The 3 Reasons Why Artists Don’t Make a Living Off Of Their Art (and how to avoid them) by Rick Kitagawa
This doesn’t have to be you. TThere are really only three core reasons why an artist fails to make a living off of their craft. You might think there are more, but all of them all boil down to three things, and chances are, if you’re unhappy with your career as an artist (or don’t have one yet), you can probably blame one of these three reasons.
1. Not enough practice.The hard truth is that maybe you just haven’t put in the mileage yet. Most “successful” artists (and I put that in scare quotes because success is really in the eye of the beholder) have put in that time and effort. It may not seem like it, but remember the volcanic island — it takes a while to form anything that solid.
Good art usually takes time. And if it doesn’t take time now (like an artist who can paint very quickly), it took an investment of time. When I do a demo for a company and paint a full portrait in maybe 40–50 minutes, while that looks easy, the hard part was the years I spent practicing before I could get my speed up like that. And that’s not to say that all good art is representational.
Good art, whether it’s due to technical finesse or color theory or composition or any of the above, comes from an investment of love and time and practice. If you’re not happy selling enough art, you may have to look hard into the mirror and figure out if you really have the skills to execute professional level work. Unless you’re going into modern art (preserved sharks and the like), there’s no amount of business savvy that’ll save an artist who hasn’t spent the time to fully develop their skills.
That said, remember that you don’t need to be a superstar to get work. A mom and pop sandwich shop doesn’t hire Oglivy and Mather for their advertising — they probably can’t afford the advertising giant for one, and plus they don’t need a world-class ad agency. They probably need some advertising student who can build them a website and run a local promotional campaign to bring in more foot traffic.
As long as you can provide value, you can work. If you’re not a 9 or 10, but a 4, you still have more skill than a 1. So while I know that myself and everyone else will tell you that you have to master your craft, that’s really if you want to work for the biggest in the industry. You have to be a 10 to work for another 10. You’ll get to be a 10 eventually, but you need to put in all that time and effort working for 4’s, and 5’s, etc., etc. before you get that 10.
2. Lack of knowledgeThis one is what most artists think they suffer from. Ignorance of the art world, business basics, and how to present and sell oneself and one’s artwork can be a huge barrier to commercial success. There is such a plethora of information that is available online, in books, and in free workshops and seminars and events all over — there really is no good excuse for not learning this stuff.
Okay, so this part comes a bit easier to me, as I really enjoy learning about psychology and sociology and marketing and all that sort of thing. But even if you don’t enjoy it (and even I don’t enjoy ALL of it..cost-benefit analysis…shudder), you have to realize that it’s crucial to really standing out from the crowd.
There are so many artists out there who are talented and have put in the mileage to really hone their craft, you need something to stand out. Whether that’s knowing your niche and understanding how to speak to it, whether it’s creating a snazzy look book and price sheet for wholesalers, or whether it’s as simple as knowing how to do your research before applying for a job, learning the business skills can help you make a living off of your art.
This is why I teach business and entrepreneurship at the Academy of Art. As an alumnus, I know how amazing the art instructors can be. They took this smart-ass 22 year-old who hadn’t drawn for 10+ years, and turned me into a painter, printmaker, illustrator, and draftsman who gets paid to fly around the country and talk about making art. That said, a lot of the really skilled classmates I had aren’t really working in their field.
There are super talented artists, but their complete ignorance of how to present themselves shoots them in the foot again and again. And this kills me, because I know they have a unique gift to share with the world, and it’s being stifled because of a lack of knowledge of how they should showcase their art.
That said, this is also a relatively easy problem to solve. There are a lot of online resources, and learning to take some time on the weekend or in the evening or whenever to read a new book or watch some videos online can do wonders. Ask your friends who you look up to what resources they recommend.
Don’t forget, however, that you could just be overly critical of yourself. Maybe you already know what you need to know, and don’t let yourself sink into a self-improvement spiral, where you’re constantly chasing new information just to chase it.
