How to Make Money as an Artist
How to Make Money as an Artist
June 25, 2019, 6:43 pm
Filed under: art, business, comedy, Non-Profit, theatre | Tags: arts institutions, arts organizations, arts training, Creating a Life Worth Living, How to Make Money from Art, millionaire, money, odds, Steve Martin, sustainability
The answer to how to make money from your art reminds me of a joke Steve Martin used to do. The bit goes, “ You can be a millionaire and never pay taxes. You can have one million dollars and never pay taxes. You say, Steve — how can I be a millionaire and never pay taxes? First, get a million dollars. Now….”
Except with art — it’s a long list of things like: First, become really popular or First, make commercially profitable work or First, be incredibly well connected socially. Or really, just the same: First, get a million dollars.
If you’re wondering how to make money from your art, chances are you don’t have any of those things yet because if you did, you would probably already be making money from your art and thus we have the art making paradox.
I have read endless articles and books on this topic and they all offer more or else the same thing in more or less optimistic language, depending on the publication. They all know that this is what everyone wants to know, so this is what they tell you, even though no one has the secret. I’m not going to lie to you — the reason why there are so many articles about how to make money from your art is because everyone wants the answer and no one knows how to do it, aside from the Steve Martin, “First, get a million dollars” way. There are some things to try, for sure. There are possibilities and methods. Maybe one will work for you but there are no guarantees.
However — I don’t want to deny what you came here for — so at the risk of repeating what every other article about this says — I will, in fact, offer you some strategies for making money on your art work. I will be unable to avoid drawing on my experience and of other artists I’ve known, though, so you can expect, perhaps, an uncomfortable amount of realism included.
Get a million dollars.
Kidding. Sorry. Couldn’t resist.
First: Make art. If your art requires an upfront investment and you can make it, do it. If you can’t, find ways to adapt. Like, if you’re a painter and you can’t afford a canvas, sketch and draw for a while until you can get the canvas. Make drawings and sketches and paintings. Write novels and plays and blogs and screenplays, etc, etc. Don’t think about selling any of it at first. You just have to do it enough that it becomes part of your life.
If you’re a performing artist, you’re going to have difficulties of a different sort. You’re going to need space (try a park? A basement? Your living room?) and you’re going to (most likely) need other people. Finding other people who will contribute to your art without compensation is probably harder than actually making your piece. All I can advise here is kindness, transparency and gratitude. That is, if you don’t have any money to pay your artists — say, “I don’t have any money to pay you.”
There are those who will pretend they have money to pay artists and then do not have money to pay artists and so do not pay their artists after telling their artists they would be paid. Those folks will get an unsavory reputation very quickly.
Whatever your initial projects are, do not expect to make money on them. The odds are that you will not.
The odds are probably such that your second and third ventures will also not make you money. But you stand a better chance the more work you make — and if you’re lucky you will cease to care quite as much about that.
So — that’s step one. Make your work. And I just want to pause to acknowledge that this is not easy. Making art without money is very very difficult. I have surely talked about this in many blogs before so I won’t go into the unpredictable ways that money makes a difference but just now I suggest that you acknowledge that you’re up against the wall and give yourself hugs.
Step 2: Let’s say you now have a body of work. Make sure you document it because whatever path you take with it, you’re going to need the receipts on your artwork.
Now you can start to think through whether you want to approach making art as a business or as a service. You can try to do both but you’ll likely end up split in half, as any servant of two masters does.
If you pursue the business track, I’d recommend thinking through your boundaries and about what counts as art for you. If you’re happy to be creative on assignment, you will likely be able to make a living. You can get a job in advertising. You can paint for an interior designer. You can write for soap operas. Being creative for a living is entirely possible but be forewarned that this is being “a creative” not being an artist. It’s being artistic for money. It’s not making art. And for a lot of people, this is enough. For some people, they find the balance is to be artistic for work and an artist at home.
If you’re interested in business, you can try selling your art — though I don’t know many who find a way to make this work. Those that do tend to develop a business — they’ll do design to sell their images on t-shirts for example — but given how unwilling most people are to pay for art these days (and for art also read music, theatre, film, dance, writing, etc.,) I don’t know if you can really bank on selling.
I’m not saying you can’t do it. I’m just saying that it is a rare artist who can. If you’re Damien Hirst you can sell a pile of lint but if you’re not already Damien Hirst, it’s not likely you can become him. I think partly that’s because those heady days of buying and selling art are kind of over and partly because the obstacles in the way of becoming the kind of artist who sells his work are more extreme.
Let’s look at music, for example, (and just project out for the other arts) in the pre-internet days, we sort of had a pocket of middle class musicians. An indie band could tour and sell their records and maybe they wouldn’t be able to buy a house but they could keep the band alive. Now, the musician middle class has virtually disappeared. There’s a lot of money at the top and nothing the rest of the way down. What I mean is, you’re either getting 14 million plays on Spotify and doing pretty darn well or you’re getting a thousand and making chump change. You’re either Taylor Swift or you’re struggling. Selling records doesn’t do it any more. Selling paintings doesn’t do it. Selling your writing is a similar problem.
You can try it, of course and you very well may be the one in a million who cracks the code. But the odds are worse than they’ve ever been.
Taking the service route may seem like the easier path. You could start a non-profit organization, go sing your tunes for incarcerated grandmothers or paint puppies in peril.
Probably someone has already suggested you “just get a grant” for something you do. If I had a grant for every time someone suggested I get grant, I’d have a fully funded non-profit. Somehow the world thinks it is super easy to just get a grant — I think they think there are pots of free money just sitting around and all an artist needs to do is to go ask for it. If only.
