So, you want to be an Artist?


“Although some (aspiring artists) may have the ambition to be the next Jay-Z, or the next whatever, the number of those artists are very very small. And often the artists who are very successful that way, they don’t have much flexibility. In achieving success they lose a lot of their creative freedom, and have to keep making the same thing, more or less, over and over again. With some small changes, but more or less you have to keep making the same thing. And that if the musician or artist values their freedom and the ability to be creative, then they have to realize they won’t be making hundreds of millions of dollars. They might be making less money, but they might have more artistic satisfaction. They might even have to do other kinds of work sometimes. Its very very difficult. Its harder than ever, I think, to make money in the music business.”

The question of trading our artistic satisfaction for making money is an issue that strikes at the heart of every aspiring artist. Its something that Diane Ragsdale explored in a post on her arts advocacy blog, which you can read here. There are some great points made in the discussions (I unload a few myself), so read those too. The noteworthy thing, I thought, was that artists and the arts sector are becoming increasingly concerned with how to find a career path making art. What is that going to mean today and in our future? It may turn out that the model of the previous generation is no longer relevant in the ways we would like it to be…..

Some of this was explored in an interview conducted by Ben Carter. If you are a ceramic artist I highly recommend you following Ben’s Podcasts in which he interviews (mostly) ceramic artists. A few weeks ago he got together with Mel Griffin, Peter Christian Johnson, and Mathew McConnell to discus the notion of a ‘Career Ladder’ in ceramics. Its the notion that there is a right way to go about making a living as a potter or a sculptor. This idea can equally be asked of other fields in the arts. It turned into a great discussion and provided some excellent insight into the issue. You can listen to it here. These are bits of the transcript that I found interesting (My apologies to the people whose words these are. I was too lazy to give proper credit to the individual speakers….):

“Choosing to be an artist is not choosing a career, its choosing a lifestyle. And its different than going into Biology or something like that. You’re choosing to be counter cultural…. The path to being an artist is something you have to want to do. You’re not likely ever to have a fancy car or fancy house, or whatever. Its not a career. Its a lifestyle choice that you chase around. And you continue to find ways to do and make money.” (@ minute 39)

“I don’t think there is any clear pathway. And if someone is trying to teach you that if you ‘just do this and this, and you can make a living in the arts’ I think that that’s a problem. Because everyone that we know of, most of them have created their own paths, and that’s why they’re being successful. There’s not this sort of ‘Just go do this’, I mean besides the artists that want to show in galleries that you need to be in an urban center…. you need to go to all the gallery openings, you need to make that relationship. That’s good information” (@ minute 44)

“Med students look for jobs in the med field, but art students don’t usually look for jobs in the art field. (As art students) If you want to be repaid for your investment, sometimes its easier to make money in another field.” (@ minute 53)

I thought it was a fascinating discussion. I put this response in the comments:

Back in 2011 Rocco Landesman, the head of the National Endowment for the Arts, addressed a meeting of Theartre professionals and made the now notorious (infamous?) statement that we seem to be oversupplied with art and artists. The insight was that, if anything, there seems to be declining demand for traditional art forms across the board, and yet there are more people practicing as artists at the same time. This was a controversial suggestion, but as potters we can all probably see how it reflects our own experience. Things are not only tight, but the market itself seems to be fairly saturated. Supply and demand seem to be weighted against us…..

The truth seems to be that the model of full time artists making their entire income from selling their work is now the exception rather than the rule. There simply isn’t a large enough pie to be sliced so many ways and still provide for each working artist…..

When I was in school and Linda Christianson taught for a semester one of the insights she provided was that very few artists can make their entire income from just selling their work. There almost always needs to be some supplementary income from some outside source. You guys did a great job discussing several of those aspects.

What I think is important is that we do more to make the case, as one of your panelists described, that art isn’t simply a career but a lifestyle choice. I think we need to do a better job of explaining that the model of full time professionalism is mostly a far flung ideal. Most working artists are also teaching, or giving workshops, or have jobs that are independent from their artistic pursuits. Being a full time artist is not a default, and its not really something that is attainable for most people with artistic ambitions. We need to introduce aspiring artists to that circumstance before they get carried away with the romantic myths that have informed most of us along this path. The question is, how do we make our art practice fit in a life that includes other means of making a living or simply other interests and pursuits?

There seems to be an unexamined bias that if you are not practicing art full time you have in some way failed. We need to recognize that the rules for the art industry have simply changed, and we can no longer play the game by its outdated assumptions. The truth is that unless demand for art increases the competition for the same dollars will only get worse. Some may do well, but only at the expense of others who have done less well. And with decreasing demand, the ones who are able to game the system will be fewer and fewer as time goes on. That’s not a model for sustainability.

What all of your panelists seem to realize is that this new circumstance requires being adaptable and also that it often means creating our own new pathways. If anything, this discussion was a good effort at debunking the idea that there is a necessary pathway anymore. We will obviously need to invent new ways forward from here on out, and not be as beholden to the institutions that have served and supported artists over the years.

The danger we need to avoid is only looking at the icons, the ‘success stories’ as our models. The lessons we can learn from them are rarely applicable to any but their own situations. Sometimes its only accidents of being in the right place at the right time, or who you know, that makes things work. But the temptation to look only at these examples is misleading. Their recipe for ‘success’ will not be your recipe. We can often learn more from those who failed, what things to avoid, where they got in danger. I think we probably need to pay more attention to that than we do….

Another great podcast! Keep up the good work!

Food for thought….. Another foray into breaking down the myth of full time creative employment was given by Scott Cooper in the ‘spotlight’ section of the March 2013 edition of Ceramics Monthly, titled “Killing the Dream”. If you don’t own a copy you can buy the pdf version here.

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
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5 Responses to So, you want to be an Artist?

  1. This is a wonderful post! Very interesting indeed and as an artist myself I have struggled to find my path in this capitalist world. Only this year after my first few solo exhibitions did I realise I was “the artist” and I had to create my vision, my message, not to be a slave to the money I could potentially make. It sucks the creativity out of you! Thanks again for the post, will share this on my pages etc. Great read!

    • Good luck Charlotte! Its one of the hardest lessons, because financial success seems to be so seductive and game changing when it arrives. The problem is always that we can start to pay too much attention to what the market expects of us that our own intrinsic motivations. I struggle with this continually…..

      Thanks for chiming in! Best of luck!

  2. Scott Cooper says:

    Thanks for the link to my CM story. Sorry that they charge $5 per for a digital copy — for a six month old issue, I’d expect it to be more like $2. Or — even better — the option to buy each article a la carte at $1 each (with no ads).

    Seems to me like another example of “old media” still refusing to accept the new reality. Likely, they won’t make those changes until they’re on the verge of extinction, if then. Ah well.

  3. Pingback: Target practice and other lessons for potters in the business of art | CARTER GILLIES POTTERY

  4. Pingback: What was I thinking… in 2013? | CARTER GILLIES POTTERY

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