Thoughts on the ‘portfolio career’

If you thought you were just bouncing from gig to gig, juggling multiple part-time or limited-term jobs in the arts and elsewhere, or just patching together a living from a seemingly diffuse bundle of clients, employers, and projects, you may not have realized that you were engaging in the job strategy of the future, the portfolio career. The phrase and the concept seem to be popping up in organizational theory circles as a way of capturing an age-old practice that’s becoming an emerging trend.

The ”portfolio worker,” defined by organizational and management theorist Charles Handy a few decades ago, doesn’t work for a single company, but rather gathers a ”portfolio” of jobs around a common theme or skill set, and balances that portfolio much like an investor manages a bundle of stocks.

I’ve been using the phrase a lot lately, as it describes both the reality of so much cultural work, but also the tension and intention of managing such complex working relationships. We’ve seen lots of evidence lately that policy-makers don’t consider portfolio jobs to be ”real jobs” (which are defined, it seems, as permanent, persistent employment opportunities). Further, our career counseling for creative professionals, and our training for prospective professionals in higher education, does little to engage the challenge.

Anyone know of an organization or a research cluster that’s specifically looking at this issue in the arts? Would love to know who already knows about it.


  1. Phil Webster says

    I have been working this way since I graduated in 2003. At first, I thought that this would only be how I started my career as a musician, but now I see many benefits to being a “Portfolio Musician.” The biggest benefit to me currently is the job security, what I mean is that in times of economic trouble one of my jobs might be lost, but that is only a percentage of my salary so I can still pay my bills. I also like the amount of variety that my career provides, just when I start to tire of one activity it usually is time to change to one of my other jobs and I get a change of scenery and activity.
    I never see myself as having “one job” and I’m happy with that. I enjoy reading blogs such as this one to keep me up on market trends so I know when to make that next trade!

  2. George Slade says

    I wish I’d been able to refer to myself as a “portfolio art historian” or “portfolio curator” when I left college in the mid-1980s. Much better than the “patchwork quilt” or “tapestry” I feel like I’ve been crafting as I move between and serve almost every photography-inclined arts organization w/in a day’s drive of the Twin Cities. I had to give my activities a name, finally, to remind myself that they were all tied together (re:photographica is my umbrella), but I still have a hard time believing in it as a business. Still, I believe that there’s value in the portfolio notion.

  3. says

    The Behance network has designed an effective model for ‘portfolio creatives’ to engage within the web communications environment. Some of their activities also extend to non-profits.

  4. Vicci Una Johnson says

    The Twin Cities is a hot-spot of professional instrumental musicians who traditionally practiced this style of work. They are not 9 to 5’ers. Most hold advanced degrees in music performance, some with a double major in music education. Their job description can include; teaching privately, teaching speciality classes rotating between local colleges and universities; contracting to public schools for the purpose of coaching small groups such as string quartets or jazz bands; perform with local groups such as the Minnesota Orchestra, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra when an arrangement calls for extra musicians (these must be Twin Cities Musicians Union members). Their diversity is great, and many can also be found performing at local jazz clubs such as the Dakota in Minneapolis. This can be called a “Portfolio-Musicians” life style in the Twin Cities. One would think this bag-a-bond style of employment would become less popular in these economic times, however; St. Paul has a 2-year music business and instrumental music college, McNally-Smith, and from what I understand, this life-style is still attracting the young gifted musician.

  5. Christina says

    I think it’s important to talk about the downsides – or potential pitfalls – to the portfolio or patchwork career so that people who have successfully dealt with them can share strategies and resources with those who haven’t figured out what to do and are too ashsamed to ask questions.
    1) Workers are responsible for 100% of health insurance costs. I know too many young musicians who are simply without coverage because they don’t know where to go to find affordable options.
    2) There is little guidance for retirement planning. Does TIAA-CREF have an option for freelancers? Is there a company that offers a ROTH IRA that has a modest initial investment?
    3) Tax preparation can be onerous for freelancers and demands meticulous record-keeping and a willingness to understand at least a modicum of IRS code.
    4) Contract negotiations are another sticky issue. Whether unions help or hurt in this capacity depends on the individual, but more often than not issues like paid sick leave and maternity leave are not priorities.
    There are many upsides to the portfolio career and there will be more great workers who stick with it if those who successfully navigated the mine fields of health insurance, retirement planning, tax preparation, and contract negotations are open and honest with others about the best routes.

