Question: How do I make a living as an artist?

Editor’s note: This Question is part of a series on making a living.

FROM : Anonymous (via Ask TCI on our homepage)

Q: How do I make a living as an artist?

A: After spending the better part of the last 10 years trying to find an answer to this very question, I can safely say that there is no one answer.

There are, however, things I have learned along the way, and tips that can help to point you in the right direction. For one, you must treat your art as a profession and run your art-making as you would a business. You can find mentorship to help guide you, take courses on business management, capitalize on the internet as a space to promote and sell your work, or network and research the market enough to make exactly what the gallery world is looking for.

But, the honest reality is that each artist must find their own way.

The truth is, we actually do live in a time where an artist can build a financially stable career—even if you’re not Damien Hirst. This is because our current structures of commercial productivity revolve around visual imagery, and brands need to incorporate art into their marketing schemes to be relevant in today’s Instagram-centric, “like”-driven marketplace. This fact alone leaves a world of opportunity for so many types of artists.

At the same time, a wide breadth of competition leaves room for many to be taken advantage of if we don’t have the right tools or support to know where to start. Pro tip: always politely turn down jobs that won’t pay you, or that offer “exposure” instead of payment for your time and labor. Not only will you be doing yourself a big favor—you’ll also be helping the rest of us who would like to be paid for our work.

Now, if you are completely against participating in any commercial world, you are left with your art alone. This means you may need to look elsewhere to earn a living, either by having an unrelated job, or through the financial support of your family. Or, maybe you’ll apply for grants, teach, or hustle to sell your own art. In the luckiest of cases, you may get some representation to help you sell your work. This is difficult, and harder to come across. Your art might not be seen as worthy by the often-elite gallery system, or your social background might not enable you to have the right access to galleries and buyers.

The above options are incredibly limited, and surely are impossible to navigate without guidance. Additionally, making a living through any of the above options often requires a certain financial or social privilege, which not many have.

In a world where art should be an inspiring, honest, and a direct reflection of our society, it is truly disheartening to realize that most mainstream artists come from some place of privilege. Whether it be racial, financial, social, or geographic, artists succeed not just from their skill alone, but from having the privilege to make enough sacrifices to pursue art as a full-time job. Even when you do find the right representation, whether it be in the fine art world or the commercial world, it may often feel as though you must sacrifice your independence and your voice as a trade for financial security. In this way, navigating the art world can make you feel like you’re alone, and just another piece in a system designed to exploit you for capitalistic gain.

Now, now, sweet artist. I know you may feel quite depressed after reading all this. It’s hard not to. Part of these frustrations are why I’m here writing this in the first place: because I believe that these systems must change and our approaches to financial stability as artists must be more transparent.

Along with the helpful wisdom compiled below, culled from other working artists who were interviewed by this very website, this week the results of a survey for visual artists about financial stability will be published (editor’s note: the survey report is now live). This survey was something I helped dream up with Willa and Brandon at The Creative Independent, as a step toward making this very question—“How do I make a living as an artist?”—a less esoteric one.

I believe positive change comes from the transparency to know what it is that needs to change. For too long, our culture has resisted a more public conversation about personal finances. In many ways, this has enabled us to become a society that’s content to embrace the outdated trope of the starving artist.

Let’s change that.

Yumna Al-Arashi

Graffiti Artist
Writer, Poet, Podcaster, Lapsed Game Designer
Visual Artist
Rickie Lee-Jones
Comedy Writer

People are offended by the commerce of the art world. They’re like, “I can’t believe that terrible artist is making so much money, and this other great artist isn’t making any!” It’s like, well yeah, it’s terrible, but it’s also just a reality. I show my graduate students this lecture that completely depresses them where I go through these algorithms that rank artists. I show them the depressing reality which is that .01% of artists make a living at it. Then I start to show them graphs that show income distribution in the United States. Income inequality in the art world is exactly like the income inequality of the country. The art world is in the world. It can’t be better and it can’t be worse than the world. It’s in the actual world. It reflects it perfectly. It seems more extreme because it’s smaller and we actually know some of the people, but it’s really not dissimilar to the world at large.

It’s never been easy for painters, or writers, or poets to make a living. One of the reasons is that we, I mean a big “We,” deny them an income for their work. As a society we do. Yet, these are the same people who supposedly we can’t live without. It’s curious, isn’t it? But people get inventive about how to make a living. We have collectively closed off important sources of income to composers. At the same time, composers have been inventive in finding ways of making money from their music. The survivor is surviving—but not everybody is a survivor.

Making a living on painting graffiti is almost impossible because people are not really educated on who’s really good and who’s put in the work, paid their so called dues and been around. To a lot of people, these things are not important. But if someone’s gonna hire a plumber to run a plumbing system through a building, they’re not gonna hire a guy straight out of school to do it. They’re gonna hire a guy that’s been in the business 15, 20 years. In graffiti, people don’t do that. The first guy they see with a spray can, they go, oh yeah, there he is.

Putting your whole life into something and making that the way that you make a living—as well as the way that you express yourself—can be a disaster. For a long time, I thought that was the dream. I don’t believe that anymore. I love that people support my work, but I would rather find other ways of making money.

My daughter is five years old and she thinks that every daddy sings for a living. My son’s only one so he’s still getting to grips with his limbs. It’s good for them to see what I do and, eventually, to understand where I came from. I think it sets a good example for what you can actually accomplish in life, that you can come from nothing and still make something of yourself.

Most artists are never going to have access to the commercial market that someone like Christopher Wool is in, but that doesn’t mean that they’re less important. The willy-nilly factors that go into market-making are so unrelated to the quality of the art. I don’t know. Earning a living solely through your art is just a false marker.

When you have to play as a thing over and over to make a living, your relationship with it is not so precious…

I come from a background of hardworking immigrants—I immigrated with my parents from Argentina. This is the other side of the story. We moved here in 1995. We came here with $2,000. My parents were doing really badly economically in Argentina. We came here with what we had, and I had the example of my parents busting their asses at trying to make a living for us. That’s what I learned. Working has always been: making money and making ends meet. This has always been instilled in me as the number one thing.

My parents have an attic and I basically took it over and made it into my own little studio space. You think I want to be living at home? No, but I do because the work is so important to me and I believe in it and I believe someday maybe it will get me somewhere. I could live in Manhattan and spend every waking moment trying to make enough money to survive, or I could come here and do my work. Making art is a real sacrifice.

About the Author

Yumna Al-Arashi

Visual artist

Yemeni-American artist Yumna Al-Arashi was born in Washington D.C. and currently lives in London. Self-taught as a photographer, she has a Bachelor’s Degree from the New School in International Politics, with a focus on the Middle East. Her work combines photography with extensive research and writing, focusing on human rights, feminism, sexuality, nature, and the Middle East.


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