I don’t think I really understood that people could make a living in the arts until I was well into my grad studies. I don’t know why it took so long… I honestly just didn’t really think about it….
Money isn’t something that gets discussed in artist training. In another faculty you might have some idea what the average starting salary will be, or an idea of what you could make when you’re a partner at the law firm… but as an artist… not so much…
But we did talk about ‘making it’.
The ‘it’ may have been poorly defined, but we knew that what ever ‘it’ was ‘it’ was really hard to make.
In fact it was repeated over and over to us…. “In this entire class only one of you might ‘make it’.”
That meant nose to the grind stone. Learn those five arias. Perfect that pirouette. Learn exactly what the oxford comma is…
We all wanted to make it. We wanted to be that one. A real artist.
And even though I can’t remember anyone specifically saying it… it became clear what they meant by making it… a lie that does all of us artists a lot of damage…
The lie: “Making it” means making a living from your Passion.
It sounds so reasonable doesn’t it. In the artistic world subjectivity rules all, but ability to make money can be a great measuring stick. If you somehow manage to leverage your talent, with a bit of luck.. into enough salary to live on… you must be ‘making it’. Bonus points for making enough to actually live a decent life… but even if you’re just scraping by as a bohemian, you’re ‘making it’ as a real artist.
But where does that leave everyone else….
Is that really the story of the average artist? Do you either make a living, or stop being an artist all together?
Seriously… what does a life in the arts actually look like?
Why isn’t this a question that comes up way more often???
Okay… actually I totally understand why it doesn’t… because the answer isn’t cut and dry. There’s not really such a thing as an “average” artist (and if there were they would hate being called average). There’s just a bunch of crazy incredible individuals trying to figure out how to balance their artistic and creative side, with the rest of life… like the need to pay bills, have strong relationships, and not be super stressed out all the time.
But in that crazy mess of individuals there’s a unifying factor…
Most artists don’t live solely off of their art. FACT!
“But… real artists focus solely on their art… they definitely don’t have *shudder* day jobs….”
Ah, yes. This wildly propagated crock of shit. No one says it out loud, but everyone seems to know it.
You can tell by the way we talk about artists who ‘sold out’ or ‘failed’. The guy who got a day job and isn’t taking as many auditions anymore. The girl who decided the stress and instability really weren’t what she wanted in her life and is working at the Genius Bar. We whisper about them in a tone normally reserved for funerals.
It’s just too bad…. they were so talented… (while inside we pat ourselves on the back for staying ‘true’ to the cause.)
This needs to stop. Not only because it has caused wonderful artists to feel like they no longer can identify as artists… but because it’s a really blind way to look at the arts in general.
All of us in the arts are constantly complaining about the state of our industry. In opera we look at our major institutions, the Met, the COC and see cut backs and budget difficulties.
“What is the state of the arts? Are they dying?”
We look at the top of the pyramid and totally miss the point.
The health of the arts is not dependant on the most visible institutions. The health of the arts rests in the grassroots of our communities. It rests in the thousands of artists across our countries that make so little in terms of dollars, but contribute so much.
It’s the little ladies that taught us piano in their living rooms. It’s the organizers of community choirs, and local theatre productions of Annie. Is the art always world class?… my goodness, no. (You should have heard me hacking at the piano for 14 years.) But that’s where the arts spring from, where great artists are inspired and fostered.
These artists aren’t making a living from their passion, maybe a few bucks… enough for bingo on the weekends. They work on farms and in hospitals. They are diesel mechanics and engineers. I’m not just picking random places and professions; I’m talking about real people I’ve worked with… some of the most awesome (and most skilled) artists I know have day jobs like these.
FACT: There are a thousand ways to make a life in the arts
That’s what they’re not telling you.
And it’s never too soon to start thinking about how you’re going to do it.
It’s fine if you want to try to make a living just off your art. Some people love it, some people don’t. Some people try it, and it’s just not for them.
There are SO many things to consider in life, and no matter what you choose you should never have to feel like you’re failing at being an artist, because it’s a choice that so many other great artists have made before you.
Your balance is your choice.
It’s up to you to figure out what fits best with the life that you want. Maybe you want the stability of a day job, but that comes with the complications of fulfilling your artistic side. Or maybe you’re happy being your own boss… but want to find a few more non-artsy income streams to help you through the dry times.
There’s a great article on A BROKE AND BEAUTIFUL LIFE called DIVERSIFIED INCOME, DIVERSIFIED HAPPINESS. She makes the point that not only does having a few different income streams make you a more stable person, but it actually can be incredibly fulfilling to your creative side to have multiple outlets.
What else do you love to do? It can be arts based, or something completely different… start thinking about it now!!
This is the reality. But somehow we leave it out of the training.
And guys… I really don’t think it’s a sad reality. It isn’t the sob story of artists failing to ‘make it’. It’s the story of artists channeling their creativity into building the lives that they want.
The truth: Being an artist has nothing to do with making money.
I write mainly for freelancers, for those in the artistic world who are trying to monetize their profession, for those who are balancing multiple sources of variable income and trying to leverage that into some kind of a stable life.
That being said, I am in awe of the artists who have more stability in their finances: the doctors, the lawyers, and the 9 to 5ers. Their financial picture is a little less complicated, but their balance is more so. They give up evenings and weekends to sit in rehearsal, take their vacations to put on shows, and teach on their mornings off.
In short… they’re absolutely insanely awesome.
They are such an essential part of our artistic community, which couldn’t last a day without them.
