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-   -   How many artists make a living from art? (http://www.wetcanvas.com/forums/showthread.php?t=1326543)

bkpix 08-17-2013 07:57 PM

How many artists make a living from art?
I'm starting a new thread on a question that was brought up last month in a different thread about online art sales:

How many artists make a living from selling their art?

I actually bring some knowledge to the issue. I recently retired as a newspaper arts writer, a job I worked full-time for a decade and part-time for years before that. As such I got to know most of the artists in a metro area of about 250,000 people and many other artists from around the state.

Here's what little light I can shed on the topic.

A small but real number of artists do make a living at their art. By "a living," I mean a middle-class income, obtained primarily from art sales, that allows people to buy a house with a bank loan, afford health insurance, have a family and not live in poverty. I'm talking the kind of income a cop or schoolteacher might enjoy.

I know about 10 people in this category -- perhaps twice that number if I think more carefully. I know of two couples in which both the husband and wife are (or were -- there's been one death) full-time artists. Both live in nice houses and have raised families.

In about half of these cases, the artists -- painters, all -- studied art in college; some got MFA degrees. Besides helping with technique, the academic track gives you networking with galleries, museums and collectors.

The other half tend to be self-made artists, usually genre painters of some kind (cowboy art, logger art, wildlife art, etc). What this group has in common is a high degree of technical skill, whether self-taught or learned in workshops (as opposed to degree programs) AND a very high commitment to marketing.

In one case, the artist's wife worked (he's also dead -- I'm showing my age) as a business manager, keeping his greeting cards and other reproductions constantly on the move, while he worked in the studio every day.

I don't have any statistics to back this up, but my general impression is that of the people I know who call themselves painters or artists, less than 5 percent make money at anything like this level. It takes a lot of commitment to produce professional-looking art regularly while spending somewhere around half to two-thirds of your time on marketing.

There are also some oddities. One painter I know graduated from a posh art school in the '80s and caught the wave of the New York art boom. He was selling his paintings for $30k and more in NYC galleries -- but then couldn't handle the temptations of the life style, and blew all his money up his nose.

Now he lives here in the Northwest and sells the same quality paintings for $50 each at community art shows while working for UPS.

Another friend, somewhat younger, graduated with a good MFA and $50k in student debt about 10 years ago. Her paintings sold pretty well ($5k range for gallery sales and direct customers) right up to the moment the recession hit in 2008. She hasn't had a significant sale since, though I think that's in part because she's discouraged and slowed down her marketing.

Some years back I researched a story on what had become of MFA visual art graduates from our local university 10 years after graduation. Basically, a small sliver -- that 5 percent or so -- were making money directly from their art. Only one artist in that group could say with a straight face that he was making a living. The rest were still in student/poverty mode 10 years after graduation. A much larger group -- like 70 percent -- were working in vaguely art-related fields (teaching, art therapy, etc) but not making a significant amount of money from selling art. The rest weren't doing anything with art at all.

Another bit of perspective: None of the art galleries I know of in town, including a couple of high-end, white-box places that look very successful, are making enough money to be honestly called a business. In all cases, the owners subsidize their desire to sell art with their own money, by living off a military pension and investments, say, or living off a spouse's job.

I once asked the owner of a very distinguished gallery, now closed, up the freeway in Portland whether she had made money in her first year in business years ago. "You want an honest answer?" she said. "We never made money, not right up to the end." Her husband, a wealthy businessman, had quietly subsidized the gallery throughout its 25-year existence. She insisted that he do so because she wanted the artists who showed there to feel like a success. (Keep this in mind when you complain about those 50 percent commissions....)

There is money and even a living to be made in art, but it takes a lot of work and persistence to find it.

A much less understood problem for self-employed artists is the difficulty of living with chronic financial uncertainty.

You have a $100k year. Great! But next year might be $15k. Better squirrel most of that $100k away for a rainy day, or two, or three. And realize you're going to have a hard time getting a mortgage on your dream house based on your artist income unless it's pretty high and stable for a lot of years.

