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15 Little Life Hacks

Why are artists so terrible with money?

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When I was a little kid, my mom sent me to lots of extra-curricular activites (as any Indian/Asian mom does).

One of these was art school. After an art session one day, I brought home my drawing of a tree. It was so bad that my normally supportive mom actually said, “Umm…if you’re going to draw a tree, why don’t you make it look like a tree?”

This explains a lot about why I hate artists (and most non-profits).

Not just because I hate art, but because artists are terrible at marketing themselves and constantly adopt worthless beliefs like:

  • “Charging for my art is selling out”
  • “Good art markets itself”
  • “My goal is to get in a gallery”

I wrote about this in detail when I wrote Attention Whiners: Why you STILL aren’t saving money and highlighted that it’s not tactics, but mindset that often separates people who do from people who whine.

So when iwillteachyoutoberich reader Cory Huff read my guidelines for writing a guest post and pitched me on the Myth of the Starving Artist, I jumped at the chance to run it. Yes, he might accidentally teach a lesson to these godforsaken artists, but mostly it’s just a chance to mock these terribly self-destructive beliefs.

Cory, take it away.

* * *

Cory Huff: The Myth of the Starving Artist

Last week I heard a story about an artist who makes handmade buttons at parties. For $3 he will come to your party, do a custom painting on a 1 inch by 1 inch canvas, and then turn it into a button for you.

For $3.

I couldn’t believe it. Neither could everyone around me who heard the story. It seems like everyone there knew that this artist should be charging more. Too bad that artist didn’t.

Compare that to my friend, we’ll call him John. John makes sculptures. They range in size from very small to very large. He has a thriving business where corporations call him and ask him to build something for them, and they pay whatever he asks. $30,000 – $50,000 was his last asking price that I heard.

What’s the difference? It’s a matter of beliefs.

The Starving Artist Myth

Many artists have bought into a romanticized notion that art is somehow more legitimate if it is created by poor people. This notion was popularized in the mid-19th century by the writer Henri Murger, who wrote Scènes de la vie de bohème a famous French novel about a group of poor artists living in the Bohemian quarter of Paris. The book was wildly popular and it became trendy to be a poor artist.

Over the last 150 years, Murger’s ideas became entrenched in popular culture, and artists hold to the notion that art is a product of the financially unsound and morally superior.

The Starving Artist Myth forces artists down a path that isn’t helpful.

Recently, a friend of mine mentioned on Facebook that she was trying to raise some extra money because she wanted to move to NYC to pursue her dream. I was really excited for her because she’s a tremendously talented artist. I messaged her and offered to help her come up with some good ways to do that (I do a lot of work with artists, especially in teaching them how to sell art online). A week went by without hearing from her, then two. I messaged her again, hoping to use her as a source for this article, but a week later all I had heard from her is that she’s too busy working at her survival job.

Many artists believe that the poverty and suffering that comes from this kind of busyness is conducive to better art – but I disagree. Being in touch with emotion and having strong technique make better art. Poverty and suffering are distractions that pull us away from being able to do the things that we really love doing.

Artists are not the only people to fall into this trap.

It is my opinion, and some will want to lynch me for this, that artists and entrepreneurs come from very similar backgrounds. They have a passion for something that can make a difference in people’s lives. They want to do that passion all the time – some of them just don’t know how to support themselves while doing it.

How to Dispel the Starving Artist Myth

Remember: Normal = Poor. Crazy = Rich. People expect a lot of crazy, creative things from artists and entrepreneurs, and they’re willing to pay for it. Whatever you do, do it with gusto. Look at Ramit. He teaches people how to be rich, and he does it with flair and excitement, and a lot of passion. He makes people some people angry – but he’s making a ton of money doing it. People love him for the passion that he has. If people love someone like Ramit, they’ll love artists even more (sorry, Ramit – as much as you make fun of us, people love artists).

Do something people love, and eventually it will catch on. When I first saw Etsy.com, I thought it was garbage. All I saw was a bunch of home made doilies that weren’t even all that well done. But you know what, people LOVED Etsy. Artists who turned up their nose at the site now sell original works for over $3,000. Etsy has developed a reputation for having high quality, original merchandise that appeals to buyers of all kinds.

Take advantage of the Warhol Economy. Andy Warhol created a movement that revived New York City. City planners took advantage of the burgeoning art scene to create incentives that attracted more businesses to the parts of New York that were dying. There are cities all over the country that are desperately trying to attract artist communities to their cities. You can read more about it in Elizabeth Currid’s PhD dissertation turned book, The Warhol Economy (which, by the way, is a great example of how to turn your god-given talents in to money).

Give yourself permission to make money. This is one that I struggled with early as an artist, and again as a budding entrepreneur. I didn’t believe that it was possible to make the kind of money that I make now. I would sabotage myself by passing on opportunities because I didn’t think they’d really pan out. When something great would happen to me, I would tell myself it was luck and that it probably wouldn’t happen again. Once I flipped that switch, it changed everything for me.

