Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Making a living as an artist

“…the financial realities of being an artist are difficult to ignore. In today’s world, it is difficult to build a career on making art for art’s sake.”

As I rode the escalator of the New York Public Library Mid-Manhattan Branch last night, I gazed down in amazement at the number of people lined up to check out books. I thought to myself, “Printed matter is not going down without a fight.” I made my way to the sixth floor for Jackie Battenfield’s presentation, ‘Making an Artist’s Life Work,’ which was followed by a book signing.

Battenfield is an accomplished artist, teacher, former gallery director and arguably a motivational speaker. “Success is not something that happens to you. Success is something you create,” she told the large audience. Because every artist has his or her own trajectory, it’s essential to identify what personal success would be and then “go after it in a dogged fashion.” This wasn’t mere lip-service. Battenfield pointed out that many career books aimed at artists specify the ‘what’ but not the ‘why’ or the ‘how.’ She has a knack for addressing the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ in an engaging fashion. For example, she asked members of the audience to raise their hands if they could picture Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, and then asked them to raise their hands if they had seen the work in person. Her point in highlighting the discrepancy was that “the world will know you through some reproduction of your art” so it’s critical to have high quality documentation. This idea is not novel for me, especially since I’ve been looking at art reproductions regularly while filling in part-time at our library’s visual resources centre from the winter onwards, but I had never thought of it in quite that way. As to the ‘how,’ she gave the audience ‘homework,’ such as drawing a 50-mile radius around their place of residence on a map to target local exhibition opportunities through not-for-profit organizations.

On my way out, I did not join the line at the circulation desk but I did have a book in my hand: I decided to purchase Battenfield’s very reasonably priced The Artist’s Guide: How to Make a Living Doing What You Love (Da Capo Press, 2009). I knew it would make my tax preparator happy, based on a previous conversation (Q: That’s all you spent on art books? A: I’m an art librarian. I check out what I need and if our library doesn’t have it, then I try inter-library loan).

Before I wrap up this post, I want to make a pitch for artists’ career guides. Over the next week, I will post a review of Battenfield’s book as well as Art/Work by Heather Darcy Bhandari and Jonathan Melber (Free Press, 2009). Even though career guides like these have a commercial bent, they can still be very useful for artists who aren’t necessarily trying to make a living from their creative practice (i.e., students, emerging artists, etc). Take me, for instance: I have a day job so I don’t depend on income from my art. Why would I be interested in books like these? Because I recognize that the advice is really about organizing your time so you can be prolific and about increasing exposure to your art. For example, Battenfield urged the audience to add five former contacts to their mailing lists. That strategy could lead to sales, but it could also lead to a review from a critic or interest from a curator.

The more an artist progresses, he or she will encounter grants, artist fees and awards, making income accumulate where once there was none. As an artist begins to show outside of his or her region, there may be a desire or need to travel for exhibitions, making expenses add up. Thus, registering an art business seems inevitable, even for a career that is centered on exhibitions instead of sales. Once that business is registered, the artist needs to demonstrate an attempt to generate income. That said, the financial realities of being an artist are difficult to ignore. In today’s world, it is difficult to build a career on making art for art’s sake.


  1. sounds like a very interesting book. I keep thinking that freelance illustration is the way to go, but if I could also make some more money with my drawings that would always help too!

  2. This is a great book, very inspiring and motivating, and I look forward to your review of it.

  3. There seems to be a lot of pressure to make money from art, as if the joy of making art cannot stand alone, or that a financially successful artist (along with the cultural recognition this implies) is the only worthwhile artist...

    Or, worse, in our culture, painters (or "artists") should feel guilty about creating (perceived as a selfish pursuit, on SO many levels).