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Musings On The "Portfolio Career"

November 3, 2009

portfolio.jpegAndrew Taylor's latest blogpost at ArtsJournal about "portfolio careers" in the arts got me thinking this morning about whether anything has really changed in the way that many people in the arts make a living, despite the terminology.

I first heard the term "portfolio career" applied to arts workers around 10 years ago when a management consultant friend of mine in London said to me, "it's pretty cool, you're portfolio lifestyle. I want one of those." At the time, I wasn't quite sure what he was getting at. I didn't consider my weird mixture of jobs -- which in 1999 consisted of working as the junior in the New York office of a big British daily newspaper, freelancing as a theatre critic all over the city, finishing up my masters thesis, moonlighting as a dramaturg for an underground performance art company and playing oboe and singing for a variety of semi-professional ensembles -- as being portfolio-like. I just thought of myself as muddling through until a "proper" job came along.

I had always been taught that you weren't really doing anything worthwhile unless you had a "proper" job, which consisted of going into an office and being paid, hopefully well, for steady work for a single highly-thought-of company over years and years, while gradually earning the favor of your superiors, rising to the very top and retiring at 60 to glory and grandchildren.

But I do remember thinking even back then that "portfolio" had a nice ring to it. The corporate tinge to the word made me feel important. Even though I wasn't really proud of what I was doing at the time, I started referring to myself as having a "portfolio career" at parties. People looked impressed. as time passed, I started feeling comfortable about my wheeling and dealing. I realized, despite the unpredictability of it all and decidedly shaky prospects, that it was the only way for someone like me to go. It still is.

Ultimately, it doesn't matter what you call making a living in the cultural industries. There isn't really any news here -- people in the arts (and many people in many other sectors too) have been functioning this way for a long, long time in all kinds of economies, both good and bad. "Portfolio career" means "freelancing" really, but it just sounds a bit grander.

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