(Damien Hirst, one of the world’s wealthiest artists, poses in front of his artwork entitled ‘I am Become Death, Shatterer of Worlds’ in the Tate Modern art gallery on April 2, 2012 in London, England.)
Despite the old adage, living as an artist – yes, a real fingers-in-the-paint kind of artist – is indeed a viable career option today.
The recession and low employment rate have left many Americans with no other option but to stray from conventional 9-5 jobs and forge alternative career paths. For some, this may be a blessing in disguise, encouraging contemplation of a broader range of possibilities when it comes to generating income. Working as a professional artist, getting the rent paid on time and going to sleep with a full stomach every night is feasible; it just takes some planning and preparedness.
Here are three keys to getting there, based on the expertise of seasoned artists:
1. Be Okay With Using Various Revenue Streams:
What feeds an artist’s income varies from case to case. For instance, Sculptor A and Sculptor B technically have the same job title, but they may make money in completely different ways. Perhaps Sculptor A plans to earn all of her income through public art commissions, while Sculptor B strives to rely exclusively on Web sales.
Artist and ArtBistro blogger Valerie Atkisson offers evidence that neither Sculptor A nor B are working toward the most cushy financial situation. In her post, “How do Artists Make Money?” Atkisson shows how in a profession that often lacks traditional benefits and job security, it’s useful to rely on multiple sources of income, such as gallery showings, teaching positions, Web sales, commission projects and grants.
According to photographer Ken Gonzales-Day, dabbling in such an array of moneymaking pools allows a artists to discover which methods are the most lucrative. “It’s very difficult for artists to make a living purely off artwork sales. Sometimes they can get away with this for five years or so, but the demand is extremely unpredictable,” he said. Gonzales-Day is a professor of photography but he doesn’t rely solely on that salary. “I make about 25-30% of my income from other sources such as speaking gigs, public art commissions and publishing. None of these generates a huge amount of money, but it all adds up,” he explained.
Although it may be tempting to put all the eggs in one basket and go full throttle from the get-go – by opening a gallery, let’s say – it’s safer for starting artists to invest a little in a lot. This way, if the gallery sales are weak, he or she still has multiple other sources of income to fall back on. The downside? The artist will have a much fuller plate. The upside? The artist has way more options. If the potatoes are unpalatably undercooked, at least there’s still the turkey, stuffing and pie.
2. Be Weird:
Being outlandish is probably a bad idea at most jobs, but it’s an asset in this profession. In her post “Why Weird Is Wonderful (And Bankable),” Forbes Contributor Jessica Hagy rather artistically draws, graphs and writes about the value in abnormality. Hagy explains that the less normal something is, the more memorable it tends to be.
To sell art, it helps to grab the viewer’s attention by creating works that are distinctly different from what already exists. It’s also smart for an artist to cultivate an aesthetic that is markedly his or her own. Famed artists such as Picasso, Van Gogh, Degas, Monet, Warhol, and Close all have one thing in common: their works look nothing alike. After seeing a few Picasso pieces, it’s easy to select which is the Picasso out of a bunch. Such cohesiveness shows a level of control and deliberation that can be visually enticing.
As Gonzales-Day explained, “Artists who work to create a brand around their names will have more opportunities to engage in various projects.” If someone associates an artist’s name with his or her distinguished style, invitations to work, speak and teach are more likely to ensue.
In a recent lecture entitled “How to Succeed as an Artist,” artist and career advisor Paul Klein emphasized the importance of being different. He insinuated that distinctiveness generates sales – even more so than quality. “Can’t all of us name artists who are doing really well monetarily, whose work we think sucks?” The branded artist doesn’t necessarily produce better work, but more bankable work.
3. Have the Right Mindset
Passion and talent aren’t the only qualifications for becoming a professional artist. It takes a certain type of person who accepts the unconventional challenges of this job. They must be able to tolerate criticism of their work and posses the drive necessary to independently charter their own career paths.
Along with the complexities, this career has its advantages. Most artists have full power over their business decisions, selling strategies and creative choices. According to Gonzales-Day, living as an artist is an ongoing journey, both literally and figuratively. “This spring I’ve already traveled to Paris, Santa Barbara, San Diego, Washington D.C. and Los Angeles for projects and events,” he said, emphasizing travel as a major perk that comes with his profession.
With no clear road to reach success as an artist, it may be too structureless for some. But for others, the flexibility is advantageous. If the path of a lawyer is like a bamboo plant, an artist’s is like ivy. As anyone who’s been to the English Countryside knows, ivy can flourish despite its unpredictable form. In the words of Gonzales-Day: “It’s an organic business model.”