Mar 02 2009

On Being an Artist in a Bad Economy

Published by at 7:58 pm under art,art community,creativity,Portland,selling art

An Intimate Interior, by Robin UrtonI just found out that I sold this painting, “An Intimate Interior” at the local “Love Show” (the 4th annual show of this theme, put on by the Launchpad Gallery).  It’s not a new painting, but it fit the theme perfectly.   I’ve had little time to paint in recent months, given my multiple-hat approach to eeking out a freelance career.  I’m generally more attached to my newer works, so it’s easier for me to let go of a painting that’s been with me for a while.

Pricing is one of the more difficult aspects of an art career because no one wants to sell themselves short, nor do they want to out-price the market so that no one can afford their work.  I’ve never heard a really good explanation for how to price one’s work, and I don’t create the kind of art that can easily be priced by the square inch (or square foot, if I were creating large-scale works).  Nor can I price according to time spent on a piece (as if I could actually keep track of that, since I’m in an altered state when the work is flowing… and when it’s not, no one can pay me for the time spent thinking about and mulling over ideas).  The truth is that I have pieces that I spent literally months creating and others that came pretty quickly, but sometimes after a dry spell.  For me, it’s always a matter of emotional attachment, which is a hard thing to quantify.

The main thing I ask myself when I price my work is “what is the lowest amount that I can feel okay about selling this for”… and then add whatever percentage the gallery takes.  And since galleries typically take a 40-50% cut, I always feel better if I can give the customer a good deal by not having to outsource.  But I’d never get any exposure without public walls to hang my work on, and some venues (such as the Launchpad) are really something to support.  They’re the good guys, are also struggling to keep their doors open, and I’m glad to be a part of this group effort.

As much as I try NOT to be affected by all of the bad news about the economy, it’s hard not to be nervous as an artist trying to make my way on a completely freelance career.  Not that it was ever easy, of course.  It takes courage to even think about making a living as an artist in a good economy.  Perhaps that’s why I wear my three freelance hats as an artist, teacher, and web designer.  I’m not brave (or crazy) enough to rely on just one.  These days, I think it’s important to have several marketable skills to survive in a creative field.

When I went to art school, no one really bothered to prepare us for the cold facts of making a career in the arts.  I went into it in a completely naive manner, knowing that I wouldn’t be happy pursuing anything else.  In retrospect, there really isn’t that much that they taught me that I couldn’t have learned on my own.  At least not in terms of technique.  I think that I had the assumption I was going to get some kind of mentoring.  That didn’t happen.  No one told me how to mix color, what mediums to use, or much of anything about the practice of painting.  Nor did they prepare me for how to present myself to galleries, how to professionally photograph my work, apply for grants or residencies… in short, how to be a professional artist.

Fortunately, I’m a self-starter and figured out my own way with the materials.  Whether I intended to or not, I always found myself working against the grain.  In undergrad school, most of my teachers came out of an expressionist background, so the best advice they had to offer was to “let mistakes happen” and use big brushes.  This ran counter to my nature.  I painted carefully, painstakingly, with small brushes.  For the most part, they congratulated anything that was abstract and bold and warned against creating “illustrative” art.  Representational art had a hard time unless it had the bold brush-stroke to go with it.  That simply wasn’t me.  For whatever reason, I simply couldn’t let the paint drip.  I had a need to tightly control my expressions whether this was a good or a bad thing.  It’s only now that I realize that I am no less expressive because of my particular orientation.  I’ve made it work for me, and now that I’ve formed my own style, I can let it loose when I need to… and sometimes I REALLY need to drip paint!

I entered a completely different universe when I started graduate school. I wasn’t quite ready for the level of art theory and intellectualism that spewed the halls of Cranbrook.  I simply couldn’t get what I was doing to fit neatly into any of the current post-modern theories.  I hadn’t developed enough artspeak to defend my thoughts about what I was doing through my art. My ideas about “art, nature, and personal archetype” seemed nakedly naive, and I felt completely vulnerable when faced with critique dialogue.  I can’t say I produced my best work at that time, as I felt too vulnerable express myself fully.  It was only later that some of my chains fell off and I’ve started to really step into my own identity.

So what does all of this have to do with the tough economy? Well, it’s hard to feel courageous about creating art in an economy that few of us have faith will be able to support us. This is a bit of a confessional post, but sharing my feelings helps me to exorcise my fears when I’m in the midst of a non-creative slump.  I have stagnant months where it’s very difficult for me to create because I’m too preoccupied with doing the things that are more reliable for paying bills (especially in the winter, when the bills are higher, and my basement studio is a cold and unwelcoming place).  For me, it’s always better to express something than to silently allow these feelings to grow.

There’s a huge part of me that would love to throw away my computer and live in some third-world country where I can live cheap, preferably in a warm climate.  Wherever I go, I’ll meet a new set of challenges.  There is no escape from the need to support oneself.  Anywhere else is not a better place than where I am right now.  Wherever I am, I want to be of good use, to provide services that are needed.  Art is only one of my skills, no more elevated than teaching or producing web designs… though it is the one that provides me with more of a sense of inner ease (or to put it another way, if I don’t create art, I am not at ease).  I think this is true for most artists.  Whether we can find a way to make a living through it or not, we simply need to do it.  For most of us it’s enough to create and to surround ourselves with our creations.  For myself, I also need to let those creations go, preferably making part of my income from the endeavor.  There’s a huge part of my self-identity that is wrapped up in that equation of making my living through my art.  Perhaps this needs to be evaluated further, but there is satisfaction in knowing that it’s of enough value to someone else that they are willing to pay for it.

Here’s my prescription for any artist who wants to sell art during bad economic times:  Don’t equate how much you are able to sell your work for as any kind of qualifier for how good the work is.  In general, it might be best to paint more small artworks that you can feel okay about selling cheaply (if this works for you), or to sell only your reproductions if the originals are too precious for you to part with (if that works for you).  In general, it’s a good idea to let your creations go so that someone else can enjoy them, and give yourself some mental space to create more.  Most of all, enjoy what you are doing.  The myth of the “suffering artist” is certainly one to let go of.  Let yourself be a channel for the creative spirit that moves through you, and don’t concern yourself too much with what the current trends are.  First and foremost, be yourself.  Know that art is needed as much now as it ever was… whether people are buying it or not.  If you put your heart into your creations, it will always have a positive effect…. on you, as well as those around you.  It’s all part of the Love… Feel it, and reel it in!

One response so far

One Response to “On Being an Artist in a Bad Economy”

  1. Paula says:

    Oh boy, you had me in mind when you wrote this, didn’t you?

    While I bemoan my day job as a Human Resource Manager, I am smart enough to realize it is paying my bills and when I do sell art I am grateful and exuberant over that as well.

    Although I don’t go through much in the way of dry spells so I’ve got tons of stuff sitting around that I need to do something with. Truthfully I’d just be grateful to have the added space, money aside !!!

    This was a fine post.

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