Photo by NeONBRAND.
When artist Christina Empedocles decided to pursue an MFA at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, she signed up for expensive tuition payments and an uncertain financial future in one fell swoop. With that in mind, she began asking professors, advisors, and visiting artists what she thought was a straightforward question: “How did you make an art career work financially?”
To her surprise, satisfactory responses were in short supply.
“Nobody really wanted to answer [the question], period,” Empedocles said. “I thought, Why is this subject such a taboo?”
Empedocles, now based in San Francisco, graduated in 2008 in the midst of the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression, still without a good idea of how to support herself, and her art practice. She knew chances of selling work right out of school were slim. How could she make money without sacrificing her practice? What jobs would allow her enough flexibility and time to make art? And when she did begin to sell work, how should she spend that income?
With her informal survey unanswered, she took matters into her own hands. “I decided that I was going to learn everything I could about money,” she recalled. “Pretty much right after I graduated, I started taking classes about personal finance.”
Today, Empedocles splits her time between making art and working as a certified financial planner, with a focus on guiding people in creative industries. She is one of a number of arts professionals and advisors across the country who have devoted their careers to helping artists better manage their careers and finances, with an eye toward sustaining their art practices.
Artsy spoke to four of them about their strategies for how artists should budget and spend; temper the volatility of multiple and inconsistent income streams; navigate student loan debt; and invest in their practices and career goals.
Be mindful of your expenses
Successfully managing an artist’s finances (or anyone’s) begins with outlining living and working expenses: How much money do you need to live and make your art?
Adding up monthly costs—apartment and, if applicable, studio rent, utilities, credit card and student loan payments, as well as food, art supplies, and other additional necessities or activities (insurance, entertainment, travel, etc.)—allows artists to understand how much money they need to amass in order to fund their basic needs and, simultaneously, their practice. It also helps prioritize payments, identify unnecessary expenses, and free up more money to devote to materials and studio costs.
“The artists who I know who’ve been able to maintain financial stability are mindful of their needs, their costs, and understand what their budget has to be as far as laying out their expenses,” said Sharon Louden, an artist, educator, and author of Living and Sustaining a Creative Life.
Create a budget
With these elements down on paper, design a budget. Don’t be daunted by the term—it’s simply a way of strategically organizing the spending you already do, allowing you to spend smarter.
“Budgets help you identify all the things you need to do with your money,” said Empedocles. “When your money doesn’t have a job and you’re just spending willy nilly on the things that come up on a day-to-day basis, you might find at the end of the month that you didn’t pay that credit card off or you didn’t get your electric bill paid.”
Empedocles also emphasized the importance of a budget for navigating an artist’s fluctuating income, and planning for periods when money isn’t coming in. “It’s very easy to pay all of your bills on that one month out of six when you make a big chunk of money,” she said. “And it’s also super easy to spend the rest and forget that there will be months in the future that aren’t as lucrative.” To temper this inconsistency, Empedocles recommends immediately setting aside living expenses for the next several months, before spending on extras.
For recurring expenses that aren’t going away, like rent, utilities, student loans, and the like, total them up (so you know what you have to have set aside) and set them up on recurring and automatic payments through your bank or credit card. That way you’re budgeting without even thinking about it.
McLean Emenegger, founder of McLean Art Projects, a company offering professional practice guidance to artists, recommends a series of tools that can make budgeting easier, and less time consuming for artists. She advises to begin early and simply: “Start with an Excel spreadsheet. On it, account for what you spend, how much you’re selling work for.” There are also a wealth of free apps that advertise easy budgeting set up and spending tracking, such as BillGuard, Dollarbird, Fudget, and more. Mint illustrates how close you are to overspending with gorgeous infographics that aesthetes will appreciate.
Budgeting, according to both Empedocles and Emenegger, is made less arduous and more effective by setting goals. “A budget is not going to work at all without a set of clearly defined goals, because your goals will inspire you to do incredible things that you never thought you were able to accomplish,” says Empedocles. “Once you define your goals, or what you’re trying to save for, you want to put that money away—you want to rein in your spending on stuff that’s not as necessary.”
