Making a living in the arts is not particularly easy. I’ve been doing it for the last 47 years and I can tell you that as soon as I think I have it figured out… I realize that the game has changed! Although there are always that small group of artists and craftsmen for whom the stars just seem to align and the money comes rolling in! But of course sometimes that appearance is actually just an illusion. Over the years I’ve seen that more likely that success is the result of hard work, careful planning and probably a little bit of luck thrown in!
Usually when an individual or a company needs to use the kind of talent we offer it’s on a short term basis. And where do they turn? Sometimes an advertising agency or other creative outlet is the answer… but more often than not, those seeking the talents of a creative person have no idea where to turn. And even if they did… finding someone with just the skills they need is quite an elusive proposition! We aren’t in a business where you just put out a few applications and wait for the job offers to roll in. In fact, I don’t know about you… but aside from teaching the arts at some school somewhere… I’ve never even seen an application for a job in the arts. This is a business of networking and constantly seeking out new opportunities to use your talent.
So what is the answer? Well it’s complicated… that’s why we hear about so many “starving artists” in the world. In reality there aren’t that many artists and craftsmen who are starving… I’ve seen quite a few of you who seem to be doing quite well! But the steps it takes to make sure the cash flow keeps flowing can be daunting. Let’s explore a few of them…
1. Participate in art or craft shows. We’ve pretty much figured this one out or you wouldn’t be reading this article. I believe this is probably the most obvious way to sell your work and make money. It’s direct… and the money comes in today! Certainly there are drawbacks with unpredictable weather, finicky customers, tricky set ups, hotels, tons of travel and more. But the path is simple. Go to the show, set up, present your work and then take in the money. This works… but it leaves out a lot of other money making opportunities on the table. And of course there are tons of ways you can increase your efficiency at shows to maximize your sales with effective display techniques and better sales techniques too. But we’ll save that discussion for another article.
2. Let people know the full range of what you can do! When you’re at a show or anywhere else for that matter, don’t forget to also put on display the fact that you might do commission work, pre-orders, custom design or maybe you could even produce some of your items in mass for a large retailer. There may be other applications for your work too. Such as putting artwork on pillows, cups, placemats, vinyl wraps and more. Put your creativity and imagination to work here too and come up with other ideas for applications where your work can be used. Certainly at a show you could display a few of these kind of things if you’d like… but as inexpensive as print and internet is these days it’s also possible to present the ideas in other ways. You never know who you’re going to run into at an event, so be prepared to accommodate expansion or a different direction for your business.
3. Art is all around us. All day long we hear music. Almost everything we touch and see has been affected by an artist somewhere. The label on the soup you just bought… the weave of the clothing you wear… the shape of the car you drive… the billboard you just saw on the road… the carpet in your house… the magazine article you just read. All these things and a much, much longer list all have the influence of someone in the arts. We possess a talent that is probably one of the most widely used and under-rated abilities in the world. Some people have figured it out and have made a lot of money as a result. On the other hand, many times that contribution is just taken for granted. The difference in which direction the compensation takes is largely dependent upon us and the attitudes we take when we create the work. Realizing that what we do IS in demand… it IS important to the world in many ways and that the contribution we make as artists and craftsmen is important goes a long way toward allowing us to be compensated properly for what we offer.
4. Prospect, Prospect, Prospect… This is probably one of the most important keys to staying in business and remaining profitable. It can be summed up quickly. Always seek work and recognize when you find it! I put in the part about “recognize it when you find it” because I’m always surprised at how many times I see exhibitors prospecting for work… but when they find it they don’t recognize that opportunity is starring them right in the face. Let everyone know what you do and that you are actively seeking new projects. Carry business cards, brochures, a sample or two of your work with you everywhere you go. You’ll never want to miss the chance to show off your talent. You must become a master at self-promotion without sounding pompous. The most successful people in the world do exactly that every day. Use third party referrals, have an active list of satisfied customers that you have verified like the work you do.
When someone asks if you can apply your work in a different way… be open to their suggestions and imagine how you can take that ball they just threw your way and enhance the idea too. I remember one time when I used to own a recording studio and I did voice overs. My idea was to create delivery tapes for new car dealers. It was a good idea and I sold a few of those packages to several different dealerships. One day a dealer in St. Augustine who liked the work I did asked me if I could also make a message for his phone system. After about two seconds I said sure… of course I then had to figure out how to do it… but after all it was just applying the same talent to a different application. In the end, this actually became the primary focus of the business rather than the delivery tapes I envisioned in the beginning.
The moral of this story is always ask for work, let people know you’re interested, recognize when they come up with an idea that may not be what you envisioned originally and then be flexible as to the application of your talent. Allow yourself to take “forks in the road” when they make sense. Who knows what direction and opportunities lie just ahead of the bend in that path!
5. Persistence, persistence, persistence… Be flexible, but stick with your goal. Don’t give up at the first sign of rejection or the first inkling of hard work. The most successful people you’ve met have most likely been some of the most persistent people you’ve met too. Whether you’ve chosen to be an artist, a craftsman, a politician, a plumber, a teacher or whatever… being the best and being successful almost always involves lots of hard work and tenacity. Very few things that are worthwhile come easily. Sure you’ll hear about something that was an instant success once in a while… but that’s kind of like winning the lottery. It happens occasionally, but for the most part even what appears to be instant success is actually the result of years of preparation. I once heard a successful musician say that his overnight success with a particular song he wrote took over 20 years of practice to achieve! It made me think… yes, that’s true of a lot of people in the arts. Unlike many other things… the better you do it the easier it looks! The best people make everyone think it can be done by anyone!
