How not to be a starving artist


“Whatever passion you have,” encouraged New York jazz musician Paul Steinbeck, AB’02, “give yourself ten years to follow it.” Heidi Thompson, AB’01, MBA’05, executive director of Chicago theater company Barrel of Monkeys, seconded the advice to aspiring U of C musicians, filmmakers, novelists, actors, and other creatives. “There are ten years, maybe a few more, in your life when it’s OK to be poor,” she half-joked. Debating day jobs, MFA programs, and whether making a living in the arts means selling out (“No,” said all four participants), Steinbeck, Thompson, theater publicist Ted Boles, AB’01, and dancer/choreographer Julia Mayer, AB’86, weighed in at Saturday’s career panel on How to Make A Living While Living Through the Arts.

Part of the tenth annual Taking the Next Step program, where Chicago third- and fourth-years hear from alumni in different professions, the arts session drew 50-plus of the 670 student attendees. Among the 14 panels offered: More Than Just Blackboards (education policy and practice); You’re ‘The Man’ (government); and Get on the Write Foot (journalism, media, and publishing). More than 150 alumni speakers attended the daylong conference at downtown Chicago’s Hyatt Regency.

Sponsored by the College Programming Office, the Alumni Association, Career Advising and Planning Services, the College, and the Office of the Dean of Students in the College, each hour-long panel ended with audience questions. “You talked about how it’s hard to get started in the arts professionally and how many of you had to work in fields unrelated to your craft to support your art,” asked one third-year. “When did you lose your idealism?” All four speakers agreed they hadn’t. “You can be an idealist and a realist,” said Mayer, who worked in desktop publishing while pursuing her MFA in dance at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. “It’s very easy to make a living as a musician playing music you don’t like,” said Steinbeck, who saw non-music day jobs as preferable to the alternatives (weddings and bar mitzvahs). Learn how to use Microsoft Excel, advised Thompson. Then “you won’t be waiting tables. You’ll be doing something where you get health insurance.”


Photos: Arts and entertainment panelists (left to right) Ted Boles, Heidi Thompson, Paul Steinbeck, and Julia Mayer share their experiences (top); U of C undergrads chat between sessions.

January 22, 2007