Earning Potential | Can a Fine Artist Make a Comfortable Living?

As an art gallery owner, I have the opportunity to spend a lot of time with artists. I get to interact with artists across the spectrum – from those who are just getting started, to very well-established artists.During the course of my interactions with artists, I feel I have a great opportunity to take the pulse of the visual arts community. I get a sense of  the health of the broad art market, and I get a feel for the attitude of artists.

I’m happy to say, that as the economy slowly continues to improve, I’m beginning to see a more positive outlook among artists. Of course, that’s looking on the positive side since artist sentiment and outlook has been so low for so long that it doesn’t really have anywhere to go but up.

The last five years have been incredibly difficult for everyone, but for artists in particular. The recession and collapse of the housing market had a huge impact on art sales. Many galleries closed and the income for many artists dropped precipitously.

With all of the economic difficulties, I can understand how many artists have come to feel that commercial success is only a remote possibility, or that it simply isn’t possible to make a living as an artist.

If I may, I would like to take a moment and try and shine a ray of hope out to those artists who are struggling and may have given up hope of building a successful business selling their art. I don’t want to minimize the challenges – I am fully aware that it is not easy – but I want to try and balance some of the negativity I’ve sensed among some artists.

Informal Survey

In preparation for writing this article, I posted a simple survey across my social media networks asking what artists felt about the prospects for earning a comfortable living from their art sales. If you didn’t get a chance to participate in the survey, I would first suggest you follow me on Facebook, Twitter and Google+ (!) and I would then encourage you to take the brief survey at https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1_f7zUrTnvwrraJ4R94QhoU2C9du2lO9mVnBUInpmFpc/viewform.

The survey asks the following questions:

  • Do you believe it is possible for an artist to make a comfortable living from the sale of his/her artwork?
  • Do you believe it is possible for you to make a comfortable living as an artist?
  •  Why do you believe it is or is not possible for you to make a comfortable living as an artist?

The poll is obviously far from scientific (at the time of this writing, I had only 86 responses), but it reflects the perceptions I encounter in discussing the subject with artists. Here are the results thus far (these charts are updated automatically as the survey receives more input).

In other words,  a good percentage of artists are optimistic about the possibility for artists to make a comfortable living in general, but less optimistic about their own ability to make a living.

You may view all of the responses to the survey, including the written responses to the third question by going to https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/pub?key=0Anzys2MJXqEAdDA2UVd6bVp0RzRpSGI2YzhXMHQzbnc&output=html.

Of course, the third part that is missing in this mini-survey is the answer to the question, “Are you making a living as an artist?”

For that answer I want to refer back to my annual State of the Art Survey, where I found the following

Less than a third of the responding artists (there were about 1200 responses) were selling more than $25,000 worth of art per year.

By the Official Numbers

2013-11-12 09_24_32-Craft and Fine Artists _ Occupational Outlook Handbook _ U.S. Bureau of Labor StIt’s difficult to come by statistics about how much artists are earning, but It’s interesting to look at some numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. According the BLS website (http://www.bls.gov/ooh/arts-and-design/craft-and-fine-artists.htm), the average fine artist or craftsperson is earning $43,470 per year, which comes to about $21/hour.

I would be very interested to understand the BLS’s methodology for coming up with these numbers. Their statistic report only 56,900 artists/craftspeople in the entire country. This number obviously doesn’t report the many aspiring artists who pursue their art part-time while working in another profession to make ends meet.

Still, it should be reassuring that there are at least 56,900 artists out there reporting to the BLS that, on average, they are making $43k a year. This may not be a luxurious living, but it is a living nonetheless.

I was happy to see that the BLS has finally separated out fine artists and craftspeople as a group separate from illustrators and graphic designers. In the past when I’ve looked at their numbers, artists were reported together with these other groups – skewing the figures.

Defining Success

I should note that financial gain is far from the only measure of success for an artist. I know many artists who would be willing to suffer any physical privation for the sake of their art. In many ways, thoughts of commercial success are secondary. Still, sales allow an artist to focus on creating more artwork, and an artist who wants to make a living at their art should know it’s possible.

Is it Possible to Make a Good Living in a Bad Economy?

In my frequent conversations with artists, another complaint I often hear is that the economy has made it impossible to make sales. As I mentioned earlier, there is no doubt that the economy has had a tremendous impact on the art business, but even in the down economy, there are artists who continue to sell there work and even prosper. I was recently at a party and had a discussion with an artist who said he saw a decline in sales in 2008 and 2009, but that the following years have been good. Both 2011 and 2012 were record years for him. Many of the artists I work with in the gallery are having similar experiences. They’ve continued to produce and promote their work, and the sales have come, even if they have had to work much harder to find them.

Keys to Success

So what does it take to make a comfortable living as an artist? There are as many answers as there are successful artists, but I want to share several things that I’ve observed about artists who are supporting themselves with their art:

  1. They are pursuing their art full time (for an entire post on this, click here)
  2. They are pricing their work in the middle to upper range of the market (for pricing considerations, click here). It is difficult to sell enough volume at the low end of the market to make a living.
  3. They are showing in multiple galleries and/or participating in multiple shows.

There are many other factors, in fact, this blog is dedicated to sharing ideas and suggestions that will help you on the path to more sales. In my experience, however, the three factors above, seem to be consistent among artists who have attained some level of success.

Do You Believe it’s Possible to Make a Comfortable Living as an Artist?

Share your thoughts and comments on the viability of making a comfortable living as an artist. What sacrifices have you made? What are your plans to move to self-sustainability with your art? Leave a comment below.

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