Art Works Blog

No More Starving Artists!

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On September 17, the Iowa Arts Council hosted the third iteration of its No More Starving Artists conference. With workshops that included self-marketing, pricing your work, and creating business plans, the event focused on the know-how required to make a living as a professional artist. While these nitty gritty necessities might not classify as the sexiest aspects of the art world, they are often crucial components of building financial security. Through email, we held our own dialogue with three keynote speakers from the conference: television writer and producer Aaron Hilliard; visual artist Larassa Kabel; and playwright and poet Idris Goodwin. We sent each artist five different questions; below are their individual answers and insights.

NEA: I think a lot of artists---and the general public---are under the impression that if you’re talented enough, you’ll make money. How on- or off-target is this idea?

AARON HILLIARD: A bit off-target, I think. Talent is helpful, but equally important (unfortunately) are qualities like sticktuitiveness, marketing savvy, and an ability to give an audience what they're already comfortable with.

LARASSA KABEL: I don't think artistic talent alone is going to guarantee you anything. As an artist you are also a business owner, and you have to have some talent as a businessman to make money from your art---even if that talent is realizing you aren't the best person to market your work and you hire someone else to take care of it for you. I know a lot of artists whose talents aren't necessarily stellar as far as concept and execution, but they know how to market their work and connect to their audience. They make a pretty good living. I also know some amazingly talented artists who sabotage their sales, have a hard time showing their work to other people because it makes them nervous, or keep trying to make it fit into the wrong market. They get discouraged that it doesn't just fall into place for them. Sometimes you get a dumb luck break, but that isn't anything to base a career on. I think that luck is opportunity meeting preparation, and part of that preparation is having your business in order.

IDRIS GOODWIN: That’s a “sometimes yes, sometimes no” sort of question. Making great art, making money, and making money from making great art are three separate talents. Sure, if you’re making great art, ideally you’ll attract those who’ve mastered the art of making money from great art, but that’s easier said than done---particularly for artists living outside of cities considered to be art industry hubs. However, a lot of artist make money because of luck, because of their relationships, because of their reputation, because they happen to be a celebrity. It's not exactly a cut and dry matter of talent versus no talent.

NEA: Do you think it’s harder for artists today to make a living than it used to be?

HILLIARD: Anecdotally, I would imagine it's probably a bit easier today than it used to be. Whatever the art form, the internet has opened up a much larger base of fans, patrons and audience that may not have existed 15 years ago.

KABEL: I think it's harder for most people to make a living whatever their profession. I definitely think people feel like they have less disposable income to spend on art. And some of the support systems that were in place to help artists get through lean times have lost a large portion of their funding. The grant and residency opportunities aren't as available as they were ten years ago. But it isn't a wasteland where nothing is selling. There's been a market correction which was going to happen at some point, but I think sales will grow. Maybe more slowly than people would like, but it will happen.

GOODWIN: I don’t think so. The same challenges artists faced yesterday still exist today. But there are more venues for artists now, more outlets for artists to connect and share across the world.

NEA: What would be the one piece of advice that you’d give an individual looking to make a living exclusively as an artist?

HILLIARD: If it's going to be your job, then treat it like a job. Work a full eight-hour day doing your art (or ten hours, even better!). Productivity and output are going to be important in the beginning while you're attracting a fan base.

KABEL: Know what your ultimate goal for your art is. Don't worry whether it's attainable or not. It's just a way to make a plan for how you spend your energy and resources. If you know you would really ultimately want to see your work in a museum, then you know that you shouldn't waste time and money making giclee prints of your work. It would reflect negatively on your career. But if you want to use your art work as a brand and become the next Terry Redlin, then mass production and marketing techniques are in line with that goal and could help you along the way.

GOODWIN: Talent is the easy part, everyone is talented---the real skills to learn are rigor, discipline, strategy, attitude, and most of all, patience.

NEA: What do you think arts organizations or the government can be doing to better support the artistic workforce?

HILLIARD: Being a step-ladder to help that artist climb over the first barriers into their chosen medium seems like the best use of limited government resources. Targeted grants that don't necessarily bankroll a whole project, but get it rolling with supplies, studio rent, etc.

KABEL: Lack of funding is always an issue with the arts. It's discouraging that despite the positive punch the arts can have on an economy, it's always a struggle to defend it's validity when the budgets are getting made. I would love to see the arts organizations be better lobbyists and defenders of the arts. Artists aren't necessarily the best people to organize and fight for funding, but if they hired someone to do it for them, maybe the arts would be a higher priority to the government. The arts need someone with eloquence, force, and logic to remind the public that the experience of humanity is greatly lessened without art.

GOODWIN: One: start a national campaign of arts appreciation---agitprop for the arts if you will. We need to stimulate the masses in conversation about how and why art is crucial to humanity. Two: Support entrepreneurs who develop sustainable outlets for diverse artists to connect with audiences locally, nationally, and internationally. Three: Support those who are developing new audiences for visual, performance, and sonic art.

NEA: I was reading a blog post recently about what the writer called the “Starving Artist Syndrome,” and how the idea that artists are meant to struggle is sometimes used by artists to justify their lack of success. Is this something you’ve come across?

HILLIARD: Well, I work in Hollywood, where the romanticized starving artist character isn't as prevalent as its opposite: "fake it 'til you make it." Putting on a show of being more successful than you are, with the hope that one day you'll really live that lifestyle.

KABEL: Yes, unfortunately. Usually I hear this from very young artists who have very romantic views of art and who haven't yet decided that they can't eat another packet of Ramen noodles without wanting to slit their wrists, or from people who haven't managed to have a financially successful career for some reason and who need something to make it okay. That's fine. We all make our own realities so that we can make our lives manageable. I just hate to see it used against other people who are doing okay. It's a hard enough slog to make a living as an artist without other artists trying to tear you down with an attack on your artistic integrity---telling you you're "selling out." Personally, I'd love to know where the idea that struggling to live makes you a better artist. I think that idea perpetuates a system where people undervalue art both as consumers and creators. I have yet to see the "Starving Doctor Syndrome."

GOODWIN: There are countless examples to the contrary of the bohemian cliché, but the  tortured long suffering artist is much more romantic to most I suppose. We have to reframe the image of the working artist---change the way we talk about art, how we define its use, how it is supported and appreciated. It has to start with artists. We have to make sure that we stay connected to communities of actual living, breathing, working people and make sure our work reflects and speaks to them. If it does, then the artist will NEVER starve.

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