Emenegger noted that setting career and monetary goals will help define your budget, and funnel money towards the aspects of your life and art career that matter most to you. “Be specific about what your overhead is, what your goals are, and how you’re going to reach them,” she says. “Because if you say you want to make $5,000, well, that’s a nifty amount of money, but how are you going to do that? What will that money go towards? How will it help you reach your goals?” In other words, have a plan for your money so that when you make it, you’ll have a clear idea of how to spend it in a way that furthers your life and professional goals.
Pay down your debts
Wendi Norris, a gallerist with a background in business, works with a group of artists who often use her as a sounding board. If and when they ask her for advice on how to spend the money from art sales, she advises paying down student loans and credit card debt first. “The burden of student loans is so toxic that some people ignore it thinking it will go away, when in fact it won’t,” she said. America’s student debt tab is set to top a trillion dollars this year, and artists have it worse than most: A 2013 Wall Street Journal analysis found that the top three schools with the most student debt load, out of almost 4,000 institutions, were art, music, and design schools.
This past year, when Norris sold work by one of her artists, she immediately paid down that artist’s debt. “When I called her and told her she no longer had debt, she basically dropped her phone in her studio,” she said. “It was just eating away at her.”
Start saving—for both the near future, and the far
After an artist clears their debt, Norris encourages them to begin saving money in different ways. “If you can, you want to have a six-month minimum build-up of savings. That’s just personal finance 101,” she said. Empedocles added for artists, this is especially important, given the inevitable slow periods in an artist’s life between jobs, art sales, or exhibitions. The savings fund, she said, is “a barrier from you going into debt.”
Empedocles also emphasizes the value in saving for the future—whether for long-term goals, or for retirement. “A lot of artists think, ‘I don’t have any money. There’s no purpose in even trying to start saving,’” she explains. “But even small amounts saved on a regular basis, as a habit, can be very powerful over time.” In particular, she recommends establishing a Roth IRA, or a highly diversified retirement account, which invests your money—even amounts as small as $10—so that it will grow over time. On her blog, Empedocles describes the account as “one of the most powerful tools regular people have to get ahead.”
Norris recommends another security guarantee for an artist’s future and legacy: “When I see an amazing body of work come together, even if I know I have a great collector for it, I am insistent that my artists keep one work for themselves. That is their retirement plan.” Norris gleaned this advice from her work with the late Surrealist masters Dorothea Tanning and Leonora Carrington. Tanning, in particular, kept some of her best works for herself, selling some and earmarking others for specific foundations and museums. “It was brilliant, really, because it’s proving to preserve her legacy,” Norris said.
An ancillary income or side job can provide stability—but choose wisely
Most artists aren’t able to support their lives on art sales alone, and even established artists have slow sales periods, or encounter moments when they need more money than art sales provide. Another way to counterbalance the volatility of an artist’s finances is to establish multiple income streams. “When your main source of income—say, your creative practice—has a natural cycle to it, perhaps your side gig has a different cycle,” Empedocles notes. “Those two things can balance each other out, so that you can smooth out the volatility a bit—even a lot.”
Alternate income streams can come in many shapes and sizes. Emenegger suggests pursuing a job that aligns with the world you want to be in—in this case, art. “There’s so much opportunity out there to learn about your practice, to learn about the art world, to seize a networking opportunity—and to simultaneously make money,” she said.
In her advisory sessions with artists, she’s recommended securing teaching positions (whether full-time or part-time) within an artist’s medium of choice, or becoming a studio assistant to a more well-known artist—“anything that can help develop the skills, the language, the networking and mentorship opportunities that can also help support their careers,” she continues.
Empedocles adds that side jobs should pay their keep, while simultaneously allowing for time to pursue a practice. “If your side job doesn’t pay you enough to support yourself and your art practice, that side job is working against you,” she explains.