How did I flip that switch? I’ll simply say that it took two things: changing the connection between my self-worth and money; and learning what I needed to do in order to make money.

Protect your vision. When you aim to change your life many people around you will attempt to take you down. Most of the time it won’t be intentional. Your friends and family, as well as coworkers and other acquaintances, will question your decisions, even your motivation. This can be demoralizing and cripple your efforts before you ever get started. Find people who encourage instead of question and support instead of doubt (or, even better, you can call out whiny complainers before they gain any momentum).

“But I don’t know how!” It’s almost impossible to make it as an entrepreneur without some help. Whether you pay someone or find an amazing mentor who will help you for free, you need someone more experienced than you to help out.

Who knows what the future holds for that $3 painter or my actress friend who wants to move to New York City? It could well be that they find their niche and end up fabulously successful – but first they’ll have to make the decision to be ready for more. They’ll have to stop believing in the Myth of the Starving Artist.

* * *

Cory Huff is an actor turned entrepreneur who does freelance social media consulting, and teaches artists how to sell art online at TheAbundantArtist.com.

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104 Comments

 
  1. Obviously it’s just as true that those that are great at money are terrible at art.

  2. Hey cool post.

    FYI, the first link to your site is broken: it brings us to ‘the abundant ant artist’. Weird!

    I really enjoyed the “normal=poor; crazy=rich” section.

  3. Hey there. I’m an illustrator at an animation studio, and I freelance illustration and children’s books on the side. I don’t know if I’m a great example of the artist-entrepreneur, but I’m making a comfortable living and paying down my debt pretty quickly. I have a few experiences and thoughts I’d like to mention, since this topic only comes up rarely.

    There is a romantic, bohemian notion of the artist just doing art for art’s sake, but too often the extreme end of the spectrum ruins it for the rest of us. Typically these are “fine artists” and the starving act is more about the image than about their skill. If I’m a journalist, they are a poet, if you want an analogy. I’m not starving, and neither are most of my artist and designer friends. The trouble is, we have to answer questions about if we “really make money doing this” pretty much forever.

    The art industry as a whole faces a lack respect that makes it hard to charge fair prices. Unless the skill is extremely on the technical end (Computer animation, Visual Effects, compositing) people don’t understand why we should earn what our work is worth. A logo shouldn’t cost $50. A children’s book shouldn’t be illustrated for $500. Americans love art and hate artists.

    What is more tragic, is that kids with a genuine passion and talent for a creative field are often discouraged by close-minded parents or family members, and many people go into careers they don’t care about to please someone else. Lots of students at my art school were older people switching careers after years of struggling to be happy in a field they never wanted to be a part of. So, hey, if your kid likes the arts, take a step back and realize they’re willing to work really hard to do what they love. That’s more drive than most people have.

    Art and design is hard work, and very good-paying work if you are determined and skilled. The notion of “selling out” isn’t opposition to selling work for money; it is opposition to success through doing something like what Thomas Kinkade does. He is probably the highest earning artist alive right now, by all financial standards he is “successful,” but to the artistic community and (depending on your taste) all of society, he hasn’t really contributed much.

    One more thought, pretty much everything you own for aesthetic reasons- your car, computer, clothes, the packages you buy, the magazines, the video games, movies, book covers, etc, were all designed by humans. These companies all had art departments. Art is nothing you need to live, but you sure do need it to feel alive.

    • Hi Erin,

      Thanks for your comment! I am a starting illustrator, I graduated one year ago and I’m 25 years old now. I don’t want to waste time and become a well payed artist on a young age. Do you have any tips about where to start?

      Thank you!!

      Best regards,
      Sophie Oudman

    • Great comment. Art and Design are hard work and like @pye mentions a few comments below, if the artist does not value their work first then there is no way to sell that work for what it’s worth.

      There is a supply and demand factor but if you position yourself as a complete solution you can charge what the work is really worth. That comes down to how professional you are as an artist.

      Cheers,
      Carlos
      instagram.com/carlossketches

    • Sophie,

      I hope you’ve found a path. Here is what I would advice you.

      It takes showing up to work and being unknown for about 2 years before you might gain some traction, but that does not mean you should be starving during this time. Seanwes has a great video on this topic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6wghih3H27E

      Cheers,
      Carlos
      instagram.com/carlossketches

  4. I agree with Erin 100%. I’m an artist in video games and see the same attitudes when it comes to art that isn’t technically challenging. It’s hard to charge a decent amount of money for art if you aren’t a “big name” even if your work is good. Few people will buy it.

    I’d also like to add that I don’t think the bohemian thing is why artists are often poor. Forget bohemian. Artists as a whole have low to no self esteem when it comes to their work.

    • So true about the low self esteem. I fight against my self doubt on a daily basis. I think we need to take comfort in the great successful artists that have gone before us, then study and follow in their footsteps.

