Surviving and Thriving as an Artist II

So I’ve been kicking around the ideas I talked about before (which you can read here), along with the basic premise that I want to make money off of my art, and I think we may be operating under a flawed premise.

The premise being that artists want to make money off of their artwork. i.e. artists want to sell/profit from their artwork.

I don’t think that’s entirely correct.

I think what we really want is the ability to pursue our work unfettered and unencumbered. The conclusion we generally reach based on that assumption is that if we can somehow sell enough of our artwork to support a chosen lifestyle, then we will be happy and have achieved everything we’ve ever wanted.

The fact is, that I usually feel somewhat embarrased guilty about selling my work. Not because I don’t value my own work or don’t think it holds value, but because as it is now and always has been, (IMHO) putting a monetary value on artwork is a poor judgment of its value.

Now before I continue I don’t want this to devolve into some flame war about pricing work or the value of art or any of those centuries old arguments. Someone else can have thoe arguments after I’m dead. That’s not the point of this. The point is that I don’t rate or value my work on a dollar value system. I rate my work by how it makes me feel, and outside of players in the art market (another argument/discussion) I would wager that most people value art by how it makes them feel.

Can you sell a feeling? Sure, in fact most marketing tries to connect the product with a particular feeling or experience anyhow, but I’m digressing here. My main point is that the valuation of art by monetary currency is just a flat poor substitute for the joy that piece of work brings a person.

Case in point. At my exhibit opening last Thursday, I gained far more in value from the response of the patronage and the interaction I had with them than I did from any sales I may have made.

So here’s the crux of this, and I know I’m repeating myself but bear with me as I’m still working this out for myself. As artists we operate under this assumption that we master our craft and create our masterpiece(s) and then set out on some kind of path to monetize it, whether by gallery exhibitions, consignment shops/galleries, art fairs, web sales, etc… We follow this path doggedly, the whole time internally agonizing over every dollar we spend trying to market and monetize, feeling temporarily triumphant at every sale, only to be let down when we realize that we’ve hit a net loss when you factor in the costs of the web server, the fair booth, the framing, all the prints and damn greeting cards, and everything else.

Yet here’s the bottom line. I make art because I have to. Creative expression is a necessary part of the fabric of my life, and I choose to express it through my photography. That is my real motivation. My secondary motivation is creating something that elicits an emotional response from my audience.

Money only comes into play when I try to balance my desire and need to create my art and support that through mucking about the art world against my desire and need to work in a job and earn money to support my chosen lifestyle. (Inversely proportionate relationship btw.)

Based on that, and the American Dream, I had/have/am embarked upon a path to make money off of my artwork, the idea being if I pursue doing what I love hard enough I’ll make enough money off of it to be successful and will have somehow fulfilled the American Dream. Thus creating a Directly proportionate relationship between the desire to create and the desire to work

Here’s the problem with that. In order to fulfill that dream, generally speaking at least one of the two following conditions must be met to achieve financial success (such as is determined by the individual) through selling artwork.

  1. Market saturation a la Thomas Kinkade or Terry Redlin, in which you may sell boatloads of your work on clocks and plates and QVC and prints in “galleries”, but you may (or may not) have the respect or esteem of your colleagues and fellow artists, and you may (or may not) feel fulfilled creatively as well as financially.
  2. Reach a point of critical acclaim as such that your artwork commands enough of a price that selling one or several pieces can finance your chosen lifestyle for X number of years where X equals the selling price of your work divided by the yearly fiscal demands of your lifestyle.

So what does this mean then? Am I giving up on what I laid out before in terms of how I will present my work to my audience? In a word, no.

What it does mean is that I’m evaluating the need to sell my work versus the need to create a lifestyle that I can finance through satisfactory revenue streams. I still want to share my work and with that in mind I will continue to pursue the Trent Reznor inspired marketing/sales model for my work I spoke of before, but I will also continue to evaluate my perceived need to actually sell work versus my need to have money and time to pursue my passions.

As I continue to let some of these thoughts and ideas roll around in my head they will continue to evolve and change. I thought I might share what I’ve been reading and listening to in the interim that directly or indirectly helped catalyze my thoughts on the matter.

Intelligence Squared US debates, presented by NPR. Three debates in particular:

On Ethics, is Art Market worse than Stock Market?
Is it Wrong to Pay for Sex?
Who’s to Blame for the Financial Crisis

Planet Money:

#84 – MySpace Was Born of Ignorance
#82 – Inside the Mind of a Financial Criminal


Ignore Everyone and 39 Other Keys to Creativity by Hugh MacLeod

Spyros Heniadis

5 Responses to Surviving and Thriving as an Artist II

  1. Rich says:

    check out how Jeff Koons gained a financial structure for his work.

  2. Spyros,

    I agree on the struggle we have to price our work when we feel the real worth includes the intangible feelings our work illicits. Personally, I’m a born salesperson who loves to get out and sell my work. I’m a production jewelry artist and when one does production fine craft it seems easier to get into a “manufacturing” mindset as far as wholesale or retail pricing goes. However, it’s the love of what I do and the connection I make with people that can make even the worst show worthwhile. The point is that my production work, which gets creatively boring at times, allows me to do other creative work that may or may not bring in revenue. It also allows me the lifestyle of working at home and having my daughter in the studio after school. Most artists I know have a different view of the “American Dream”. Don’t you think? Being my own boss, fostering my daughter’s creativity and other things are far more important to me than a brand new car and a big house in the ‘burbs.

    Oh, I actually wanted to comment about revenue streams. If you are just selling your finished original works or reproductions of them then, yes, it might come down to the two avenues of market saturation and/or critical acclaim. However, many artists sell their work, teach workshops, and do other work within the arts world to earn a living. I think the key to making a living (and being happy while doing it) in any career is using ones creativity to find multiple ways to earn income.

    Rachael Brooke Winley

  3. Thanks for the comment Rachel!

    I had a very similar conversation with an artist who crafts baskets about production work versus creative work. In some ways there is an advantage to some 3d work that allows you to have those different categories that isn’t as easy to do with photography or other 2d work.

    That being said, I completely agree on pursuit of other revenue streams! I currently teach a class and next year plan to add several more to my class offerings, which should nicely augment that particular revenue stream.

    In the end you really hit it dead on, it’s the pursuit and embracing that creativity in all aspects of things that makes it all worthwhile.

  4. rachaelbrooke says:

    It seems with 2d work the only production lines would be printing your work on cards, postcards, coffee mugs, etc. I don’t know that production work and creative work are mutually exclusive though I get your meaning. It takes quite a bit of creativity to create the original design and then figure out how to consistently reproduce it. I think the production studio work is very much like Trent Reznor’s online marketing strategies. My production jewelry has low-med-high price points and my original works and custom design are the high end. I think you are on to a great strategy for taking your 2D work into a sort of production studio model.

    – Rachael

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