By Patrick Dennis
“I hate my job!” That’s rarely a statement heard from artists who make their living by their own creative talents. Why is this? Because people who manage to make a living with art are usually experiencing the highest form of personal freedom: self-management, self-expression and the self-satisfaction of achieving individual goals based on personal merit.
But what about now? We’re in the middle of an economic crisis. People’s spending habits are stricter than ever; businesses are closing; and even charitable giving is less, well, charitable. Is it possible to make a living with art during the recession? Yes, it is possible to make a living with art, and there are some great success stories to prove it.
Think for a moment. Historically, during the most difficult economic times creativity peaks. This is because people are forced to adapt, sometimes resulting in revolutionary artistic movements freed of commercial constraints. In simpler terms, when traditional income dries up, artists frequently become motivated to earn pay for their skills, turning a hobby into an income while honing those same skills.
M.J. Villanueva has a degree in culinary art from the University of Hawaii. That led to a job in the deli of Whole Foods. Good job, not great income. In his spare time, he painted bold acrylic canvases for himself and friends. He took a leap of faith and ventured out to the Atlantic Station Market, renting a tent and hanging his paintings on portable panels he borrowed. He listened to the feedback from customers and advice from other vendors and applied what he heard and refined his technique. He kept coming back every Saturday for six months until he established a loyal following. At last, he embraced the show host and said: “I quit my job! I’m actually a painter now!”
Last year, Jim Loftus lost his job. He began making complex artistic assemblages in his basement, using found objects. His wife called them “his little projects.” He decided to take a few to the Decatur Market and try to sell them. The show host saw a spark of genius and set up a one-man gallery show a month later. Loftus sold seven works of art that night and started his new career. He has already been picked up by two galleries, has done two professional art festivals and been written up in a national magazine. He’s not rich or famous yet, but he’s beginning to make a living with art.
Ready to learn some quick tips for success?
Get serious. Think smart and devise a short-term and a long-term plan. The short- term plan will send you in the direction of immediate income. The long-term plan will help you chart your new career trajectory. There are loads of sources for help and a few basic steps to take to get started and build a lean, mean art machine.
Marketing. Basic business skills are needed for almost any job, and the same is true for making a living with art. Do you have an e-mail list? Alert your friends that you’ll be open for business soon. Use Facebook, Etsy, MySpace and other free social networking sites. You’ll get plenty of feedback and unfiltered advice, so be prepared. Most likely you’ll be marketing yourself to save much-needed cash, so think smart before you spend. Business cards can be made on any home computer using a template. Even simple Web site templates are free, and come with tutorials. Hosting services (for a live Web site) can be as cheap as $20 per month. Photos of your work? Do it yourself or ask the help of a friend.
Supplies. One of the best ways to find sources for supplies is to take a class. You’ll get a better idea of where to shop and what you’ll need. Try Binders (www.bindersart.com) or the Decatur Market & Gallery (www.decaturgallery.com) for a schedule of free classes.
License and Insurance. Probably you can get by without these during your short- term plan, but do some homework to find out about paying local sales tax. You’ll need to know this when you start doing professional shows. Don’t forget to keep all your receipts. Your tax professional will love you for it.
New Ways for Making Money. Find the best venue to suit your style of work. There are outdoor art and craft markets all over metro Atlanta on the weekends. Some, such as the Atlantic Station Market, are ideal for beginners to learn the ropes. You can get a space for one day for $55 (www.affps.com) Go online to search for small art and craft shows and plan to participate. Smaller shows will give you more individual attention. Wait for the “big” shows until you can really compete. Do not plan to travel long distances to do events until you know your audience and can make an educated estimation of the financial return on your investment. Restaurants, coffee bars, boutiques and gift shops in your own neighborhood are more likely to allow you to place work there because you’re new and local. Offer a 25 percent commission instead of asking them to buy it all.
Can you make a living with art? Yes, you can. Just have realistic expectations, especially during this economy. You’ll be surprised at how many others have ventured into the art-for-income world. Stand out and let your art come from the heart. Be prepared for rejection, criticism, some fine-tuning and, eventually, success. Because after all, who wouldn’t like to say, “I love my job” these days? That could be you.
Patrick Dennis is a painter, gallery owner and event host living in Atlanta.