03/20/2012 07:02 pm ET Updated May 20, 2012

Art School Seniors Need to Start Looking Ahead

What do fine artists do when they graduate art school? Teach? Sell their art? Win state and federal grants and fellowships? Dream of better things while working in a company's mail room?

Certainly, they can keep each other company since there are so many of them. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics of the U.S. Department of Education, more than 59,000 college students were awarded studio art degrees in 2009, the most recently surveyed year. It is unlikely that the art market expanded to accommodate and support this throng. It is even less likely that many, if any, of these graduates found teaching positions, since (according to the College Art Association) schools in the market for experienced artist-teachers received, on the average, 110 applications for every job opening.

What degree-holding art students do right after completing school is not documented, but there are certain recommendations for first steps after graduation.

In effect, there are two not-necessarily-related problems for the recent graduate: The first is to get a job, a place to live and health insurance, and the second is to begin building a track record of exhibitions and eventual sales. The problem is, the process of working at a job often takes artists away from their art, sometimes permanently.

In terms of a job, art school graduates need to conduct a skills assessment for themselves, to see what they are able to do and try to find a job in it. In some instances, the work artists find has little relationship to their art interests. For instance, the first job out of art school for Dan Poncholar, the long-time director of the Art Information Center in New York City, was as a janitor "because there were no illustration jobs." Eventually, he began to find work as a sign painter and a display artist, later teaching courses to students at art schools.

While non art-related jobs may not impinge on an artist's personal work, they do take time, energy and commitment if the job will be a long-term one. Can the belief in oneself as an artist first and something else second last indefinitely? "Based on what I've seen," said Susan Joy Sager, an artists' adviser in Clinton, Maine, "five years after graduating art school, most people are not doing their art anymore."

A job that does not somehow refer to one's art training may lead artists away from art permanently. One hears people say, "I'm going to take 10 years and make some money so that I can be an artist." The problem is, the further and further away they get from their art, the more likely they will feel out-of-it or too old and not have faith in themselves to want to start again.

One method of earning money in a setting that reflects one's art background is by working as an artist's assistant or apprentice. This work may involve everything from making coffee and mundane telephone calls to helping in the fabrication of major pieces. Certainly, starting-out artists are likely to see how an established artist operates both as a creator and a businessperson. This kind of relatively low-paying job, which may be obtained either by asking an art dealer about artists who might need an assistant or by contacting an artist directly, introduce young artists to collectors, critics, curators and dealers who may be of use to them in later years.

Recent graduates might also consider working in an art gallery, in order that they can see what the public likes.

Jobs related or unrelated to art may lead artists away from their own work unless they stay in contact with other artists and the art world in general. Susan Joy Sager recommended that they join a local, state or national artists' club or society or association, which builds a network with others. Many of these groups also send out newsletters, providing information on exhibition opportunities and other artist news. Subscribing to an arts magazine, teaching art at a local arts center on weekends, and even taking a class through the local adult education program ("They don't cost much, and you get to use expensive equipment," she noted) also helps keep one involved. "Another idea is to move into an artists' studio building," Sager said, "which is a built-in community of artists. Even if you have a paycheck job, you still have art-making going on around you, and that tends to push people to keep doing their own artwork. Otherwise, it can be very hard to work alone in your apartment."