She’s seen artists successfully take on part-time gigs as virtual assistant, using skills they’ve developed to advance their own careers on behalf of others, such as designing Squarespace sites, managing social media strategy (particularly Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter), using Wordpress, or creating marketing assets using their design skills—and, what she calls “the secret sauce”: connecting these tools effectively. “For example, instead of just knowing how to send an email newsletter through Mailchimp, they’re able to put up a blog for their clients, help with image assets, share posts in targeted Facebook groups, which attracts a specific audience whose email addresses are collected into Mailchimp,” she said. She also noted that teaching online courses through established platforms like Skillshare, or courses outside of college or university degree programs, through Airbnb Experiences, for instance, can bolster an artist’s financial stability.
Norris has also observed her artists, who normally support themselves through art sales, also take on teaching gigs, collaborations with design studios, or public art commissions. She described them not just as side hustles but terrific opportunities for artists to get outside of the studio and into new, potentially inspiring contexts. “After a point of working in the studio day in and day out, the law of diminishing returns kicks in,” she said. “Many artists need to free their mind up, and doing other work can be a good way of accomplishing that.”
Advocate for yourself; i.e. don’t forget your artist’s fee
When you do take on a commission, or schedule a show with a gallery, don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself. “Number one, if you have a commission or public art project or something similar, make sure you put aside at least 10 percent for yourself in the budget,” said Louden. “So many artists forget to take care of themselves and put everything back into the work. Take at least a 10 percent artist fee—and make sure that’s clear in the budget.”
If you secure a gallery or representation, Louden also emphasizes the importance of having frank conversations about finances before sales are made. “Make sure you’re part of a conversation, tell them what you need, and don’t be shy about it,” she said. “The artists who I’ve discussed this with first ask the gallery what they can do as a team member—after all, it’s a business partnership. Then they lay out the things that they’d like to steer the sales towards.”
Apply for grants and awards—but be smart about it
Grants and awards can also help navigate slow sales periods, or fund an aspect of your practice or special project. But be aware of the time and effort it will take to apply, and the breadth of grants that are available. Don’t just apply to the most visible, competitive grants.
“There are actually a lot of other under-the-radar opportunities out there,” said Louden. “You’ll need to invest some time and research to find these more accessible opportunities, but it might save you from wasting time over many, many years to apply to the grants that everyone else is applying to.”
Emenegger said to find grants that match your career phase and type of work, such as a grant or residency aimed at supporting emerging artists, like the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s residency program, for newer artists. Grants and awards support a wide range of niches, from artistic medium to an artist’s cultural background or ethnicity, so find the one that’s right for you.
There are some resources that aggregate grant opportunities. Empedocles, for instance, has done much of the work for you by compiling a list of over 40 grants and awards on her blog. She’s also included sign-up list that delivers updates via email as new opportunities are added. Cranbrook Academy of Art has also compiled a comprehensive list, organized by niche and region, as has New Blood Art, with a focus on opportunities available to emerging artists.
You’re part of a community: Help and be helped
Louden advises artists to find their own opportunities, and suggests crowdsourcing amongst peers.
“Other people have different experiences and information than you do, so use your community. It’s much harder when you’re operating on an island,” Louden said. “It can be as simple as getting a group of artists together once a week or month to share opportunities, like an inexpensive studio, a grant, or tactics for money saving.”
Artists can help each other “open doors that we don’t even know are even there,” said Empedocles. She administers a public Facebook group called “Artists Making Dollars and Sense,” as part of her financial advisory, Insight Personal Finance. The group doubles as an open forum for artists to ask questions and share opportunities related to their finances, on which Empedocles or other group members can weigh in.
“I always tell artists: Look at your resources, look at who you know, who can you trade with. There is no end of resources out there for you to support you, to answer your questions, to lend advice,” Emenegger said. “You should never feel bereft, there’s plenty of support out there. It’s hard, but it’s not impossible. It just takes planning.”