Starving Artists? No Thanks

Thomas Hart Benton, Hades, oil

Here's a painting where the American 20th century artist Benton explores the old Persephone myth. It's one of those stories people invented to try to make sense of the whole notion of creativity. How can anybody make something seemingly out of nothing- whether you're talking about creating a child, a painting, a piece of amazing music. And when the creative flow stops, how come? We've been trying to figure this puzzle out for centuries. Centuries from now, humans will still be scratching their head.

"Starving Artists."

How did we get so used to that awful phrase? Anthropologists tell us that every human society ever discovered has left us at least some evidence of its own developed and sustained visual art tradition. When you think about the more immediate challenges to their survival those peoples had to face (running away from lions for one) this is nothing less than amazing. Like it or not, visual art is right at the core of who we are. We who presume to be the visual artists of our time aren't going away any time soon. Trouble is we have to eat and pay the rent. Art schools and college art departments have an obligation to at least try to get young artists thinking about their survival.

Here are a few thoughts:

1. There are far easier paths, so if you are convinced you need to be an artist, get into your studio and lock the door. Don't come out until you have a tall pile of work that is truly excellent. The pile has to be taller than you are.

2. Now that you have miles of used up canvas (or whatever) behind you, you've grown enormously as an artist and finally have something to be genuinely proud of. Trouble is, now you owe it to the work to find an audience for it.

3. Remember that out there somewhere is someone who will pay real money for what you've created. You just have to find them.

4. The audience for your work has to be created, primarily by you.

5. Start small and build your audience one person at a time.

6. Nobody ever fell in love with a piece of art they haven't seen. Most people are shy by nature and are reluctant to visit the studio of an artist they don''t know well. Therefore you have to get the work out of your studio somehow.

7. Exhibit your work. Start locally. Check out bars, restaurants, libraries, craft shows and where ever else you see other artists exhibiting. Gradually you'll find some locations that are better than others. Good lighting and nice clean walls go a long way to helping people discover what's good in your work.

8. Gradually work your way up the pecking order of exhibition spaces. The nicer the venue, the better you work will appear. Some of the most god-awful art gets shown in some huge, immaculate museum gallery spaces and as a result ends up looking not half bad. Of course sometimes excellent art gets shown too, and the setting makes it looks even better. Your job is gradually recruit better spaces to exhibit. One rung on the ladder leads to the next. If you're the heir to some hedge fund manager's fortune the ladder you will have to climb will be a little shorter. But all of us have to climb.

9. Invite people to come see your work- having a show somewhere gives you an excuse to contact them in a non-intrusive way.

10. Send people announcements of your shows that show crisp, colorful images of your work.
(Sadly, the public generally just doesn't get black and white no matter how well you may do it).
Email is good. Printed cards are also good, and have the extra advantage that people leave them around the house. I can't tell you how many times people have told me they have several cards of my work on their refrigerator door.

11. People want to be reassured that you are the real deal as an artist. Persist at your work and persist at letting people know about your work. Most artists get discouraged after a few years and drift off to other things. If you are still at it, that impresses people. So let them know.

12. Everyone likes to be remembered. Find ways to stay in contact with people who have expressed interest in your work or who are already collectors. One of the great fears everyone has is that they'll be forgotten.

13. You are an artist because of your enthusiasm for developing your vision in a certain medium. Somehow you have to be able to share that enthusiasm when you talk about your work without coming off like a cheap huckster. It can be done but it is an awkward balance. Too many artists apologize for their work's shortcomings to the public. Heck, of course your work is going to be better in the future. But to ask a potential collector to understand that and still collect what you have available today is asking too much of them. Don't be arrogant, but present your work like you are presenting something important. You are.

14. Art dealers are people who have build a network of collectors who have an interest in some styles of art. The dealers who are good work their tails off to do this. To work with a dealer is to have them introduce your work to a (hopefully) large group of people you probably can't meet any other way. That is worth a great deal to an artist.

15. Art dealers have it tough too, it isn't just artists. One of the easiest things for an artist to do is to use a bad experience with a dealer as an excuse to move to the sidelines of the art world. There are far more artists on the sidelines than are willing to take hits out on the field. This is not a game for pansies (which is odd, as we artists unfortunately really are sensitive people- that's the whole point of being an artist. A good artist by nature has a thin skin. So the bruises you receive will hurt).

16. Art dealers are people you will have a professional relationship with. It isn't primarily about friendship, even though you will come to be friends with some of your dealers. Even when you don't though, the relationship can be very helpful to you. Not all dealers are going to work out for you, nor you for them. Just move on with dignity if a relationship with a particular gallery doesn't work out. Most galleries only stay open for business for a few years anyway. We artists can expect to long outlast most galleries.

17. Remember that making art is a deeply personal and frequently mysterious affair, even to the artist, or maybe especially to the artist. It has its own rules that don't translate into the world of showing art and selling art. Even if you are doing everything right, there will be a chasm separating your creative studio life from your "art career." The latter is what you have to mess with to have the former. Every artist you admire who has gone before you faced these tough challenges too.

18. Number eighteen is the secret, guaranteed career building move that was revealed to me and me alone by the Muse during the full moon high on a mountain top in the Andes. I would share it with you but she made me promise not to. You know how temperamental she can be, so I have to remain silent. Maybe you can figure it out for yourselves.


  1. Great list and food for thought - thanks for putting it together. I would also suggest getting one of the several recent books on promoting yourself as a painter.Caroll Michels book, How to survive and prosper as an artist was pretty good as I recall. Many others with good info as well.

  2. this is excellent. I think #18 is the work. That at the end of the day, regardless of all the other BS, the focus on the work has to remain - making it better, being prolific, building it into your everyday. If that is happening, the rest will follow and be a little easier.

  3. Jeff, your guess about #18 is close...( Hope the Muse isn't reading this).

  4. I think #18 is the same as the Secret Ingredient from Kung Fu Panda.

  5. Nice post. Question what would you say to the artist who does not have a distinct style. I am a devoted artist but I enjoy working in many different ways. Do you think this is a negative characteristic.
    What do you think?

  6. LaToya,

    No simple answers here...

    First off every artist has to work in a way that's right for their own unique personality. While most veteran artists evolve towards a singe style this isn't an iron clad rule for everyone. Most artists in the earlier stages of their studies/career explore several different modes of art making. That's a good thing. Later on most tend to gravitate towards fewer working in different directions.

    What is critical is that an artist be incridibly selective in choosing among the many potential ideas that intrigue her or him. One simply can't pursue every good idea on has and still give the time it needs to blossom.

    Another danger in having several styles in one's portfolio of work is that some people might view this as a lack of commitment or as dabbling. There are far too many examples of such arists out there. But, that is not always the case. One of my all time favorite artists, Rockwell Kent, maintained a brilliant career as an illustrator alongside his painting and printmaking career. Many of his illustrations are in my opinion "high" art.


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