Artists may love what they do, but they also have to survive. And whether they have a day job or do art full-time, staying afloat––let alone making a profit––is hard to pull off. Luckily, The Creative Independent's interview series asks artists to get into the nitty-gritty of their finances and workflows, offering sage advice for those of us still trying to figure it all out. We've gathered tips from some of your favorite artists––and added in some helpful recs from a lawyer, a financial planner, and a design team. Start the new year organized, savvy, and well-informed.
Artspace is collaborating with The Creative Independent, a resource for artists with a deep archive of interviews, wisdom, and how-to guides, to bring you key learnings from visual artists about the creative process. These quotes are excerpted from articles originally published on The Creative Independent.
WHEN FINDING OR MAINTAINING A DAY JOB:
Tip #1: Find a Day Job That Makes Sense for You
“As you contemplate what type of day job might make sense for you, consider the feelings you’ll want to have after completing a shift, or after heading out from the office. Probably 'drained, grumpy, and sick of everyone' are not feelings that are on your list. So think about it: What type of work or situations might you seek out that wouldn’t leave you in a bad mood after working? By spending some time brainstorming about the job that could be a nice complement to your personality and side projects, you’ll put yourself in a better position to find the right type of gig. Before returning to teaching, I held an office job in NYC that left me deeply unfulfilled. My frustration and uncertainty about what to do about it translated to me generally being a grump around others. This disgruntled attitude also affected my relationship with friends, partners, and family. When it came time to write a song, article, or even do trivial tasks, I approached them with the same aversion I had to my job.” - Jeffrey Silverstein, musician, writer, and teacher
Tip #2: Don't Be Afraid of Using Your Art Skills for Commercial Projects
“I’m aware of the game. In that sense, I’m trying to work in every form, which means I’m doing things in the art world, I’m doing commercial work, I’m working with artists and musicians, I’m consulting for people.” - Delphine Diallo, photographer and visual artist based in Brooklyn
Tip #3: Negotiate Creative Decisions with Clients
“Sometimes I can easily get to the point where I’m able to convince a client that I know best, even though that’s a hard thing to do sometimes, especially considering my age. Just being like, 'I promise you that if you make this decision, or if you let me do this thing, you’re going to be happy,' and always providing two options. First doing what they want, and then taking five minutes on the shoot to do what I want, and then presenting my little, 'I think this is going to be more successful,' alongside what they originally wanted. I kind of have to prove to them that I know best, but still make it feel like it was part of their decision. It’s very manipulative, but it works.” - Kelia Anne McCluskey, photographer and director based in Los Angeles
BUDGETING AND TRACKING FINANCES:
Tip #4: Make a 50/30/20 Budget
"A 50/30/20 budget is based on three simple categories:
- Obligations: how much you have to spend (50% of your income)
- Discretionary: any time you pay for a thing out in the world (30% of your income)
- Savings: the money that you don’t spend each month, which is building up your financial security (20% of your income)
To get started setting a monthly budget, add up all the costs of your recurring monthly expenses. This includes costs like rent, utilities, phone bill, metro, insurance, internet, vet, prescriptions, etc. These are your Obligations, i.e. the things you have to spend money on. Ideally this amount is no more than 50% of your income. Notice I said 'ideally.' It’s not uncommon for me to see people who have 100% (or more) of their income going to obligations. While realizing this sucks, it’s better to know than not to know, and if nothing else, knowing this will relieve some of the guilt you feel every month when your bank account is empty. But: if you are over 50%, it’s time to start looking for ways to increase your income, and bring down your expenses.
After taking care of your obligations, 20% of your monthly income should be going towards savings, i.e. your own financial security. The first priority with saving money is building up an emergency fund. No matter how small the amount, having some money in the bank that is yours is a success, and will give you some flexibility should you need it down the road.
The second priority as you work to save money is to pay off any high-interest debt that might be holding you back (debts with interest rates over 5% would count as 'high-interest'). Most people don’t know what the interest rate on their debt is, and meanwhile, those negative interest rates are digging them into a deep financial hole. So, by paying them off quickly you’ll be doing yourself a big favor.
Let’s do an example of a 50/30/20 budget: Jeanette works a couple jobs and makes about $2,000 a month. Her rent is $700, her utilities are $100, her insurance is $140, and her phone bill is $60.
So Jeanette’s budget is as follows:
- Obligations = $1,000 ($700+$100+$140+$60=$1000)
- Savings = $400 (20% of $2000)
- Discretionary: $600 (30% of $2000)."
