marcus westbury

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Making a living as an artist

April 23rd, 2010 by marcus

I BOUGHT a guy a beer last week. No, I’m not so cheap that that is remarkable. What is remarkable, though, is that the guy I bought a beer for is a writer and theatre-maker who lives in Chicago and I’ve never met him. The little transaction demonstrated one of the many ways that artists are finding to make a living from their work.

The beer was for a blogger who had written a smart, thought-provoking post about the parallels between the current challenges facing the music industry and the decline and rebirth of theatre as major cultural force in his home town. At the bottom was a button that suggested if I liked the piece I should “buy me a beer” using PayPal. It seemed like a fair transaction to me and he now has a few dollars that were once mine.

How to make an income and be an artist or creative person is one of the great mysteries of the universe. You can work more broadly in the arts, I guess. Plenty of artists have drifted into arts administration, sitting galleries, working front of house, becoming an art teacher, doing lighting and video for concerts or lugging around and installing exhibitions and PA systems. There are plenty of paid jobs in the arts industry even if there is bugger all money for actual artists.

Or you can go corporate, where there is also a demand for creative skills. A quick survey of my friends reveals novelists turned to corporate PR writers, ghost writers who’ve penned “autobiographies” for celebrities who never read them, illustrators for hire, and video makers whose skills have been effectively applied to “tasteful soft porn”. In a world where plenty of artists are often being commissioned by the commercial sector only an ardent purist can tell you where art stops and design begins. The artist as shoe designer, interior decorator, or even cool consultant is strangely in demand.

Or you can go it alone and make your own work. More recently though, there has been an explosion of self-starting creative micro- industries halfway between day job and pocket money. The blogger in Chicago is just one of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people — some professional artists and some not — who are deriving an income from putting their ideas and their creative skills out there.

Musicians are taking a lot of the lead in this regard. Traditional sources of revenue and investment are drying up as record companies rush to protect their bottom line. It’s forcing the middle out of the music industry: the mega acts still make a fortune, and those in the mediocre middle are being squeezed out, but a whole stack of people with small but passionate fan bases have discovered there’s a useful amount of money to be made from $2 downloads. It is a crisis for the music industry, but it’s a whole new series of opportunities for a lot of musicians. They’ve found they can even get their fans to invest in the creation of a new record before they make it and a much greater capacity to self-promote live tours.

Those who make beautiful images can now put them on things. Micro-manufacturing and niche distribution mean that some artists are now in the business of making everything from iPhone cases to tea towels and can sell them to a global audience. New companies — entire industries — have been set up around the idea of mass-customisation. Want to design a T-shirt, get it manufactured, and quickly reap the profits? Easy. What about designing, printing and distributing your own book? Nothing to stop you. Making short films, online soaps or special-interest film or video? There are audiences and a bit of income for that, too.

The norm for artists — or at least the stereotypes — used to be much more bureaucratic. Get a job, get the occasional grant, hope to get a good agent or major company gig and hope to turn your practice into your steady job one day. That’s not how the art world works these days — probably because it’s not how the world works any more.

Taking the initiative to create your own work, build your own audiences, and make opportunities is a more common path to success. For better or for worse, the larger trend is that creative life is becoming more entrepreneurial.

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8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Ryan Apr 23, 2010 at 11:25 am

    This was really heartening to read, this morning. I like the idea that the crowdfunding trend puts the consumer in charge of what’s produced as well – taking the decision-making process out of the hands of major production houses. Do you have a link to that blog? I’m always keen to find new examples of this – and I like a man who likes a beer.

  • 2 Paul Squires Apr 23, 2010 at 6:34 pm

    As the old income streams dry up, or remain dry as the case may be, new opportunities open up every day. The technology is making many of the old arts professions, the middle people, obsolete whilst creating the possibility of truly independent careers.

  • 3 John Walker Apr 24, 2010 at 8:24 am

    In about 1860 gustave courbet was refused exhibition in the peer review art academy of his day . He walked up the street and opened the very first Indie one man show. Because Courbets pictures were both stylish and earthy ‘ smelly’ in that sexy way that the french love, the show was a scandalous success -people queued round the block and paid an entrance fee ,to be ‘shocked’. Modern artists have been Indies ever since.
    In the 70s there was a strong push to reimpose a corporate academic peer review ‘anti-commercial’ economic model upon art.
    “The norm for artists — or at least the stereotypes — used to be much more bureaucratic” actually was historically speaking, a brief aberration and like most stereotypes was even at the time- mostly bullshit.

  • 4 -$11.52 | martyn coutts May 3, 2010 at 7:52 pm

    […] Marcus Westbury writes a couple of things about the mysteries of how to be an artist and be able to eat – one is here. […]

  • 5 Simon Andrews May 14, 2010 at 12:15 am

    When sitting with a group of other artists the the talk always flows back to money and how to to get a bit more of it. Sitting around with a group of business guys the conversation usually ends being about art and culture.

  • 6 It’s nice to share | May 19, 2010 at 10:24 am

    […] Making a living as an artist Marcus Westbury writes about how artists are representing and marketing themselves online, and it’s something I’ve noticed Hazel Dooney talking about as well. Often I feel self conscious and a little embarrassed about promoting myself so much but then I realise it’s what I must do as an artist these days! I can’t lounge around until I’m discovered, I’ve got to be proactive. […]

  • 7 SPARCS May 28, 2010 at 6:15 pm

    I feel I am one of the “lucky ones” (more by design than luck). I have a “day job” and it has nothing at all to do with my artistic endeavors.
    I feel this gives me a few advantages. It’s a symbiosis…the art allows me to escape from the “day job” and the day job ( i am going to stop “”ing it) gives me the freedom to not “having to” do the art. At times the balance can be skewed but it is close enough to a happy medium. It also seems that my art is reasonably self sustaining. The money from the odd group show or back yard deal sorts me for the money to do further works. It also means I don’t have to do solos, or hunt endlessly for group show and take risks with time or money…
    It is not unoften that people feel the need to tell me “I should do something” with my art (the ” were appropriate that time) and just as often I feel I can tell them I am. Are people so insecure of just being able to do something and not wringing it dry at every opportunity to exploit it???

    yay me.

  • 8 Zack Oct 22, 2010 at 4:31 pm

    Sounds wonderful, ‘Anybody’ can create art and sell it on-line. Is it still art if only university trained computer students with access to modern technology and social networking abilities can exhibit. What of the more traditional or cultural Arts where computer access in limited. Will the poverty stricken artist be just a memory or forgotten.