How to turn your passion for art into a career in Bangladesh

It is a difficult question to grapple with if you are a creative person aspiring to make a living out of your passion in arts and culture. Even if you are not directly affected by the issue, much like any other public service arena, the impact will trickle down to your immediate way of living in one way or another in society.

No matter how we go about in finding answers to this question, the reality seems so far removed from what we are used to considering in terms of future job and career prospects.

Every option seems a stretch.

More of a fantastical whim than an actual possibility that can be worked into reality with a little bit of elbow grease, as one might assume about building a career in the mainstream industries.

There are pre-established routes to take. Students and people who want to traverse these paths have arguably reliable models to emulate as they go about aiming to achieve the career they desire. The more conventional careers have been tried and tested more often and are talked about frequently. As a result, there’s more awareness about these industries and people feel that they have more access to the resources required to make themselves qualified for the field.

The elephant in the room

Addressing these issues, a panel discussion was held at EMK Centre on the occasion of their 10th anniversary. Esteemed dancer and founder of a leading dance school Shadhona, Lubna Marium, cartoonist and founder of Cartoon People Imam Rashad Tonmoy and News Presenter Ayesha Mahmud talked about their struggles and challenges as each of them went about pursuing their career.

One aspect remained constant among all of their stories despite each of them belonging to different parts of the art and culture field: It is incredibly difficult to establish a career in the arts and one will have to work hard and persevere only to get the minimal amount of respect and validation and to be taken seriously. 

“Merely saying that I draw cartoons for a living usually makes people laugh. Or they ask, no but what do you do for real?”

Cartoonist Tonmoy talks about society’s expectation of serious-sounding job titles in order to gain importance as a person involved in a real career.

“From a young age, we are taught how important professions in science, engineering, medicine and business are in the world. If we had the same education on the need and significance of art and culture in a society’s development, then we could expect to be treated fairly”.

He traces back the roots of these problems to a lack of awareness and the sheer absence of the importance of art and culture in education.

Lubna Marium told a story about a talented and polished dancer she had met who worked for a well-renowned dance company in the USA, called Spectrum. When asked about how she made a living, she said that she barely made any money working for Spectrum. Her main income was dependent on after hours and weekends when she danced Cabaret at a local bar.

To this Tonmoy added, “Many believe that it is easier to be an artist in the West. To that, I say, even if pay might be better abroad, the expenses are also higher. Moreover, the competition is much stiffer and cutthroat thereby reducing your chances of success even further. However, one thing that may be better in foreign countries is the respect and validation you might achieve for your work.”

What are the alternate options?

It is indeed true that when it comes to earning a living, many talented, hardworking and passionate creatives have relied on other jobs to make money. One common advice is to search for a job that will allow you to earn a decent monetary income to support your lifestyle as well as the requirements for your artistic pursuit eg, studio space, art supplies etc. Most importantly, the job must not drain you of the emotional and mental energy required for you to immerse yourself in your art.

In this case, a trade-off must be made and an aspiring artist may be better off by doing a job that is not engaging and maybe even meaningless if it means they are able to go home at night and paint or wake up early in the morning to rehearse.

It is easy to fall down a rabbit hole of hopelessness when sculpting out a career in the arts. But the youth must be reminded to pay attention to middle grounds and opportunities to become self-sufficient without resorting to throwing themselves into a career far and away from their true desire. Arguably, it might be more difficult to drop out of a successful, established career to finally devote yourself to your true calling than it is to maintain a less than satisfying job for a certain period of time and still being able to actively work or search for work in the field of your choice.

To elaborate on this, someone who dreams of being a writer may take up a job where he or she has to write catalogues for a company or content for their website. If you are an artist without any gallery representation, perhaps you can get a job as a school art teacher or a private art tutor. If films are your dream, a job in advertising may teach you a lot.

What should also be considered is that many of the creative practices and faculties of the brain required for arts and culture may, in fact, be employable and lucrative in corporate culture as well. It is said that often experience in an unrelated field, may lend you a unique perspective which could then further your career in the arts and culture.

Not everybody will have the chance or the privilege to work sustainably in art and culture. It is inevitable that there will be many going down the lines of business, branding, healthcare and teaching only because they have insurmountable bills to pay and families to support. Additionally, the mental angst and pressure of uncertainty in the field can be damaging to many people’s lives.

Finding a way to channel your passion

Even in such cases, I would like to say there is still hope for them to return to the arts at a later point in their career. Over the last year, as I have covered numerous art exhibitions as a reporter, I have come across a painter who gave up her career to be a homemaker, only to be encouraged to exhibit her art by her children twenty years later. I have seen works by people whom I assumed to be full-time artists. Yet, I found out they held down unrelated jobs but made time to dedicate to their art as they grew older.

As Ayesha Mahmud said, “Whoever persists in their career in this line of work, must have an immense amount of courage.” The world of art and culture is not made easy anywhere. However, those that are truly interested in seeing the development and furthering of the arts must take the responsibility of facilitating other artists and be as welcoming as possible to outsiders.

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