This is an excerpt from something that looks like it will grow into a book, but right here, right now, I thought I would go directly to the heart of the subject.
I do not expect to win any popularity contests with this post. Truthfully, I am so far south of caring about that, I think new words would have to invented to describe my insouciance. As “posts” go, it is long, but I barely scratch the surface of the topic.
I can think of a great number of reasonable objections to what I say here. I doubt I’ve heard them all.
But let me say this. I know that for many people, doing art is not about money. Money is no true measure of success. Success is a multi-faceted jewel. Pride. Self fullfillment. Joy of creation. These are worthy. I honor anyone’s right to pursue their craft on their own terms. There are certain forms that are simply not economically viable. Artists who work in those form know that. They continue out of love, and truthfully, I love them for it.
But this post is about making money at art. It’s about making enough money at art to do only art.
Surviving as full time artist is a worthy ambition. I make no defense of that goal. It needs no justification. No explanation is required. None will be offered. It has always been my ambition to live through my art since the first synapses of my mind ever fired. I am by nature a type who must be self employed. Factually, by actual experience, I would rather die than fill out another job application.
I’ve made tons of money in other ways than art, however. I’ve made it doing things that made me sick to my soul, like pretending people needed college in order to be educated, only to see them betrayed by a market which had no place for their skills; rather, their lack therof. I am not a person who is impressed by degrees, rank, position, reputation, or money. I like money. I like the things money can buy. I like fast cars and motorcycles. I like vacations to the islands and long trips in yachts. I like to race horses on mountain paths. I like dining with crystal and dancing till dawn wearing seven thousand dollars worth of clothes, but money is not the measure of a man or a woman. I’d just as soon wear a t-shirt and blue jeans and dig in the dirt as sit in another gods forsaken boardroom and watch another boring brain fart of a Powerpoint presentation.
In this post, though I could not resist “insouciance” above, I have purposely kept the language simple. In fact, as I wrote, I kept in mind the vocabulary and attitude of a bright and rebellious teenager. This is stuff I wish I studied when I was sixteen instead of all the artsy fartsy theory I was discovering then.
How to Make a Living as an Artist
It’s not enough to be good. There are plenty of good artists. Robert De Niro is a good actor, right? Well, here’s a news flash. In just about every small town, in every just about little theater company, you will find actors just as good. Better.
Yeah, sure. You can disagree with the idea that talent is common, but when you do, understand that just about anyone will recognize your disagreement as a cover for your own fear.
Talent is common. Get used to it, and get over jealousy; it’ll kill you, and it’s really disgusting for everyone else.
You could say, “Oh Robert De Niro is not such a great actor, Fill_in_the_blank is a MUCH better actor than him.”
Fine. And you can still find thousand and thousands and thousands of actors no one has ever heard of who are just as good as Fill_in_the_blank.
Only no one has ever heard of them and no one will because they don’t know how to MARKET.
I swear, I think that if I hear ONE MORE TIME about how Van Gogh, that greaaaat artist died a complete unknown, I will spit.
Have you ever read any of Van Gogh’s biographies? Van Gogh was crazy. He was so weird, no one could even stand to be around him for more than a few hours. Aside from a few pitiful efforts to display his work, he really never exhibited. The few times that other artists would forcibly take his work from him and display it in group shows, he did, in fact sell. But nooo, crazy Van Gogh couldn’t have success. He sent all his paintings to his sweet stupid little dork of a brother who hid them in his attic.
No wonder Van Gogh never made a living. It wasn’t that the public didn’t understand his work. The public never even had the chance. Van Gogh never MARKETED.
So what is marketing? How do you do it? How do you sell good work? (And how do you sell bad work, for that matter?)
Most artists are free spirited, individualistic types, and they are often repelled by the piggy attitudes of merchant types. They see artists who are shameless self promoters and they think, “I’d rather starve than do that.”
And who likes pushy sales people? Ick.
Well, you don’t have to be one of those pushy sales people. You don’t have to be a shameless self promoter, and you don’t have to be a greedy pig.
