That infamous parental rebuke, “How will you make a living as an artist?” continues to resonate in many an artist’s subconscious mind. Infuriating though it was to hear (and worse to remember, with its element of truth), starvation need not be your fate.
Creative artists realized sometime in the mid ’80s that a master’s degree in fine art led to few professional careers; indeed, it led primarily to a mad rush to find teaching jobs. Many artists with an MFA (or even a BFA for that matter) have expressed dismay and anger at their lack of educational training for any practical work (read: work that pays regularly).
None of the income-enhancing ideas I’m about to propose need detract from your own art making, and some demonstrate the wisdom of partnering with other artists and craftspersons in independent small businesses. (In fact, as we look to the future, we see that the business model is increasingly becoming more team-oriented.)
1 Become a framer and/or installer. Art galleries, museums and collectors always need artwork framed or reframed. In art school I hope you learned how to frame your work for your own exhibitions. Doing framing for a living can be a lucrative career. Just as museums and galleries need framers, they need installers and preparators.
2 Start your own business as an art handler. When people or businesses move, transporting art is often immensely complex because of movers’ insurance. Boxes must be purchased and taped to movers’ standards; crates often must be built. Most artwork on local moves can be managed by art handlers, who can offer a complete range of services, including framing and installation. How do you get the word out? Let moving companies and realtors know of your services (moving antiques and porcelains is a subset). Most cities have agents for national auction companies like Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Locate them. Contact galleries with out-of-town artists and offer to pack, pick up and deliver artwork.
3 Apprentice as a conservator or restorer. Galleries handling older art and all museums have conservation and preservation departments. A lot of paintings need cleaning and repairs, and works on paper require special attention. Ceramics break and need to be put back together. Frames need repairing and retouching. Artists with patience can do well in restoration.
4 Work as an art photographer. Most insurance companies and many dealers require photos to process claims or to show clients in other cities. Law firms that do estate planning and divorces may need photos of clients’ artwork, as may trust departments in banks. Many New York dealers require old-fashioned transparencies, but digital photography is making everything simpler, faster and cheaper, so keep your computer skills up-to-date.
5 Use your understanding of color and pigments. Some large businesses—think fashion designers, paint stores, catalog companies—have color specialists creating new color lines and coming up with names for them.
6 Work as a florist or calligrapher. If you can arrange objects for a still life painting, you can learn how to arrange flowers for a centerpiece. If you’re good with script, display your calligraphy at bridal registry stores to attract clients.
7 Consider designing furniture. The craze for ’50s modernist furniture should remind sculptors to think about designing and fabricating furniture (look at Ikea!). Take out books on the Bauhaus, the various Arts & Crafts movements and the Russian designers of the early 20th century. Industrial design, like graphic design, is likely to surge in the future.
8 Approach an interior design firm. If you’re a ceramist, you should know that architects and designers are always on the hunt for new ideas for tiles for kitchens, bathrooms and pools. The second-house trend may be dormant right now, but aging boomers are on the lookout for their next abode. You could also become adept in faux finishes. Think cabinets, fountains, interior murals, ornamental trim and stenciled floors. It’s wise, too, to know how to paint the interiors and exteriors of houses.
9 Try fabric design. If you can transfer some artistic ideas to various fabrics, you could hit a gold mine. To see examples, check out September feature artist Wendy Hollender’s textiles at www.whartdesign.com.
10 Finally, remember that just as the dividing line between commercial and fine art photography is arbitrary, we need to see, as Robert Rauschenberg once said, into “the interstices between art and life.” You can survive as an artist. Just be as creative in your pursuit of a steady income as you are in the pursuit of truth and beauty—and don’t give up!
This article is an excerpt from an article about strategies for supporting yourself as a fine artist that appeared in the November 2009 issue of The Artist’s Magazine, available at NorthLightShop.com (click here).
Daniel Brown is an independent art consultant, curator, and writer on the arts; he lives in Cincinnati, Ohio.
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