One way for fine arts students to acquire real-world experience during or after their post-secondary education is to participate in a work exchange program. A self-directed, independent study, work exchange educational program can provide the launching pad for an artist’s career. Speaking as an alum of such a program in Philadelphia, Nate Mell, founder, and CEO of ceramic design and manufacturing studio, Felt+Fat, discusses making the most of a work exchange program and similar opportunities.

There is nothing quite like intensely focused real-world work experience to help budding artists stretch their skill limits. There are aspects of their chosen profession that will only be realized by creating and developing their own work in a studio alongside other artists.

Whether a study abroad program or in your same city, work exchange is an effective use of a post-graduation gap year. Nate participated in a work exchange program at The Clay Studio in his hometown of Philadelphia and found the experience to be invaluable.

An independent study work exchange program typically provides:

  • Access to studio space
  • Discounted materials
  • Useful critiques
  • Unparalleled development opportunities

Participating in an artistic community offers a rare opportunity to experience what it means to be a professional artist.

In exchange for their place in the program, each participant is expected to provide a specified number of hours (often 40 hours) a month to support the various tasks needed to maintain a functioning studio. Duties will vary from program to program but often include studio maintenance, customer service, assisting special events, glaze preparation, kiln operation, teaching, community engagement, gallery experience, and sales support.

While most work exchange program participants are graduated students taking a sabbatical year before beginning their career, early career professionals interested in furthering their experience and portfolio will also be accepted into these programs often.

To make the most of a fine arts work exchange program, participants should approach the opportunity the same way they would an internship, apprenticeship, or an advanced degree. It should be considered both an extension of their formal education and at the same time an integral part of their career development.

The 1–2 years spent in a work experience program can be the first vital steps toward gaining recognition in their field. Life-long and career influencing relationships will be established during this period. Opportunities that would otherwise not be available will provide invaluable experiences.

Spend every available moment in the exchange studio watching, asking questions, and learning from the in-house and guest artists. You will find them eager to teach and guide in their area of expertise.

Each program will have a unique application and acceptance process. After identifying a work exchange program in your field, begin the acceptance process. This process typically includes an application form, a resume, your portfolio, and a statement detailing your career aspirations and background.

Be sure to include information about why you would like to participate, not only in a work exchange program generally, but that specific program as well. Do your research beforehand so you can address the unique aspect of that program in your statement.

About Nate Mell

Nathaniel Mell is the founder and CEO of Felt+Fat, a ceramic design, and manufacturing studio based in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood. In 2013 Nate was asked to design a set of plates for what would become the award-winning restaurant ‘High Street on Market.’ Since then, the Felt and Fat studio and team have grown exponentially through Mell’s leadership to become a go-to manufacturer for design-conscious restaurateurs.