From writing to photography: six ways to build a portfolio career in the arts

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It can be hard graft building a portfolio career in the arts. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

When pitching freelance articles, choose a unique angle

When pitching for freelance work there is no set of rules, says Dany Louise, who writes about the visual arts and cultural policy. “If the story is of interest it will usually be commissioned, but pitching the right story is the real skill.”

“If you haven’t got the right angle, then no amount of pitching will result in an article being picked up,” says Katy Cowan, managing director of Boomerang. “So, write a story that no one else could write. Find a unique angle and go for it.”

You also need to do your research. “The best way to get your pitch read and considered is to really have a feel for the publication,” adds Clare Whitmell, Guardian writer and qualified career coach.

In photography, knock on doors with your portfolio

There are many ways to get people to see your work, says David Locke, an independent photographer and co-owner of Headshot London. “But the best way is to have a good online presence with an up-to-date portfolio and then start knocking on doors.”

Likewise, it’s important to choose a different photo selection for each client. “You should identify who you want to approach, and then tailor your portfolio to that specific person or company,” adds Cowan.

Only accept unpaid work if it has a direct benefit to your career

Unpaid work at the beginning of your career can be prolific in the arts. “Make sure if you are doing something for free it’s a win-win for you both,” says arts expert Mar Dixon. “If not, also provide a fee when they offer you free work.”

Similarly, arts journalist Eleanor Turney admits she did some writing for free when starting out. “But in general I’m very much of the opinion that you should hold out for pay.”

Though writing for free may be worth it if it helps buff up your portfolio. “It’s useful to have a portfolio to show an editor, so at first it might be worth choosing a couple of pieces to write for free.”

Don’t rely on freelancing websites to pick up work

“Freelancing websites are often a race to the bottom in terms of fees,” says Pete O’Hara, director of Creativity Culture and Education and accountant.

There are rules to follow when using these sites, adds museums and libraries consultant, Laura Crossley. “First, your fee has to cover everything – insurance, pension etc. Second, remember it’s more worthwhile to build the career you want and that satisfies you rather than taking odd jobs.”

Susan Jones, a writer and consultant on contemporary visual art, says freelancing websites can provide a good “ticking over” income in less busy periods. “But explore other avenues – don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” she adds.

Collaborate with other professions to build your reputation as an artist

Exhibitions are valuable for budding artists says Laura Palmer, freelance photographer and filmmaker. “There are so many opportunities, so get entering them. I was dubious at first, but after entering Fresh Faced + Wild Eyed hosted by The Photographers Gallery, I picked up work from a variety of brands straight out of university.”

However, it can take a long time to build a reputation, says artist Rob Turner. “It must be something you truly believe in as there will be knock backs. Make as many opportunities to work for you as you can – tie in with other peoples skills in collaborative teams across disciplines.”

“For artists its all about reaching people,” agrees Rachel Nelken, founder of ArtsTrain. First, create an online presence so that people can find your work. Then get out to events – meet people and direct them to where they can find it. “It’s about grabbing any opportunity you can and finding contexts to build that audience and interest in your work – then the offers will come.”

Learn to manage your own finances

In a portfolio career, managing your finances can be a difficult but crucial part of the job. “The first thing you will need to do is to ascertain if you should be self employed or maybe even a limited company. An accountant will also help you set you up with HMRC,” says Alex Dyer, managing partner of Theataccounts.

It’s also important to be organised. “Keep receipts for freelance expenses, record travel (including mileage) to clients or to pitch for work is also crucial,” adds O’Hara.

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