Advice for Artists on How to Make a Living—When Selling Art Doesn’t Pay the Bills

Caroll Michels
Jun 25, 2018 8:07PM

Photo via Getty Images.

For over three decades, Caroll Michels has worked as an artist and career coach, advocating for and teaching fellow creatives how to develop and sustain their careers. The following is an excerpt from Chapter 11 of her newly revised book, How to Survive and Prosper as an Artist, Seventh Edition, which focuses on alternative avenues that artists can pursue to generate income, without straying too far from their own art practices.

Over the years various studies have been conducted focusing on the demographic and employment patterns of artists, including their median income. Unfortunately, the studies tend to lump together fine artists who do self-generated artwork with gainfully employed commercial artists and freelancers who are doing art-related assignments. Without this distinction, it is difficult to get a clear picture of the economic status of what is going on.

Being able to support yourself as an artist, and maintain a high-quality life through finances generated from your artwork, can and does happen all the time. But rarely does it happen overnight, and realistically, until your career gets rolling, it is necessary to earn a living through other means. This chapter covers the assets and drawbacks of conventional jobs, and it discusses some ways of generating income within the fine arts field.

Assets and drawbacks of conventional jobs

To solve the problem of supporting yourself as an artist, you must take into account your financial needs and emotional and physical capabilities. Whether the options suggested in this chapter are appealing or you prefer traditional forms of employment that offer more financial security depends on your temperament, personality, and energy level. What works for one artist doesn’t necessarily work for another. But the common goal is to generate income that simultaneously allows you to have the energy to work on your own projects and develop your career, maintain good health and a healthy state of mind, and afford a good standard of creature comforts.

However, in the name of art and the “myth of the artist,” compromises and sacrifices are constantly made.

Before jumping into employment, assess carefully and honestly what you are looking for and why. Does the job provide a real means to an end, or is the job likely to annihilate your end? For example, two of my clients took jobs with art service organizations. Both jobs provided the artists with sufficient income as well as opportunities to meet people related to their profession and expand contacts and networks. One job involved low-pressure, routine duties. Although the artist was not mentally stimulated, she had energy to sculpt and work on developing her career because her job responsibilities were minimal.

The other job was full of responsibilities. It was demanding and stimulating. Although the artist found the work fulfilling, at the end of the day she was drained, and on weekends she found herself recuperating. Consequently, she did not have any energy left for her artwork.

If you want to work within the arts, there are some good resources available. Americans for the Arts Job Bank is an online listing of jobs in arts administration throughout the United States. The website of the Alliance of Artists Communities posts job openings in arts ­administration and academia. Professionals for Nonprofits is an ­employment agency that offers part-time and full-time temporary and permanent positions to people interested in working for nonprofit organizations, including those that are arts-related. The book Career Solutions for Creative People: How to Balance Artistic Goals with Career Security by Dr. Ronda Ormont discusses ways to find the time and freedom to pursue art while making a stable living.

Teaching: A boon or a trojan horse?

Teaching is attractive to artists for several reasons: it can offer financial security and the fringe benefits of health insurance, life insurance, sick leave, vacation pay, and long vacations. In addition, it can be very fulfilling and it is a highly respected occupation.

Because of these attractions, the competition to teach is brutal—so brutal that, unless one is a superstar, getting a job usually necessitates returning to school for more degrees. On the other hand, even if your qualifications are superlative, there is no job guarantee. There are more qualified artists than teaching positions available in colleges and universities, and within school systems.

The scarcity of jobs is not the only drawback. When you are an artist and a teacher, you wear two hats. If teaching consisted only of lecturing, critiquing, and advising students, it would be relatively simple. However, teaching means a lot more. In many instances, it requires lesson planning. It also means extracurricular involvement with faculty politics and yielding to the special demands and priorities of academia.

Artists who teach and want to develop their careers must contend simultaneously with the occupational hazards of both professions. The situation is particularly complex because many of the demands and priorities of the art world and academic world are in conflict. Sometimes artists are forced to change their methods of teaching and/or style of work to conform to current academic trends and ideology. Receiving tenure often becomes the most important goal in life. Academia can put demands on teachers to exhibit their artwork, an endeavor that is rarely in conflict with an artist’s interests. However, in addition, artists can also be pressured to publish articles, essays, and books about art history and art criticism, all of which are time-consuming efforts that can greatly interfere with studio time.

