Making a living as an artist today can be perceived as a difficult, and almost impossible, endeavour. Today’s artists are expected to be entrepreneurs, content creators, and academics. So, what choices do artists have to make a decent living these days?
I tried to come up with a list of options that I think would offer the most success. These are the things I’d consider if I wanted to make a living through my art. Of course, there are always a million ways of making a living, but these are the most common paths to a successful career.
First, find examples of working artists.
It’s really easy to assume that it’s impossible to make a living with your art, but it’s also very possible that you’re just not aware that there are plenty of working artists all around you.
The best way to get some confidence is to find other artists who are doing well. And that might mean looking outside your social circle (artists tend to interact with other artists at their level).
- Look at artists who book a lot of gigs.
- Look at artists who advertise their work.
- Look at artists who are constantly producing and whose work is getting media attention.
- Run a google search for artists who do commission work.
- Look at what artists are being listed on Google maps.
- Check out who’s frequently getting solo shows at galleries.
- Look through various FB artist groups – ask artists in those groups.
And, ask around. There’s a pretty good chance that someone knows someone who makes art for a living.
Reduce your cost of living.
I host a podcast where I interview a variety of artists, and scientists. When I interviewed Jacqueline Van De Geer, one of the key points that she made was that she can afford to be a working artist because she doesn’t need much in life.
If you’re loaded with debt, or if you have a family, this option might not be possible for you. But, for many artists, it is. And it requires embracing the mindset that you might need to be a starving artist for a little while. New business owners know this mindset really well, and it’s a shame that artists have been perceived as the only type of people who sacrifice things for their work. But, plenty of other people do this, from tradespeople to hairdressers. Anyone who’s just starting out might need to go through a period of brief poverty.
In Canadian society, we’re used to having all sorts of material comforts, whether it’s fancy coffee or the latest iPhone. But if you’re genuinely wanting to chase your dream of becoming a working artist, there will be sacrifices you’ll have to make to get there.
And, in the end, it might start to feel less like a sacrifice and more like a new lifestyle. Plenty of people are extremely happy living with less. It’s a good idea to ask yourself, “what do I need to be happy”? In terms of material costs for your art, you just do like most starving artists have done over the years: you work with what you can afford. And, you can always ask for donations or get recommendations for cheap items you can start off with. You’d be surprised how many older artists are also willing to donate old gear, so do yourself a favour and start frequenting some freecycle and artist groups on Facebook and Reddit.
Get a graduate degree.
If you’re in a position where you can afford schooling, or someone else is paying it for you, and if you’re a visual artist, it might pay off to get an MFA. Here’s why: the gallery system and museum system revolve around the MFA.
Out of curiosity a few years ago, I scanned the list of artists for all of the upcoming gallery shows. Out of a few hundred names, I only found a handful that didn’t have an MFA. The system is rigged that way, whether it’s fair or not, it’s just the reality you have to accept if you want to increase your chances of getting a solo show.
It doesn’t mean you can’t or won’t get picked up by a gallery. But without a graduate degree, it will be harder for you to get recognition in the art market unless there’s something really unique about you and your work.
Learn, and obsess over marketing.
This is probably the single most important thing that today’s artists need to do if they want to succeed outside of the traditional system. And most artists will never be good at this because they’re not entrepreneurial by nature. I think that’s why it’s so difficult to become a full-time artist today: the odds are stacked against you unless you’re also willing to become a marketer.
If you are, you’re in luck. Because if you can learn how to create content to market your work, if you can start to really obsess over connecting with people online, you can really do well for yourself! Today’s technology has democratized the process of connecting with buyers and customers, but only if you’re willing to take the time to take advantage of it.
For most artists, marketing their work becomes a second full-time profession. It means spending 3 to 4 full days a week, or working on marketing every weeknight, or dedicating a half-day every day of the week to promotion and sales. If you want to do it really well, it means spending more than just a half-hour here and there. And this, btw, is why most artists fail at marketing – they don’t spend enough time on it because they hate doing it – and that’s totally understandable. It also robs you of the time you’d rather spend making art.
Sadly, if you do decide to embark on this journey, you can’t half-ass it. It gets terribly sad when I see artists get discouraged because nothing is manifesting for them, when all I want to say is: become obsessed about it. Make it an absolutely crucial part of your career. Make it just a means to get to where you want to be: a place where you can just make art and get paid for it.
It’s exhausting work, but it’s also one of the best ways to claim your place as a living, working artist. If, by chance, you can afford to hire someone to help you with marketing, DO IT. Just like you’d hire an accountant or a plumber to help you with things you don’t know how to do, a marketing specialist will make everything easier for you.
Move to a better place.
Yesterday’s great artists didn’t stay in their small towns; they moved. They flocked in droves to New York City, Paris, Berlin, and Los Angeles. They went to places that were safer for artistic expression (many forms of expression are illegal around the world). They left the safety of home to find the right place to create freely.
Today’s artists have to do the same. If rent is unaffordable where you are, leave. Ottawa, for example, doesn’t have any vacant studio spaces for artists – in fact, it has so few exploratory spaces for the arts, that if I wanted to make a living as an artist, I wouldn’t live here.
