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Today's fine arts or design graduates might secretly hanker for the high status that artists enjoyed in the Renaissance period.

In those days, successful artists lived like princes as they were employed by the wealthy, with patrons such as the Medici, the Florentine bankers who were great supporters of the arts.

Today, most European and Western countries have state theatres and opera houses, and they support symphony, orchestra, ballet companies, and other groups of artists.

In New Zealand, the Government provides funding for various art projects through its agency, Creative New Zealand, and the principle of government support for the arts is widely accepted.

However, the contemporary artistic scene is more contestable than mainstream work opportunities. Uncertainty plays a major and highly ambiguous role. This means that art is a risky business.

Followers of the Bauhaus art movement, which emerged last century in Germany, believed that art schools had a responsibility not only to artists but also to society, to train artists in their chosen fields and in areas where they could earn a living and be socially useful.

After World War I, admission into the Berlin Academy of Art was contingent on having first learned a trade in a workshop or trade school.

In line with the Bauhaus tradition, the Bachelor of Design degree at Massey University includes a paper in business in its third year.

Wellington's School of Design, which established New Zealand's first design degree more than 18 years ago, and has since expanded to include the Auckland School of Design at Massey's Albany campus, offers the widest range of co-ordinated majors in New Zealand.

At the Wellington campus students can complete a fashion design and business joint major, which provides a specific business major focus for those who aspire to be involved at the business end of the fashion industry.

This means that graduates leave the college well equipped for professional design practice and a range of industry, business and marketing-related activities.

AUT University also offers a business marketing paper as part of the second-year studies for the Bachelor of Graphic Design. Lauren Chase completed the paper last year and says it provided a good foil for the practical design work she was doing.

"The business marketing paper showed me how to use my creative knowledge in more practical and strategic ways. It taught me relevant workplace skills, how to write a business plan and how to implement the plan, including undertaking a market analysis.

"As a designer, I think being able to create is important yet also to be able to think strategically about the market in which the product one is designing for is equally important, creating aesthetically pleasing yet functional, applicable design. I feel confident that having a better understanding of business concepts and thinking will serve me well as I enter the workforce."

Career consultant and mixed media artist Paula Stenberg interviewed fine arts graduates for her Master's thesis on the career development needs of artists.

"One of the main career patterns for artists is the short-term contractual or sub-contractual relationship which prevails in artistic labour markets," Stenberg says.

"Another pattern is their ability to be connected with dealer galleries in order to sell their work. This relationship is crucial but is often unstable. Some galleries have short lifespans, and with the economic recession many have fallen under.

"There is an art world hierarchy, and status is even more complicated in that the personal prestige of the occupant of a position enhances the status of the position itself."

In her book, Collective Creativity: Art and Society in the South Pacific, Katherine Giuffre provides a new metaphor for the career pathways of artists, replacing the traditional career ladder with a career sand pile, where each person's footsteps in attempting to get to the top affect the shape of the climb.

"Guiffre's sand piles provide a helpful metaphor in describing career patterns of the artist," says Stenberg.

"The characteristics of career artist rely more on happenstance and chaos theory as the artistic scene is so contestable and is hallmarked by uncertainty and risk.

"The traditional linear career model has little relevance; a protean model or portfolio of different work opportunities makes more sense. Artists need to see themselves as self-employed practitioners or freelancers as they navigate sand dunes.

"It is important also that they make strategic career and lifestyle choices which don't impact negatively on their creative ability. This may involve taking on less-skilled jobs which don't require cognitive energy, reserving such energy for creative pursuits."

Stenberg refers to the case of one artist, whose part-time employment includes telemarketing and working three jobs so that he can be self sufficient. Another artist, who recognised that his time for optimum creativity was between 11am and 2pm, sought work opportunities outside those times.

Annie Sandano, who completed a fine arts degree several years ago and is now a successful printmaker says: "In the beginning I made sure I had a job that kept me from stressing out about having to make money from my art. This took the pressure off, and gave me the freedom to create something of quality that I was confident about exhibiting.

"In order to build a profile, I started to approach local galleries with work that I felt was relevant to what they were exhibiting. I was careful to be efficient and easy to work with, and focused on developing a good relationship with the galleries that took me on.

"I didn't have a specific business plan; I had projects I was excited about and career goals I wanted to accomplish. I made sure that they were realistic and achievable, and I persisted until I had achieved them.

"I was fortunate to have a family member who is a retired business person to teach me the pragmatic aspects of day-to-day operations such as accounting, taxes, negotiation, and legal documentation.

"I'd say to any new graduate to be absolutely dedicated to what you're doing and your plan, and to persevere. If you want to be taken seriously you have to establish your art as professional practice.

"From a practical perspective, nobody is going to magically discover you, so don't be shy.

"From a more holistic angle, I think that good art is about sincerity. If you're serious and genuine about what you're doing, then there will be people who will be interested."

Stenberg says: "They might wish otherwise but today not many young artists have patrons. There is the notion that for creatives work can be considered to be just about meeting one's values.

"In reality, all artists need money and they need to consider other options. There is a friction here which needs to be balanced.

"The body of research reveals that there are two types of rewards for artists: one is financial and the other 'psychic income' or non-monetary rewards.

"Psychic income includes job satisfaction, a high level of personal autonomy, the opportunity to use a wide range of abilities and a high degree of social recognition for the artist."

Sandano says: "I am always striving to improve, exploring new techniques and approaches and re-inventing my original starting point. There is always a lot of hard work involved. To produce your best work you have to put in the hours."