Debunking the Starving Artist Myth, Pushing Past Self Doubt and Finding Your Business Mojo

photo by Anais and Dax
Image by Anais and Dax |

Is there truth to the stereotype that artists are terrible at business? Or have we all bought into the idea of the starving artist so much, that we are sabotaging ourselves from making a solid living from our art? In a recent study by psychologist Sean McCrea at the University of Konstanz, people who were encouraged to make excuses for their poor performance on a series of intelligence tests were able to maintained high self-esteem, but were also less motivated to improve their performance. This study suggests that the case of the starving artist might just be a case of the fragile ego. So how much are your own biases and fears really standing in your way? Here are a few key ideas to make sure you’re financially making the most of your artistic talents.

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Art and Fear of Failure

Procrastination is the killer of all dreams. And it’s a deadly disease sweeping the nation in epidemic proportions. Not only are we torn away from our productive aspirations by addictive entities like Netflix and other internet black holes, we have also become our own worst enemies by supplying a myriad of excuses when facing the hard work necessary to succeed. The excuses we feed ourselves originate from an often subconscious knowledge that if we wholeheartedly pursue our dreams it will require HUGE amounts of work, work that is most likely only going to intensify with time and reveal all our shortcomings. It’s much easier to aspire to something then to actually attain it. Although it seems counterintuitive to desire success intensely and be bogged down by intimidation, this is where excuse making comes into play – if you talk yourself out of trying, you can never fail. But here’s the cold hard truth – there is no valid excuse for not making money as an artist. There’s only the choice, subconscious or not, to not do everything necessary to get your work out there.

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Art Is Personal, Except When It Isn’t

Adrien Declerck in Barcelona studio

Whether or not you’re familiar with The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz you have probably heard the adage “Don’t take anything personally.” Ruiz’s elaborates with “Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering. You may be wondering what this slightly woo woo advice has to do with making it as an artist and here it is – You are a business. Yes, of course you are a person first, and your art is very personal.

In Art and Fear” author David Bayles pointed out that, “To the artist, all problems of art appear uniquely personal. Well, that’s understandable enough, given that not many other activities routinely call one’s basic self-worth into question.”

However personal your art may seem to you, business is not. You must be able to not only tolerate criticism but learn to thrive off of it. Treat art making as a profession just like any other career path, you wouldn’t expect an investment banker to throw a tantrum if someone didn’t like his market analysis, so you are not entitled to anything but polite professionalism in the face of rejection. Just think of your canvas, photography and art in general as a product separate from any emotional ties you may have to it. Simply put – you are not exempt from the basic rules of business conduct just because your career happens to be of a deeply personal nature. Ultimately, the true test of worth is the way something serves the world. Get out of your own head, and realize that your art exists within a larger global context. The world is a gallery, and you can’t escape the critics. It’s nothing personal.

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Selling Art Is Not The Same As Selling Out

As a culture we have collectively bought into a romantic notion that the legitimacy of art is equal to the amount of suffering experienced by the artist. We celebrate artists in their death and ignore them in poverty while living. The glorified “starving artist” is a concept that was popularized by Henri Murger, who penned Scènes de la vie de bohème in the early 19th century. This notorious French novel depicts a community of poor artists living in the Bohemian quarter of Paris. The book was outrageously popular and the trend of the starving artist began – some might even say this inspired the first wave of grunge fashion, privileged young art students began purposely distressing their clothes and rolling their own cigarettes.

Ana Kras in her studio

We all know artists can make lots of money, yet the idea of “artist as rock star” is another unhelpful concept. In the wise words of America’s favorite advice columnist Ann Landers, “ Opportunities are usually disguised as hard work, so most people don’t recognize them.” Waiting to be discovered is a passive act that rarely pans out for any artist. It can be said that artists who don’t make much money don’t know the value of their art work, but waiting around for someone else to value your work is just as bad.

It is essential to be realistic about implementing various revenue streams, what feeds an artist’s income fluctuates from case to case. For most artists making a living entirely off art work sales is close to impossible. An artist’s income can come together from multiple sources such as gallery showings, teaching positions, Web sales, commission projects, grants or publishing. While these “gigs” may not generate a huge amount of income individually, it all adds up.

Murger’s depiction of the starving artist’s romantic life has fully steeped into the underpinning of popular culture and artists and patrons alike continue to hold on to the perception that good art is a product of the integrous and financially unstable. But we are here to tell you that selling art is not to be confused with selling out. It’s important to know your worth! Talk to experienced and successful artists about what they charge, make sure you understand the market and don’t be afraid to ask for what you want, appreciate what you get and work on the difference.

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Putting the Work Back in Network

Your goal for the new year should be to meet someone who works in your field everyday, and be involved in all social aspects of your art. Get out of your studio and talk to everyone, be your own billboard! This doesn’t mean going around shoving your card into the resistant hands of every person you deem important. However, do have cards with you at all times, and do give them to appropriate people at appropriate times. According to a report done by ABC news 80% of jobs are acquired though networking, that could mean your next commission, show, gig or sale. Go to openings, screenings, events and after parties. Make genuine connections with individuals who can benefit your career in varying ways. Always be kind and courteous – you never actually know who you may be talking to. People want to be a part of something they believe in and chances are if you believe in what your doing its contagious.

Motivational speaker Jim Rohn famously said that “you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” So take a good look around you, do the people closest to you inspire you or enable your stagnation? Foster a community that elevates your potential. Remember to go into every networking scenario with an understanding that you are equal to those you admire while remaining respectful. Embody the idea that your contribution to the creative community is something of value and importance. Don’t grovel, beg or be pushy and overenthusiastic, present yourself authentically and with grace – people will take notice.

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Understand the Psychology of Buying and Selling Art

In the late 70s, a group of researchers wanted to find out how scarcity influences perception. And so, they put some cookies into two identical glass jars. One was filled to the very top with delicious cookies, while the other contained only two. They then asked the study participants which jar of cookies they would value higher. What do you think happened? Despite the fact that both jars contained the exact same cookies, the participants valued the emptier jar higher. Scarcity is intimately connected to value, which is intimately connected to success. The less available a great product or service is, the more people want it, and the more they are willing to pay for it. That’s what makes your art so valuable! Price accordingly.

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How to Actually Make Money As An Artist

To start off with, the best way to make money as an artist is to get your art seen. Unquestionably, this means for every hour you spend perfecting your craft in the studio, you should be spending two on social media. Sound like a drag? Unfortunately, every job on the planet, no matter how awesome, will include a few things you hate doing. If you find yourself mostly having a lot of fun on the job, chances are your skipping on something insanely important, like marketing your work, or researching ways to grow your business, writing financial plans and Google optimizing your website. Learn the DNA of social networks, and try to start meaningful conversations about art with people online. The more people see your work, the more people will buy it. For an excellent lesson in social network marketing, pick up Gary Vaynerchuk’s “Crush It” and “The Thank You Economy.”

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For information on what other successful artists do to make money from their art, check out Cory Huff’s amazingly helpful website The Abundant Artist for tons of great advice. And for all you fashion photographers out there, definitely have a look at The Fashion Photography Blog, which if full of fantastic advice about marketing, business and technique.

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