As an artist, it’s very possible that you might not fit in in the place where you were born, or where you ended up moving to as an adult. And, in order to move, it might mean getting a job doing something else to raise the funds for moving expenses. It might mean bunking with four other artists in a new city. If you have better prospects elsewhere, and you really want to do this, then you’ll find a way.
If you can get yourself to a place where creating is cheaper, and where other artists are plentiful, that will give you a much better head start than if you were to stay in a place that won’t enrich your life as a working artist.
Become friends with rejection.
Some of the best writers in history got rejected hundreds of times. Rejection is all too common in an artist’s trajectory. And artists who don’t have the patience or the stomach to accept rejection and not get discouraged too much by it won’t be able to weather the rest of the challenges involved with making art a career choice.
I hate to sound old, but today’s youth are used to things on-demand. We’re becoming more and more accustomed with easy access and quick fixes. We want things now, and we want things to be more fair and equitable.
I totally get that. Previous systems, whether they were competitions or juries for grants, were rife with discrimination and sexism. There are issues we have had to tackle head on to make juries and institutions more welcoming.
But, that doesn’t erase the fact that sometimes, things won’t be fair. Rejection will still haunt you, and your work might not be as valued as you wish it was, early on. Get over it, because what usually makes all the difference in the end isn’t necessarily how good your work is, it’s your tenacity to keep moving forward despite the challenges in your way.
Run it like a business.
Again, this only applies to you if you’re entrepreneurial in nature (if not, skip this paragraph). The best way to take advantage of tax breaks and the benefits of entrepreneurship is to create a business around your work as an artist.
This way, whatever you spend on supplies, tools, and rentals can be deducted. You can also apply for various grants and loans.
If you run yourself like a business, that means applying all of the principles of being in business: your goal is to make money. It’s not to be charitable, it’s not to do favours, it’s to make an actual living. That means that you start thinking about options that will help you make sales, whether that’s coming up with ways to target customers for commission work or it’s listing yourself as a wedding singer. Whatever the art form, there are ways to make money with your talents while also working on the more personal and expressive side of your art.
There are plenty of business books and resources online. If you’re entrepreneurial, but you prefer learning through schooling, check out your local business courses and programs. What a lot of artists don’t realize is that the principles of business can apply to any kind of business. Selling art is like selling any other luxury item, toy or feel-good item. Learn how to sell, learn how to do some book-keeping, learn how to write professionally, and you’ll be in a better position to do well.
Think like the people who would buy your work.
One of the things I see often in artist circles is that they think it’s enough to put their art up in a coffee shop, or they think releasing a single on bandcamp is going to get them noticed by a major label. If you want to get noticed, you’ve gotta start thinking like the people who might buy your work.
How will you get noticed by the people you want to work for? Is it going to be by just posting a few blurbs every now and then on social media, or is it going to be by actively finding them and putting your work in front of them?
If I wanted to make a living as an artist, I’d get the email addresses for anyone who mattered and I’d send them an email with a link to my work. I’d pay to get posters done and I’d plaster them in all the places those people hang out. I’d find out which subway stop they used and I’d play my guitar there.
It sounds a bit like stalking, and in a way, it is! You’re actively trying to connect with the people that can take you to the next level, or who might purchase your work. That doesn’t mean that you pester them. It means that you get yourself in front of them. That’s it.
If you don’t think your work is interesting, then it’s not.
We’ve done a really good job at making artists think that ego is bad. We’ve made them all think that it just comes down to getting paid for their work, when it actually runs much deeper than that. Most artists don’t even think they’re good enough to get noticed. They don’t bother chasing after things because they have this depressive attitude that it’s not worth it.
And the truth is, the ones who are making a good living with their art all have a healthy ego. Some have too much of it, but for the most part, they at least believe in some way, that what they do is pretty interesting. Value is much more than just financial; it’s the ability to believe you deserve the attention in the first place.
Something has to stand out.
This is probably the most important part: whatever you do, something about your work has to stand out. There has to be that special something that says “oh, that’s their signature look”, or signature style. Whatever it is, there has to be something that makes you stand out from the millions of other artists out there.
And that’s not easy to achieve. Sometimes, it’s just a different voice. Sometimes, it’s in your technique. Sometimes, it’s in the colours you use. And, sometimes, it’s just a gimmick that you come up with. But, it’s undeniable: artists who have an authentic style tend to do much better than artists who don’t.
So, before you even decide to put yourself out there and go all gung-ho about networking, find out if your artwork really reflects who you are. Find out if your music is really “you”. If you were to line up the work of 50 artists next to yours, could your friends pick out which one you made?
Start thinking about these things because they really do make a huge difference. If you want to make your mark in this world, and you want to make a living at it, you better make sure your stamp has your name on it. You CAN do it. It just won’t be as easy as getting a regular job. But, you already knew that.
Note: In case you’re wondering, I didn’t mention things like “get an agent” or “do some crowdfunding”, because those are all technicalities. The main options for artists these days revolve around schooling, marketing, location, and connections. The rest are just details that you figure out along the way. Besides, half the battle is in realizing that it’s not impossible, and that yes, there are people out there who value your work. The reality is that they probably aren’t in your circle.