The definition of art has expanded but the economics of making art has remained the same in the past century or so. The prevailing question for all artists is pretty much the same — How does one live off their art?
This is a personal challenge for me. I’ve been running Urban Matter Inc., a mission-based art and technology studio, with my husband for six years now. Things got ‘real’ when we added another member to our family two years ago. Childcare, health insurance, and everything that goes with bringing up a child in the US were staring us right in the face.
Given that we work in the field of art and design, a lot of our friends are creatives. From what I know, none of my friends sustain themselves purely through their art. Some teach some do commercial art (illustrations for books, writing for magazines), others like my husband and I consult for agencies and startups. I met a visual artist who does staff portraits for websites. A cellist friend works full time with a real estate development firm and has worked with them for over a decade. Most of the artists I know have part-time or full-time jobs. That seems to be the norm, not the exception.
Income from art or elsewhere
Creative Independent, a publication by Kickstarter conducted a study with 1067 visual artists from all around the world to understand financial stability within this group. The top source of income for funding artwork came from contract or freelance work where 61% of the artists listed it as a source of income. Just 12% of artists listed ‘gallery sales’ as a comfortable source of income. Also, for more than half the surveyed artists, just a small amount of their income was generated through their art practice and only 17% said they were making most of their income through their artwork.
A very absorbing article by Monica Bryne, in the ideas section of the TED website, hits the nail on its head. She talks about the hardships artists go through to get their work out there. If you don’t pay artists, there is no art, if there is no art, there is no culture, that is pretty much her message and it rings true on so many levels. She further emphasizes the need to find or rather invent new economic models for artists that place artists first.
About 42% of the artists in the Creative Independent study stated that their present source of income is not related to their artistic practice. Personally, finding a balance between work that pays the bills and working on our artistic projects is a constant struggle for us. We recently took up a teaching gig which involved traveling to a different city to teach a class. Even though it takes hours out of our week, we view it as an opportunity because it is directly aligned with our work at Urban Matter. Income generated in a way somewhat connected to our artistic practice is a good thing because it helps get the word out. Teaching gigs, leading workshops, sharing skills and techniques using sites like Skillshare all fall in that category.
In the past 5 years, we’ve won just over 5% of the total commissions for which we applied. Others may have a better win rate but this is ours. That said, we create large interactive installations for cities and there isn’t necessarily a huge market for that. Talking about a market for artwork sounds strange, it is as if I am talking about electronic toothbrushes or shaving kits for women. What I have learned in the past few years of making work and trying to make money from it is that if you are pushing your work, you need to know who will buy it. Which brings me to the onset of crowdfunding.
Crowdfunding is good for one-off projects
When Perry Chen (one of the founders of Kickstarter) came to give a talk at my university 10 years ago about Kickstarter, I thought he wasn’t being serious. Why would anyone want to support my project? Looks like he was right. Kickstarter along with many similar crowdfunding platforms have taken off in the past few years. Crowdfunding has become as mainstream as getting a loan from a bank. We’ve tried to crowdfund three projects and succeeded at one. Creating word of mouth online and attaching a payment mechanism to it so that the supporters are putting their money where their mouth is makes a big difference. The aspect of getting the word out and closing a sale becomes a lot easier with a platform like Kickstarter.
According to the Kickstarter stat page, the total number of launched projects on Kickstarter is around 434,076 of which 157,878 are successful, so around one-third of total projects are successful which is not a bad average at all. That said, the top three categories for projects which are successfully funded happen to be Music, Film & Video, and Games — not Art. Kickstarter is also a one time platform that is good to raise money for prototypes and not necessarily to sell art on a regular basis.
Selling on Instagram means having a large following
A quick look at some of the art and craft subreddits to research what other online platforms exist to sell art reveal Red Bubble and Society 6 amongst others. If you are selling T-shirts, stickers, phone cases, etc, in bulk this seems like a good way to monetize. That said, artists making a living off of these platforms are few and far between. The democratization of art through social media, especially Instagram, is being furiously discussed amidst art circles. Instagram can allow artists to build wider audiences and transact through the platform. That said, the hustle still remains. Replacing in-person art openings and art fairs with Instagram accounts may increase the odds of selling a piece of art because of a large number of eyeballs, but it still doesn’t solve the problem of sustainably selling art for a large number of artists without a huge online following.
Relationships and support network is where it is at
This is not a surprising finding, that in the survey conducted by Creative Independent most artists credited their relationships and support network as things that contributed to their financial stability. An interesting online economic model around patrons is Patreon where content creators can make money from a fan based membership model. It is definitely far from perfect but a step towards a more sustained income. That said, an article aptly titled ‘Scraping By’ published in The Outline in Dec 2017 quoted statistics from another blog called Graphteon that highlights Patreon stats. It stated that 0.8% of Patreon creators made a minimum federal wage of $15/hr.
Monica Bryne in her article about sustaining herself credits Patreon for paying her rent when she was preparing for her TED talk. She already had a network of fans who were willing to contribute towards early access to her content.
Re-examining all the commissions we’ve picked up in the past, a large percentage of our work came from word of mouth. Creating a large community or network of fans willing to buy work can be a challenging task but creating a smaller close-knit network can be a lot easier which is where the idea of cooperative economics comes in, an idea that we’ve been working towards for the past year or more. Lesser represented communities and minority groups like immigrants from Asia and Africa have been getting together to pool resources at regular intervals to benefit its members for centuries.
Prana creates small financial networks
Inspired by this kind of cooperative economics and group savings, we started working on a project called Prana. There are a couple of scenarios that we have been looking at. The first one circles around a cooperative approach to supporting art projects. And the second one is about using the power of being in a group to be able to afford art and support artists.
Scenario 1: Prana allows artists to create a closed group with other like-minded creatives. The platform collects a fixed contribution from individual group members across time and then allocates collected funds back in rotation to different a member every week or month. So if 11 members contribute $100/wk, a total amount of $1000 is paid out to a different artist every week ($100 for every other artist in the group) to use as they please. This money can be put towards an exhibition space, art materials, rent deposit, anything that would need a lump-sum of money to support an artist.
Scenario 2: Given that most people don’t want to shell out even a small amount of money for art, another scenario would make it easier for patrons to own a piece of art from someone they admire. The art buyer would be able to get a discounted price and be able to pay in installments if they can get a group of people together. This group of buyers would also be willing to purchase an art piece from the artist’s limited series of prints, paintings, or sculptures. So if each piece in a limited series costs around $500, then 10 friends can pay $50 every week for 10 weeks and a piece of art from the series is sold to one friend every week. So the artist sells 10 pieces worth $500 to 10 people who pay in installments and pay a discounted price (maybe the art piece was priced at $600 originally). Buyers also feel more confident in their buy since others also have a stake in this art.
Start with people who believe in you
The origins of informal savings circles came from not having access to formal financial infrastructures like banks and credit cards. However, what was considered an edge case even a decade ago, is the fully functional ‘sharing economy’ of today. This cooperative platform can allow us to support each other projects or even buy each other’s work by joining forces. We don’t need to have hundreds of followers on Instagram, or multiple galleries representing us, all we need is a handful of people who believe in us to get started.
This is an alternative financial model for artists, and we would love your feedback. Please sign up on the homepage if you are an artist or a creative and would like to test drive Prana. We launch our beta in March 2019.