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Matt Johnson, “Movie Money (1.75 Million Dollars in a Gym Bag)” (2018), carved wood with paint, 13 x 21 x 15 in, in 303 Gallery’s booth at Frieze New York 2018 (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The majority of visual artists working today make less than $30,000 per year, according to a study released this week. Conducted by the Creative Independent, a publication affiliated with Kickstarter, the study draws on responses from 1,016 artists working in the US, UK, Canada, France, and nearly 50 other countries in hopes of demystifying the economics of being an artist.

While some of the study’s findings are not particularly surprising — like that artists’ satisfaction with their work increases in direct proportion to the amount of time they spend in the studio — others are quite illuminating, especially where the economics of being an artist are involved. For instance, only 12% of respondents said that gallery sales of their work have been helpful in sustaining their practices, and grants ranked similarly low; the majority (61%) said that freelance and contract work was the most significant economic factor supporting their art. Among responding artists, only 17% are making three quarters or more of their income from their art; nearly half said they make between 0–10% of their income from their art.

“Because of this myth of the ‘pure’ artist who is able to afford to live off of gallery sales, through grants, or some other mysterious way, we see many artists who feel like failures or sell-outs simply because they have to have a day job, take corporate work, or wait tables,” Willa Köerner, the Creative Content Director at the Creative Independent, told Hyperallergic. “If only art schools would better prepare artists for the business aspects of being a visual artist — including preparing them to overcome the debt they’re accruing from that very school — so many artists would be in better shape, and would stop being so hard on themselves when it’s really the system that’s failing them. ‘Trial and error’ is not really a great strategy for becoming financially stable, but that’s currently the most-employed strategy by visual artists. That needs to change.”

Indeed, the majority of the study’s respondents said their financial know-how and advice came primarily from trial and error and from talking to and observing other artists, while school ranked among the least popular sources of financial advice. The 63% of survey respondents who had earned an MFA or other art-related degree felt that doing so had not helped them to become financially stable, but that it had helped them develop their work. Similarly, the 29% of respondents who had been represented by a gallery found that the experience had not been especially helpful to their financial stability and felt ambivalent at best about the gallery’s impact on their careers. Commissions, institutional support like grants and paid residencies, and direct sales were all, on balance, much more popular sources of support than gallery representation.

“Overall, this study demonstrates that we’re in a moment when artists can take control of their own lives and careers,” Köerner said. “The art world’s gatekeeper class is struggling to stay relevant. Knowing that the structures of the art world aren’t particularly helpful is a bummer, yes, but it can also be liberating.”

The study also suggested that sticking with art reaps benefits. Artists who’d been active for 10 years or more had a higher median income (still just $30,000–40,000, but higher than the study’s overall median income of $20,000–30,000). Artists who’d been active longer also reported being more content with their work, with those who’d been in the art world 20 years or longer reporting significantly higher levels of satisfaction.

“It’s hard to support yourself as a visual artist, period,” Köerner added. “There’s no one tried and true method to make a living as a visual artist. And, you have to try a lot of things before you find a way to make it work. But, people are finding ways to make it work. And over time they seem to get better at it!”

The full study on the financial situation of visual artists today is available from the Creative Independent.

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Benjamin Sutton

Benjamin Sutton is an art critic, journalist, and curator who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn. His articles on public art, artist documentaries, the tedium of art fairs, James Franco's obsession with Cindy...

21 replies on “Artists Support Themselves Through Freelance Work and Don’t Find Galleries Especially Helpful, New Study Says”

  1. Extremely useful and factual analysis and sadly true. When I taught I made it abundantly clear that to be an artist is to do it for a higher calling as one cannot live uncompromised as an artist.
    To see the absurdity of the gallery ‘ lottery ‘aspect on international news of this or that new genius artist and the nutty prices at auctions paid for questionable facile ‘art’ discoveries makes the vast numbers of poverty stricken artists who are not one of the golden winners feel as if they were talentless when the fact is the continued manipulation of the art market, the commercial nature of this merchandizing has been taken from their own hands. To even get to show one’s artwork to a major gallery requires connections. It is a club and one either plays the games which might be sordid or not dependong on one’s luck or chooses as most have done to know with their own hearts and minds that the commercial aspects of art making may or may not reflect true quality.

  2. Nearly fifty years ago a Ford Foundation study showed that artists provide, by far, the greatest financial support for their work — not foundations, patrons, nor any other source. Not at all surprising!

    With the exception of summer employment as an undergraduate student, I have never held a nine-to-five job, and yet I have somehow miraculously survived. For the first third of my working life I taught at university level, for the second I was touted among a small group of wealthy buyers and museum directors, but I chose to leave that world as I became tired of people wanting “something like that”. From then until now I have lived as a semi-recluse.

    So I guess that what I am saying is that making money from what I do has never been a very good reason for doing it. Unfortunately we live in a world that turns on the almighty dollar/yuan/euro/pound (you name it), and we all have to survive and pay the bills. I don’t have a solution, but that has never kept me from what I call ‘my work’.

    The composer Charles Ives refused to make “Tah tah for money”, as I believe he said it, and chose to build the largest (at the time) insurance company in America. That did not keep him from composing, and he was even awarded a Pulitzer Prize, albeit for a work he had composed fifty years earlier. And he too lived as a semi-recluse, so (with the exception that I never made a wad of money in business) I guess, at least for me, he was something of a role model.

      1. Hrag,
        I wish I could remember more. I never read it myself, but it must have come out in the mid 60s, as it was the point of discussion amongst a group of us all looking for university jobs. The Ford Foundation ought to have a list of its various studies and reports.

