In Depth

8 "Rules" to Becoming a Successful Artist—And Why They're Near Impossible to Follow Without Inherited Wealth

8 "Rules" to Becoming a Successful Artist—And Why They're Near Impossible to Follow Without Inherited Wealth
Still from Whit Stillman's "Metropolitan," his indie classic about inherited wealth (1990)

Stories about “making it” in the art world usually start like this: “A physically attractive/intellectually gifted/visually experimental/shrewd thrift shopper with amazing taste, X-future-artist loved her middle-class suburban hometown, but always knew she was destined for bigger things. So, on her 18th birthday, she hopped a Greyhound bus to New York City with $100 in cash, where she immediately stumbled upon [Robert Mapplethorpe-type] and [Jean-Michel Basquiat-type] at the Strand Bookstore––two other young and talented and also physically attractive artists who would help propel her stratospheric rise to art-world fame…”

Something like this happened to Just Kids author Patti Smith, but it basically never happens to anyone else. It's more like Whit Stillman's movie Metropolitan (1990)––an indie hit about inherited wealth––with art world openings instead of debutante balls. 


Robert and PattiPatti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, image via Interview magazine


Instead, art world fame is often strongly correlated to generational wealth. People who “make it” are sometimes good artists, but they’ve also usually had extreme advantages: debt-free MFA degrees, being able to afford a studio in a hyper-inflated real estate market. As representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's push to install a 70% marginal tax on rich has brought to the fore, extreme wealth––or, as Howard Schultz calls it, being a "person of means"––is unfair, and shouldn't exist. 

Unfortunately, inheritance laws are making it even easier for families to pass down money to their kids. To avoid the inheritance tax, rich families are often advised to gift their children $28k/a year, i.e. the maximum amount a couple can annually gift to an individual tax-free; the average US annual income is $60k year. Moreover, as writer and librettist EJ Roller recently pointed out, "The latest tax bill just increased the amount that kids can inherit tax-free from their parents from $10.98 million (per couple) to $22.4 million. (Money above that is taxed at 40 percent.) That’s $22.4 million of unearned income for the children of the rich."

To unpack some of the myths around art world fame, here are seven mythic "rules" about being an artist, and the ways that having inherited wealth makes it easier to abide by them.

 BasquiatJean-Michel Basquiat, image via


Rule 1: You need to go to as many openings as possible, since it’s all about who you know.

Business partnerships, plans to collaborate, high-stakes commissions––the germs of these deals, and sometimes the deals themselves, are often made while waiting in the gallery's opening day wine line, or while doing whispery karaoke covers of ABBA's Dancing Queen at the after-after party. It's so hard to see the art at an opening––because no one is there to see the art, they're there to network. That's why it's important to go to as many openings as possible.

But if you’re working sixty hours a week, it’s hard to muster the energy, or even have time, to make it to an opening after work and stay out until three in the morning. Especially if you have to get up four hours later. Going out is also expensive. The plastic cups of white wine at an opening might be free, but going to dinner, hanging out at a bar, splitting an Uber pool home, and paying the door fee, are not. It’s all about who you know, but if you go out less, you’ll know fewer people––to your detriment. 

MetropolitanStill from Whit Stillman's Metropolitan (1990), image via AV Club


Rule 2: If your studio is in your apartment, then you’re a loser.

Renting a studio signals success. It says, "My art makes so much money that I can afford this luxurious empty extra room." Curators will not have to walk through your poorly lit, cramped shared apartment to get to your bedroom/studio. And you will not have to experience the discomfort of having a professional come into your private, domestic space. Instead, if you have a studio, they can step into a well-lit space where your evenly spaced artworks await. But in addition to clout, studios are just helpful, allowing artists to pursue bigger, messier works without fear of destroying their (and their roommates') apartment.

But studios are expensive. If you’re already putting almost half of your salary towards rent, as many people in New York City are, then shelling out an extra $500+ a month for a tiny studio space may just not be feasible. Unless they got super established early on or are living rent-free, young artists can usually only afford studios if someone else (their parents, perhaps) is paying for it.


Rule 3: If you’re passionate about art, then you’re thinking about it all the time.

Solitary geniuses drift through the art world––supposedly. They come in types: the messy art boy (they are almost always boys), so caught up in thought that it hasn't occurred to him to get a haircut (he doesn't eat, he just JUULs). He won't talk about Sweetgreen or the L train. It's an in-depth critique of Net Art/the Bauhaus/the new figuration trend, or... he doesn't care? He is thinking about art all the time, and this (or so the stereotype goes) is how we know that he is a Real Artist.

