made galleries slightly nervous. You can make it on your own without a gallery.
The recession hasn’t affected me much – in fact, the past few years have been pretty good. Having said that, I had my first solo show in London the same week that Lehman Brothers went under in 2008, so it wasn’t great timing, but things picked up just after that. Anyway, I’m told that the sort of people who collect art haven’t really noticed the recession.
There is still Arts Council funding for individual artists. I applied to the British Council for funding towards a solo show I was invited to do in Norway, thinking nothing would come of it, and they gave me some money for shipping, which was really helpful, because it is usually the biggest expense. I was also funded to be part of the Nine Trades of Dundee, which was a show specifically about artists with other jobs.
There are always loads of loose ends from my art work – it can get a bit frantic. Sometimes it’s not that easy to slide out of being an artist into a day job: you often have to travel and people want to come to your studio during office hours. Most reasonably well-known artists in this country do other work; they just don’t like to publicly admit it. A lot of them are teachers or technicians, photographers or assistants to other artists, but I also know artists who are PRs, hairdressers and bin men.
The playwright: Archie Maddocks
My play is being put on at the Orange Tree theatre in Richmond. It’s my first play, about the riots last year and the spread of fear. I sold it in November, and since then I’ve had other jobs and have signed on to make ends meet. You can sign on because they don’t take your writing as a monthly income – they look at it in terms of how many hours you’ve worked, which is very difficult to calculate. My play took me about three weeks to write. At the moment I’m signing on, but they know I have a part-time job as a steward at Wembley Stadium – security work, basically. I am also a pallbearer and a funeral driver; it was a bit strange the first few times, but it might even provide inspiration for another play. I get to meet a multitude of different people through the security work, which is very important for a writer.
At the moment I’ve been able to spend two days a week writing, and I’m fully focused on those days. But if I was working full time it would be very difficult to come home afterwards and write for three hours.
I thought it best that I obtain a degree, so that I had something to fall back on in case the arts didn’t work – my dad’s an actor, so I know how sporadic the earnings can be. Dad [Don Warrington, best known as Philip in Rising Damp] didn’t really want me to go into the arts, but when I decided to he supported it fully – though he did encourage me to do other things.
I’m going to learn how to act, so I can be in my own plays – I’ve been taking classes. But if this doesn’t work I had thought about setting up a theatre company in communities that wouldn’t necessarily “get” theatre; I think it’s a good medium to have, but it can be quite intimidating if you’re not from that world. And if that doesn’t work then I’m not too sure what happens next. In my dreaming world I hope to continue to work in the arts and make a successful life out of it, but in reality, if I’ve been doing this for five or 10 years and I’ve got nothing at all, there will come a time when I’ll have to say “This isn’t working…” and put it on the back burner and find something else.
The novelist: Evie Wyld
There are two very different stages to my career. There is the time before I was published, when I was working as a promo girl in Boots and in PC World on London’s Old Kent Road – before you get a foot in the door, you’re out on your own. I demonstrated printers and did leafleting and told people about foundation – it was very exciting! I was also one of those people who hand out samples of revolting yoghurt at the tube. If you tap most of those people on the shoulder they’re either actors, musicians or writers. Then, once my first book – After the Fire a Still Small Voice – was published, more avenues opened up. I’ve just been away with the British Council to Istanbul; you get paid for doing really lovely jobs like that, and talking to people in universities. There are also literary consultancies, such as TLC and Cornerstone, where they’ll send you unpublished manuscripts and you write a report on them. A lot of work goes into that, but it’s a way of freelancing in the same area. And I get asked to write articles too. I also work in a bookshop, but that’s not really a money-making venture, it’s basically a discount on books and a bit of beer money. It’s: it’s good for the profile of a writer to be working in a bookshop and it’s something I enjoy.
I don’t have any dependants, so it’s not as though if I run out of money I won’t be able to feed them. It’s less stressful for me than for a lot of people. It’s such a nice life being a writer – and I feel a bit strange about the idea of making demands that someone should pay for me to do this, as great as that would be. You four years now. It’s possible, but I can’t imagine how I would fund my life if I were to have kids. If I have to I’ll go back to office temping, but there’s nothing that I can do to a satisfactory level apart from writing. I just need to make the money so that I can do this.
My agent and other writers have told me that if I’d sold my book two years earlier, I might have made a lot of money, but everything is slowly sinking into the gutter. Still, I’m existing, and doing what I want to do, and it hasn’t been too stressful. And you get to do a lot of stuff that counts as holiday, such as going to different countries … you’re not living a boxed-in life.
I’m pleased I never got a credit card, because I can’t imagine having that freedom when you’re feeling really broke and a bit down about it, which does happen when you see friends buying a house or going on exotic holidays. But I’ve done 9-5 slogging and I can’t imagine doing it again. I’m just ignoring it, basically!