- Lewis Weil, financial planner
WHEN YOUR ART IS ALSO YOUR BUSINESS
Tip #5: How to Turn Your Art Practice Into a Business
“As you think about starting your own business, it’s important to be honest with yourself about what you love doing, what you don’t mind doing, and what you absolutely will not do. This will help you imagine a business that fits with the reality of who you are and what you’re good at. How can you create a business that gives you the most time to do what you love?” - Carissa Potter, visual artist, founder of People I've Loved
Tip #6: Know When to Delegate
“Over the past year, I hired two assistants who combined work about 20 hours a week for me, which has been amazing. I’ve been working on creating systems so that the business can run more organically without me having to be physically present 100 per cent of the time. There are certain tasks that are easy to hand off, and others that have been harder to give up control of. But I’m realizing for me to have more creative time doing what I want to, I need more help with things like emails and customer support. That stuff is so draining to me” - Sonia Rose McCall, ceramacist, founder of Rose Grown
Tip #7: Know When Not to Delegate
“That’s the other thing that you don’t necessarily learn about when you’re in art school—especially as your practice evolves—there’s just so much managing. I don’t have a studio manager. I can’t handle that. I need to have my hands in all of it. I need to have my fingers in every part of the process.” - Ebony G. Patterson, visual artist
Tip #8: You Don't Have to Sell Every Piece You Make
“For example, my "Material Speculation: ISIS" series... I have 12 objects, and I don’t sell those. I can’t bring myself to think that a person, a collector, will have this piece in their house, because it’s not about that. That body of work is probably my most well-known and circulated, but I don’t want to enter this space. So much of it is about more than just having these objects that are 3D printed. It’s about this history, it’s about recreating this thing. I’ve been showing those pieces everywhere, at so many exhibitions, but at the same time I’m just not interested in selling them. The only place that I want them to end up is a museum in the Middle East that would commission them and keep them. Other than that, I’m not interested. That’s the challenge. If I was going to sell them, it’s probably the piece that I could have made the most money from. But you’ve got to make those decisions, especially if I’m standing on a stage and talking about digital colonialism and colonized histories.” - Morehshin Allahyari, visual artist
Tip #9: You Don't Have to Take on Every Project
"Ask yourself: Do you want to do this project? Does the budget align with your economic realities? If not, are there ways you can get it to? If not, do you need this project?
Upon deep reflection, you will arrive at one of these conclusions:
(A) You decide not to do the project.
This is hard, but one of the most important things you’ll learn is when to say 'no.' You arrived here after thoughtful deliberation, so you can be confident in your no. Feel the no. The no is you giving yourself room to say yes to other things, and so on.
Explain why you won’t be taking the project—be it timeline, bandwidth, budget, or some other white lie to maintain the relationship, like, 'This is just not a great fit for us right now.' Hopefully they get it, and you can move on.
If you’re feeling generous and you didn’t turn down the project because it sounds like absolute hell, refer it to someone else.
(B) You decide you’ll do the project, but only if… [more money] [fewer deliverables] [you can extend their ambitious and impossible timeline].
These conversations tend to work best as calls, but depending on your bandwidth and comfort, sometimes you can prattle off an email that explains what you need to make this project happen.
If you’re able to find a comfortable middle ground, move on to the next section of this guide.
(C) You decide to do the project.
If the project met your target budget and timeline with an achievable scope of work, great!
In the chance that the project did not meet your target budget and timeline, yet you’re still feeling the urge to take on the work, have the internal dialogue necessary to let yourself sleep at night or justify it to your team." - HAWRAF, design and technology studio
Tip #10: Protect Yourself From Copyright Infringement
"To establish a case for copyright infringement, you must be able to show that (1) the infringer had access to your work (i.e. the infringer had a direct way of seeing your work in the wild), (2) the infringer actually copied your work (vs. coincidentally making something that resembles your work), and (3) that the copy is 'substantially similar' to yours. Since every infringement case is very fact-specific, you might want to discuss the issue with an attorney before you take any action on your own. An attorney will probably ask you to provide your copyright registration certificate (if you have one), proof that the infringer had access to your work, and an explanation of the creative elements that are similar between your work and the claimed infringement.
Remember, there might be elements of your work that are not protected by copyright, such as scènes à faire or facts, so a work that seems very similar to your own may not actually be infringing. Also, if there is no evidence that the other party ever saw or had access to your work, you may have a difficult case for copyright infringement. If they independently created a work that just happens to be similar to yours, they probably have just as strong a right to their work as you do to yours. An attorney may also ask you for documentation as to how this infringement has affected your own income." - Laura Levin-Dando, Staff Attorney at Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts