Thursday, January 17, 2008

How to Survive, Financially, as an Artist

Some days it seems as though Pretty Lady is the last person in the world to be cavalierly dispensing Financial Advice. Indeed, it seems as though she has spent much of the last twenty years in biting fingernails, tearing out hair, nursing ulcers, counting pennies, and slinging accumulated debt from low-interest credit card to lower-interest credit card. However, when Pretty Lady looks around her, she notes two things: she's still here, and she's still making art.

So if you, darlings, wish to be here and making art in twenty years, you could do worse than to listen to Pretty Lady.

The first thing to bear in mind, when contemplating a career of artistic semi-solvency, is that there is no one-size-fits all method for coping with the problems inherent upon artistic survival. For instance, when Pretty Lady was on the brink of graduating, for the very first time, with an honors art degree and no obviously marketable skills, the word in the halls was, "Drive a UPS truck!"

This advice filled Pretty Lady with deep horror. Paint-stained overalls may be a badge of lapsed patrician honor, forgivably eccentric, but once a person dons a pair of chocolate-brown shorts and matching shirt, all hope of re-admittance to the global cultural aristocracy is closed forever. It seemed a fine thing, at nineteen, to wallow in brotherhood with the underclass, but when the reality of endless double-parking on hectic avenues loomed before her, Pretty Lady, sadly, faltered.

Fortunately, driving a UPS truck turned out to be neither Pretty Lady's best nor only option. Which brings us to our principles.

1) Play to your strengths.

One must never lose sight of one's goal, which is to spend as much time as possible in the studio, creating Great Art. To do so, one must have 1) a studio and 2) time to spend in it. Thus, one's financial objectives must center upon earning the most money in the least possible amount of time, preferably legally.

So if you have a knack for computer systems administration ($80-$150/hr) or stripping ($100-$500+/night), it is both foolish and masochistic to contemplate a job making espresso ($7/hr, plus minimal tips) or working behind a desk at a gallery (free-$10/hr) just because people who make espresso and sit in galleries project a hipper-than-thou attitude while doing so.

(In fact, it is important to remember that anyone who puts on such an attitude is doing so because this attitude is literally their only asset. A word to the wise.)

2) Prioritize.

Pretty Lady has lost count of the wannabe artists she has talked to who 'hoped to be able to afford a studio, someday.' Hello?

When Pretty Lady graduated from art school, her high-priority list was as follows:

1) Studio space.
2) Food.

Her no-priority list included, but was not limited to:

1) New car.
2) Fancy neighborhood.
3) TV, and all cable permutations thereof.
4) Any newly invented or newly available electronic gadgetry.
5) Haircuts.
6) New clothing, except insofar as that required to produce income, and to prevent public nudity.
7) Eating out.
8) Drugs.
9) Health insurance.

Of course, these lists have changed radically over time, and as Pretty Lady's experience has expanded, so have her priorities. However, she continues to execute a simple cost-benefit analysis every time she contemplates a purchase: to wit, "Is this item worth the number of hours I will have to spend working to pay for it?" If the answer is 'no,' she does not need a Palm pilot.

It is important to make these sorts of priority lists, and use them to calculate exactly how much income is required to meet one's priorities. Then make a calculation as to the minimum wage one must earn in order to spend at least 20 hours per week in the studio. If a job does not meet this minimum, the job is not acceptable, at least not in the long term. Period.

3) Civil service.

It sometimes seems to Pretty Lady that the arts and the civil service were made for one another. A civil service job requires no initiative, no overtime, and no mental energy to speak of. It provides benefits, and is nearly impossible to get fired from. If artists do not take civil service jobs, they will be filled by vaguely malicious drones with the intellect, imagination and humanitarian goodwill of a fruit fly; an artist will at least put in the requisite hours of bureaucratic drudgery with a bemused smile and a colorful wardrobe. It is a win-win situation.

4) Healthcare.

When Pretty Lady was considering study in the healing professions, some years back, she took a look at the cost/wage ratio in several fields. She noticed at the time that Registered Nursing required a large amount of expensive schooling, with an inexcusably low annual salary at the end of it. So she went into massage therapy instead.

Since then, there has been a nursing shortage of epic proportions. RNs now make upwards of $65K a year, and the schools are jammed. You had better reserve your spot now.

5) Familial supplementation.

At last, the Sordid Truth arises. If you have a Trust Fund, please go away. Hit the "Rent Fund" button on your way out.

If, however, you have a decent middle-class family who is honestly concerned about your welfare, treat them kindly. Do not be asking for handouts in order to flush it away on silly things like rent. You can earn your rent yourself.

Instead, consider asking for a loan of a down-payment on a piece of real estate, or a co-sign on a mortgage. Real estate is very rarely a bad investment, when one considers that even if the selling price goes down, for some insane reason, you would still have lost more by renting.