Use Her Name 08-19-2013 07:45 PM

Re: How many artists make a living from art?
Very enlightening first person report. I have known some highly successful artists also and as you say, they spend an inordinate amount of time marketing.

About the 100K year...

Never get a Mortgage. Buy a fixer-upper house for substantially less.

GardenMaven 08-19-2013 09:59 PM

Re: How many artists make a living from art?
I have a full time low middle income job. Fortunately, I dabble in art for pure pleasure. I take pieces in to my workplace to share with other "hobby" artists and co-workers in general. They call my area "The Gallery". I have had several tell me I should quit my job and paint for a living but when I tell them how many hours are entailed in producing a finished piece compared to what they sell for, they are astonished. Yep, I can't live on $5 (or less) an hour. Sandi

svrart 08-22-2013 04:28 AM

Re: How many artists make a living from art?
Over my years of wandering the globe, I have met numerous artista and my observation is very similar to yours. The 5% seems to be a magic number. I now live in Songzhuang, the artist center of China and that number holds here too.

Sarah Rose 08-22-2013 10:24 AM

Re: How many artists make a living from art?
I can honestly say that I make a living from art. My husband also works in our business, we make middle class money, own a house with some land, have horses, even health insurance. How did I do this you may ask? I am a sculptor, and spent the early years of my career working in an art foundry so I could afford to cast my work in bronze. I occasionally did well with it, but could never entirely quit my foundry job. Along comes a customer who, besides bronze, casts her work in resin for a hobby market. She encouraged me to give it a try, and after thinking about it for a year or two, I did just that. Quit my job shortly afterwards, convinced my husband to quit his job to do the casting, and her we are 15 years later. Since the 2008 downturn we make about 1/3 less, and have felt that whenever a vehicle breaks down or we need new tires. But, we do make a living from art, sorta art anyway. Here is a link to my product if anyone is interested: www.rosehorse.com

artist123 08-22-2013 12:10 PM

Re: How many artists make a living from art?
I checked on line and they come up with some ridiculous answers like college students just starting out $25 an hour. I think my figuring is closer,

First about 10 years ago when art was good I read a book in the library that had wages said the average artist earns $2000 annual. Dont liet that worry you.

Jack White has a 20 80 rule 20% of the people make 80% of the income. to average 1 out of 5 would earn 8000 the other 4 500 annual. I wouldnt call Sandi a hobby artist but more like a part time artist that has another job to work most arent going to have time for a 40 hour work week. And figure marketing time not painting time. Some are only going to sell a few times a year so $500 is good if you only go to two shows. thats $250 a day
using that formula 1 out of 5 of those making 8000 would make 32,000 a year. That would be 1 out of 25 artists. Many of those have spouses or galleries helping. One of my friends sells prints and her husband goes with her to the farmers market 1/2 day each week he sells his prints and does all the on line work and they make more than $2000 a year.

The top 1% or 2% should do quit well.

there are other factors if I were to pick on Sandi's $5 an hour. most people spend 25 to 30% family wages on houseing, another on other bills. A working person has gas to get to work money for a baby sitter. If her studio is in her home.

Any business person cannot live from paycheck to pay check, My neighbor farmers budget one or two years. pay cash for there seed and when the crop is in put it into a cd until time to plant.

I could live supper great on $5 an hour. if It was me I was supporting but supporting a family If you kid doens't say I need to borrow $15,000 because I forgot the house payment this year. Make that 4 kids and a husband. I'll pay you back $20 a month. Then they say until you start making money you can buy cheap brushes or I can paint over my painted canvas so I don't need to buy more. thats not as bad as it is when you go to write a check for product and discover your account is empty. but thats not as bad as discovering they maxed out your credit card you use to buy product, $5 would support me but $50 an hour wouldn't support my family

I hope this helps you.

