Building a portfolio career

,  3 April 2012

Developing a portfolio career can provide a way to structure your work and maintain a steady income. Three visual artists describe the range of jobs they undertake to support their creative careers.

Sally Booth is a visual artist specialising in drawing and painting. Photo by: Tim Norris
Sally Booth is a visual artist specialising in drawing and painting. Photo by: Tim Norris

Richard Stone produces his conceptual art whilst working for a charity. Alice O’Hanlon continues her own fine art practice alongside working in museum and gallery archives. Sally Booth combines running community and education programmes with drawing and painting residencies.

What is portfolio working?

Portfolio working combines different work styles. For example, mixing self-employed jobs with short-term contracts, part-time or project work.

Many of those working in the creative and cultural industries adopt portfolio work styles for flexibility, creative freedom or to enable them to develop and use a range of different skills.

Individuals, particularly in the visual arts, where money is scarce, may develop portfolio careers in order to receive an income from different sources to reduce financial risk.

Choosing a portfolio career

Richard Stone is a multidisciplinary artist whose practice includes painting, sculpture and site-specific works.

“Portfolio working is hard, can be frustrating and requires a lot of discipline and energy but can be equally rewarding."

These have been selected for many exhibitions and prizes including the prestigious 2011 Threadneedle Prize. A selection of his works will appear in a new book by Michael Petry, to be published by Thames & Hudson in 2013.

Since completing his MA in Fine Art at Central Saint Martins in 2000, Richard has built an increasingly-active art practice, initially supported by temporary and fixed term contracts.

His contracts have covered media, PR, events and brand development for the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and Cabinet Office as well as administrative roles for BT.   

“Portfolio working is hard, can be frustrating and requires a lot of discipline and energy. But can be equally rewarding, utilising a multiple skill set and working with many different people, often artists or other creatives.”

Developing transferable skills

Richard has taken a pragmatic approach to building and maintaining two careers. He has focused on communications as a career choice.

He's developed and applied his transferable skills across his portfolio, taking shorter strategic breaks to complete art projects with a view to working part-time in the near future.

A communications career has enhanced Richard’s skill set as an artist:

  • securing positive media and PR for exhibitions
  • writing proposals
  • managing logistics
  • providing a budget for ambitious installation work or curatorial projects.

He has been able to apply his creative perspective to his communications career equally. This involves devising new strategies and innovative projects that incorporate less traditional and more creative approaches to engaging stakeholders through new brand, media and engagement strategies.

Using existing skills for a portfolio career

Sally Booth is a visual artist specialising in drawing and painting. She was an Arts Development Manager at Shape, setting up accessible arts programmes for disabled artists, participants and audiences.

“Since going fully freelance, I have never had that 'Monday Morning' feeling. No two weeks are the same."

Sally went freelance in 2007. She exhibits her work regularly, working from a studio and undertaking residencies to make and develop her own practice.

To complement these fine art activities, Sally also works in community arts, gallery and education settings, and outdoor spaces. This includes facilitating arts workshops for visually impaired adults.

She also offers disability access advice and training, and has facilitated accessible outdoor drawing events in many site-specific locations.

Sally also works as an art teacher and as a mentor/adviser to both children and emerging artists. At times she feels she learns as much from the children and adults that she works with as they do from her.

The reality of portfolio working

Sally enjoys the variety of this work, and its creative potential. “Since going fully freelance, I have never had that 'Monday Morning' feeling.

"No two weeks are the same. The freedom it offers suits my personality. I can work at my own pace and I finally have time to concentrate on my own work.” 

Sally points out that there is also a downside: what is glamorously called 'a portfolio career' is, in reality, rather less romantic. The continuous process of looking for work and applying for projects can be at times demoralising and often there is either not enough work or it all comes in together.

“I've learnt to keep my nerve and that if I work hard enough and put the hours in, the work will eventually come. I have to be imaginative about networking and making my own openings rather than just relying on applying for scarce opportunities that are oversubscribed.”

Building a base of skills

Alice O’Hanlon produces mixed media work, creating installations that combine imagery, text and objects.

She is studing a Fine Art MA at Camberwell College of Art and has exhibited at several galleries including the Doxi Gallery and Peckham Space in London, WW Gallery’s show at the 2011 Venice Biennale and the Voorkamer Gallery in Belgium.

After completing an English degree at University College London, Alice worked for a number of years for various arts organisations, largely managing public events. During her MA she decided to re-consider the field that, alongside her professional art practice, she wanted to work in.

Alice’s MA work and research had begun to focus on the use of historical material and archives within art. The further she delved into this area, the more she began to feel that working as an archivist in a museum, gallery or special collection would be an interesting and rewarding way to support her art practice.

After looking into the archives profession, she learnt that she would need to complete a specialist MA in order to be qualified as an archivist, and to be accepted onto the MA she would need some experience in the field.

Alice began volunteering at several archives: the V&A Archive of Art & Design, the British Postal Museum & Archive and the Natural History Museum. As a result she was offered a place on the MA in Archives and Records Management at University College London.

Once Alice graduates, the idea is that working part-time as an archivist will provide financial support as well as a wealth of inspiration and raw material for her art practice.

She also hopes that her artistic background will feed into her employment, giving her a creative approach to archive management and working with people such as curators to produce exhibitions of archival material.


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