6. Don’t give your talent away. Sure in the very beginning you’ll probably be doing some things for free. There is just no way of getting around that. But once you’ve begun to establish your work and your reputation make sure that you are getting paid for it! Whether it’s in cash or some other way that will benefit you and your career… always make sure that when you provide your talent you are compensated in some way.
I can’t tell you how many times artists in every field are asked to provide free talent. Whether you’re a musician, a painter, if you carve, work in wood, dance or whatever… there is no limit to how many times you are asked to volunteer your abilities. Sometimes the worst offenders are actually the people who claim to be supporting the arts! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen festivals advertise for musicians and then immediately say “These are non-compensated requests.” God knows they wouldn’t ask the porta-potty people to bring the toilets at no cost… or the police to provide security and traffic control for free. And they themselves have their hands out for every fee known to man from corner spaces, to electricity, to jury fees, camping fees and a multitude of others I haven’t imagined. Then they have the “competition” to design the posters for the event. The winner’s work is used once again usually with no compensation. How many of the people asking for these concessions would ever consider working at their primary job for free? Sure they will tell you the volunteer for the work they do with the art center… but that’s not their main job… It’s important to keep in mind that this IS your main employment and you can’t afford to give it away anymore that they can!
7. Anybody can draw, dance, play music, create crafts or even act. It’s a natural talent you didn’t have to work at like they did. I spent twelve years becoming a doctor. I spent five years in college to become an engineer. I had to go to police academy to have a career in law enforcement. The list goes on and on. But of course for a person in the arts, your talent just magically appeared one day when you woke up… right. RIGHT! If you’re accomplished at all in what you’re doing you know that it’s taken decades to be able to polish your abilities not just the investment of a couple of years in college or weeks in some training program. Pablo Casals, one of the world’s most accomplished cellist’s was asked at the age of 90 why he continued to practice every day. After all, he’d already received acclaim from every knowledgeable source in the world at that time. His answer.. “Because I believe I’m making progress!”
As those who make our living in the arts… we must be first to recognize the value of what we do! You don’t need to beg to make a living… and you don’t need to apologize for it either. You possess a unique talent and you’ve chosen that for a career.
8. Don’t let everyone else make money as a result of your talent while you go broke! You’ve got to get smart about protecting yourself and ensuring your income as soon as possible. We’ve all heard about the artist who became famous after he died… or the famous musician who died penniless. That’s because some “business” person figured out how to make money off the artist without having to part with a dime to the actual creator of the work! These people will promise to “help” you in your career or praise your abilities right and left. You can’t eat “help” and praise doesn’t pay the electric bill or buy gas for your car. I’m not telling you that there is no one who can assist you with your career in the arts… that’s just not true. But what I am telling you is that you’ve got to be extremely careful not to be taken advantage of. People in the arts are notoriously bad business people and they continue to prove that over and over. Be aware of your weaknesses and cognizant of where you need to be business wise.
9. Don’t be afraid to take a chance. I’m not suggesting you do something absolutely ridiculous and jeopardize your business. But you can’t be so afraid of investing in yourself that you let a lot of good opportunities pass you by. Up front you’ve got to realize that some of these ideas won’t work out no matter how good they sound. And chances are you may lose some money trying them. On the other hand, some will work and you’ll be glad you did it. Every business works that way. We are involved in an entrepreneurial type of business. You can’t seek the advice of conservatives who will no doubt shoot you down. They are not always wrong… but they are not of the correct mind set for doing this kind of thing! Bankers, accountants, insurance executives, people working in government jobs and other “9 to 5″ workers are not generally the type to take chances… that’s why they will always be stuck in the “rat race.” You need to calculate the risk, consider it carefully but have confidence in your abilities, your own judgement and you need a vision others can’t usually see. These are in part the qualities that made you an artist in the first place. In the end you may not wind up with the most money… but life is a much more interesting journey and you can’t take a penny with you!
The journey we’ve decided to take and path we follow doesn’t fit the “norm.” If it did… we wouldn’t have the creative vision that we do. We see life differently, we view our mission differently, we try innovative things and in general we have a spirit and a drive that is uncommon. You must not let yourself be judged by the normal standards. The measure of your success is different than it is for others. The way we do business is different too. Part of the problem we have as artists and craftsmen is that our success is not necessarily a linear progression. If you were to chart our successes and failures that chart may look more like a roller coaster than a nice straight line ascending into the realm of success someone else has defined! But that’s the nature of being creative. It’s the nature of the business and the personalities involved. It’s certainly not for everyone… but I know for me… it’s been quite a ride for the last 47 years. I always try to remember that decades down the road the discoveries of the best scientists will probably be looked upon as minimal compared to the current status of the scientific community and they are often found to be dead wrong. The accumulation of wealth will hardly be remembered. Laws will seem archaic and the practices of physicians will seem barbaric. What is consistent and the standard by which most cultures are remembered… is the art they create, the music they pass down, the plays that are written. Mostly these are as valid today as they were at the time they were created. This is the measure we continue to enhance today… and we’re all a part of it!