Nevertheless, teaching can offer many rewards and have a significant influence on an artist’s artwork. A case in point, the painter Zahar Vaks, sent me the following email:

“Along with being a visual artist I teach an art and activism course….Before taking the job, I was afraid that teaching would take me away from my artwork. I was reminded of this anxiety after I read the section of your book ‘Teaching: A Boon or a Trojan Horse?’ I must say that working with these kids, although exhausting, has begun seeping into my paintings and drawings.”

Art education employment leads can be found on the College Art Association’s online Career Center that contains posts of employment opportunities at colleges, universities, and art schools.

Artist-in-residence employment

There are various forms of artist-in-residence programs. Some have the fundamental purpose of providing artists with opportunities to live in an environment in which they may work unimpeded by life’s daily worries.

In other residency programs, sponsored by state arts agencies and nonprofit organizations, artists are hired to teach on a temporary, part-time, or full-time basis in school systems, community programs, social service, and healthcare facilities.

For example, Artists-in-Schools, sponsored by the Ohio Alliance for Arts Education, places professional artists and arts groups in K-12 schools, and in parks and recreation centers, senior facilities, correctional facilities, hospitals, libraries, and other community centers, as well as private sector businesses, organizations, and individuals. The Connecticut Office of the Arts sponsors an online Directory of Teaching Artists that lists Connecticut artists who work in schools and community settings.…The National Endowment for the Arts website publishes a list of Arts in Healthcare programs throughout the United States. The Prison Arts Project, sponsored by the ­William James Association, is open to visual and performing artists interested in conducting workshops in California correctional facilities.

Apprenticeships, studio assistants, and internships

Serving as an apprentice or studio assistant to another artist is a viable means of earning a living for a certain period. Working for an experienced artist can be helpful to less-experienced artists. It can provide an opportunity to learn more about the business of art and see firsthand what being an artist is all about. But keep in mind that contrary to the myth that continually floats around, working for a famous artist is not a prerequisite to achieving success in the art world.

An apprenticeship experience can be particularly advantageous if the apprenticeship is with an artist who is sure-footed and emotionally secure. Insecure artists might not be generous in sharing career information or contacts. Insecure people also tend to have difficult personalities. Before accepting an apprenticeship position, ask your potential employer for references of their previous apprentices. You have every right to request references and know what you are getting yourself into.

In an article about the pros and cons of being an artist’s studio assistant, author Daniel Grant pointed out that “promotions, raises and industry recognition—typical rewards of employment—almost never occur in studio work and so it is something of a job for the young.”  On the positive side, the article described a scenario about an artist who worked as a studio assistant. A print publisher visited the studio and struck up a conversation with the assistant that led to an introduction to a well-known artist, who then introduced her to an academic who recommended her to fill a short-term teaching spot at a university, and the academic and the famous artist also chipped in $250 apiece to pay for the artist to attend the Vermont Studio Center as an artist-in-residence.

Many not-for-profit organizations, for-profit companies, ­museums, educational facilities, galleries, and art consultants offer internships to artists. The website My Next Move lists apprenticeship programs on a state-by-state basis. The website Chicago Artists Resource, sponsored by the Chicago Artists Coalition, lists online apprenticeship and internship opportunities in Chicago and throughout Illinois. Hire Culture provides an online list of employment opportunities in Massachusetts including internships in creative fields.

Career-related revenue-generating opportunities

Revenue-generating opportunities that are related to your career as an artist, such as lectures and lecture/demonstrations, not only add to your income, they can also offer exposure to your artwork and ideas, with the fringe benefit of providing a public relations value.

Many types of venues such as civic, cultural, and educational organizations, colleges and universities, and cruise ships and resorts hire artists for “guest appearances.”

A presentation can be based solely on your artwork, or it might include the work of other contemporary artists who are working in a similar direction. It could focus on how your work has been influenced by a particular movement in art history. It could be a presentation about your travel adventures and how they have influenced your artwork. Subjects and themes of arts-related presentations are unlimited.