        Good to hear from you,
        mai

        p.s. I’ve just spent the last half hour, but couldn’t find anything myself. However, in doing so, the notion as I stated it above may be incorrect. As I have given it deeper thought, it may have been that the study showed that composers are the greatest underwriters of the costs of their performances. I seem to remember something of that sort also going around, but, as a rank computer amateur, I couldn’t find anything on that either. In our discussions of the situation at the time, we may have generalized to include the arts as a whole. If this is the case, I hope I have not diminished the ‘truth’ of what I was trying to say.

        1. “The (Ford) foundation’s archival materials, documenting our work from 1936 to 2006, are collected at the Rockefeller Archive Center in Sleepy Hollow, New York. The collection is available to researchers by appointment.”

          1. Thank you. I did find the Rockefeller site, but that’s where my skills ended, and I couldn’t find what I was looking for.

    1. Here’s a thought… Duchamp’s urinal signed, ‘R. Mutt’ – ‘armut’ in Ger., means “poverty”(destitution, penury..), as in “doesn’t own a pot to piss in”.

  3. Extremely useful and factual analysis and sadly true. When I taught I made it abundantly clear that to be an artist is to do it for a higher calling as one cannot live uncompromised as an artist.
    To see the absurdity of the gallery ‘ lottery ‘aspect on international news of this or that new genius artist and the nutty prices at auctions paid for questionable facile ‘art’ discoveries makes the vast numbers of poverty stricken artists who are not one of the golden winners feel as if they were talentless when the fact is the continued manipulation of the art market, the commercial nature of this merchandizing has been taken from their own hands. To even get to show one’s artwork to a major gallery requires connections. It is a club and one either plays the games which might be sordid or not dependong on one’s luck or chooses as most have done to know with their own hearts and minds that the commercial aspects of art making may or may not reflect true quality.

    1. I should have mentioned in my post that indeed I did show in galleries. Galleries took between 40 and 60 percent, and I soon realized that they weren’t representing *me*, but that I was merely one of any number of others hanging on their walls. Thus my chances of a sale were one-in-sometimes-dozens. What really drove me from galleries was when they started asking for “exclusive” rights to my work (I guess I was selling well and they wanted to tie me up for themselves, a game I didn’t want to play).

      1. True…but it often depends on the work one produces. More commercial types of art will often be more preferable to people than more “challenging” works. And then tastes change.

  4. Me, married with an a child on the way, I saw the light in 1975. I put down my box of paints (no $ in it) and got an engineering degree. But, I never fully stopped making images. In 2016, after 36 years as a corporate lead warrior, I retired financially independent, a wonderful family, a wife of 46 years and a fully functioning studio stuffed with imaging making gear. What ever I want I get. Now, I’m looking at +20 years (God willing) working as a full time image maker. The best part, I work on my own terms. No need to hustle for cash or customers. Marketing..what’s that and who cares 🙂 When you’ve got $money$ you can kiss off customers, marketing and the money dance; that stuff is just background noise. Irrelevant. I read articles like this and bless the day that I focused on getting My Life correct early on. Life is good and getting better. Ha!

    1. Yes! Good for you. There’s another solution, of course. Fall madly in love and marry a banker, a high-powered attorney, or an undertaker. Let yourself become a kept member of the creative community. I have known many, and they seem quite happy. [I’m being serious here. It only sounds silly, but it really is an option, and I’ve seen it work for several couples.]

    2. Yes! Good for you. There’s another solution, of course. Fall madly in love and marry a banker, a high-powered attorney, or an undertaker. Let yourself become a kept member of the creative community. I have known many, and they seem quite happy. [I’m being serious here. It only sounds silly, but it really is an option, and I’ve seen it work for several couples.]

  5. Goes hand-in-hand with the other big myth that the art ‘speaks’ for the artist when in fact a work of art has no voice that may be heard in support or defense of any artist – hence artists who believe that their work is their best advocate are given to silence even with regard to their own precarious welfare.

  6. Carpenter, janitor, house painter, fried chicken delivery boy, artist assistant/ baby sitter, canvas stretcher, records technician, high school art assistant, laborer, high school Spanish teacher, paint mixer, English tutor, translator, retail, gallery assistant, museum preparator, supermarket cashier… and on and on. I’m 58, I do my art as I please. Will show in the most unexpected places at the most unexpected times ( up to ten years between shows). If I sell, it covers the framing. Through the years I have presented my work to a great number of galleries, galleries that I thought my work would fit. Jumped the hoops they wanted me to jump concerning submission of images. But, they were all rude enough to, in many cases, neither return the photos or even answer. So, I have no use for galleries or the art world. Am I bitter? Nope, wiser… and happier.

  7. In the USA, 1.4 million+ self-identified artists.

    It would be interesting and revealing to catalogue the business relations and outcomes of all artists who have ever been shown–starting when he or she was alive– in a branded and/or second tier art gallery in the USA since 1970. Alas, this is not possible, but something like this would tell much. Then there are all those other galleries!

    The business model underlying the selling of art from the perspective of the artist is, obviously, not singular. There are business models; there are many such models; most include secondary income by way of employment, spousal support, and primary income would include free lancing design and other creative commissions which are outside the primary art practice.

    I note Art Basel/UBS does not track in its yearly research anything credible to represent direct sales from artist to customer, and I am not confident in their capture of sales data from tertiary and local galleries. There bottom line figure every year likely understates the size of the global market.

    Of course, communiques about the art world itself are pitched toward cosmopolitan trophy hunting, celebrity, and blue chip artworks. This inflects and infects considerations of the art system just about everywhere.

  8. The sampling of artists in this survey is far too small for a really accurate picture of what galleries do in terms of helping an artist’s career or income. You’d need to survey far more artists than 1,016. There are millions of artists out there, this is a fraction of a fraction.

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