Editorial Feature

The Day Jobs Artists Had Before They Were Famous

Discover the unusual career paths of some of the most influential artists in history

The path of an artist isn’t always a clear and easy one. For many artists at the beginning of their career, making just doesn't pay the bills so they have to support themselves doing other jobs. For others, the life of an artist comes to them later in life after they have an already established career on the go.

Here we explore the careers of 10 artists before they became established in their field. Not only do we discover their unusual paths but also the events that led them to choose a full-time career in the arts. From babysitter to city stockbroker, school teacher to blackjack player, it's a fascinating insight into some of the most influential artists of the last 100 years.

1. Jeff Koons: Wall Street Commodities Broker

Jeff Koons is an American artist known for his large-scale installations and sculptures that test the boundaries between popular and elite culture. But before his work was selling for millions at art auctions around the world, Koons was a commodities broker on Wall Street. The artist used his day job to finance his art projects in the early 80s. In 1985 his groundbreaking show Equilibrium, which included basketballs floating in aquariums and lifesaving devices cast in bronze, caught the art world’s attention and allowed Koons to leave the finance industry behind and focus full time on his art.

Balloon Venus (Yellow) by Jeff Koons (From the collection of Biennale de Lyon)
Puppy by Jeff Koons (From the collection of Guggenheim Bilbao)

2. Richard Serra: Furniture Removal Man

Richard Serra is an American minimalist sculptor known for working with large-scale assemblies of sheet metal. To fund his art during the 1960s, Richard Serra started a furniture removals business in New York called, Low-Rate Movers. He employed many of his fellow struggling art friends, including artist and composer Philip Glass, who worked as his assistant helping him to install shows and lug furniture up and down steps.

The Matter of Time by Richard Serra (From the collection of Guggenheim Bilbao)
Richard Serra by Henry Groskinsky (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

3. Barbara Kruger: Graphic Designer at Conde Nast

After dropping out of college at Syracuse University and spending a semester at Parsons School of Design in New York in 1965, artist Barbara Kruger got a job as a graphic designer at Condé Nast in 1966. She worked on Mademoiselle magazine, a women’s publication primarily about fashion. A year later, Kruger was named the magazine’s head designer.

In 1969, Kruger began to create her first artworks, it was her experience in publications and exposure to advertising that inspired her work, and saw her adopting punchy graphics and catchy slogans to convey her ideas on power, identity and sexuality.

Untitled (You Invest in the Divinity of the Masterpiece) by Barbara Kruger (From the collection of MoMA)
Untitled (It's A Small World But Not If You Have To Clean It) by Barbara Kruger (From the collection of Public Art Fund)

4. Mark Rothko: Elementary School Teacher

Artist Mark Rothko is seen as one of the great abstract painters in history. The artist became interested in the art scene when he moved to New York in 1923. He subsequently enrolled in various classes and courses in the city including Parsons School of Design, and in 1928 he exhibited work for the first time with a group of other young artists.

While Rothko saw modest success as an artist from that point onwards, the artist still needed to supplement his income and in 1929 he began giving classes in painting and clay sculpture at the Center Academy of the Brooklyn Jewish Center. The artist remained a teacher there for 22 years, leaving in 1952.

Untitled by Mark Rothko (From the collection of Guggenheim Bilbao)
No.5 (Untitled) by Mark Rothko (From the collection of Chrysler Museum of Art)

5. Ai Weiwei: Blackjack Player

From 1981 to 1993, conceptual Chinese artist and political activist Ai Weiwei lived in the United States. In 1983 he came to New York and studied briefly at Parsons School of Design and then attended the Art Students League of New York for three years. He dropped out of school and made a living out of drawing street portraits and working odd jobs like house painting and carpentry.

When Weiwei was living in the East Village, the artist became fascinated by blackjack card games and often went to Atlantic City casinos to play. In gambling circles Weiwei is still regarded as a top tier professional blackjack player.

Blossom by Ai Weiwei (From the collection of FOR-SITE Foundation)
Ai Weiwei (From the collection of FOR-SITE Foundation)

6. Dorothea Lange: Photo Finisher at a Supply Shop

Documentary photographer Dorothea Lange was adamant she would be a photographer when she graduated high school in the early 1900s. Lange went on to study photography at Columbia University in New York. In 1918 she left New York with a friend to travel the world, but was forced to end the trip in San Francisco after a robbery. She settled there and began to work at a photographic supply shop as a photo finisher.

It was here that she got to know local photographers and met an investor who helped her set up her own photography studio, where she took portraits. The business supported Lange and her family for the next 15 years and it wasn’t until the onset of the Depression Era that the photographer stepped out of the studio and started taking pictures on the street of the people around her.

Migrant Mother, Nipomo by Dorothea Lange (From the collection of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)
Six Tenant Farmers without Farms, Hardeman County, Texas by Dorothea Lange (From the collection of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)

7. Keith Haring: Busboy

Keith Haring was an American artist whose pop art work grew out of the New York City street culture of the 1980s. Using the streets of the city to spontaneously create work that addressed political and societal themes and then progressing onto large scale murals, Haring’s work has grown to be iconic. Before this international fame, Haring first worked as a busboy at Danceteria, a well-known four-floor nightclub in New York City which operated from 1979 until 1986. It was the same club Madonna worked as a coat-check girl in the early 80s.

Free South Africa by Keith Haring (From the collection of Inter-American Development Bank)
Keith Haring (From the collection of The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center)

8. Corita Kent: Roman Catholic Sister

Unlike many other artists, Corita Kent continued her “day job” as a Roman Catholic sister throughout her career from 1936 until 1968 and it played an important role in her secondary job as an arts educator at the Immaculate Heart College, a private Catholic college in Los Angeles, California.

Kent’s work was almost exclusively on silkscreen and her emphasis on this printing process was linked to her wish to create affordable art for the masses. Her work was full of messages of love and peace, and was particularly popular during the anti-establishment shifts of the 1960s and 70s in America. The artist was forced to return to secular life when her work became increasingly more political and was branded “blasphemous” by church leadership figures.

Sacred Hear by Corita Kent (From the collection of Hammer Museum)
Be of Love by Corita Kent (From the collection of Hammer Museum)

9. Paul Gauguin: Stockbroker

In his early life, artist Paul Gauguin initially signed on as a pilot’s assistant in the merchant marine. Three years later he joined the French navy, where he served for two years. After his release and following the death of his mother, Gauguin returned to Paris and secured a job as a stockbroker at 23, with the help of a family friend.

He was very successful as a businessman and remained in the industry for the next 11 years, where he was also dabbling in the art market. It wasn’t until 1882 when the Paris stock market crashed that he eventually decided to pursue painting full time.

Nave Nave Mahana by Paul Gauguin (From the collection of Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon)
Self-Portrait by Paul Gauguin (From the collection of Kimbell Art Museum)

10. Jackson Pollock: Babysitter

While it was probably just a way to earn money rather than a real career aspiration, Jackson Pollock was a regular babysitter at 18 after moving to New York to live with his brother. So much so he became the babysitter for Thomas Hart Benton, a painter Pollock was studying with. The artist grew close to Benton’s son and the rest of the family, and it seems the art teacher had a lasting impact on his work with his rhythmic use of paint.

Convergence by Jackson Pollock (From the collection of Albright-Knox Art Gallery)
Jack Pollock by Martha Holmes (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)
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