But you do have to learn about marketing, and you do have to learn how to sell stuff, and you do have to learn about closing deals, and you do have to learn about collecting money.
It doesn’t matter whether you like those fun facts or not. You will either deal with them, or they will deal with you. Take your pick.
I didn’t invent this stuff. There are actually some really good texts on sales and marketing. If you study these books and articles while keeping art in mind, you will arrive at the same information. But of all the books I ever read, the very best one was written in 1952 by a guy who used to be a Madison Avenue advertising executive. It was called How to Make a Living as an Artist. This book has long since been out of print. I found it in a used book store. I loaned it to friend of mine who then suddenly died.
I never did get it back from her. I’m still irritated about that.
But since I did read the book over and over, and since I practiced what was in it, I remember all the essential things.
Except I can’t remember the author’s name, sorry.
What I learned there, when I was first studying marketing and selling is a good place to begin.
The Economics of Production
One day, after an expensive divorce in which the author basically lost everything, he decided he did not want to live in Manhattan any more, and he did not want to work in advertising. He wanted to be an artist. (One suspects that had something to do with his divorce.)
So he took what little money he had left — it wasn’t much, and he moved to Corpus Christi, Texas. That was a place where he’d taken vacations, and he had always loved it there. He rented a little cottage by the sea, and he took up painting, but unlike other painters, he knew how to market and how to sell, and he made a living.
The author had no illusions about being a great artist. He wanted to be free. He wanted to live his dream, and he did it. He started off by saying that so many artists have misconceptions about sales, marketing, and simple economics, that they never really give themselves a chance. And there he was with his rather ordinary, even amateurish seascapes, making a tidy little sum working no more than four hours a day.
So here’s the first thing you need to know about marketing.
The value of a thing is what the market will bear.
Sound simple, huh?
Nothing new, right?
Then why aren’t you making a living as an artist? Because if you understood that in your heart and not just your clever brain, and if your goal was to make a living as an artist, then you would be making a living at it.
Statistics talk, and clever talk? It walks. Maybe you can fool yourself, but you ain’t fooling me.
The value of thing is what the market will bear.
The buying public really does not care what you think the price of your work should be. Your opinion does not enter into the equation.
What you need to do is find out just how much money people are willing to pay for your work. You might not like the answers you’ll get, but you have to find out, and this is where you get to first practice sales without actually having to sell.
Start out with people near you. Encourage them to give you honest answers. Usually people are too kind. You don’t want that. You want honesty. You want the brutal truth.
There is one simple question you ask. “How much would you be willing to pay for this?”
Not, “What do you think this is worth?”
It’s just a waste of time to ask that.
There will be several discoveries you will make. First, you will get different numbers from different people. People who like avant garde work won’t pay very much money for traditional stuff; the reverse is true too. Second, the way you present your work will greatly affect the answers.
Never present a picture that should be in a frame unframed. I don’t even let my friends see unframed art. To get into my studio and see a work in progress, well, you had better be utterly beloved (and therefore know my rules about comments on unfinished pieces).
Always place the piece in the best possible light. At the very least make sure it is in a lovely room.
The very best situation is to create a special viewing area. Place the picture on a wall all by itself. Allow no distracting elements. You want to eliminate competition. Control the sound, the light, the mood. Create a calm environment. Be a gracious host. Offer seating and refreshments. Do not let the conversation idle. Chit chat about any old thing. At first, just practice on one person at a time. Later, you’ll get more confident and you’ll be able to handle groups.
A really fun thing I like to do when I have several pieces to show is rig a curtain in front of the display area. I will draw the curtain and change pictures then emerge and reveal the next piece with something of a flourish. If you have an accomplice, you can rig some lighting effects too.
Notice now. We are doing everything that sales people do without doing any selling. We are just surveying. We want to find out how much someone would be willing to pay. And the way you find out is you ask them point blank. You don’t have to ask them what they think. Just ask, “How much would you pay for a picture like this?”