Listen. Grants are great. I started a non-profit theatre company and I am grateful for every grant check I have ever received. But there are hardly pots of money lying around waiting to be distributed. Grantmakers are rare rare birds and finding one that happens to want to fund exactly the sort of thing you want to make is like going searching for a Rose-Throated Becard (that’s a rare bird from Arizona.) And if you do spot one of those Rose-Throated Grants — well, the odds of it providing you more than a tiny token portion of what you need are VERY slim. Can you find a grant? Sure you can. But you might spend 7 times as long searching for and applying for that funding as you do making your art.
I promise you I’m not trying to be discouraging. I just want you to know what you’re up against.
Are there people who make this model work? Absolutely. They are pros at soliciting donations and establishing artistic organizations and the better you get at it, the bigger the grants are that you become eligible for. So if it appeals to you — give it a shot. I just want you to know that it is not as simple as getting a grant. The first grant we ever received as a non-profit theatre company was for $500. We worked on that application for weeks. The labor, if we’d charged for it, would have been three times the amount of the grant. And $500 was only a drop in the bucket of what we needed.
Grants aren’t magic. That’s all I’m saying. Can you probably pick up a grand somewhere? Probably. But I’m going to guess that you’re going to need more than that to do whatever it is that you want to do. And every penny of it will probably have to go back into the project. So — are you making money with your art? Probably not in this context.
Is it hopeless to imagine you could make a living as an artist? No. It is possible. It’s a little bit like — some basketball players get to play in the NBA and most do not. And more and more — it is only the NBA players who are making any money. Metaphorically speaking.
But again — I’m not telling you this to discourage you. Though, I will say, if you’re discouragable by me, just some struggling artist lady with a blog, I think probably a little discouragement is a good idea. The only way you’re going to survive the indignities of making art in America is if you’re undiscourageable.
Like — if I can, with my little truth telling machine, prevent you from going into whatever art you’re considering, it’s actually a service to you. You might just decide to go to law school instead and then, later, once you have a house and car and your kids have gone to college, you might just come on back to your art and I will tell you that you will likely be in a much better position than those of us who have kept at it, without pause, from our youth.
Do I wish I had done it that way? Nope. No one could have convinced me to take a minute away from my art and if you’re like me — I’m sorry. It is easier the other way. I am envious of those who made other choices and have things like…furniture — but I wouldn’t have, couldn’t have, done it their way.
But let’s say you are like me and no one could convince you to abandon your craft.
Here are some ways you can make it work.
1) Get a full time job. Do your art at night. (Or whatever arrangement of the day you find.) Some of the happiest artists I know have full time office jobs. Others have full time teaching positions.
2) It’s the Gig Economy! Gig it up! Have 6 jobs! I’ve done it. It’s crazy but if you’re trying to prioritize your art, sometimes it’s good to more or less make your own schedule so you can build in a rehearsal day or whatever. I know a Broadway actor who became a handy-man so he could grab a gig when he had the time. When thinking about Day Jobs, I recommend Carol Lloyd’s book, Creating a Life Worth Living — and consider whether or not it will be beneficial for you to do your day job in the big tent of your art or to do something entirely separate. Like, if you want to be a circus performer, would you be happy with a gig as a ticket seller at the circus or will it hurt your heart to be around the thing you love and not IN it? Anyway — jobs, gigs, support careers — they’re a reality for most of us.
3) Other avenues to consider are things like crowdfunding. Crowdfunding, when it first came up in its digital form, was thought to be the future of the arts. It has not turned out to be the panacea it was hoped it would be. But there are ways to crowdfund your work. See also Amanda Palmer’s astonishing Kickstarter album — followed by her great success on Patreon. But — in order for Crowdfunding to work in those magical ways — you have to have a crowd that is already in your corner. If you’re not already popular, crowdfunding is a lot trickier. Amanda Palmer killed it on those platforms because she already had a giant committed fan base when she joined. Personally, I get the bulk of any support on Patreon. I don’t have a CROWD, per se. But I do have some really dedicated supporters — and if you can find even just a few of those, they can make a tremendous amount of difference. If you have people in your life who are willing to help you out, I highly recommend letting them. I’ve known a lot of artists who felt like they couldn’t accept offers of support or patronage and without that avenue, your options for funding your work are really few. I wish it were not so but it is. Art is important. If you have to make it, you will find a way. If you let people help you make it, it will be a lot easier.
Now — a lot of arts support organizations will likely not enjoy this post. They will strenuously argue for their efficacy at giving artists the skills they need to make money. These organizations are some of the top creators of the How to Make Money posts and books and podcasts, etc. It’s how they justify paying all that rent or those salaries for those organizations. Many of these art-support places are very invested in the possibility of magical money that will come to the artists that work hard at the skills they have to offer. I would love it if this were so. I have taken nearly every workshop these sorts of organizations have to offer. Marketing for artists! Grantwriting for artists! Touring! Social Media for artists! Budgeting for artists! PR for artists! Databases for artists!
You can know how to do all those things and still never see a sustainable dime. You can make good work, do bang up support for it and still never find sustainability or even a break. It doesn’t reflect on your quality. It is really and truly the luck of the draw. Not all art is marketable. Not all art makes money.
You should play the game if you want and have to but if it doesn’t fly — it’s probably not you. It’s just that very few things fly.
Even a million dollars isn’t a guarantee. However — it does up your odds significantly. So — to really improve your chances of making money from your arts:
First — get a million dollars.
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Originally published at http://artiststruggle.wordpress.com on June 25, 2019.