Davkin 08-22-2013 12:45 PM

Re: How many artists make a living from art?
How do you live super great on $5/hour even if you are single without kids? (I assume that's what you meant). Ya, you could live if you are in a cheap apartment with a reliable roomate, (one of you sleep on the couch. :lol: ) and walk or take the bus everywhere, but I wouldn't call that living great let alone super great, oh and of course you wouldn't have health insurance.

Frankly, your whole post was hard to read and I'm not sure I understand it.


AllisonR 08-22-2013 05:48 PM

Re: How many artists make a living from art?
I agree with the OP.

I get annoyed when people lie about it. Galleries always say they are doing great, business is just fine... because it is marketing for them, they have to look good to get people to buy. And individual artist are also always good and making money from their art. If you make your money teaching art or doing photoshop editing or whatever else, fine. NOTHING wrong with that. I did that as well for decades. Now I don't, I paint full-time, but it doesn't mean my income can support me; it means I am lucky that my husband has a good job. But some people say they make their money from art, when it is the "side job." If you are in the 5% or whatever, that is fantastic, and should be an inspiration for the rest of us. But if you are not, don't pretend you are. Ok, rant over.

ianos dan 08-22-2013 06:16 PM

Re: How many artists make a living from art?
Hello guys! Very very interesting topic !
l am a professional artist ,but l sold very few paintings in my live ( l am 30 years old).l have professional training ,but this is not guarantee for your success.Honestly ,l think the subject of making millions of dollars or euros ,or whatever ,it's relative: you could sell a painting with a good price once,but ,this is not like selling food or cars,it's a selective market,in which the buyer has it's own taste ,it's own values of judging a painting .Most of the painters make their living by painting commissions ,imposed sometimes ,like a portrait ,or a landscape ,by a client ,who is not always educated in arts,or art history .
l personally ,work in digital media,l am a freelance concept artist ,and l make some money from this ,but this is a very though world ,and the competition is incredible.
My respect for those who make big money by selling their art !

Artyczar 08-22-2013 07:21 PM

Re: How many artists make a living from art?
I do think the galleries are doing worse than the artists. That's just what I see and what my feeling it. They have such a big overhead and it just seems like they don't do their marketing like we do - like their lives depend on it.

Not all galleries of course, just many that I have seen. It's also one of the reasons I gave up my store-front studio, to decrease my overhead.

I make a living with my art, although it has not been easy between the last season of 2008 until the first season of this year. That is the truth. I don't know how on Earth I stretched those dollars, but I did. Tiny sales, or medium sales not very often. I thought I was going to have to get a job - something I've not had to do since I was in my 20s (I'm 45). Everything is okay now.

SARAH ROSE! I have answered your question in the thread below and even bumped it up for you. I am not sure if you saw it, but I guess I just want to remind you because I took some time there to write a bit of information on how I work my newsletter system. There's possibly some good info for ya, and maybe others too.

Yeah, when we were all getting to talk about this subject on that thread below, I was feeling a bit invalidated, like I wasn't believed that I work full time as an artist - make a living. Make a living wage. Pay my bills, my share of expenses, etc.

I apologize if I got defensive. I probably got that way because I felt like I said it more than once and hadn't been acknowledged - and for those of you/us that have done this path know how hard it has been to live it. There is a lot of sacrifice. You have to have a different point of view about life and money and what is important, but there are times when that viewpoint can slip. You can be with a friend that has a good job, a retirement plan and a mortgage and start to get down.

I have felt that way before. Sure! For instance, my brother is a contractor and is married with a couple of little girls. He drives a Porsche and owns three or four houses. The one he lives in, is really nice. The others bring in income if he ever looses his job. He makes me feel like a big dope, and since he's my older brother, he rubs it in like salt in the wound.

But I have a nice house too. I don't own it, but it's in a really nice neighborhood, and I really love my life here. And all I know is that every five years - even despite the economic downfall - my life has increased in quality. Like Saturday, I got High(er) Speed internet and yesterday I bought a bunch of cool toys at Blick. Fun!

And the other day when my landlady was here, she wanted to commission me to do a painting for her. I'm in a position to say "no" if I want. (She's kind of a nightmare.)

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