Moving Beyond the Myth of the Starving Artist

The idea that people who make art will never make enough money to support themselves is a long-held superstition. The myth of the ‘starving artist’ is a false perception that has its roots somewhere in the idea that art has no value until the artist is no longer alive and cannot make anymore, therefore it becomes a commodity. It also has some roots in the systems where artists relied on royal patronage for their survival. While artists live, according to the myth of the starving artist, they are relegated to creating at a pittance and selling their work on the streets as something like a busker might. 

These are all limiting beliefs that make it difficult for incredibly talented people to commit to art as a career. I’m not going to lie, it’s not easy, but it’s definitely possible. By first starting with identifying limiting beliefs, eliminating them, and then finding unconventional revenue streams, both passive and active, it’s entirely possible to be comfortable as an artist in the times in which we live. 

One of the biggest roadblocks to working as an artist and within communities of artists is that artists don’t make enough money because ‘people won’t pay for art.’ These days, it’s easier than it has ever been in the history of mankind to be an artist and create a community around art. 

We no longer rely on the gatekeeping of galleries to put us in front of our ideal customers. Social media and a little bit of web savvy make it entirely possible to sell online, especially in the days when in person is limited by the constraints of this pandemic. These past several years, pre-pandemic of course, there has been a resurgence in art fairs, fleas and makers markets that bring local customers in droves to purchase artwork and handmade goods. Most cities have tons of avenues for people to display art and artisan goods on consignment or wholesale, and a simple pitch is all it takes to get solid work in front of the customers of cooperatives or collective shops, to be sold in small storefront efforts or even the gift shops of local museums. Once we get past the fear of making money from art, the art will sell if it is a minimum viable product, and in front of the right person. The more ways we make that happen, the more we are likely to be financially solvent as artists. 

In addition to selling original work online, artists can have their work placed in print-on-demand sites, like Fine Art America, for example, where they simply upload their images to be placed on a variety of substrates, such as canvas or even t-shirts and tote bags. Some artists have their work made into smaller impulse buy items, like stickers or even socks. The most business savvy artists have found that creating courses and workbooks to sell online creates another stream of revenue, and, for the amount of time invested, it becomes an evergreen product that can be sold year round. Sites like Patreon and Kofi, give people a way to directly contribute to the work of artists in exchange for exclusive rewards directly from the artist. 

We can succeed as creative people in a world built for business in a variety of ways, it’s anything but simple, but it is entirely possible. 

Aside from just making solid work, today’s artists have to have a pulse on what it means to be a small business owner, which, in my opinion is an area of opportunity for most of us. Art is business, plain and simple. Most small businesses have some difficulty within the first few years, which is to be expected. Artists have to know who their ideal customer is, where and how to find their clientele, offer their work at a price that makes sense for not only the integrity of the work but also the needs and budget of their clientele, and the artist or a representative needs to be available and willing to close that sale. 

If we begin by thinking that ‘people won’t pay for art,’ we are automatically discounting our ability to sell the work. We know this isn’t true, even in these days where the economy is a lackluster due to current global events. 

One important thing to note for newer artists is that they generally underprice their work until they have the confidence to command the price that they deserve in their work, which will happen quickly. The right art will always find the right buyer, and it takes building a community to find those people. Once we begin to build a community around the work that we do, it can grow very quickly using both word of mouth and the exponential growth offered by social media platforms. 

When I was in art school, the most valuable piece of advice that I recieved was that no one looks for a sculptor in the yellow pages. Times have obviously changed, because the vast majority of my referrals come from Instagram and Facebook, or directly through a google search. The rest are repeat customers. 

Additionally, another example of a belief that comes along with this, which might feel counter to the first two is that financial success and an opulent lifestyle are the hallmarks of success in the art world. This is a topic for another discussion, but truly examining what it means to be successful as an artist can help you to identify and overcome limiting beliefs. 

Accounting for our impact on others as well as our income can increase the perception of our own success, but financial health is just as important as job satisfaction. When we reverse engineer our financial goals, account for taxes and non-negotiable lifestyle items, such as health insurance for American artists, we find that it is entirely possible to make a living from art. 

The myth of the starving artist is an outdated and harmful belief that prevents some of the most talented artists from pursuing their dreams, and if we take a closer look, we realize that it is entirely possible to be a successful artist and make a viable living doing exactly what we love.

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