Over the last several years – starting when I decided to take my sculpting seriously – I’ve joined countless art groups and business groups in an effort to learn as much as possible. I’ve also invested in many classes taught by respected individuals in the art world. The members/artists in the social groups will all complain about the same thing – you just can’t make a living as an artist! You can’t charge enough for your art to pay yourself based on labor involved. The market they’re selling to just won’t pay it. Which of course just serves to prove the stereotype of the “starving artist”…..right?
It is this mentality that artists embrace that continues the self sabotaging behavior. Will you become rich just starting out as an artist or creative? Not unless you are a prodigy and the stars align just right for the right people to see your work at the right time.The starving artists myth/stereotype is perpetuated because artists don’t have an affinity for business. The business side of running turning their passion into something to make a living from is lost to them. There is a reason that apprenticeships were the popular way to learn a craft/trade. As an apprentice, it was expected that you not make any money, but in exchange for doing the “grunt work” in the studio of the master craftsman, they would teach you what they knew. You learned as your worked. In this way, the student also learned how the business of being artist worked whether they realized it or not. Traditional apprenticeships are rarely utilized anymore, and as a result we have a market of “starving artists” who just can’t seem to get out of their own way. So while you may not get rich immediately, one must remember that “over night successes” typically take 10 years. Establishing sound business practices now will help keep a creative entrepreneur from falling into the “starving artist” stereotype.
I touched on one of the problems above – and that is that artists in general (yes, I am generalizing) tend to go through a self sabotaging cycle. They are good at something and want to sell it. They create an online platform to sell their wares. Have no idea how to price it so they just throw a price on willy nilly. when things don’t sell right away, they drop their prices and continue to drop their prices until what they’re selling the product for barely covers material costs let alone pays them for their time. And the cycle continues. And then they complain that they can’t make a living doing this so they give up.
Another problem is the failure to research. You may LOVE abstract art and that may be your passion and what you are really good at. But if you live in coastal Maine where tourism is a huge industry and people want pictures of lobsters and puffins… your abstract paintings are going to sit and collect dust regardless of what prestigious gallery you gain representation from. You have to know your audience, your market, and who your ideal client is. If you don’t know that, you will not effectively be able to market your work or get it in front of the people who want to buy it. This also means that you target market…may not be your local market…
Self improvement is another inhibitor. When someone has a natural talent at something, they stop exploring it. They want the success to ride on the coat tails of this natural talent. Many see studying under other artists, investing in mastermind groups in their genre, et al; as a waste of time and money. This couldn’t be further from the truth. We all must continue to grow and learn.
The belief that the art will sell itself is another pitfall many artists find themselves trapped in. As stated above your work could be phenomenal – the next Michelangelo. But if you don’t put forth the effort to get that work into the public and in front of the right audience, it will sit and collect dust.
And the biggest problem, is that artists don’t take the time or think it’s their responsibility to educate their audience. If we are doing our jobs as artists correctly, we make it look easy to create beautiful masterpieces. Because of this, the general public may not realize that it took 10 years of constant practice and skill development to get to the point where it ONLY takes you 20 hours to create the piece. To a plumber, fixing leaks is easy. But for everyone else who hasn’t studied that trade, we gladly fork over $50-70 an hour…just for the labor… to hire an expert to fix our pain point.
The first thing that needs to happen is that as a collective group, we as artists need to start building one another up. Just because YOU haven’t been able to achieve success with a method you deem impossible doesn’t mean it’s not possible. It just means you haven’t found a way to make it work for you. Or maybe you are marketing to the wrong audience and that’s why you’ve not found success using the pricing strategy I’ve suggested in a previous post. In order to charge a living wage and be comfortable paying ourselves, we need to feel that we are worth it. I find it really sad that a lot of artists don’t feel their time and effort they put into their great works aren’t worth at least minimum wage…
The next thing that needs to happen is that artists need to start taking themselves seriously. No, this doesn’t mean inflate your ego and think your shit don’t stink. But in general, creatives need to value themselves and their work and treat their art as a viable vocation. The best way to do this is to start educating your followers. Facebook lives, YouTube videos, Instagram videos, even SnapChat; are all great social media outlets that allow creatives to tell the stories behind their works. Take your fans and followers behind the scenes. Educate them on your processes. If you’re worried about copycats, one thing I’ve learned when it comes to offering free content as a creative, is that telling them what but not how is often much appreciated. It’s a practice used all over the place in a variety of genres. You save the in depth how to’s for paid content if you intend on creating classes based on the techniques in the future….but that’s a whole ‘nother blog post. 😁 The point is to begin showing your audience that the final product/outcome is not as easy as a professional artist makes it out to be. This education is part of our job if we want to be able to charge a living wage for our art.
Full disclosure – all my collectors know up front how much I charge per hour to create their sculptures. I don’t hide my prices. All expectations are laid out on the table before an agreement is ever made. They know that for $250 for a custom pet sculpture, they can anticipate 10 hours of work, progress pictures if desired, a wood base for their sculpture, and my very best work. Once materials and shipping charges are taken out of the equation (I include free shipping with all commissions), I end up making $20/hour for these smaller pieces…which is well below what I value my time at for my larger pieces..I do this to make different price points so that more people can afford to invest in my art. And at the time of this article/post… I have 11 commissions in que.
One key ingredient in operating your creative business as a way to sustain yourself that artists often miss… is that you have to be willing to make what your audience wants so you can make what you want. I didn’t want to make the small animal commissions. My passion lay in my larger series of pieces I was working on – my animals of war . And then a good friend asked if I could make a sculpture of her service dog, Atlas. So I tried. And then I made a few more pet memorials. And then I got asked if I could make a steampunk inspired animal… and guess what? Not only am I getting the price I’m asking for, but what started out as making what my audience/market wanted so I could make what I wanted has turned into a new line. It has taken me a direction that I never would have explored had I not been willing to go down that rabbit hole and explore the requests of my audience. And I am having a freaking blast making these.
Don’t believe me? Check out what Jason Horejs of Xanadu Gallery has to say on the subject. His Art Business Academy is one of the many classes I mention that I’ve invested in.
Shawna is a ceramic sculptor and mixed media artist who loves sharing her passion with others. She is a teaching artist and a strong advocate for the arts being accessible to all. To support her endeavors, consider subscribing to her members-only group! There are a variety of subscription levels starting at just $5/mo