You Just Graduated With an MFA...Now What?

Paige Simianer | May 29, 2024

Overhead shot of Artwork Archive artist Erika Alonso working on a painting at her desk. © 2023 Charles Holt Photography Photographer: Charles Holt @charlesholt 

Congratulations, Graduate! ... Now What Do You Do? 

Graduating with your MFA (or with any degree for that matter) is an impressive accomplishment that marks a major milestone in your life. It shows your dedication and hard work and is a reflection of your commitment to mastering your craft and contributing your art to the world. 

Throughout your years of study, you've deepened your understanding of all kinds of artistic theories, pulled one or two (okay, likely way more) all-nighters in the studio, and developed a thicker skin after receiving some less-than-stellar critiques from your peers and instructors.

With your degree, you've gained a valuable set of tools and skills that will serve you well in your art career. You should be incredibly proud of yourself. But, with that being said, maybe your MFA program didn't teach you everything there is to know about navigating an art career as a professional in the art world.

That's likely because there is no single predefined path to success for an artist. There are no real rulebooks to follow or corporate ladders to climb. There's just you, your education, and your artwork.

So, how do you turn those years of hard-earned knowledge and those caffeine-fueled studio all-nighters into a thriving art career?

While no one can give you an exact play-by-play, we can provide some actionable advice and tools to help guide your journey as a professional artist:

Artwork Archive artist Liz Murphy, Conversations by the Beach #2. Photo courtesy of the artist

Remember, Your Art Portfolio Is Essentially Your Calling Card

Your art portfolio is your calling card. It's typically the first thing seen by galleries, residencies, or potential buyers. It reflects your personal style, the techniques you've mastered, and the full spectrum of your artistic abilities. A well-crafted portfolio also speaks volumes about your professionalism and how you see yourself as an artist. 

There's a good reason why it's so important—it introduces you and your art to the world when you're not physically there to do it yourself. 

Getting your work well-photographed is the first step in making a standout portfolio.

High-quality images showcase the real quality of your work, and skimping on photography can really undersell it. Invest in decent lighting and a good camera, and follow these tips to photograph your work like a professional. Or, if it makes sense for you, hire a professional—maybe even consider investing in top-level quality headshots of yourself while you're at it, too. 

Once you have your images, you will need a place to put them. Leverage a platform like Artwork Archive, where you can organize, update, and showcase high-quality images and detailed descriptions of your artwork. Remember, your portfolio is your opportunity to make a powerful first impression.

Why do I want a Public Profile on Artwork Archive?

Artwork Archive's Public Profile feature is an easy way to showcase your work and share who you are as an artist. It’s also linked directly to your inventory, so you never have to worry about separately updating your work on your Public Profile. 

Plus, by activating your Public Profile, you also become part of our Discovery network where collectors, buyers, and art lovers of all types search for art. Interested buyers can contact you directly through the "Contact the Artist" button to inquire about your artwork. 

You can learn more about setting up a Public Profile on Artwork Archive here.

 

Establish Your Online Presence as an Artist

Today, an artist without an online presence is at a disadvantage.

Your artist website is the hub of your professional identity online.

Make sure it's sleek, easy to navigate, and showcases your art beautifully. You can embed your Public Profile from Artwork Archive directly on your artist website so you don't have to worry about updating your work in two places.

Leveraging social media platforms like Instagram are often invaluable for artists. You can, of course, showcase your artwork, but it also gives you a platform to share your creative process and the stories behind your pieces. Use this to create a more personal connection with your audience. Plus, you can connect with other artists and potential buyers.

Remember, quality, consistently posting quality content with high levels of engagement and interaction keeps you relevant and pleases the algorithm gods (for now). That being said, social media algorithms are constantly changing. So, utilize Instagram analytics tools to track which types of posts get the most engagement, who your audience is, and the best times to post. Use this data to adapt your strategy and content over time.

 

Foster Genuine Connections with Other Artists and Art Professionals

Much to the dismay of introverted artists, you can't afford to be a recluse (at least right away). Connections can be as important as the art you create.

Attend industry events, art fairs, and gallery openings. These are great opportunities to meet influential people and cultivate your artist network. We encourage you to go into these events with your mindset on making at least one connection—it's not enough just to show up. Engage in conversations, show genuine interest in others' work, and share your own insights. Then, focus on keeping and nurturing those relationships you've made. 