3. FEAR.Yes, Fear even got itself written in all-caps. I would argue that this is the reason why upwards of 75% of artists give up or never pursue their passion. This is the reason why artists don’t get the opportunities they deserve, or the rates they need, or the clients they want.
Are you an artist who procrastinates? Either that’s actually your internal compass telling you that whatever it is you’re doing isn’t what you NEED to be doing, or it’s fear. If you’re looking at your blank canvas and you think, “Ugh, I should paint,” but then you go play video games? That’s fear. If you’re procrastinating writing that paper, it could be you should just be doing something else, but it could be fear also — fear of having to go outside of your comfort zone, of having to write in academic English that you never were really taught, of potentially “looking dumb.”
Conveniently forget about that deadline for the Call for Entry? You made yourself too busy to focus on the application, and then you figured “well, the application isn’t strong so I won’t get in anyway?” That’s probably fear of going after what it is you really want.
Fear is the bane of all artists everywhere. It’s the voice in our head telling us that we’re not good enough, or that other people are better, or that we’ll never be able to make it as a successful artist. Fear is what keeps us hobbling along, too scared to ask for help, or find a mentor, or even from making art.
Rejection is scary. I get it. As an artist, I know that every piece you put out is personal. When you upload that new painting to Instagram or Facebook or Tumblr, you’re just DYING to get more likes. We don’t stop to think about the nuances of social media, or how likes and hearts and upvotes and whatever don’t correspond to good art — they correspond to popular art. No one wants to feel like the misunderstood artist. We all want love and affection and for people to like our art. It’s okay to want people to like your art — art is such a personal creation that we can’t (nor shouldn’t) disconnect our art from who we are. That said, we have to remember that while it’s always okay to sell your art, it’s also okay to create art that doesn’t sell.
The tricky thing about creating art is that even though we’re scared, we have to keep putting ourselves out there if we want to make a living off of our art. We have to keep selling, to keep creating, to keep posting, and after time, you will find that audience that cares about your work.
In sales, it’s often talked about that you have to get at least five “no’s” before you get a sales prospect to say “yes.” However, 80% of sales people give up after four “no’s.” This is why resilience to rejection is so important. It’s artists applying more than ten times at an animation studio before they get hired. It’s artists applying to a juried, annual show every year regardless if they ever get in. It’s artists who are willing to go the distance, work really hard, and never give up, even if they have to work two retail jobs to pay the bills in the meantime.
So the trick with fear is that even if it’s scary, you just have to push through it. You can try and acclimate yourself slowly — if you’re scared of talking to new people, just try to strike up conversation with a cashier when you go grocery shopping. They are supposed to talk to you, and there’s a time limit on the conversation so if it doesn’t go well, you just pay and leave. If you’re scared of submitting to the biggest illustration contest in the country, maybe try submitting in a local art contest. Baby steps, everyone, baby steps.
What about circumstances outside of my control?
Well, that’s just it. They’re circumstances outside of your control! You can’t force a book publisher to publish you, or a studio to hire you. No one can guarantee you’re going to win an Oscar, or have a sold-out gallery show at a certain gallery. But what you CAN do is take hold of what you DO control. Make good work and share it with the world. Be open to learning things that are foreign to you. Read books. Watch tutorials online. Never disqualify yourself before entering the race. Try new things. Put yourself in scary (not dangerous) situations that push the boundaries of your comfort zone.
Before I take on any coaching clients, I always ask them one question. “If I told you that you wouldn’t be successful for the next ten years, would you still make art?” If they love their craft enough, they’ll say yes. And it’s the people who say yes that I know are the ones who are NOT going to want for success — because if you love your craft enough to keep doing it regardless of the external motivators, then that resilience is what is going to keep you going year after year, through the ups and downs that every career has.
So just keep on working. Keep on putting yourself out there and dare to challenge the world and learn and play and make some cool-ass shit. I can’t wait to see it.
Rick Kitagawa is an award-winning visual artist, storyteller, and arts educator. He has taught hundreds of students how to break into the industry, land their dream jobs, and make a living off of their art and is the creator of Lift Off Art.
