How do you make a living off your art? That, my friends, is the $50,000 question. There are the standard models we all know about, but they’re all deeply flawed in the same way: in order to be successful, you need to spend most of your time on non-creative endeavors.
Take the typical gallery model, for example. Unless you are sponsored by some incredibly well-connected patron, you need to go to graduate school, network like crazy, and then apply for shows, grants and residencies with the hope that you will secure one out of fifty. All of this while maintaining some sort of day job. Where is the time after all this to actually make art?
Then, of course, there’s the DIY/self-publishing model. You can put up your own web site, or sell your art on Etsy, thereby bypassing the need to work within the establishment and their 50% gallery commissions. But then you need to do your own publicity and promotion, not to mention shipping, web programming, bookkeeping, etc., still while likely maintaining a day job. This can also often entail churning out dozens of the same (more affordable) product over and over, making you a manufacturer, not an artist.
Lastly, there’s the merchandising model. Either through licensing images or having items manufactured, you get your designs into the hands of the public through mass-produced items. This involves many of the same things as the DIY model, only you’re focusing more on sourcing manufacturers or licensors than you are on manufacturing products yourself.
I’ve been using a combination of the DIY and merchandising models for the past few years and while it is satisfying in many ways, it leaves me very little time to do creative work. I spend most of my day on correspondance, order fulfillment, marketing and bookkeeping.
Then yesterday I read this article on CraftStylish by Jeffery Rudell and I had a revelation: here, finally, is the model for exactly how I want to run my career. Mr. Rudell crafts for a living, and the actual creative process is what takes up most of his time. Of course he networks and promotes himself — that’s unavoidable — but essentially he’s a freelance art-producer. Magazines, stores, TV shows and other media commission him to create specific art pieces for photo shoots, store windows and tutorials, within variously flexible parameters. This is very much like being a graphic designer (a route he came out of that I have also briefly pursued), but it involves working with your hands on three-dimensional objects much more often than sitting in front of a computer screen.
Okay great, so there’s a guy out there with a career I’m totally jealous of. What am I supposed to do about it? Follow all the steps Jeffery Rudell did! Luckily for me, he’s a storyteller, too, so he couldn’t resist laying out his trajectory step by step:
Step 1: Create a gorgeous and variable portfolio while working a day job for money. I just read about him yesterday and I’ve already drafted a long list of art-director-friendly projects to work on and I’ve applied for a part-time bookkeeping gig.
Step 2: Introduce your work to valuable contacts by sending them inexpensive, eye-popping “introductions.” Send similar “thank yous” to existing clients so they don’t forget how awesome you are.
Step 3: Say yes to everything you can do or learn to do within the specified deadline, even if it seems difficult. By embracing challenges you become a better artist and a more valuable asset.
Step 4: Value your work highly and price it accordingly, always remembering that people are paying you for your ideas in addition to your production hours.
Step 5: Remember that it is your job to communicate ideas, emotions and experiences, not just create a pretty product. Mr. Rudell calls his promotional introductions “(souvenirs) of the experience people have working with me.”
I don’t really know what to call Jeffery Rudell’s job (prop-maker? production artist?) but I am determined to make it happen for myself. More on my specific steps in later posts.