There’s a mythos surrounding the career trajectory of artists.
One end of the spectrum veers toward the dreamy, starry-eyed path many artists wish to effortlessly glide through: Born talented. Become a ginormous art star. Get rich and successful while you’re alive—or die trying.
For example, take Banksy, DJ Marshmello, Takashi Murakami, Yayoi Kusama, Kaws, and Damien Hirst.
This is the perfect confluence of commerce and culture, in which one’s artistic goals are in perfect step with the needs of the market.
On the other extreme, there’s the depiction of the broke, starving artist. These artists embody the bohemian lifestyle: living a hand-to-mouth existence, eschewing any monetary success so they can continue to do what they love.
To name a few: Franz Kafka, Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh, and Johannes Vermeer.
So how does the business of art truly work? How do we reconcile the relationship of money to notions of an artist’s success? Even though my partner is an artist and I am friends with a handful of working artists, I myself had no clue.
In the first installment of our two-part series on the truth on art and business, after talking to some experts, here’s what I learned about the business of making art.
Art is a business like any other business.
“The reality is that art is business like any other business: You have a product, and there’s a commodification of it,” says A. McLean Emenegger, an art consultant and founder of the L.A.-based art consulting and visual artists support firm, McLean Art Projects.
“Well, if that’s a gallery that’s going to do that business for you, you still have to have a plan to get there,” continues Emenegger. “I tell artists it’s like any other business: It involves timing, marketing, and who you know. And one of the biggest ingredients is networking. When you approach a gallery, you wouldn’t walk into a workplace that you’re interested in—just hand them your resume and say, ‘Got 15 minutes?’ Artists need to be given permission to think about it like a business and allow themselves to take the smaller steps toward the bigger steps.”
The same goes for writing.
My fiction writing mentor would complain about getting paid a measly $35 for a short story he spent months on. And these were stories placed in highly regarded literary publications. I write fiction, and I can’t get anyone to publish, let alone purchase my short stories. But I can get someone to pay up to $1,000 for a 1000-word blog post.
There are no overnight stars.
Making it as an artist is a long game, adds Alan Bamberger, an art consultant, independent art appraiser in San Francisco, and founder of ArtBusiness.com. “You can’t go from the mailroom to becoming the CEO just because you had a good day or two,” says Bamberger. “You successfully run the gauntlet for a significant amount of time and people start to take notice. There’s usually a long, continuous progression of shows, sales, awards, critical acclaim, and successes.”
The same goes for freelancing. As many artists are self-employed freelancers, the journey to be a successful creative freelancer can take awhile.
You don’t necessarily have to pay your dues—it really boils down to the quality of your work and your professionalism—but you have to show up and do the work, day in and day out.
Plus, it takes time to build your network, land your dream clients, and make the money you hope to earn.
Artists don’t create in a bubble.
“There is a misconception among artists that [to become successful] if you build it, they will come,” explains Emenegger. “Or, if I just stay in my studio, the people come knocking on the door because I’m just that talented. You know that you’re lovely and talented, but there is no shortage of artists in Los Angeles alone. So how are you going to make your mark in the world? There’s this process.”
“Yes, it’s romantic to be an artist,” continues Emenegger. “But at the end of the day, if you say you want to sell your work, if you say you want to be ‘successful,’ however you define that, you do need tactics and awareness and cultivation of groups.”
The relationship artists have with money is unique to themselves.
While some artists who have the inherent—or honed—ability to run their careers with business savvy and understand the true value of their work, there are artists who struggle with pricing their artwork or selling it in the first place.
Emenegger asks her clients what frightens them about selling their artwork. “What scares you about pricing it? Or how do you undermine yourself in terms of the value of your artwork?”
Emenegger speaks from personal experience, as she used to be an exhibiting artist.
A collector once came to her house. He said, “I’ll take that, that, and that.’’
“And without his saying anything, I said, ‘Okay, I’ll give you a discount.’ And I undersold the work by about 50 to 75 percent because I assumed he wouldn’t pay for it at the price I was at. That was a worth issue,” says Emengger.
The process to overcome these fears is specific to the artist. They don’t all share the same qualms or hangups.
Know the value of your career moves.
Emenegger adds that even if you don’t make a sale at a gallery show, there are other perks of showing.
For instance, what contacts did you make? Did you receive any press?
Is showing in gallery X a stepping stone to help you progress in your career?
Those all have value to your career, says Emenegger.
Success will look different for everybody.
For the most part, artists are most concerned about making enough to survive, first and foremost.
“I occasionally see less successful artists dismissing more successful artists as “sellouts” when in fact, those artists became successful based on talent, commitment, dedication, determination to survive and prosper,” says Bamberger.
Many artists harbor the dream of getting famous and making lots of money and being an art star. “When they graduate from art school with stars in their eyes, reality takes the place of that pretty fast,” says Bamberger. The truth is that it is difficult for most to make a living on the income from art sales.
That being said, success is going to look really different for everybody.
“You’re not playing the comparison game and you’re not setting yourself up for disappointment, because what does it matter what everybody else wants?” says Emenegger.
“Every artist assumes they’ll be showing in galleries. Let’s explore who you are, what your work is, and what its mission is. Maybe you’re trying to save the world, you know, so maybe you’re more in line with sort of, you know, nonprofit and museums with mission statements that match your own values. Success is really is an individual thing.”
You’ll need to define success on your own terms, and what you want to achieve through your career.
Bottom line: Make good art.
The business of art is like any other business.
And there’s no one path to success, there’s no singular truth about the business of art. While valuation can be a tricky matter, most artists want to make a good living. And for them to be successful, they have to be in the business of making good art.
And making good art requires the training and chops to achieve what it is they set out to make.
“A good piece of art is an act of compassion,” says Emenegger. “It allows other people to see this human condition as expressed through you. And it makes it okay to have those quandaries, quagmires, and inexplicable yearnings.”
Jackie Lam is an L.A.-based money writer who is passionate about helping creatives with their finances and to cultivate community among entrepreneurs. Her clients include Fortune 500 companies and FinTech startups, and her work has appeared in Forbes, Business Insider, and GOOD. She blogs at heyfreelancer.com.