By Iris Unger

Time to put aside the stereotypes – artists now need to think like entrepreneurs

We all know the stereotype of the starving artist and, chances are, if you are providing career services you have encountered more than a few of them. In our work providing job search and self-employment support at YES Montreal, we have seen many artists come through our doors – enough that we felt compelled to create programming tailored towards breaking that stereotype and helping young artists become self-sustaining arts professionals.

Here in Quebec, the arts economy poses specific opportunities and challenges. On the one hand, the creative economy is a driving force and a real magnet for the English-speaking population we serve. Montreal, where we are located, is a vibrant arts city and with several universities renowned for their fine arts programs, we see a lot of artists with a desire to follow their passion into a sustaining career. On the other hand we know that in Quebec the average income for a self-employed artist is $17,000. It’s not much, and for many with student loans and other obligations, it’s not enough. We also know that artists, in general, spend a lot more time honing their craft than their business skills which is what brings them through our doors.

Providing the services to help artists sustain their passion, and themselves, requires an understanding of their specific needs. Over the past 14 years we have learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t in supporting artists. If you are serving an artistic population you can learn more about our artists program and resources at Below are a few lessons we’ve learned over the years, followed by some practical tips for effective programming:

Art is often a solitary practice which can be lonely and daunting. We all need social reinforcement and most of us find that in our workplace. In the best-case scenario, our colleagues provide a sounding board for our work and keep us motivated and directed. As a career counsellor, that social reinforcement role may fall to you more heavily with artists than with other types of entrepreneurs, partly because…

Art is subjective and personal. It’s rare that a client will walk into your office needing emotional validation for their accounting skills; the numbers either add up or they don’t. But with art what’s good, what’s bad and what’s marketable is entirely subjective. While most entrepreneurs and self-employed people face this challenge to some extent, the personal nature of an artist’s work can make their position more emotionally vulnerable. Artists have few “yard sticks” by which to measure success and often personalize a lack of financial success. You can help by reminding your clients that…

Getting a job is not a failure. Every artist would love to make it off their art but talent and tenacity alone are not enough to ensure success. Artists need to be realistic about career trajectories in their field and as a counsellor you can help them by becoming more knowledgeable about careers in the arts and in the creative economy in your area.

Knowing what is out there in terms of funding opportunities for artists and the creative economy in your area is essential and you will want to think outside the box. For example, in Montreal, the video game industry is huge – that might not stand out as an “arts career” but it certainly is. A host of illustrators, writers and even actors are employed in Montreal’s gaming industry doing everything from plot design to voice work. Helping your clients understand the creative industry can help them to build a financially and creatively fulfilling career – while they are waiting for their big break, of course.

As a service provider you need to be equally creative. You also need to be flexible because funding is not always available to support non-traditional programming. You have to be committed enough as an organization to figure out ways to make it happen. In the end, for us and for our artists, it has been worth it and I think we have learned just as much from them as they have from us.


Iris Unger is the Executive Director at Youth Employment Services (YES) Montreal, and has had over 25 years of experience in the non-for-profit sector working in the areas of economic development, entrepreneurship, employment, community development, women’s issues, special needs, poverty, education and immigration. If you have feedback or would like to know more about YES Montreal’s programming for artists, contact us at, or find us on Facebook.

Practical tips for artists programming:

  • Networking is essential for career development, especially in the arts. YES Montreal hosts an annual Art Expo, as well as a Business Skills for Creative Souls Conference to provide artists with a chance to promote their work while connecting to (and learning from) others in their field. This can help break their isolation and improve their chances for success.
  • Artists need specific resources that address their challenges. While you may see a lot of overlap in services you would provide to your general clients and to artists, it is important to recognize their specific needs. At YES we have a dedicated Artists business coach and provide a host of workshops (from funding opportunities to self-promotion) for artists. We also produce an annual guidebook, The Montreal Artists Handbook, which will be updated and published online this year with the support of The Counselling Foundation of Canada.