How do artists make money?
A reader writes:
No-one ever talks about how artists actually make money, it’s just this big mysterious thing that we’re expected to know how to do. Do you have any thoughts about this?
I think art schools have a lot to answer for here. I see this all the time with new graduates, who are unprepared to enter the professional art world, through no fault of their own. They know their art, but don’t know how to turn it into a paying career, and when they do get a professional opportunity, such as to work with a gallery, they usually don’t understand how to do that.
Actually, it’s not just art schools, but universities in general, really, because when I was at uni, we professional writing students were also never taught how to pitch articles or books, or what an invoice was, or how to set ourselves up as freelancers. Why are we so scared to talk – or teach – about money?
I’ve covered some of the professional issues like how to approach a gallery or how to send an invoice before. Here I want to outline some of the main ways artists can make money. Which method/s an artist uses depends on the type and scale of work they produce.
You get paid when your artwork sells, such as through a gallery, online or at an art fair. What proportion of the sale price comes to you will depend on whether you are selling it yourself or using a third party, and if you’re using a third party, what terms you have negotiated with them. Galleries will take commissions of anywhere between 10-70%, while online third parties such as Blue Thumb take 30% commission.
Art commissions occur when someone pays you to create a specific artwork for them. This could be private, such as a portrait commissioned by an individual as a birthday present, or public, such as an installation in a park commissioned by a local council. Public commissions are often a result of a competitive application process.
This is where you get paid a flat rate in exchange for ‘loaning’ your work to be exhibited for the duration of the program. Public galleries and festivals are the most common outlets who offer exhibition fees, although not all do.
Whether you run a once-off workshop, give an artist talk or are employed as a teacher or lecturer, this is where you get paid to share your artistic expertise with others. Many artists use this method to supplement the income they receive from their art-making activities.
Grants and residencies
Organisations such as government bodies, philanthropic bodies and non profit groups offer a range of grants and residencies for artists to create new work. This could be paying you an artist wage while you create, or paying for materials, or providing a space in which you can work. These are highly competitive and usually require you to have a successful track record before you are awarded a grant or residency.