It is, of course, hard to think about art all the time if you have a job,  or are worried where your rent money is going to come from, or simply can't afford to think about art all day long because of you have more pressing, and oppressing, issues to attend to. 


Rule 4: You need to do a free internship.

Doing an unpaid internship is portrayed as a necessary step in the young artist's career. You aren't getting money or a job, but you are getting the basic skills required to seek actual paid employment in addition to meeting the people whose referrals and connections can help get you there. 

Unfortunately, the “work a free internship for two years, six days a week, before finally getting hired as a PR assistant at Gagosian” only really works if someone (or a trust fund) is paying your rent for those first two years. 


Rule 5: Expensive, labor-intensive works are the most important and artistic kinds.

Large-scale works with high production value––expensive materials, outsourced fabrication––are often seen as the most important kind of works. They're monumental, hard to make, a way to display visual expertise, and likely high-priced on the marketplace. People assume that your work has to be good (or, at least, valuable) if it was worth the fabrication cost. 

Unfortunately, it’s only possible to make these works if you have a studio and money to spare––inherited wealth can provide both, but otherwise, it’s extremely hard to have access to these resources unless you’re already rich and famous. This becomes a feedback loop: people with money make expensive work, which helps them make more money, while people without money make inexpensive work, helping them (with rare exceptions) to stay… broke.


Metropolitan 2Still from Whit Stillman's Metropolitan (1990), image via Vulture


Rule 6: “Real” artists know the value of their work, and so will be comfortable with setting a higher price point.

Markets fluctuate, but Real Artists know the value of their work, and will price it accordingly. If gallerists or possible clients try to haggle, the Real Artist won't back down, will even have the confidence to set a high price early on in their careers.

But if you’re not rich, then even if you know how good your work is, you might just need to price it lower out of necessity. Wealthy artists can afford to price a work higher: the piece will take longer to sell, but, thanks to a financial buffer, they will be able to make it through. Artists without such savings, in contrast, rely on quicker, smaller sales to pay their bills, and so might price their works below market value so that they can sell quickly and earn fast cash.


Rule 7: You have to have an MFA.

An artist's CV often begins by listing their education, and in the art world, where you went for undergrad and grad school is crucial. If you're good enough to get into Yale's MFA program, then dealers assume that you're a good artist––or that you'll become one, skilled and highly marketable by the time you graduate. For artists, MFA's are often seen to be necessary, not just for access to time, space, and materials, but as a way to network for two years. You never know which annoying beta bro classmate's rich parents might one day want to purchase one of your sculptural assemblages for their living room.

Unfortunately, getting into Yale’s MFA program often starts in kindergarten, which is when most private schools begin. While many working class black and brown students are being funneled into the preschool-to prison-pipeline, rich kids––who, more often not, are white––are being transferred through private and/or well-funded public schools, which of course better the odds of their getting into a good high school, college, and, eventually… an MFA program.

While plenty of people get their MFAs without an inheritance, their reliance on student loans—and obligation to pay student loan payments once they graduate—means that they'll need to work more and be able to save less while they pay their debt. As of 2014, the ten most prestigious studio art MFA programs average at $38,000 a year, which means $74,000––and more with interest––if you don’t get a scholarship (and few people do).

You don’t necessarily need an MFA, but the myth that you do need one benefits those who can afford tuition.


Rule 8: If you don’t make it by age 25, then you don’t have a chance.

Real Artists have made it by the time they’re 30; if they're really special, they'll just be turning 25. Being 25 means that you’ve had about two years to network after graduating, and that your works are finally beginning to garner buzz. Congrats––you’re an emerging artist now. Sometimes, if this artist has gone to an MFA program, then the age limit is pushed up a little higher (to 28, maybe 30 if you’re really something). Sometimes, it's much younger. After all, talent isn't based on "paying your dues"––it just has to be "discovered," which can even happen in an artist's teenage years. 

Unfortunately, unless you have a trust fund or a genius, it’s really hard to make it by 25! It's hard to produce a solid body of work when you only have nights and weekends to work on it. It takes years to figure out what you’re “doing,” and even longer to make it through the rounds: smaller group shows, a solo show at a smaller gallery, a solo show at a mid-level gallery. Even though that kind of slow, deliberate build is not more “normal” but aspirational, it’s looked down on: hard work and networking take time, but a young artist’s talent can be spotted early and shot to stardom in a second. Or maybe they were just born rich. 



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