      It takes showing up to work and being unknown for about 2 years before you might gain some traction, but that does not mean you should be starving during this time. Seanwes has a great video on this topic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6wghih3H27E

      Cheers,
      Carlos
      instagram.com/carlossketches

  5. I know what you’re talking about Erin. Too many times people want to get your services for a really cheap price or for free. I used to work as an actor and now I produce videos and I find it hard to price shooting/editing videos for clients.

    I agree with the article though. I have stuff that I do on my own – and that I do for my own pleasure for free or otherwise. But business is business and I have no qualms charging for that! 🙂

    • Hani,

      So true. People will always want to find the cheapest price (including free). It’s up to us to communicate our value. To help the potential customer see that what they are paying for is professional work.

      Cheers,
      Carlos
      instagram.com/carlossketches

  6. Growing up, I saw how my father pitch his graphic design skills to businesses. His service was basically turn-key. He positioned himself as the talented artist that gave you stress free service.

    My friend is doing that with web design – instead of being the cheapest , he is the complete solution. He charges a premium to businesses looking for that solution. he focuses on what he enjoys and does well with and outsources the rest (I write some of his content). It’s a great way to position yourself.

  7. Great post, and I really appreciate artists getting addressed on a website about wealth. Even though you were willing to write us off, Ramit, I’m glad Cory wasn’t! The psychological block is definitely the toughest one to get over – and the most worthwhile.

  8. Hi everyone! Great comments so far.

    @Mike – thanks for the heads up on the link. Working on it now.

    @Erin – at first I thought you were my high school drama teacher. You have the same name. Your illustrations are beautiful! I’ve never had someone explain to me clearly why Thomas Kinkade’s work is so villified. Why does it lack artistic merit? Because he copies it a lot?

    @Katy – I wasn’t saying that Bohemia was the cause of artists being poor, only the thing that made it popular and chic.

    @Hani – pricing, selling to clients – that’s exactly what I help artists with. Building up a reputation and making yourself different from the competition. That’s how I roll!

    @Elle – yay for positioning! Like I just wrote, how your present yourself is the whole basis for your business.

    @Alison (and others) – where do you think this psychological block comes from? Why is it such a cliche among artists?

  9. I find this article to be very truthful. I am a wedding photographer based out of Orange County and have a lot of experience in marketing art and photography. Simply speaking, often times the only thing holding back an artist from making more money is themselves.

    I have talked to fellow photographers who tell me, “I just don’t feel like my work is good enough to charge $5,000 or $10,000.” The only thing I can think of whenever I hear that statement is, “You are right, if your perception of your own work is that it isn’t worth the money, then it isn’t.”

    How can you possibly sell someone a $10,000 photography package when you don’t believe yourself that it is worth that much?

    Instead, we focus on delivering a product and experience that others are not, and if you are offering something truly unique, then it is worth whatever you say it’s worth.

    As artists, we will always hear this line, “Well, I really love your work, but I just can’t afford it given my budget.” You need to hold your ground, and help educate people, that if they want a truly unique high quality piece of art, that they need to be willing to pay for it. Stop shooting yourselves in the foot.

    Great job Cory, I hope to see many more articles from you on this site.

  10. Erin your comment was more valuable than the article.

    The writer of this article might have knowledge about a certain ‘sector’ of art but it does not apply to the broad range of art. In the Contemporary Art world you have to deal with a huge Art industry that is a whole different ball game. Galleries take 50% of your sales(which you will get in no other business!). You have to pay an Art Representative between 10-20% of you sales. Art supply stores have a mark-up of 400%. Some of us also exit art schools with student debt. Self promotion also comes with a price tag. So as a Fine Artist you are starting your career at a crippling disadvantage with a next to none profit margin. That is the big elephant in the room that does not get acknowledge in solving the financial problems of Fine Artists and not because “we did not give ourself permission” to make money.

    With what I agree and disagree with this article:
    *)The so called “myth of the starving artist” is what people want to think artists think about themselves, it is offensive. If they are starving it is because they do not know how to fight and/or ride the existing system and they do not get the right advice. Every time I do meet an “artist” that buys into the “starving artist” nonsense is because they are ‘wannabes’ or they are looking for a way out.
    *)I do agree with the writer that the future of the art-world will be online. Just as the music and movie industry have been shaken up the art industry will be as well.
    *)I agree passion is good to have as an artist, but ‘Crazy=rich’ is another cliche, every one expect artists to be weirdos, it is called Crazy=fake. The serious artist today is about being yourself and being very professional and articulate. I have learn that passion does not sell art, but value does. (I read this blog for value provided not the passion)
    *)Just because people love your art does not mean they are going to buy it. Once again it is love in combination with value. Defining your market as a Fine Artist takes pinpoint precision because value is subjective, and this can sometimes take many years to master which can mean losing money until you figured it out.
    *)Yes, I need someone with more experience than me to help. I would love to read an article written by an acclaimed artist with an extensive resume that can give me numbers and how to create loopholes in the current industry not this outdated “19th-century-artists-want-to-be-starving” cliche. The entrepreneurial artist today that makes or want to make money is the ones that cheat the system and think outside the box, now if I can only find an article about that.

*