So, to all the young artists (or less young, if it applies) get a job, or don’t get a job. Work freelance in the arts, in a law firm, or construction….
You’re not alone …. we’re all doing it…. and you’re not selling out.
You’re just an artist trying to make a life in this crazy world… and believe it or not…
This is what ‘making it’ really looks like!
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Financial Planner/Opera Singer
Money never came naturally to me. In fact… I was a bit of a disaster. I remember (very clearly) what it feels like to be ‘financially out of control’.
And honestly, I still get stressed about money… that doesn’t stop… the difference is that now I have the tools to deal with that stress.
And those tools are what’s made it possible for me to build a life full of the things I want: art, creativity, travel, family and more.
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I know this is an old blog post, but I’m just coming back to it now. I’ve been working 9-5 in both arts admin, and admin at a law firm for the last year and a half. I’ve been taking every gig I can, and I’m burning the candle at both ends! It’s been so great to be financially more or less stable, to help me get out of credit card debt.
In a month or two, the law firm I work for will be moving into a larger law firm, and I’ll no longer have a job. I’m glad, because I’ve become very bored with it.
I’ll be taking a stab at trying to make a living from teaching, and freelance gigs. It’s scary… and I might be in touch with you soon!
if you cant generate enough income to live on as an artist there are only two potentials:
1 – you aren’t making/doing enough of it
2 – you really blow at your craft
for the overwhelming majority of artists the latter is the case. The phrase “Don’t quit your day job” fits perfectly here. If your a girl from a farm who draws horses but doesn’t “get” Koons, Duchamp, Warhol, etc then you honestly don’t deserve art direction. If you play the piano beautifully but couldn’t create your own melody(most teachers and students) to save your life you don’t deserve to be called a musician.
My point is there are very few people who can actually fufill the role of a true artist. Most others are simply making/doing kitsch work that the world would honestly be less artistically “cluttered” without!
Real artists are people who not only are capable of understanding the meta-conversation going on within their realm and its ties to the culture at large but who can contribute usefully to it. They must be equal part art historian/philosopher as artist to contribute.
Koons ironically used kitsch in the fine art world but he did so at such a time that it made perfect sense and advanced the overall artistic conversation, drawing a horse does nothing of the such.
you aren’t an artist because you make art that is in poor taste and doesn’t advance the metaphorical conversation going on in your craft.
Thanks so much for commenting. As much as I appreciate that… I can’t say that I agree with you in any way.
I’m not going to argue with you about what constitutes a ‘true artist’ because that’s a subjective conversation that probably won’t end with either of us changing our minds.
But I will reiterate my point that I built this post around: your ability to make income through your art has nothing to do with your level of talent, or validity as an artist.
There have been brilliant artists throughout the years that have been forced to earn money in other ways. They did their art on the sides… and I doubt we would recognize them as ‘professional artists’ now.
Dude, Koons was a commodity broker for many years.
I’d love if the world was as simple as you laid out: If you’re brilliant and you produce a lot of work, then you’ll make a living. But I promise you it’s not that simple.
Real artists come in a hundred different forms, and thank God that they do… because by living those different lives they gain an even more unique and incredible prospective… which when passed through the lens of their talent can truly ‘advance the metaphorical conversation going on in” their craft.
i assume my comment is under review, don’t deny it because it’s “negative” or out of line with your beliefs, its another viewpoint that should be considered. ps. no need to post this comment after review I just wanted to put forth why I feel my other comment should pass.
I grew tired of the shifts in body language, and crunched eyebrows and the questions about what I am going to do with my art degree. Are you kidding me? We are some of the best problem solvers in the world. I will have taken the same classes required classes as anyone else. Math, music and art are symbiotic creatures and I can fit my art into anything I do even if I don’t get to do it full time. Keep spreading your words of wisdom Chris.
Wow. Thank you so very much for writing this article. You pointed out a desperately needed conversation that ought to be taking place in all art school programs. What you said seems so simple and obvious, but because the myth of ‘making it’ dominates the collective consciousness, the point you made too often gets ignored, avoided and demeaned. I spent far too many years feeling like a failure as an artist for not being able to make a living at my art. Now in my late 40s, I love that I have had a variety of jobs (store owner, bookkeeper, office manager, to name a few) to enrich my life and inform my art.
Thanks Carla, You’re the kind of story that young artists should be hearing about much much more. Thanks so much for reading!
Consider me subscribed! Thanks so much for writing this!
I loved reading this and based on all the retweets, so did my Twitter friends! I think not only diverse jobs for artistic outlets but also creative hobbies can bring about happiness and balance. More schools should be discussing such things. I intend to share your post with my voice students this week. ~Thanks!
Thanks so much Alicia!
I ‘m a composer & guitarist, and I work at my family’s auto repair business in Brooklyn, and this job definitely keeps me grounded and pragmatic about how I go about living my life in the arts. Great piece!
That’s awesome! My family runs a farm that I try to get back to as much as possible… helps keep me grounded, and wouldn’t trade it for anything. Totally agree. Thanks for reading!
Thank you so much for writing this. Every artist needs to read this. I needed to read this today.
Aw. Thanks so much for that. Makes my day!
Totally awesome post Chris! I’m totally with you 🙂
Thanks Stefanie! Means a ton coming from you! I think about your diversity of income/happiness post all the time, such a great piece.
So proud of you Chris for posting this. So many people and/or artists are gonna love you for it, especially young emerging artists. Bravo my friend.