6) Expatriation.

There are still countries in the world where U.S. currency is worth a great deal more, in purchasing power, than the local one. These countries are growing fewer every day, so you had better go to South America, Indonesia and Thailand while you still can. While you are abroad, tell everyone you are Canadian. For obvious reasons.

7) Self-employment.

A few things you can sell, online or on the streets of foreign places: jewelry, clothing, fancy lotion, soap, CDs. Only sell this last if you are the performer on the CD, and if you are good. It is easier to make a living, singing in small-town bars in foreign countries, than by Getting Discovered in centers of world capitalism, by the way.

8) Blue-collar employment.

Do you have any idea what competent carpenters, electricians, plumbers and housepainters make, these days?

9) Grants.


Pretty Lady must offer a very serious caveat. If you are young, and brash, and brilliant, and optimistic, and confident, and you look at NYFA Source or various Arts Council websites and think, "There are TONS of grants out there! I'll just apply for them!" you will be flipping burgers and waiting tables for a very long time.

Go ahead and apply, of course. Just don't predicate your future existence as an artist upon the receipt of one.

10) MFAs.

Don't. Just don't.

You will note that in the above list, Pretty Lady has said absolutely nothing about dealers, gallerists, art fairs, teaching jobs, government assistance or other Art World paraphernalia. This is because it is her fixed, experiential conviction that if artists in general maintain a state of emotional passivity and financial dependence upon these things, the condition of Art and Artists will continue its dismal and precipitate decline into decadence, inanity, and Fatuous Pandering. This is not to say that there are not honest dealers with Taste out there; it is to say that there will be more of them if the lousy ones stop getting away with it.


Pretty Lady said...

Dear AG, as much as I appreciate your appreciation, I feel it is incumbent upon me to warn you that Pretty Lady is among the 100 least influential persons in the Art World, on acknowledged authority. Thus, schmoozing her is not likely to get you very far.

You may continue, of course; people will begin to suspect you of sincerity, which is no bad thing.;-)

Anonymous said...

The most challenging part of your advice is self-sales, I think. It can be extremely difficult to represent your work. At least, I have a hard time with it.

Sarah Adams said...

Dear sus,

That's where we come owners (with taste, of course). You dream it, live it and create it. I market it, believe in it and sell it. Symbiotic relationship! No one person has it all. We all work together!

Pretty Lady said...

Sarah, Pretty Lady can personally attest that Sus is a wonder to work with, and an exceptionally gifted artist. As is Pretty Lady, of course, but modesty prevents her. Except that it doesn't. ;-)

Pretty Lady said...

Also, it is much easier to sell something that one does not have one's self-identity invested in, such as a t-shirt or a massage. Selling paintings is like selling one's soul--much more difficult to market.

Magpie Girl said...

Dearest PL,

Do you have any advice for the mother-artists in the world? Is it at all possible to have three jobs: parent, artist, and civil servant for instance? Any or all PL readers with serious, proven tell!

Magpie Girl

Chris Rywalt said...

Sarah, you can come by my studio any time.

Anonymous said...

Pretty Lady's article makes clear she can do simple arithmetic in her head. A family member or grammar school teacher helped her acquire this skill. Art schools prefer -- deliberately prefer -- recruiting students who don't have this skill.

Josh said...

Great Blog! The specifics of which apply to any artist struggling along in an affluent country. I particularly like your list of priorities (studio and food!) and then the long list of no-priority. It is a life choice that very few people would be able to comprehend. Someone (another artist) once said to me that you have to be a touch insane to last as an artist. You certainly need to be strong and passionate enough to reject what our society bombards us with when commodities and possessions equal status symbols. Your hard line stance on Galleries is an interesting stance. As you would know there are massive advantages to professional art galleries and the sometimes nauseous world in which they exist. Here in Sydney with the crushingly high cost of living an artist without a gallery virtually does not exist in terms of exposure and career. I agree with your view of galleries and the negative effects of the power they wield. Even the “good” commercial galleries seem to have a fishy real-statuesque smell of self-interest to them. The bad ones are pure used car sale yards.

O'Rourke-Whelan said...

Thanks very much for this! :)

Kate Stone said...

Enjoyed your post!

Ding An said...

I am Ding An from Singapore
a film maker

Read your post. Yup, i was looking for it.

Struggling as an artist, wrote n ebook,
called End the LightCatcher

Not trying to do a promo, (though i would love to)
just thought the people here in your comments section genuinely respond to one another and provide some help or advice

liked your comment on join the civil
seriously, i am considering that.
i saw your reasons. hmm. true. true.

so just a holla and a hello

nice to meet u