Pursuing a Career in Fine Art: Resources for Emerging Artists

October 8, 2020 | lfeesey

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Canada’s 2016 Census revealed that visual artists in Canada earned on average $21,100 per year. More than 75% of that income was derived from employment not associated with creating and selling art. This income level seems dismal. So we've put together some resources for aspiring artists who are looking to take their talent into a career. First, we will look at the contemporary global art market and then, some of the ways to put an income together. 

Banksy artwork, "If graffiti changed anything it would be illegal."
Banksy artwork. Photo taken by Julian Osley, used on a CC license.


Art World Economics

In the last few decades, the art market has shifted its focus to contemporary art. The prices for contemporary art have risen many times over for the most favoured artists and pieces. Most of the money and activity is concentrated at the top end of the market where high net worth individuals and high profile galleries, auction houses and museums set the buying trends and prices. Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, this part of the market has remained strong. Whereas the lower end of local galleries, shows and artists tends to decline in economic downturns and global crises. 

$12 Million Stuffed Shark

The $12 Million Stuffed Shark by Don Thompson (2012)

Canadian economics professor Don Thompson explains and entertains with stories from the high-end art world. His books have valuable insights for any visual artist. In The $12 Million Stuffed Shark, Thompson wrote, "Artists who do not find mainstream representation within a year or two of graduation are unlikely ever to achieve high prices, or see their work appear at fairs, auction, or in art magazines." Mainstream representation generally means second tier galleries (lower in status than Gagosian, White Cube or Hauser and Wirth) in cities with large art markets such as New York, London or Los Angeles or Berlin. 

Seven days in the art world by Sarah Thompson 2008

Seven Days in the Art World by Sarah Thompson (2008)

Learning how to navigate the art world can help. Even though it was published in 2008, Sarah Thornton’s book Seven Days In the Art World  is a great primer. Each chapter (or day) is devoted to exploring one of the essential components in the art world system:

  • The Auction
  • The Crit
  • The Fair
  • The Prize
  • The Magazine
  • The Studio Visit
  • The Biennale


Promoting Your Art

Don Thompson found that major dealers do not accept unsolicited artists’ submissions. They prefer finding artists based on tips from their current artists, collectors and colleagues.

There are other avenues of promotion, such as artist-run shows, being selected through a juried competition to participate in an art fair, a write-up in an art magazine, a lively website and also social media. Here are a few resources for getting started promoting your art online.


We have computers, software and printers in our Digital Innovation Hubs where you can design and produce your own professional promotional materials. It's pretty easy to get started learning the necessary software with one of our classes or one of these online tutorials from Lynda.com (for free access, log in with your library card):


Prizes for Artists

Consider entering your work for prizes, both for financial support and recognition. In Canada, there are various prizes for emerging artists.

Among them, The Sobey Art Award is considered the most prestigious. Being one of the five finalists is a significant achievement.

The Canada Council for the Arts has quite a few prizes you can apply to or be nominated for. Most are for specific artistic disciplines, stages of your career or geographic locations. Be sure to read the criteria carefully. Almost all prizes come with publicity, an exhibition and money.


Artist Residencies

An artist residency is a great accomplishment to add to your resume or CV. There are residencies available all over the world. Generally, there are specific projects or mandates for these residencies. Residencies typically offer compensation, teaching opportunities and the opportunity to exhibit your work.

Canada’s Banff Centre residencies are very well-known and internationally recognized.

Or, you could apply to be an Artist in Residence right here at TPL! These positions, when available, are advertised on our Jobs page and our social media channels.


Artist Grants

Many organizations offer grants for artists. However, typically only one in ten applications is successful. Find out what sorts of grants are available from:


The online database Grant Connect is a great way to find grants too. It brings together over 400 sources of funding for non-profit endeavors, including art. To access Grant Connect, you must use a computer in one of our branches with your Toronto Public Library card.

Grant applications usually require a Curriculum Vitae, a project plan, a work plan, a proposed timeline, budget and a solid theoretical justification. Completing the rigorous application process requires thoroughly thinking through and planning out your work. Here are some resources to help you create a strong grant application.


Exhibiting Your Art

Municipalities sometimes offer competitive commissions for public art. Look out for opportunities to submit proposals. One useful website is Akimbo. You can sign up to receive emails about calls for submission and updates on events, exhibitions, jobs and more within Canada.

We have art exhibit space at 16 of our branches, typically on a monthly rotation. Find out more about how to exhibit your work at a TPL branch. These spaces are quite popular and fill up fast!


Further Reading

How to be an Artist

How to be an Artist by Jerry Saltz (2020) 

Respected art critic Jerry Saltz offers his own irreverent and motivational advice to maximize creators' potential. Supplemented by thoughts from other art-world luminaries.

Ways of being

Ways of Being: Advice for Artists by Artists by James Cahill (2018) 

This book helps artists unravel all the dilemmas they will undoubtedly face. Artists, dealers, and curators offer their hard-earned wisdom on career stages, effective strategies and more.


Boom: Mad Money, Mega Dealers, and the Rise of Contemporary Art by Michael Shnayerson (2019) 

Boom traces the rise of the global art market and prices paid for contemporary art. Propelled by a small coterie of international dealers, auction houses and collectors, art is now the largest unregulated financial market on the planet.  


Best of luck!