Making Art

Bringing Art Making Into Your Life

Art & Money: the Elephant in the Room

There’s a big, pink, decorated, swirly elephant in the room. Yep it’s the topic of making money from your art. You’ve probably noticed I prefer not to talk about it.



Maybe it’s because I don’t sell nearly as much art as I would like too.

Maybe it’s because I have to do other less exciting jobs to make money so I can go and make art.

Maybe I am jealous because other artists do make enough money to live on from their art.

Or probably its a mixture of all of the above.

Part of me has always assumed since I left art school that making enough money from my art was never going to happen. Various things that happened along the way confirmed this view. I worked for a while lecturing at University in a Visual Communications Degree. Like a mixture between graphic design and photography. It had a pretty vocational bent which is ok with me since I have made money doing both of those things. My office was in hall with lecturers from a Visual Arts Degree. It did not have a vocational bent. That’s ok too. When I moved into my office I was impressed by the inhabitants of the other offices. Basically a big pile of successful, grown up Aussie artists. But what made me sad was that all the people who taught in that degree,  had to work at a University to pay the bills.

Goodness knows it’s a good job but my point is: if you are a successful artist shouldn’t you be able to survive on that alone? Most of the people teaching in that degree would have preferred to be just making art.

Yes I know a few artists who don’t need other jobs but they are wildly in the minority. And their ascent to the top of the heap often seems a little magical and random. Not so much that they shouldn’t be the successful ones but that there are so many good artists, that maybe that particular person had a big dollop of serendipity along with their hard work and talent.

I have some possible ideas for why its hard to make money from your art in Australia:

  1. Too many artists, not enough buyers.
  2. The Australian public want their art for free, at museums and public events.
  3. Australian’s don’t buy art. They are more into sport, clothes, bands, eating out.
  4. Australians like design objects more than art objects and to buy what their friends buy. Rather than go out on a limb with something original.
  5. Art is too expensive. That print at Ikea is nice enough.
  6. Artists are generally appalling at marketing.
  7. It’s so hard to make money when you start that most artists give up pretty early and go get a real job.
  8. Many artists [including me] just want to make what they think is really good, whether other people like it or not. If I wanted to make something commercial I would be a designer/artisan.  I have made money doing graphic/web design for many years so when I am making art the last thing I want to do is please someone else. Its kind of: well I’m pleased you like this particular piece but it’s not going to make me change what I make. This attitude makes my studio manager go mad. He’s always saying I’m just trying to help by telling you what people want to buy.
  9. The general public believes that only that small number of artists sanctioned by the big galleries and institutions are ‘real’ artists so it’s not safe to buy work from other artists as it won’t be a good investment.

I have also read two book recently with completely opposite views on the topic.

The first is Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat Pray Love fame. It’s a good book. If I had to summarize I would say it’s about giving ordinary people permission and encouragement to bring some creativity into their lives. Gilbert wrote  a number of books and many many articles and short stories before she hit the big time money on Eat Pray Love. She talks in this book about the fact that all she was ever going to do was write and that’s what she did. Gilbert’s view on making art [book, script, painting, whatever] and being creative is that it doesn’t owe you anything and that you are lucky to have it in your life. Its a pleasure and a joy. And I agree with her essentially. But this still doesn’t stop me from wanting to sell more of it and to be able to not have other jobs.



The other book is Art Inc. by Lisa Congdon. This is also a good book. It’s about marketing your tootsies off through all types of  mediums. Building a career, licensing your work for commercial products, etc. She uses examples of successful artists telling their own stories . The schtick is you CAN make money with your art. But I still can’t really help thinking that:

a]  the work ends up being either Illustration [ ie the pretty/funky end of graphic design]


b] the artist gets stuck making the same type of work over and over again long past the point of what they were exploring and essentially making prototypes of production run products. [aka design.]


So we end up as designers. Design is good, we all use it everyday. It’s everywhere. But if what you really love doing is being at the pointy end of art making; an explorer, going somewhere new, following ideas like a grey hound, occasionally shocking or delighting, design just isn’t what you want to do.

As you might know I am writing a book about ideas in art making. I can’t in good conscience say that you will make money from it. But I can say with confidence you will have a good time making your own original art. You will be satisfied. You might find meaning. You might get obsessed! Certainly I can’t stop making the stuff. The questions Gilbert asks is would you want to keep making it even if you know you will never sell it?

And for me the answer is yes.

A big fat juicy YES! Because not selling it means I can have total freedom to explore play and make as I will. Without ever giving a moments thought to pleasing or impressing another.

Make ANYTHING you want.

Total freedom.


One comment on “Art & Money: the Elephant in the Room

  1. mazzaus
    January 22, 2016

    These are excellent questions. I don;t have answers! But I also answer YES I make regardless of sale. But have never expected I could make money from selling what I make… not much, anyway… and would of course love to quit day job and make. I have reached the same conclusions as you about how money is made though and I would NOT prefer to make the same thing over and over, to doing my day job. So am embracing making whatever the hey I like. Hope it’s going really well for you!

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This entry was posted on December 11, 2015 by in Artists, Making art and tagged , , , , , , , .
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