Your networking mantra: seek out genuine connections.

Networking is more than just growing your list of contacts. Focus on finding common ground and fostering mutual respect. Another tip? Be a connector. Help others in your network connect with each other. By facilitating introductions, you're showing that you care about your peers while establishing yourself as a key player within your community at the same time. 

Organize your network with tools specifically for artists:

Keep track of everyone you meet using Artwork Archive. Record their contact details along with any personal notes or reminders about your conversations.

This can be a game-changer when you need to reach out with a tailored message or a follow-up.

Artwork Archive artist Barbara Shelly posing with models who took part in the live fashion show, “Collage of Colors”. The show was inspired by Barbara’s work and the clothing was made by designer, Tanuka Ghosh. The event took place at Pictor Gallery in NYC.

 

Treat Your Art Practice as a Professional Commitment

Continue to hone your craft.

Art, like any skill, requires dedication and consistent effort to improve.

Schedule and block off your sacred studio time—this is non-negotiable. Treat it with the same seriousness as you would any professional meeting or commitment. Use productivity apps or other tools if you need help staying organized and focused during your studio hours. 

Just like your body needs regular exercise, your creative muscles do too.

Make it a point to refine your technique regularly and don't shy away from experimenting with new methods or themes. This is how you evolve as an artist—the more you create, the more you’ll develop your signature artistic style.

Your art practice goes beyond just putting in the time; you should be thinking about intentional growth. Set small goals for each session, whether it's mastering a new skill, starting a series, or completing one part of a piece. The dedication you have to your creative process shows in your work, and it's what transforms good artists into great ones.

Keep pushing, keep creating, and keep refining—your art and audience will thank you for it.

 

Research and Evaluate Each Art Opportunity — and, Keep Applying!

Keep your eyes peeled for artist residencies, grants, and exhibition calls. You never know which opportunity can be a career-launcher and lead you to making major connections within the art world.

Be picky about which opportunities you apply to—not all opportunities are created equal and not everyone will align perfectly with your artistic goals or career trajectory.

Take the time to research and evaluate each opportunity before you apply to make sure it truly benefits your development as an artist. It's a sure way to protect your time and energy so you can invest them into opportunities most likely to have a meaningful impact on your art career. 

One of the biggest reasons artist applications get rejected from art opportunities is because artists fail to follow the instructions or guidelines correctly. These guidelines often include very specific instructions about format, content, and how to submit your work. They might even specify things like file format, number of images required, specific questions you should answer, and more. Ignoring these details can result in an immediate no-go from the jurors, no matter how outstanding your art is. It's also a test of your professionalism and your ability to pay attention to detail—traits that are highly valued in the art world. 

So, make sure to read all instructions carefully and review your application multiple times before you hit submit. Your eye for detail can drastically improve your chances of getting accepted. Treat each application like it's your best shot at showcasing your talent—it often is. 

How to find the right opportunities:

Check out Artwork Archive’s curated Opportunity Guides for Artists. They're designed to help you pinpoint residencies, grants, and exhibitions that could offer financial support, visibility, and career experience. 

Sign up to receive our monthly Artist Opportunity Guides directly to your inbox here. 

 

Embrace Rejection as a Necessary Part of the Artistic Journey

You might already be familiar with the concept of resilience given the seemingly endless critiques you've endured as an MFA student. But, nonetheless, find more ways to make your thick skin even thicker.

Rejection is inevitable for every single artist. The sooner you learn this, the better equipped you’ll be to handle it constructively.

Instead of letting rejection define you as an artist, see it as an integral part of the learning experience. Each one should be taken as a chance to learn and improve and every "no" brings you closer to a "yes." Reflect on the feedback you get, refine your strategy, and keep improving. 

Also, separate your self-worth from the outcomes of your submissions or sales. Your value as an artist isn't tied to whether or not your work was sold or accepted. Keep your confidence up, keep creating, and keep in mind that art is subjective.

Think of it this way: every piece you create is an extension of your creative expression, not a verdict on your talent. 

Stay true to your vision, continue to create work that speaks to you, and trust that the right audience will connect with your art in time.

 

Document Your Artistic Journey By Cataloging Your Body of Work

You may think it's too early in your career to start documenting and cataloging your body of work. But, many late-stage career artists reflecting on their careers wish they had started the process sooner.

