Why are artists so terrible with money?
February 23rd, 2010 - 79 Comments
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.
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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