The financial rewards of public appearances can be considerable, especially if you repeat your “performance” several times. For example, when I receive an out-of-town invitation to conduct career workshops for artists, I use the opportunity to create more opportunities by contacting other educational or cultural institutions in the same region. What starts out as a one-shot engagement can end up as a lecture tour.

Setting up lectures

The best way to approach an organization or institution about sponsoring a lecture is to provide a proposal. A proposal for a lecture should describe the purpose and content of your presentation, why it is relevant, topics or subjects covered, the audience (specify if it is for the public, artists, or both), and length of the program. Your proposal should also include an artist fee, a biography, and, when applicable, travel and per diem expenses. If you have a presentation history, list the names of the venues where you have been a guest speaker. The proposal should be accompanied by a short cover letter.

Compatible dual careers

Chapter 2, “Launching or Relaunching Your Career: Overcoming Career Blocks,” discusses the challenges and pitfalls when artists have dual careers. But there are exceptions when dual careers are very compatible.

For example, Maurice Stern is known as an opera singer and for his portrait sculptures. He performed at the New York City Opera in American and world premieres—before becoming a leading dramatic tenor across four continents. Exhibitions of his artwork were sometimes held simultaneously in American and European cities in which his performances took place. In describing his sculptures, he emphasized that he captured the character of his subjects in the same way he molded the characters he played on the operatic stage.

Some of my clients have expressed the benefits of having a dual career. A fine art photographer who is also a psychiatrist described how an understanding of the human mind has helped him select and capture his subjects. An abstract sculptor who is also a surgeon credits his studies in anatomy and continuing work with the body as being instrumental in giving him the confidence to personally express the human form. Another sculptor and installation artist told me that her work as a psychotherapist, involving many “talk sessions,” has greatly improved her ability to articulate her own feelings about the purpose and meaning of her artwork.

Wearing two hats can also be used to an artist’s advantage if one utilizes and transfers the resources and contacts of a second career into fine art. Such was the opportunity created by artist Molly Heron, who parlayed a series of timely events and a freelance position into a solo exhibition in a prime location on the ground floor of a midtown Manhattan office building.

Heron was hired as a freelance book designer at HarperCollins, which, coincidentally, was the publisher of The Writing Life by Annie Dillard, a book that she had read, savored, and reread.

Six months after she obtained the freelance position, Heron attended an exhibition at the HarperCollins Gallery, located in an open and attractive bi-level space. Impressed with the physical attributes of the gallery and its location, she made inquiries regarding how the space could be acquired for an exhibition. She learned through the gallery curator that all exhibitions in the space had to be related to a HarperCollins book.

Eureka! Before the lightbulb in Heron’s head had a chance to dim, she developed an exhibition proposal. Within four weeks she submitted the proposal and visual support material to the HarperCollins curator, and soon afterward she received an invitation to install a solo exhibition in the gallery later in the year.

Heron’s proposal was based on the inspiration she had received from Annie Dillard’s book. It had infused her with a new energy force, and she felt compelled to visually interpret the author’s metaphors and observations.

Heron sold five pieces of work while the exhibition was installed. And as soon as the show closed, she handled the ending as a new beginning and wasted no time in taking the next step. With a revised proposal, cover letter, and support material, she began making new contacts.

Her initiatives resulted in exhibition invitations from a university museum, a nonprofit gallery, and a commercial gallery. She also received requests to present lectures and workshops.

In addition, a curator of a branch of the Whitney Museum of American Art informed Heron that, due to the branch museum’s policy of only sponsoring group shows, she was unable to offer her a solo exhibition, but that she was so impressed with Heron’s work, she had contacted another cultural institution on the artist’s behalf.

In part, Molly Heron’s adventures and her success can be attributed to the cosmic phenomenon of being at the right place at the right time. But most of the credit belongs to the artist, who through very earthly pursuits took the initiative to utilize in her fine arts career the resources and contacts of the publishing world.

Caroll Michels
Caroll Michels is a career coach and artist-advocate. She has helped thousands of artists launch and sustain their careers in the United States, Canada, Europe, Asia, and South and Central America.