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I remember it like it was yesterday, the artist had just concluded his first one-man show in a highly reputable gallery and the sales were admittedly good. He’d struggled for a number of years making a living as a part-time studio art instructor and this was just rewards for his energy, thought and effort in the latest series of works.

Shortly after the show closed he called me to say he’d quit his teaching job, when I asked why he replied that he was a professional artist now with a proven sales record and he didn’t need to slave over a bunch of thankless student.

Two years later he was broke, divorced, had lost his studio and his car. Seems quitting when he did was not a good idea.

How to define a sustainable income for an artist on their way up the professional ladder?

A sustainable income is defined as the income an artist requires to meet all of his/her basic needs including making art, to have an adequate standard of living for themselves and for their families, and to be able to save for the future.

In talking with three highly successful artists I asked each of them ‘what was the secret of sustaining their incomes before and after they made it in the art market.’

One artist has only recently been well received and capable of living from sales exclusively. The second artist is defined as mid-career, equally comfortable in both the academic sphere and in gallery representation. The third artist is a well-established gallery artist who occasionally takes an artist-in-residence position to, in his words, ‘travel at someone else’s expense’.

East Coast, West Coast, and the South Coast

Each of them repeated what the other two had said without knowing I was asking other artists the same question. The two major differences between them were that all three artists placed their emphasis on different points, and that all three derive their incomes from different markets. One is exclusively represented in New York City, another is represented in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and the third is represented in Phoenix, Austin and Miami.

Sustainable Income Strategy

Marketing means selling your works and must include advertising and promotion. The starving artist who sacrifices all for the sake of his/her work is not being honest with himself or herself if they don’t have the desire and drive for the work to be seen, and sold.

Quality, when viewed does the artwork demonstrate excellent craftsmanship and/or the distinctive quality necessary to project or translate into worth and value.

Pricing means the cost of something produced or created, or a measure of value against the cost of production and the invested time in production. Price is how much something costs determined by all of the actual and implied expenses incurred.

Supply is another catchall where you need to have adequate stocks on hand if and when the market comes calling. It is the requisite ‘body of work’ that you always hear about as a young artist but don’t quite understand the logic behind it.

Distribution is both clever and deceitful as it is one of the hidden areas of the fine art market. Distribution is getting the work to the right person at the right time where it will be seen, locally, regionally and nationally.

Competition is recognizing what other artists are doing correctly and learning from their successful behavior.
Group shows usually precede a solo show for most artists, and therein is one of the best examples of competition. First you compete to get into the show and then you must compete for recognition within the show.

Business regulation & licensing are two areas that most artists don’t know, don’t care, and try to ignore for the most part. Locally, artists are required to pay for a city business license even if they don’t sell. Suddenly they start selling and they are caught in the trap of not informing the local tax collector, and then denying the State sales tax requirement as well.

Product Development, or creative indulgence, is the need and ability to alter, expand, modify, adapt, mutate, transform, revise, rework, and/or vary what you produce to experience and show the transitional growth of an artist and their work.

Artists with sustainable incomes are able to improve their standard of living over time, actively participate in their communities, build strong support systems within their art community, and contribute to their local economy.

About the Author

Lawrence Klepper

Lawrence Klepper

As an artist, Gallery Management Instructor, Gallery Director, Independent Curator, and Special Exhibitions Coordinator for City art museums, college art galleries, and commercial galleries in Califor...