Keeping track of this important information and staying organized sets you up to be a professional. It lays a foundation for a systematic approach to managing your art and, therefore, your career as a whole. Plus, you can see how your style evolves over time.

Documenting your work lets you have a clear historical timeline of your pieces, which is invaluable for understanding your own development and provenance, and explaining your journey to others, like collectors, galleries, and potential buyers. 

Start documenting your artwork preserving your legacy:

Artwork Archive lets you manage all details about your artwork, from tracking where your pieces are to what sales you’ve made and who owns them.

Plus, the platform provides important business insights when it comes to your artwork, so you can make informed decisions as the business owner you are. 

 

Make it a habit to update your inventory each time you complete a piece.

Include high-quality photos, the materials used, piece size, and any other relevant details. Making it a habit and a part of your normal creative routine will save you a ton of time and effort in the long run. Remember, the way you manage your art reflects how you manage your career. Starting with strong habits sets a professional tone and showcases your commitment to your art business. 

Artwork Archive artist Amarachi Okafor (Orie) Photo by Sontee Ijoho, Image courtesy of the artist 

Put Your Artistic Aspirations on Paper

Clearly define what you want to achieve in your career both in the short term and the long term. Write this down! Putting your goals on paper makes them tangible—you're also more likely to hold yourself accountable. 

Once you have your big-picture goals laid out, break them into smaller, actionable, and SMART steps that you can tackle piece by piece—this is your system for achieving your goals.

S.M.A.R.T. goals are: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. A goal that follows these criteria is much more likely to lead to success because it is clear and structured. For example, instead of saying "I want to sell more art", specify "I aim to sell 10 pieces in the next three months by attending two art fairs and partnering with a local gallery." 

Art journeys rarely follow a linear path, so making S.M.A.R.T goals is probably the closest thing you could get to a roadmap for your art career. By being specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound, these goals help you focus your efforts efficiently and measure your progress concretely.

Here's a free worksheet to get you started:

To help you implement this strategy, Artwork Archive made a S.M.A.R.T Goals worksheet specifically for artists.

This tool is designed to guide you in setting precise goals using the S.M.A.R.T. framework, so each one you set is well-defined and attainable. Download this worksheet for free here, and use it as an asset as you plan and progress in your art career. 


 

As an Artist, You Are an Entrepreneur—Run Your Art Business With Artwork Archive

As a professional artist, you have stepped into the role of an entrepreneur, which means you need to gain a firm grasp of what it means to run a business. You’ll need to know how to price your work, manage your finances, and market yourself.

Embrace this responsibility with the same passion you apply to your art. 

Start by understanding the market. Research what similar artists are charging and consider factors like your experience, production costs, size, and the uniqueness of your work. Pricing too low can undervalue your art, while pricing too high might limit your buyers. Find a balance that reflects your art’s worth and your career goals. It may take some trial and error, but here's a starting point to help keep your pricing consistent. 

Make sure to keep a tight grip on your income and expenses. Financial health is incredibly important for any business. Use tools like Artwork Archive to monitor sales, track expenses, and manage invoices. Staying on top of your finances will enable you to make informed decisions. Plus, it will help you be prepared come tax time. 

Ignorance is not bliss in this case—it could stunt your growth, undermine your art, and maybe even lead to you being exploited. And, no, no one expects you to become an expert business mogul overnight. Take online courses, read entrepreneur books, or get connected with a mentor or another entrepreneur. Empower yourself with business knowledge—it's one of the biggest ways you can protect your work and pave the way for a sustainable and successful art career.

Create a system for the admin tasks:

The admin side of any business may not be the most glamorous—but that does not mean it should be ignored.

Use systems and tools to simplify the many admin tasks. Artwork Archive allows you to keep track of inventory, document sales, manage exhibition history, and even keep a record of your contacts and gallery relationships.

 

Navigate the Art World with the Right Tools and Resources

While the path may not always be clear, embracing the tools and resources available to you, like Artwork Archive, can provide a strong foundation and keep you organized and focused. Always be ready to learn, adapt, and grow—not just as an artist, but as a professional navigating an ever-changing world. 

Keep your passion at the forefront of everything you do. With a well-thought-out strategy, you're well-equipped to turn your talent and education into a thriving art career. Let your art speak to the world and never underestimate the impact your unique voice can make. The world has room for it.

Don't wait to take control of your art career—sign up for Artwork Archive today, and start out with the best tools at your disposal.

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