Navigating the next step after an arts education can sometimes feel like an uncharted ocean: filled with a sense of exploration but never knowing where the heck you’re going. You see so many others who have gone before you, all leaving from the same starting point but the maps they’ve drawn up are completely useless when applied to your own journey. In the creative industry, there often isn’t a simple A to B set of instructions but there’s also no wrong route – there’s only the one that’s right for you. With that in mind, I’ve provided some suggestions based on my own experience (and the experience of others with far more wisdom than myself) in order to reassure anyone soon to sail into the unknown.
DO have an art detox
For your sanity alone, taking a break is extremely important. When deadlines are out the way and the degree show has come down, it will almost certainly feel alien to be relieved of the pressure of those goals. For me, it felt like I was just beginning to get to grips with my own practice at the very moment I had to leave. With all the momentum I’d gathered, why would I slow down now when it seemed like I was really making a breakthrough? For practical reasons that will likely affect most art graduates, (like loss of studio space, relocating and time constraints) I couldn’t continue making work and it was deeply frustrating. However, I also know that had I tried to continue at the pre-degree show pace, it would only have been a matter of time before I burnt out with mental (and physical) exhaustion. Taking a rest and stepping back to assess where you’re headed doesn’t mean you aren’t going to continue to be an artist – it actually allows space for you to process your work and ideas. If you intend on investing yourself in your art practice in the long run, remember that it is exactly that – a long run.
DON’T get discouraged
Much easier said than done. The key here is to remember the point I already made about taking a break (you should be taking a break) which might mean stopping yourself from ‘panic applying.’ When the end is nigh, you will begin seriously Googling all the opportunities out there. At first, I was strictly checking arts jobs listings with an optimistic inner monologue – ‘Yes, perhaps I could do some curation for the Tate Britain. Such a shame it’s only part time though.’ It wasn’t long until I’d been turned down by countless employers and was furiously vacancy hunting on any job website I could find, praying to the gods that I wouldn’t have to go back to Costa. ‘Don’t apply to MI5 because you’re probably not quite right for the job,’ were the words of personal experience an older graduate friend gave me after I’d asked if she had any advice to contribute. Whether it’s a retail job, an exhibition proposal or a residency application, everyone will face being rejected at one point or another. A lot of creative opportunities will be looking for candidates whose work has had some time to mature, so don’t feel pressured to immediately apply to every residency programme you hear about. Most importantly, don’t lose heart if you do get knocked back and don’t give up – maybe you aren’t what MI5 are looking for but you are still a talented, capable and creative person.
DO go somewhere new
I’m not talking about a soul-searching trip through the depths of India (unless that’s what you had planned) but simply going somewhere different. It’s very possible that the only places you will have seen in your final weeks are the studio, the library and the view of the ceiling from your bed. Take a trip to somewhere you’ve postponed visiting because your schedule’s been too packed for fun excursions. And don’t feel guilty when that trip probably isn’t to a gallery.
DON’T forget about your uni mates
The phrase ‘it’s who you know, not what you know’ is never more true than when said within the creative industry. The people you meet through your course are all part of your creative network – relationships with peers, colleagues, university staff and local art spaces are all connections you can maintain after graduation. You won’t know the importance of having a support system of creative thinkers around you until you fly the educational nest (and realise no one else understands your arty dialogue). Even if you find yourself in a different part of the country, keep talking to the people who encourage you and who you can bounce ideas around with – you never know when it might spark a collaborative project or lead you to an opportunity you wouldn’t have heard about otherwise.
DO remember what you’re passionate about
The reality is that not everyone who studies art will be – or wants to be – an artist. You’ll have learnt a lot about what your strengths are while at art school because you’ll likely have had a go at just about everything. Just after emerging from the haze of your final year is the perfect time to take stock of all the skills you do have and think about what you really want to do with them. It’s easy to get caught up in all the things you’ve had to do and lose sight of the things you want to do. Maybe you love writing; maybe you discovered how good you were at organising events; maybe you were much more interested in the musical theatre performances you were doing outside of your studies. When you feel you need to open up your art practice again, read through your artist statement and remind yourself what your core concepts are. Give yourself as much time as possible to refocus – you’ll discover what your talents are as you go.
DON’T worry about not knowing
See this next frame of time as an opportunity to take risks and find out what you love. If you haven’t already had a torrent of people ask you what your after university plans are then get ready for an onslaught of insatiably interested friends, parents, distant relatives, old school mates and even complete strangers. If you do know what’s next for you, that’s awesome. And if you don’t feel you do, then you’ve got an exciting time ahead. The important part is that you keep engaged with what you enjoy and you start to make your own map.