The actor: Rhys Jennings
I’m not earning a living from the arts yet, but I have many friends and peers who are doing nothing but acting, and that gives me hope. Still, 75% of us have to do something else. I have friends who’ve done waitressing, or worked in call centres, as I’ve done. Generally, actors tend to be quite skilled anyway. They’re willing to try anything, so you find them in all sorts of jobs. I wouldn’t say it’s holding me back: ideally, I’d like to go from one job to the next, but that’s not how the industry works, especially if you’re just starting out – it’s all about who knows who, and there’s a whole lot of luck involved. There are a lucky few who go from one job to the next, but that’s not the case with most, and you can’t just sit at home waiting for the phone to ring.
I’ve worked for RSVP [a call centre], and it’s pretty much a roomful of actors. We’re all giving it our all, but it’s not really where we want to be. But it’s a really nice environment, everyone is in the same boat, swapping stories about auditions. It’s run with the purpose of giving actors something to do between jobs, so they’re very lenient about swapping shifts. They like actors and how we are on the phone. I’ve done a lot of promotional work , being sponsored by big companies to stand on the street and sell you something. Some are OK, but when you do it for a massive corporate entity that you don’t necessarily agree with you start feeling a bit like a prostitute.
My last big job, The Rivals was with the Bath Theatre Royal. It had a West End transfer, and that ended last year, around March. I’ve only just got my next big job, with the Hull Truck Theatre, but in the meantime I’ve got a part in a play at the Edinburgh festival, called The Night Porters.
There are dark moments when you have seven months of not much at all, and you think “Why am I trying to push treacle up a hill?” I’m not sure most actors have a plan B, but most actors’ mums and dads do. It’s good to remember how to do other stuff – it’s always going to be handy to know how to type. The arts cuts have been difficult, but as I’m so new it’s not affected me as much as actors who’ve been doing it for a while. They talk about how different it is now, and how hard it is. However, I do think that there are too many actors being pushed out into this world. It’s an oversubscribed industry. A lot of drama schools are creating new courses, and you think: actually, you need to be refining how many actors you put out there, rather than trying to get enough money to fund yourself.
The writer: Stuart Evers
I’m a communications manager at a telephone and IT company during the day. I put together all the marketing communications for the company, so everything from press releases to brochures to adverts – essentially a copywriting role. So I write my novels in the evenings and at lunchtime. I also do freelance reviewing, and one thing that’s abundantly clear as the books pile up to review is that nobody needs another book in this world.
I’d love to not have to work, but I have worked in publishing and bookselling, so I am realistic about the kind of money you can make. The perception is that you get a deal, and an advance, and you can leave the world of work – and it’s not true. It’s probably for the best; perhaps when people start out writing they shouldn’t be sat at home only being engaged with themselves and their immediate surroundings. At work you interact with people from a wide range of cultures, classes, ethnicity – it does give you a different perception of where you live, and people’s outlooks, and it is a great source of material.
There is definitely a sort of advance deflation, if you like, and there have always been people who’ve commanded large advances and others who’ve bubbled under. It’s more difficult now: there’s never enough money around, there’s always someone earning a ridiculous amount of money, and you do think, “Why aren’t I getting that attention?”, which can be frustrating. The stuff I write could find a large audience and I could become a full-time writer, but that would almost be like winning the Lottery – your odds are a bit shorter with a book, but not massively.
I don’t think it’s a God-given right that just because you are a writer, or an artist or musician, you can decide that’s your job. OK that’s fine but – you’re not going to have the lifestyle that some of your friends have. You’ll have your art, but it’s unrealistic to expect that to sustain you. The full-time writers I know have got there through a combination of being very, very good and by doing things other than their primary career.
When people ask what I do, I tell them I’m a writer. I do fudge it a little … but at what point do you become a writer? Is it from the date of publication of your first book? Having things published on websites? Or do you actually have to write full time? I write all day long, but not fiction.
One of the problems of working full time is that holidays are not holidays: they’re hampered by the laptop in the room, and the feeling that this is time you’re wasting. And the job that pays the bills has to come first, obviously. At the same time, as soon as you get a bit of spare time you think you really ought to be writing.I have to put in the hours now if I’m ever going to make a living from writing. It can be very difficult, especially if you don’t have a book deal. You could be wasting three, four, five years of your life with nothing to show for it. I spent five years on my first novel, which will never be published. It’s not a waste of time, but it was a long commitment.
I don’t feel I’m less of a writer because I have a day job, and there are advantages to it. Has it held me back? I don’t think so, but I have to be rigorously disciplined. If I’m writing at lunchtime that’s an hour, then I go on to my work writing, which can be frustrating. If anything, work makes me realise that what I do outside of work is tremendously important to me. It makes the writing all the more enjoyable. It’s a kind of compulsion. My worst job? The tropical fish shop was a bit weird – I kept killing the fish by accident. They’d jump out when I fed them in the morning and I’d end up treading on them.