Artists’ Employability: Border Tensions and Regulatory Discourses


There is a growing demand for creativity in the world of work, says innovation foundation Nesta’s recent report. Organisations in Europe and elsewhere are becoming more and more dependent on their employees’ imagination, intuition, aesthetics, emotions and cultural competencies. Artists can meet these needs with their expertise.

There is also a need for social spaces that foster critical co-reflection, co-creativity and collaborative learning. Such spaces bring together professionals from different fields to reflect upon and unsettle prevailing beliefs and practices, tackle complex problems, and generate innovations. Artists can help create such creative environments.

There is increasingly research on the positive impacts of the arts on health. Research also suggests that artistic expertise can help tackle societal problems such as inequalities, social exclusion, polarisation and lack of social cohesion. Therefore, the role of the arts in health care and social work has gained recognition in many countries in recent years.

These and other needs in the world of work and in society have introduced a new market for the arts. It is a market where artists need to expand the range of their work; contributing their expertise through needs-based action to provide services for organisations and people in other fields outside the arts. Such work includes, for example, artistic interventions in organisations, arts-based innovation development, and arts for health and wellbeing.

To engage artists, teaching artists and artist-researchers more intensely in this development, and to encourage their engagement in multi-professional teams that seek new solutions for sustainable growth and societal challenges, in my view the European Union needs a programme that highlights the value of artistic expertise for Europe. Such programme should encourage even more rigorous research, innovation and education in this complex, interdisciplinary and rapidly emerging area of knowledge.

Border Tensions and Regulatory Discourses in the Arts

The arts appear increasingly as a fluid and deterritorialised world that subscribes to and circulates multiple understandings about the arts and the artist. Likewise, such complexity includes multiple discursive accounts on the value of art such as artistic autonomy, critical value, activist value, applicable value and entertainment value.

Such understandings in the arts not only resonate with but also contradict each other. More importantly, they regulate how and in which contexts artists can or cannot work to be regarded as professionally credible by their peers. In doing so, such understandings, if taken as firm truths, may hinder emerging artists from using their full potential to make a living from the arts in hybrid contexts in the boundary zone between the arts and other fields. That is, from a more traditional perspective, endeavours in hybrid contexts are not always regarded as “real” artistic work. On the contrary, many artists resist any arts-related activity that is not art for art’s sake.

My view is that narratives have a crucial role to play as different professional options are introduced to students in higher arts education. In the arts, we are surrounded with narratives on art and the artist. Such narratives matter because students in the arts make sense of their professional identities through stories they find themselves a part. They also perform such narratives when they work, make choices and negotiate their professional position in the world of work and in society more generally. At an institutional level, as educators in higher arts education we need to pay attention to such mechanisms of regulation and also deconstruct them as we talk to our students about future career opportunities in the arts.

In ELIA’s NXT Making a Living from the Arts -project, my research suggests that despite narrative complexity, there are particular historic narratives that are pervasive and persistent despite changing circumstances in the arts. As such, they often influence on how we think about what a “real” artist is or what artists are supposed to do for living. Such narratives draw from the liberal humanist discourse on the modern artist as a free agent and the modern view of disciplines as autonomous fields.

In the field of the arts, narratives on freedom and autonomy are often contrasted with utilitarian narratives on applied arts that strive for wellbeing through needs-based artistic actions. They are also contrasted with entrepreneurial narratives on artistic expertise in value creation and profit making. My analysis suggests that there are border tensions between these discourses. Further, the dominating modern discourse on freedom and autonomy seems to block many artists and students in the arts from using their full potential as they try to make a living from the arts.

Narratives Matter in Higher Arts Education

In the world of multiple truths, it can be difficult for an individual artist, let alone a student in the arts, to make sense of the unrelated narratives that inform contradictory perspectives in today's art world. Moreover, it can be hard to grasp that none of those narratives are neutral or natural but historically specific and discursively invested. That is, they are not universal truth statements even if they are sometimes put forward and advocated as such. Therefore, it matters how we as educators in higher arts education talk about the arts and the artist. It also matters, how we discuss knowledge, skills and competencies that students in the arts need to learn in order to make a living from the arts today and in the future.

As a teacher and a researcher in the arts, I find it important to scrutinise critically the validity of historical narratives that inform our teachings about art and the artist. In the 21st century landscape, I think, we need to see beyond narratives from past centuries to create alternative ones that resonate, more aptly perhaps, with present and future opportunities.

I think, it is our task as educators to prepare our students not only for a lifetime of uncertainty and change but also for the diversity of opportunities that exist for artists, artist-teachers, and artist-researchers today and in the future. To succeed, our students need a clear understanding on how to put their professional skills to work for them. They need a broad view of the potential opportunities – some of which might not prescribe to former views of art and the artist. More importantly, they need to understand that their professional identity can be resilient, fluid and context-specific, and that they need more than artistic competence and talent to make a living from the arts. They need a set of working life skills, an entrepreneurial mind-set and ethics that need to be fostered holistically as part of their studies from the very beginning.

This article is a version of the statement that I had prepared for the panel in the international seminar NXT Making a Living from the Arts in 2025 organised by ELIA in collaboration with Culture Action Europe and BOZAR Centre for Fine Arts, Brussels, Belgium, 12.4.2018. A more elaborated version of this text can be read in ELIA’s book Careers in the arts: Visions for the future


Professor Kai Lehikoinen leads Uniarts Helsinki’s CERADA Center for Educational Research and Academic Development in the Arts. He is also Vice-Director of ArtsEqual Research Initiative and Team Leader for the research group Arts, Welfare, Health & Care.