MYTH: “There’s no money in art, you’ll starve!”
Fact: There are ways to supplement your income or even support a family making art.
Here’s the third myth from my series called, “TEN MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS (That Will Keep You From Being A SUCCESSFUL Artist”. “Artists Starve in Garrets.” (What IS a garret??) Corollary: “Real artists don’t care about money” and “You have to sell out in order to sell your art”.
Yes, real artists DO care about money. They have to eat and pay taxes and live somewhere just like us. They may even want to eat out or see a movie from time to time, or go on a vacation. Or have nice clothes. They may even (horrors!) want to send their kids to college, or go to France. And see the works of artists there who may or may not have starved in garrets.
There is nothing wrong with wanting compensation for your skill and hard work, whether your work is laying bricks, raising potatoes, putting together a corporate merger, or creating a beautiful pot or painting. We do many things out of love and skill, but we don’t tell our dentist, “I know how much you love your work, so you don’t expect to be PAID for removing that impacted molar, do you?”
There’s also nothing wrong with people wanting to pay you for your art. Just as we long to have a nice lawn, pretty flowers in our garden, matching towels in our bathrooms and a really really big flat screen TV, many of us long to have attractive and/or meaningful things in our homes.
Hence, many people who cannot make the art you make, will want to pay you so they can own some of yours.
It’s a thrill when someone else loves your work so much, they are willing to part with their own hard-earned money for it. It is the ultimate compliment. Don’t let anyone tell you different.
You can make a living with art. You can make a living selling the art you want to make—IF you take the time to find your audience. It helps to recognize that the business of art is just that–a business. You are creating a product just as if you were in the business of writing a white paper for a venture capital company, or raising corn, or making and selling food at a restaurant. We’ll look again at ways to look at art-making as a business, but for now, try to lose the idea that making art to sell is somehow WRONG.
And re: “selling out”…making modifications (temporary or otherwise) in order to make your art more marketable is good business sense. NOT selling out.
There is no right or wrong way to approach the business of selling your art. There are CONSEQUENCES that result from your choices, however. Be aware and prepared for those consequences.
For example, some people want to make something that sells easily and quickly. They study the market to see what’s hot or trendy and what’s selling. That gives them a good shot to get their business up and running fast.
There are consequences for choosing this business model. First, fads come and go seemingly overnight. They are bell-curved in nature—a very few people buy the idea at first, followed by a small but growing swell of followers. Then the boom hits and EVERYBODY wants one. Soon, though, the boom ebbs, and you are left with stock that’s out of date. By the time you get through a season, it’s time to completely redesign your work.
Also, do you think you’re the only person who noticed what was selling? Your competition is right at your heels, sometimes in the booth next to you. It’s hard to create a look that’s significantly different from hundreds of other artists working in the same fad.
Plus you are not really creating something that comes from your heart, from where YOU stand in the world. You are constantly looking out into the world and following someone else’s lead.
On the other hand, some people are determined to only create work that totally pleases them. They are the people who are determined to crochet granny square vests in neon acrylic yarn. Since this look is actually coming back, I’ll just go on to say this proves my next point: You CAN sell crocheted vests made of granny squares in synthetic neon-colored yarn if you can wait long enough to grow an audience for it.
The advantage is you will be working very close to your “greatest vision” for your art. It will be highly individual in nature and a unique expression of your vision. It will be difficult for anyone else to copy or follow in your footsteps.
The consequence here is it can take time, a long, long time, to develop a following for something. If you don’t care about getting cash flow going, or are extremely patient and unconcerned with the opinion of others, then you can afford to work this way.
But as in real life, you don’t have just two choices. Just like most decisions in life, you can construct something that lies somewhere in the middle.
Somewhere in the middle could look like this: You spend the time developing a highly personal body of work, work that has your distinctive and individual mark in it.
You invest the necessary time developing that style. At the same time, you find ways to connect it to a larger audience than your current audience of one (you.) You either offer less-involved versions that appeal to more people. Or you find ways to tweak it in small ways that don’t dilute the artwork’s vision itself, that makes it more marketable.
You still have the strength and power of a unique body of work, sacrificing more time and effort to develop your ultimate audience. But you also have something that’s somewhat marketable in the meantime, and bringing in cash flow so you can continue to grow.
Another approach could be to start smaller. You make something that IS trendy, or simple, or just fun to make. It’s not super-special, you just like doing it.
You sell some here, you sell some there, and over time, your audience grows. The fad goes away, but your work has evolved past that. As you go, you constantly tweak it here and there, adding touches that are unique to YOU.
Your interest pulls you to explore farther and farther. Your work becomes even more an extension of you. Your audience comes along gradually, growing larger and more appreciative.
One day, you realize your work has slowly evolved into something that is still recognizable but so distinctively YOU that anyone could look at it and say, “That’s a Joanna Smith!” On your journey, along the way, you made a million little choices by following your heart, resulting in a body of work only YOU could have made.
The point is you don’t have to choose between selling out and not selling at all. Life is rarely about black-and-white choices. It’s about finding the way BETWEEN you can live with. Sometimes through compromise and negotiation. Sometimes through small, unconscious changes. But always in balance.
P.S. A garret comes from an old French word, refers to the space inside/under the roof a building, and is simply a very classy way of saying “attic”….
Caveat: A friend who’s a lot of research about “successful” artists found that many don’t really make a living from their work. Some of the names would surprise you. Some are supported by spouses or trust funds. Some rely on academic careers for their bread-and-butter. On the other hand, I DO know people who support families while making work they love. Yet some people wouldn’t call them “artists”.
The moral of the story here: Don’t let anyone else define “success” for you! It will be different for each of us. And there is room in the world for all of our versions.
For a pithier (and funnier) version of this philosophy, see this post at the IttyBiz blog.