Six Strategies to Help Make it as an Artist

Posted by: Elaine Luther

Each year, college students converge at a hotel in Chicago’s suburbs for the Self-Employment in the Arts Conference, where adults who are actually doing it, making a living as self-employed people in the arts, tell them how they do it.

Each year, I attend as one of those adult speakers and presenters and here are six strategies for making it in the arts that I wish I could tell each and every conference attendee.

1.  Control your housing costs.  Because housing can be 30-50% of your income, it’s important to make this decision early in your process of designing your artist life.

Strategies including living in iffy neighborhoods with five roommates or becoming a nomad, but there are other ways.  One strategy is to stay in that small college town where the cost of living is lower than in a big city.  This has worked for jeweler Jillian Moore, who has crafted her way to international art shows from a small town in Iowa.

You could also be a property manager for an apartment building, earning free or reduced rent.  If you can come up with the down payment, you could buy a two flat or duplex building and becoming a landlord, living in one unit while renting out the other.

Did you know that property caretaker is a gig?  It’s not just full time butlers who rattle around in a near-empty building while the owner is away.  There are variations on this gig, some people are nomadic house and/or pet sitters, constantly on the move.  Others are long term caretakers of a property, living on-site and well, taking care of things, while the owner is away.

Any of these strategies can work, it’s a matter of which one is right for you.  For me, being on the move constantly, either as a house sitter or full time RV-er, would really stress me out and not support my art making at all.  Whichever strategy is a good fit for your life, go for it.

2.  Manage your risk.  Basically, this one is all about insurance.  Most young and previously uninsured artists I know are thrilled with the ACA and just so excited and grateful to be getting regular medical care for the first time in a long time.

In addition, some of your work activities could be exposing you to risk.  Did you know that you can buy teaching artist insurance through the not for profit arts service organization Fractured Atlas?  You can.

And event insurance, through The Event Helper, (and others) you can buy event insurance for a one day pop up gallery (and they insure weddings too, who knew?)

And you might want to talk to the lawyers at Lawyers for the Creative Arts (they charge on a sliding scale) to see if incorporating your arts business as an LLC might be a good idea for you.

3.  Know that the artist’s life is “all side hustle.”  Fabric designer Becka Rahn wrote a terrific post on that on her blog, you can read it here.

Glass artist Adam Kenney polled a number of working craftspeople about how they make their money and found that the majority of them put together a living from a variety of sources of income, but the percentages were different for each craftsperson.  As a young person starting out, you can’t know what your percentages will be, but you can know that your income will come from a variety of sources.

So it’s all side hustle, you’re just working to find out what combination and percentages work best for you.

4.  Have a plan, but be flexible and open.  But not tooooo open.  When you were in college were you “undeclared?” as a major?  I always had a major declared.  It changed at least three times, but I was never undeclared.  It’s good to know where you’re going.  Decide your course of action and follow it for a set period of time, then re-evaluate. 

It’s useful to know what your about, what your goals are as an artist, so that if an opportunity is offered to you that’s just too far away from your personal prime directive, you know quickly to say, no thanks.

I have found that the clearer I am on what my art is and what I do, the better the quality of referrals I get from people in my network.

At the same time, if we get too narrowly focused, we might miss something cool, or we might go too long beating a horse that is already dead. 

5.  Have at least some aspect of your business be scalable — digital products that you make once and sell over and over again, or products with outsourced production and shipping (such as the many websites where you can sell T-shirts and more with your artwork on them, while never touching any of these products yourself).

Elinor Parker (aka CostumeWrangler) has designed a huge collection of fabric, some of it is fabulous fandom fabric, while others feature her signature fat unicorn and fat llama. 

Chicago artist Tiffany Gohlar has a line of merch on Zazzle that ties in with her young adult novel, Hard Pill to Swallow.

Freeing yourself up from the production of the products gives you time to do the marketing.

6.  Believe in the importance of your art and have a way of remembering that when you forget.  Have a way to keep art making in your life, even when you have a soul-crushing day job, even when you have a newborn baby who keeps you up all night and just won’t go to sleep, no matter how much you beg them to.

Keeping the faith:  one thing I do is celebrate the small wins, no matter how small, in my sketchbook, by creating pages that are ridiculously gold and celebratory.  That’s right, I have metallic golds paint and Sharpies and I’ll create a page where I log my most recent success.

And it’s not just me, The Success Principles by Jack Canfield recommends having a Success Notebook where you track all your successes as a confidence builder. 

Set a standard amount of time per week for your studio practice, if possible, have this be the same day of the week and time and make that an unbreakable appointment with yourself and your art.

It’s excellent to have a support system.  Family, friends, and art family, people who don’t think you’re crazy for pursuing a life in the arts.  Find a way to attend arts or craft conferences, residencies, art camps, to be with your people, to not be thought of as crazy.  Just one week of art camp, or one weekend of a conference, can carry you through the year.  It’s worth it.  Save for it, apply for scholarships, do whatever it takes, but get there.  Don’t go it alone.

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