Funny thing is, when you do this sort of thing, you bypass people’s social mechanisms. See, there they were all gearing up for your, “What do you think about this art?” And you just skipped ahead.
In person, in a gracious setting, you will not ordinarily get rude responses. You’ll get over any fear of that as you discover how basically nice people are. But really, create the space. Make the moment.
Most often people will stumble and hesitate. They will have a hard time. They will say, “I don’t know much about art” and things like that. So you’ll have to encourage them. You’ll need to say things like, “I’m not talking about art in general. I’m talking about YOU. C’mon! Five dollars? Five thousand?”
That last is a trick. You name two ridiculous figures. The person can then reject these. This puts them back in charge. By saying such wrong figures, you show that you really want a better assessment.
Your friends will tend to always quote you higher numbers.
But there’s another trick to handle that. As soon as they name a number, you say, “Good. How do you want to pay for that? Check? Cash?”
“Er… well.. Uh…”
“Uh huh. So you wouldn’t actually pay that much. How much then?”
But once they name a number, ask for the money. That’s the acid test. You have to ask for the money. You’ll never get it if you don’t. Yeah. A cruel trick to play on your friends? Bullshit. If they say they like your art, but they don’t buy it, trade goods or favors for it, help you sell it, or help you work in all the many ways help can come, they’re not your friends.
Friends help each other to survive, and by survive I mean survive in the original Latin sense, to not merely live, but live better.
But the first big, broad action you have to do is find out how much people are willing to pay for your work. Once you’ve surveyed, Oh, not that many people, fifty, a hundred, you’ll start seeing the patterns. You’ll see how education, socio-economic status, cultural background, and such come into play. You’ll start seeing what kind of people really like your work, and you’ll have a pretty good idea how much they will actually pay.
There are several ways you can go, now.
First, you can make your work better. You can start getting better answers to the question, “How much are you willing to pay?”
Second, you can find ways to increase production. Practice. Refinement of technique, the development of themes which don’t involve you in a creative struggle every time you face a blank canvas. Practice. You can try new forms, new techniques, get better tools. Practice.
Did I say practice?
Oh yes. I see I did.
Third, you can find ways to cut expenses. Ditch the whole Middle Class thing of trying to keep up appearances. Move. Your neighbors are just jealous twits and rich people are not impressed by your condo. Drive a used car. Shop at stores that sell factory seconds. Buy bulk wholesale. Buy your art supplies from a mail order house, not the nice store in town.
You might start to get in range then.
Get better prices by getting better. Increase production. Cut expenses. Put your money into things that help you make art. Avoid all other expenses. Invest only in your own production.
The brutal truth will not change, and the truth is: if you cannot live off the prices people will pay for what you can produce, you will not live off of your art.
You might find you can realisticly expect to make a hundred dollars a week off your art. Not good. But that’s how I started out. It got better. It got ten times better in five years. But I never would have made it without starting. True, I had a nice mutual fund portfolio, several IRAs, and a few pieces of real estate. Except for one house, I’d lost it all before I broke through. I made every possible mistake. I ran the gamut of forms and techniques. I bridged a dozen different markets before the niches I liked started to pay decently.
And I’d do it all again.
Read artist’s biographies. You will see again and again that the artists who make it are fantastically productive people.
That is our great weapon. Production. Most people are basically lazy. They do what they have to in order to get by. They try and create as much free time for fun as they can, and they throw all their extra money into sensory gratification. That’s a trap.
To escape, produce enough so that it doesn’t matter if you get low prices.
That is the secret.
Sure. Easier said than done. Hello? That is not news. We’ve been hearing how hard it is forever. Yawn. Next topic? Please?
Artist always fret over displaying and exhibiting. The buying public does not give crapola about your exhibition list. It’s usually only other artists or dealers who will ask you. Failing in the market, they’ve come up with a Brownie Point system. Don’t buy into their silly games. The easy part is finding people and places willing to display your work. The hard part is being personally productive enough to live off what the market will bear.
Next section, The Easy Part: How to find Places to Exhibit or Drawing Attention: Taking Your Case to the People.