  6. Jill says

    This isn’t necessarily about the arts- but I love this blog which offers the advise on the intersection of work and life. She has addressed job “hoping” or portfolio building as a way to maintain passion for what you are doing and to quickly build a network. She has quite a few posts and links on this subject.
    I have done my own share of career portfolio building which has lead me to move across the country several times. As difficult and expensive moving is, I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything. I think the skill set that I currently have and am working on will lead me to new adventures for years to come. Do I have a final career objective or dream job? I sure do… and I know that what I am doing will eventually take me there.

  7. says

    Portfolio Career — how apt. I started Cinematheque Films four years ago. The first thing people want to know (which I find more than a little annoying as it’s really none of their business) is: where do you get the money. What they would really like to say but don’t is: how do you get the money.
    We are simply a bunch of at-risk boys who make art. That’s it.
    The money comes from dead artists who died of AIDS. There are a few.
    Most of them said to me: I was like one of those boys once.
    Me, too.
    We live together. This is not a situation where a boy walks to school or takes the bus. The living together is intense but so are the problems they face.
    All of them have HIV.
    Nothing we do is like anything you would know.
    My goal is for the boys of Cinematheque to run their own school. I want out of this job.
    This summer I let them be in charge. It went well.
    I want to make art with them (as opposed to supervise; each guy has to submit a portfolio to get in) because making art is what I have to do. It is why I am here. On this earth.
    Most of the guys are from the street. Most are sex workers. Most are junkies. We use the word whore and we laugh when we hear the catholic term sex worker.
    We’re not nice. We’re rowdy. We’re not interested in the art status quo. Things like shows; we think the media is a joke. We had a poetry night once. The audience threw their chairs against the wall. They thought a nude thirteen-year-old with an erection reading a poem he wrote was way out of line. I only shrug. I ended poetry night. I’m interested in them writing poetry. I am not interested in the hate that is always so ubiquitous. The outside world makes little sense to us. To survive, we avoid it.
    To survive is ultimately our most difficult challenge.
    I can’t imagine not doing this. These boys are connected at the hip to technology. They mash video. They create new content. They explore. My goal is that they stay off the street. They are intensely sexual in the relationships they create with one another.
    They’re always in trouble. I do my best to keep them out of jails and prisons.
    Performance art is what they live for. We’ve been doing performance art in old European concentration camps.
    There is no portfolio career for this model — we break molds every day. They have no meaning to us.
    My biggest problem isn’t with the outside world. It’s in getting the boys to stop looking up to me as the authority figure.
    I want equality. It’s like pulling teeth.
    They can’t hide behind my authority forever. What they need is experience with success. Their success.
    As their equal (a long time ago I was one of them) I want to stand there and applaud them.
    I guard their privacy fiercely.
    We are unique. We play it day to day. The art we make is a process we learn from. It’s not for the public to mull over. Or maul over. We don’t want to care what you — or anyone — thinks about it. Or us.
    We are writing a VOOK. I don’d know if there are other VOOKS out there. I don’t care.
    Tim Barrus
    Paris, France

  8. Caroline Savage says

    I indeed am a Portfolio Worker, formerly independent contractor working as an educator, artist, grantwriter and arts administrator in the media arts.
    I suggest you also look at the Freelancer’s Union
    They were established to change health insurance laws for individuals in NY but now have a national database and seemt o be about networking as a “freelance” worker.
    Don’t know much more but thought you might find it applicable to the arts.

  9. Paul Tyler says

    Ann Galligan of Northeastern University and Margaret Wyszomirski of Ohio State University did part of a session at the recent Grantmakers in the Arts conference that examined the portfolio career path as it relates to artists and their professional lives. Check with them for their research on this subject, it was a fascinating presentation.

  10. Alexis Frasz says

    As usual Andrew you have your finger on the pulse. We recently completed a survey of over 6,000 artists in the U.S. for Leveraging Investments in Creativity (soon to be published) that indicated that 2/3 hold more than one job, and many hold two or more jobs. The more jobs that one holds, in general, the lower ones income is likely to be. From personal experience watching my peers I know it is true that the portfolio career is becoming a more widely spread phenomenon. As people have mentioned, this type of work is not well understood by policy makers and others, and often portfolio workers lack the supports available to other types of workers. The growing ubiquity of this type of works provides a great opportunity for artist advocates to connect to other sectors who are also interested in socio-economic policy changes. The question might be: “how do we as a society enable and support sustainable, portfolio careers that our economy now depends on?” The answer would certainly address things like health care, housing, and retirement that are essential parts of the advocacy platforms for artists, but are by no means “artists issues” alone.

  11. says

    I agree with Eve Gordon! It’s so hard to keep up with what everyone else is doing and saying when you’re trying to keep your head above water yourself – the blog about the “new normal” says it well! I’m going to put all these great references and links on my “to do” list and pursue them… just as soon.. as…. I … can!