By Jason Foumberg
Like a good cell-phone plan, most artists have only nights and weekends free to actually make their art. This is a problem for aspiring professional artists. Must our time always be divided by periods of art and artlessness? Must the day job, our sustenance, get in the way of that which really sustains us? Must we recession-proof our lives by shelving the art dream? A recent panel discussion, organized by the Chicago Artists Resource and part of the Artists at Work lectures series, convened on the subject of making a living as an artist.
One panelist, designer Chad Kouri, related a conversation with full-time printmaker Amos Paul Kennedy. Apprehensive about shifting the art career into high gear, Kouri asked the seasoned Kennedy if he made many sacrifices—medical and dental, prescribed vacation days. The only sacrifice Kennedy made, he said, was when he sacrificed time to his day job.
When I imagine a full-time, independently working artist, my mind leaps to the celebrity artist, jetting to the next museum retrospective while ten assistants make the actual art back at the studio. This may be a harmful reverie if ingested too often. It banks on the art-school fiction that serious art ignores commercial interests. Anyway, there are so many different types of successful and viable art practices, attested by the panel discussion participants.
The focus of the panel was non-traditional ways of earning one’s income as an artist, so obtaining handsome gallery representation in Chelsea was not given as a desirable strategy. The four discussants—Lynn Basa, Nikko Moy, Lee Tracy and Kouri—each listed their income stream. Some made sales from online galleries and stores, while others received regular commissions. Basa, a multi-faceted artist with an active public-art career, said she works closely with art consultants to place and sell her work. These works end up mostly in hotels, she said. Don’t scoff—hotel art isn’t all clowns and flowers. Upscale hotels hang contemporary art, and they re-think their interiors every five years or so, keeping artists connected to this circuit well worked. Basa says she has to place a cap on the number of these commissions, otherwise she would spread herself too thin and the work’s quality would sink. Hotels and corporate lobbies may not promise cultural prestige, but Basa is making art she wants to make, and selling it.
Lee Tracy’s practice is equally realistic. She’s adapted her methods to changing technology and trends, but without sacrificing her artistic integrity. When arty t-shirts took off in the marketplace, Tracy bought a t-shirt press to produce her own designs. She often uses green or sustainable materials, and those products have been selling more and more lately. At heart, Tracy is a studio artist, producing paintings, drawings and installations that may not be entirely accessible to the same audience as her t-shirt designs. She says she’s very happy making “high and low” work, and that she has various price points because everyone is welcome to own art. Although the economy has scared her at times, Tracy says in twenty years as a working artist she’s never been poor. She has a glow about her, like someone who has seen enlightenment but turned away because she has a successful art career.
Running solo, a professional artist has to get creative not only in the studio but also in marketing. Self-promotion and networking are a must. Lee Tracy blogs and Twitters like a banshee, alerting fans and patrons to finished paintings and new arrivals in her three etsy shops. Twitter is also Tracy’s preferred way of meeting other artists and discussing issues that matter to them, forgoing gallery opening schmoozing. Nikko Moy outlined several methods for artists to gain recognition, and thus sales. Moy, owner of an online art gallery, said that etsy is a great Web site for buying art, and people are shopping there more and more. But it’s easy for an artist to get lost on the huge etsy site. Moy recommends that artists use blogs and artist-specific social networking sites to draw visitors back to their etsy store. Getting one’s art featured on a blog such as the popular Design Sponge could increase visibility substantially.
Moy’s system indicates a shift on many levels of art’s dissemination. Her advice, to increase visibility on aggregate blogs that showcase artists and designers in order to lead traffic back to the online shop, circumvents the usual channels. The jobs of curator, critic and press agent have been rolled into the solo blogger. The mystery of finding and seducing a collector greatly diminishes. Like a brick and mortar gallery, though, Moy’s online gallery represents only twenty artists. Amid the infinite throng of etsy, some consumers appreciate clarity and a trusted taste.
Chad Kouri, with a handful of other artists and designers, hold events at their collective studio, called The Post Family. Building a creative community offline can be a productive networking tool. Kouri’s recent doodling event drew audiences to the space and introduced them to the resident artists’ work. He advocates having a specific marketing goal, not just mass exposure in the Internet void. Kouri noted that Chicago is a share-friendly city where artists are willing to lend time and resources—social networking in the old fashioned sense.
Most of the panelists admitted to working more than forty-hour weeks making and promoting their art. But “being an artist is a lifestyle,” said Kouri.
“Non-Traditional Ways of Making a Living as an Artist” will be broadcast on CAN-TV in the near future.