""""One of the most mortifying moments I experienced in my theatrical career was when I was asked to bring the entirely African-American cast of a new musical we were workshopping, a new piece by an African-American librettist and composer, across the street to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and up into the plush boardroom so they could perform a song or two for the board of directors. I wanted to say something, but I didn't. For one thing, it would take an invaluable 45 minutes to an hour out of the creative team's limited time together. But... every year we had to do the same old song and dance for the board to remind them that yes, we did do new plays and musicals, so yes, it was sometimes a good idea to expose the board to new voices, to the vibrancy of an exciting work in progress.
You all know where this is going, don't you? I led the team in. The talent in that team! The writer/composer himself and the cast, lauded veterans of the stage and the most promising members of the next generation of acting giants. And there was our board. White, as white as can be, white white white white. And very comfortable. They'd just been served lunch, I believe. My theater spared no expense in pleasing our board and catering to their demands (oh my god, I'm feeling such rage right now! I'm pretty sure we had a staff member who was mostly dedicated to help our richest board members get house seats to shows on Broadway and the West End. But I digress...)
The only black face in the audience seated at the conference table? The only person of color? The head of our education department, of course. My heart went out to her.
The cast sang a song from the show. They did it. And they brought it. Because they were and are professionals. And the very pillars of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion reverberated down to the parking lot. It was breathtaking.
And I had just been complicit in the remaking of a scene for the millionth time: black bodies and voices entertaining white audiences, an institution raising money on the backs and voices of black bodies.
I was too mortified to apologize to our writer and to our cast, none of whom, I should add, expressed even an iota of discomfort. They were professionals, and they shone. And come to think of it, they'd probably all become accustomed to this scene. "It's just how theater works," they might have thought with a shrug of their shoulders. Or maybe they seethed inside, for the millionth time, when all they were trying to do is workshop a new musical.
Well, I apologize sincerely now to our writer and those actors. I wish I had had the courage to put my foot down. It is not how theater should work.
I quit the American theater on Valentine's Day 2016, so I've been out more than four years now. And honestly I don't plan to return, which is why I can write with such candor.
The heart of the problem, my friends, is with the non-profit structure, which is capitalism on steroids. Who are the bosses ultimately in an American institutional theater? The board of directors. Who are the board of directors? For the most part, those members of the community not with the strongest attachment to the art form but those with the deepest pockets. Often they're really not members of the community. They often just drop in. They are sometimes mere tourists.
It's no wonder that that board meeting was held in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The theater, like most American theaters, had built its board of directors on the old opera model: You get the richest folks together, offer them galas and house seats and receptions and private recitals and showings (for which artists often don't get paid extra, mind you), you pamper them and make them feel more special and entitled than they already do, and then they'll write you big checks to support the kind of art they like, the kind of art they can bring their kids and grandkids to. AND they--not the artists, not the community--get to hire the institution's leadership.
It is a rotten model. Rotten to the core. How can any artistic institution claim to be working for and in the community with that model?
It's got to be torn down. It's got to be reinvented. And I have no idea what the next model will be. I really don't. And no, honestly I don't think government is the solution frankly. Some of the most bloated, self-satisfied, decadent theater I've ever seen was in Germany, where it was almost fully government-funded. Lots of bells and whistles and provocations and completely soul-dead.
I see amazing and galvanizing lists of demands recently being made and posted by theater artists of color. These are vital demands. But they don't address the central issue. As long as the ultimate bosses of an artistic institution remain the community's deepest pockets, nothing will change. Nothing. You'll be putting band-aids on a gaping wound. Sorry, but it's true.
So please figure something else out. Maybe for a few years you just avoid the institutions. You've already started. In the pandemic, so many of you are making amazing art without an institution. Find those who truly adore your work and ask them to fund it. Screw non-profit. Form a corporation and value your art art-making as a resource that profits you, your viewers/audience and your community. I have no idea.
But please don't return to a new version of the old. After the virus, after he's out of office, after police reform and nationwide conversations about race, after, after, after, begin something new. I can't wait to see what it is!”
Words: Pier Carlo Talenti
Video: Griffin Matthews
April Yvette Thompson