Making a living as an artist is hard. Getting to a point where art sales are sufficient to sustain life can take years of sacrifice and hard work. Many of you know I grew up in the home of an artist. My father, John Horejs, has been a full-time, professional artist for over thirty years, so I’ve witnessed the challenges an artist (and the artist’s family) face. I remember periods of extreme financial hardship growing up while my dad worked to establish his career. There would be periods of months where nothing would sell. These difficult times challenged my father and mother’s resolve to pursue my father’s dream of making a living as an artist.
This experience is nearly universal for artists. The words “starving” and “artist” seem to fit naturally together. Many artists feel compelled to pursue other work in order to make ends meet and have to relegate their artistic endeavors to the side. In my extensive interactions with artists from around the country, I’ve met many who’ve worked very hard to carve out time to create art around a busy work/family/life schedule.
Artists who are in the struggle to balance their outside work with their art career often ask me whether it’s possible to build a successful art career while engaged in another job. This is a difficult question to answer. The definition of “success” can vary dramatically from one artist to another. Everyone’s tolerance for risk and sacrifice differs as well. A young, single artist can withstand a lot more sacrifice than an artist who has a family to support (just ask my dad, who was painting to support 9 children!)
If your definition of success includes showing and selling your work in galleries, however, you’ll find it very difficult to break in if you are working full time and creating art on the side. As a gallery owner, I see very few artists who are able to juggle a full-time, non-art career and their art, and are able to create enough high-quality art to successfully work with galleries.
I’ve done several surveys of artists asking about their studio time, production and success (see the survey’s: 2013 & 2012 ). I also have extensive experience directly with the artists I show in my gallery. For the most part, I see only full-time artists finding representation in galleries. When I look around my gallery, almost all of the artists I’m showing have made a full-time commitment to their art.
Why it’s Necessary to Take the Leap
Why is a full-time commitment necessary? To a large extent, it’s simple math. In order to produce enough inventory to sustain gallery relationships, you’ve got to spend a lot of time creating. Successful artists typically show in multiple galleries. They know that not everything they produce is going to sell. While every artist’s level of productivity varies, the math is pretty simple:
Annual Work Produced * Percentage of Artwork Sold Annually * Average Net Sale Price (after commissions and expenses) = Artist Net Income
A successful artist is going to be working on all three components of the equation. Net sale price and % of artwork sold annually rises as demand increases. Demand will increase as the artist expands reputation and markets her/his work. Increasing demand takes time though, and early in the artist’s career the factor that is most readily controlled is the first, production.
An artist who has a full-time, non-art career can certainly carve out time to create and be very disciplined about production, but they are still at a disadvantage to full-time artists. The non-art work is going to sap energy, creativity, and time.
In addition to having more time to create, there’s great value in the focus an artist gets when their livelihood relies on art sales. An artist who depends on their art to eat is going to push themselves harder to produce and to get their work out there. An artist who is hungry is going to push a little harder when talking to a gallery owner about representation.
Galleries are more likely to invest their efforts and resources in an artist who has made the full time commitment to art. Speaking from personal experience, it’s harder to make a commitment to show an artist when I feel that I may not be able to get the inventory I need because the artist has outside obligations.
How to survive the leap
Have a Strategy
Let me be clear, I’m not suggesting that you tender your resignation from your full-time job today. If you know you want to go full-time with your art, it would be wise to plan ahead. Talk to full time artists in your area (or in your social media circles) and ask them for advice on how to proceed. Council with your significant other and family members about the commitment you’re wanting to make to your art.
Create a business plan for your art business (you can find great tools to help you with this at http://www.sba.gov/business-plan/1). Try to be realistic about your projections regarding sales (sales will be lower than you expect) and your expenses (they’ll be higher than you expect).
I might humbly suggest reading (or re-reading) my books, “Starving” to Successful and How to Sell Art . These books are resources that will help you build a general approach to your art business and find gallery representation.
Live Within Your Means
Over the last several years I’ve had a number of conversations with artists who survived the Great Recession, and even saw their business grow. It was interesting that they have all mentioned to me the importance of steering clear of debt – especially consumer debt. While they may not be driving the newest luxury car or watching the game on a brand new, giant TV, these artists are able to create without the stress of unnecessary debt looming over them.
Simplify your finances and avoid luxuries. While I know many artists who have attained a level of real comfort in their lives, most still work to keep things simple by avoiding too many possessions.
Be Mentally Prepared for the Worst
I would encourage you to also allow for the fact that things may be harder than you can currently conceive. As you contemplate taking the leap to full-time, you are probably imagining that whatever hardships you might face will be worth it because you’ll be doing what you love. From my experience pursuing my dream of having a gallery, and from talking to full-time artists, I can tell you that your vision of what it will be like is probably overly-romantic.
As you dive into the daily work of being an artist, you are very quickly going to discover that it is . . . WORK! Some days it’s even going to feel like drudgery. This is probably one of the greatest shocks you can face when you’ve built art up in your mind as the greatest pleasure in your life. Be prepared to push through periods of frustration.
You should also prepare for the discouragement that comes from lack of recognition for your work. It’s going to be harder than you realize to find fans and buyers for your work. It’s going to take longer than you expect to cultivate gallery relationships.
Your savings will drop at an alarming rate. Your car will break down, requiring costly repairs, and your air conditioning will go out. It will feel like the universe is conspiring against you.
I personally know artists who have been through bankruptcy, divorce, depression and worse.
So, Is It Worth It?
After reading how hard it can be, you might be asking yourself, “Am I sure I really want to pursue my art full-time?” For some, the answer may be, “nope!”, and that’s fine. You may decide that you can pursue your art as a passionate side-interest. You may choose to wait to do more until you’ve earned your retirement. As I said earlier in the post, your definition of success is your own. There is still great satisfaction, and even financial reward, to be found in a part-time pursuit of your art.
For those of you who can’t shake the siren song of a full time art career (and yes, I chose “siren song” deliberately), I hope you go into with eyes wide open and ready to work harder than you ever have. Success won’t come easy, but when (and if) it does come, you will feel the most intense satisfaction possible. What could be better than finding success doing what you love? You’ll be spending your days creating art, and your hard work will allow you to share that artwork with people whose lives will be forever improved because of their experience with your art.
In my conversation with artists who have taken the plunge, fought their way through, and found success, I hear them say over and over that they couldn’t imagine doing anything else. In spite of all the hardships, they have found their vocation in life.
What do You Think?
Are you considering taking the leap of faith? If you’ve already taken the leap, what advice would you offer to those who are considering it? Have questions or need advice from the art community? Share your comments and questions below in the comments!