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Can You Become a Non-Starving Artist?

By Marty Nemko

Fill in the blank: Starving _________.

Most people don’t answer “Africans” or “children.” They answer “artist.”

Indeed, according to a Princeton Review profile of artist careers, 90% percent of people claiming to be professional artists earn less than $1,000 a year from their art—not even enough to pay for their meals of ramen and tuna fish.

So many artists starve for three reasons: 1. Supply and demand. Most people find it more fun to be an artist than, for example, marketer of widget waxing services. So, there are 10 zillion artists and far fewer customers willing to pay more than McMoney for their art.

2. Too many artists refuse to face reality. A woman at my “Smart Yet Stuck” workshop last night asked me, “How can I make a living with my pet portraits?” I asked if she had adequately exposed her work to her target market. “Oh yes,” she said. “I take my best work to pet shows. Thousands of pet lovers with money to spend have seen them.” I responded with tough love: “The market is telling you they don’t like your work enough to pay for it. You probably need to recognize that your painting is a hobby, not a career.” She was not happy. She said she’s going to keep trying. (Sigh.)

3. The artist temperament is antithetical to the marketing temperament. Most artists love doing their art but disdain marketing it. Alas, in a field in which supply exceeds demand, it’s the marketers that prevail. And artist’s representatives and agents are rarely the solution: Most well-connected agents accept mainly the already commercially successful artists. And even successful artists complain that they and not the agent ends up having to do most of the marketing. Solution: Even if you have an artistic temperament, marketing is a learnable skill. You may even grow to enjoy it. Start by reading a book on marketing your specific kind of art. For example,

Visual Artists: Taking the Leap: Building a Career as a Visual Artist by Cay Lang OR How to Survive and Prosper as an Artist, 5th ed. by Caroll Michels, followed by: The Artist's Marketing and Action Plan Workbook by Jonathan Talbot,

Photographers: 2006 Photographers Market by Donna Poehner

Musicians: Guerrilla Music Marketing Handbook by Bob Baker

Dancers: Dancing for a Living by Dan Mirault

Comedians: Comedy FAQs And Answers: How The Stand-up Biz Really Works by Dave Schwensen

Actors: Acting Is Everything: by Judy Kerr.

Armed with your book knowledge, force yourself to try the two or three approaches to marketing to your target customer that you’re most willing to try. Get a loving taskmaster to keep you on task until you’re rolling. Keep track of which marketing approach works best for you and do more of that and less of the others.

If your work is reasonably commercial, you’ll stand a decent chance of at least making enough money to pay back your student loans.

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