Ask the Art Prof: How Can a Visual Artist Overcome their Financial Issues?

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“How can an artist overcome their financial issues?”

Finances are one of the tough realities of being an artist that rarely gets talked about. This is surprising to me, considering what a major issue finances are for almost every single artist. To put it bluntly, being an artist is costly. Certainly, there is an enormous range of how expensive a career as an artist can be depending on the the type of work you do.  However, every artist inevitably has to deal with three major expenses: 1) paying for a work space, 2) paying for materials, and 3) paying for the time to work.

Finding, maintaining and paying for a work space is of great concern for all artists, especially for those who need access to complex facilities for processes like casting, printmaking, glass, etc. One of the prevailing myths about being an artist is that you have to move to New York City right after art school to start your career.  Unless you’re independently wealthy, I couldn’t think of worse advice to give to a young artist. The artists I know who did this had a very, very hard time financially.  It’s quite common for young artists in New York City to find themselves paying for studio spaces that they don’t use because their time is dominated by trying to stay afloat financially.

My advice instead would be to start elsewhere, in a less expensive, smaller city where you can be more financially stable.  In a context like that, you can gain a few years of professional experience and build up a substantial, professional body of artwork before tackling New York City. Living in a smaller city may not be as glamorous, but you’re so much more likely to be able to afford a studio space that you are actually putting to good use.

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If you really can’t afford to rent a work space, you can make a work space at home. When I was a recent graduate, I purchased a small, $500 printing press and made drypoint prints and oil paintings in my living room for four years.  Or if you work at a college or art school, you have access to the facilities there and can make use of them.  I have never been able to afford my own studio space,  so for the past few years I’ve worked in the facilities in the art department at Wellesley College. I have a sculpture studio, a printshop, a drawing studio, a painting studio, computer labs, printers, etc. all at my fingertips. At times, this can be tricky to navigate, as you have to work around class schedules, and you can’t leave your work and supplies all over the studios, but for me it’s well worth it for the amount of money that I save.

Purchasing materials never ends for artists.  Every artist has their own way of dealing with this, ranging from artists who work with cheap/free materials to artists who are buying the most high end materials that exist.   In graduate school I had a friend who always seemed to be showing up with great objects all the time for her sculpture work.  Every time I asked her where she got her materials, she would reply “the garbage”. I have a colleague who makes sculptures using plain old Elmer’s glue and paper towels, while I have yet another colleague who will only paint with Old Holland oil paints, frequently known to cost on average $50 for one 40 ml tube of paint.

I’m intensely organized and efficient about what materials I use because I know that any misstep could result in hundreds of wasted dollars. I spend months preparing and planning my projects before I invest money in expensive materials so that I am absolutely certain when I make purchases. Whenever I test out a new material, I always start out by purchasing a small quantity that I can test out and experiment with before launching into a full scale project.  And it never hurts to make friends with your framer, who gives me 20% off on all of my orders.

Time is quite possibly the most precious thing you can “buy.” The difficulty for many artists is that they have to choose one of two options, neither of which is ideal:  1) being financially stable, but having no time to work on their art or 2) and just barely scraping by financially, but having time to work on their art. Having a balance that allows you to be financially stable with plenty of time to work on your art is the ultimate dream for most artists, and one that almost always seems out of reach for most of us.

I remember the first four years after I graduated from RISD I experimented with both extremes.  The first two years I worked like a dog, working more than full-time hours and saying yes to every single teaching opportunity that came by.  The result was that I was financially stable, but I didn’t make any artwork for about two years. I did sketches here and there, but I was so busy patching together a living with paid jobs that I couldn’t buckle down and focus on creating art. When I started getting serious about applying to graduate school, I knew that I had to reserve large blocks of time so that I could concentrate and work on my portfolio.

I went part-time at my teaching job, lived on $850 a month and nearly depleted my savings hiring artist models-but- I painted on average 20 hours a week and within two years I had a portfolio for graduate school. Today, as I go into my thirteenth year working as a professional artist, this balance is something that I have to constantly work on all the time.  I’ve learned to accept the fact that there will be periods when I have a lot of time to work, and periods when I have to sacrifice time in the studio in order to take on a paying job. I go back and forth between the two, which is what creates a balance for me.

Then there are those things that seem to descend from heaven: individual artist grants. Grants are another way to relieve the expenses of being an artist.   An artist grant can free up vast amounts of time to work, and can allow you the opportunity to work with materials that you would never have dared to dream of. The problem is, artist grants are so incredibly competitive and difficult to win that you really can’t count on them as a financial resource. They range from small, local grants of $1000 to major, national grants like the Guggenheim which is $30,000+. When you do win a grant, it’s like Christmas morning to the tenth power, and winning a major grant like the Guggenheim redefines your career and positioning in the art world.

Apply to every grant you’re eligible for, every chance you get, and don’t ever stop. Any time you don’t apply for a grant cycle, that’s basically a missed financial opportunity.  I’ve applied to every cycle of the Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation Grant since I was 21 and have never won, but I still faithfully mail out my application every two years.

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3 thoughts on “Ask the Art Prof: How Can a Visual Artist Overcome their Financial Issues?

  1. I can completely relate to everything you write about here! I’m an artist and work from my printmaking studio in my rented house in the uk. When I graduated from art college in Harrow and moved to Yorkshire, all of my tutors and many of my peers told me I was making a big mistake not trying to stay in London but I am one of the few that is still an artist because I’m not vying with quite as much competition here and have managed to carve out a niche for myself and I don’t have to pay such exorbitant living costs (plus it is a beautiful and inspiring part of the country). I worked in a shop for a year to save up for my etching press and have had studios in basements, spare bedrooms and even in a one-room bedsit. I supplement my print sales with a bit of teaching (printmaking workshops) and I just about keep my head above water financially. I work really hard and long hours but I’m doing what I love and I couldn’t be happier. Its important for artists to know that it can be done but you have to be determined.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing your story, it shows that living in the bigger cities is not always the best answer. I think the most important thing is to be working all the time, which it sounds like you do!

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