The Key to a Successful Career in the Arts

September 14, 2019 - NYU Abu Dhabi student Kacper Joachim Madejek plays piano at a convocation ceremony for Vice Chancellor Mariët Westermann.

Artists are vital to our society.

The arts are part of our DNA and fundamental to everything we do. From cultural development to economic success and social discourse, the arts are an unnoticed but omnipresent force in our lives. Artists provide the background music in our favorite cafes, the design of our homes, and the books we love.

Still, there’s a common misconception that a career in the arts and humanities is risky and inapplicable to today’s needs; that an artist in the making will either find themselves without a job or destined to lead an impoverished life. But in 2018, the arts contributed $762 billion to the US economy, more than agriculture and transportation, and employed 4.9 million people. 

Everything from museums to writers, performances, and independent artists, the arts are not only a viable pursuit but vital to our society. Why then, do many budding artists experience trepidation about life as an artist?

The arts “is literally what everyone tells you not to do,” says NYU Abu Dhabi alumni Cristóbal MarYán, a 26-year-old composer from Mexico. “An extended family member once told me, ‘If you are not Mozart, I don’t see the point.’ He works in finance. I wish I had answered, ‘If you are not Warren Buffet, I really don’t see the point either’.”

Since graduation, Cristóbal’s music has been played by orchestras, ensembles, and soloists around the world - realizing a dream he’s had since childhood. Cristóbal knew early on that music was his calling. He started composing his own music before age 12 and at 16 moved to Hong Kong on a full scholarship to a prestigious international college for youth. He then attended NYU Abu Dhabi to pursue a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in music.

2015 NYU Abu Dhabi alumni Cristóbal MarYán receives applause at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City.

By the time Cristóbal finished university, he knew all the risks of pursuing a career in the arts, and was comfortable facing them. If you really want to work as a musician or painter or writer, he says, diversification is everything.

“Do not stick with only writing a novel or a book of poems. Write everything. From a review for a magazine that no one will ever read to a collection of stories that you send to a publishing company.” 

He says as an artist working independently, work ethic and discipline are key. Often, he says, failure to doggedly pursue opportunities that would lead to more work is the demise of many artists’ careers and could explain why art as a profession is so discouraged. But to be successful it takes steadfastness and resilience.

I knew from very early on music composition was my calling and my road. I took the decision to pursue it knowing all the risks, and being comfortable with them.

Cristóbal MarYán, 2015 alumni

“Paint your own works and go out to some new business in the block to offer if you can paint a mural for their new shop. The more you do it, the better you become. When the chance comes with that high-profile client, you will want the experience from working with smaller clients.”

Most recently, Cristóbal was selected to compose a significant, celebratory piece of music for the Mexican government, which was performed by the Orchestra of the Americas at Palacio de Bellas Artes - Mexico's most important and respected stage. He has also written music scores on several short films and TV commercials for brands like FOX, the NFL, Chevrolet, NatGeo, Bundesliga, and The Walking Dead.

 “Art is humanity’s most powerful technology,” adds NYU Abu Dhabi Associate Dean of Arts and Humanities and Head of the Art and Art History Program David Darts. Arts education is very well placed to prepare students like Cristóbal for a rapidly changing and uncertain future. 

“Artists are vital to a healthy society - they regularly invent things that don’t exist, offer new perspectives, and provide novel solutions to difficult problems,” he says. But he acknowledges fear of failure is common.

Related: NYU Abu Dhabi alumni are employed around the world in industries ranging from consulting to technology, startups and the arts

Be the Author of Your Own Story

Artists themselves are often the first to admit there’s a lot of uncertainty along the way, especially at the beginning, and the desire to give up can be overwhelming. An independent career without steady work is enough to derail some budding artists, robbing society of talent, and much needed creativity. 

NYU Abu Dhabi alumna and author Joey Bui, a literature and creative writing major, went through “predictable cycles of being inspired and determined to write, then being cynical and hopeless that it would ever work out. I knew that I’d keep writing,” she says, “but I didn’t know if it would ever work.” 

“The toughest thing I had to do was quit and start again – several times over. None of it felt right. It scared me to quit, with nowhere to go next, but I was dissatisfied.”

About two years after graduating from NYUAD, Joey decided it was time to throw caution to the wind and take a chance on herself and her dreams. She applied to law school, and vowed to finish writing a book she started as a college senior. Both decisions proved to be life-changing.


I went for it, and it made me feel like a fighter.

Joey Bui, 2016 alumni

Now, Joey is in her second year at Harvard Law. Her book, Lucky Ticket - a collection of short stories based on interviews with refugees - was picked up by a publisher in Australia and is available to buy online. Joey’s success with her book and in grad school have little to do with luck and everything to do with consistent, hard work. “I went for it, and it made me feel like a fighter,” she says.

Lucky Ticket, she recalls, started as a labor of love in her final year at NYU Abu Dhabi. “I printed out the pages and put the books together with my friends in a room in the NYUAD Arts Center. My roommate, a visual arts major, designed a cover for me. We sewed the books by hand.” 

Joey’s refusal to give up on her dream to be a writer proves that every artist has to forge their own path and be willing to ride out an unpredictable journey of highs and lows. Her advice to other young writers: “Don’t forget about the gritty, hardwork part of art”.

Related video: NYU Abu Dhabi Assistant Professor of Arts Sandra Peters explains how an empty house in California inspired an entire exhibition in Abu Dhabi