The Art of making Money
July 4, 2014 7:23 PM   Subscribe

A good friend of mine, a London-based ceramics artist, needs to find a way of making her career more financially lucrative. By many measures, she is already successful: she has attained high-profile residencies, is signed to a prestigious gallery, and is critically acclaimed. However, she’s barely making enough money to survive and is starting to question whether it is worth continuing to plough her time into a career that will leave her impoverished.

I know very little about the art world, but my feeling is that the answer, in a nutshell, lies in better marketing. There are plenty of people buying art in London, but how can my friend ensure that it’s her art they’re buying? Are we talking about better websites and a twitter feed, or is the art world immune to such blatant and clunking marketing strategies? Ideally her gallery should be flogging her stuff, but they seem rather laid back and from what I understand due to the very niche nature of the field another gallery isn’t really an option. What about other funding options – other than the Arts Council, where else can money be obtained for art? Which individuals and organisations could help my friend strengthen the financial side of her career? Who can she talk to about this? And what should my friend be doing on her own that will ensure that what she makes actually gets sold? Thanks in advance.
posted by anonymous to Media & Arts (20 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe this is not negotiable, but the "London-based" bit could be the main issue due to the cost of living. Her current income may not leave her impoverished elsewhere in England, thus letting her have both a comfortable enough life and room to follow her craft. Even living only an hour or two away from London by train could drop her outgoings hugely.
posted by Thing at 7:55 PM on July 4, 2014 [6 favorites]

I don't know anyone who's really solved this problem because there's always one major issue that comes from selling your artistic work: everything you do is recreational and expendable. The broker people are, the less likely they are to buy your stuff because nobody NEEDS ceramics in order to live. Ceramics aren't milk. I once went to a ceramics show where the artist's statement about his work pretty much said, "I took up ceramics, I loved making pots and bowls and plates, but nobody ever wanted to buy my pots and bowls and plates." (Or presumably the sculpture he had in the show, which I thought was excellent.) I quit selling my work when I couldn't sell anything that cost more than a buck or two any more so I'm biased, but making a living wage off of selling your work is just incredibly difficult even when the world isn't in a giant recession. Unless someone falls madly in love with a piece and must have it regardless of cost, usually cost is a factor these days. As well as usefulness and need. Either your friend somehow needs to appeal to the upper upper crust (which boy, do I not know any of and can't speak to that), or she needs to branch out beyond one gallery and do other, possibly less snooty things with her career.

I can't speak for London worth a damn, but the folks I know tend to flog their stuff at craft fairs/events and on Etsy, which is very international now. I don't know too many people who make any gallery sales. (I do think there's a certain urgency in having to decide if you want to buy something because it's only going to be there until six p.m. when the fair closes.) I bought some kind of report about selling on Etsy years ago that said you needed to post new stuff every single day in order to show up higher in the search results. I tend to think that the best way to sell stuff is to put it where people who like to buy that sort of thing will look for it--in her case, I guess put it in more places than just her one gallery. Sure, it's nice to have your own website and a shopping cart set up on it, but she needs to be associating with other artists and crafters so that she'll be seen when folks like me go shopping.

I am guessing your friend is too high class for this sort of thing that I'm talking about and this will be rejected out of hand, but.... hey, you were asking about how people make sales from what they make. And this is what I've heard from folks who have stayed in the selling game a lot longer than I have. And to be fair, those folks also have day jobs and/or spousal support on top of that.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:56 PM on July 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

In many nitch arts, especially those which are close to the craft end of the spectrum (I am thinking here of very high end firne furniture making or art jewelry) the first decision is whether to set up a sort of,workshop, with younger folks helping produce higher volumes of work which you can then sell to make a better living. Other than that my understanding is that it's be a superstar or try to patch it together though a series of teaching jobs and commissions. Maybe at least find a second gallery in New York or wherever?
posted by shothotbot at 8:06 PM on July 4, 2014

Produce a line with a larger retailer? West Elm does this, as an example.
posted by emkelley at 8:18 PM on July 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

Building brand recognition is very important when it comes to selling anything. Twitter and Instagram and sites like that help build an online presence, which is key for having a successful online business, if that's something she is doing, as is going to craft fairs (there are high end ones out there). Open studio tours are also a great way to get people in the door, especially if she is in an area with a lot of other studios. A lot of artists coincide their open studio days with the First Friday or Last Thursday (or whatever day) artwalks when all the galleries have openings.

If her current gallery isn't doing her work justice, she needs a new one. It may be niche, but I guarantee you there are other galleries out there that cater to her target market. She might need to look into other areas of the world to find them, however. Scottsdale, AZ is a huge art market, and there are many, very successful, ceramic galleries in the San Francisco Bay Area, like ACII.

Producing a line for a large retailer has it's good points and bad points as you might expect, but IS a great way to bring in a decent amount of cash. Depending on her style, she might try Anthropologie or someplace like that. There are also aggregaters of artisans like Roost that she might be able to contract with.

Tell her good luck from me!
posted by ananci at 8:38 PM on July 4, 2014 [4 favorites]

A friend with a deep love of ceramics used to go down to Ojai (California) with her husband every year and come back with one or two significant pieces by Beatrice Wood, purchased directly from her studio gallery, and after Wood died they continued to go, only switching to buying from Wood's friend Otto Natzler.

And they were far from alone in this; she said once that it was like joining a band of worshippers on pilgrimage to a sacred site.

So perhaps your friend could consider re-establishing her studio in or near a resort community which attracts people with disposable income and has a reputation as an artistic mecca.
posted by jamjam at 9:32 PM on July 4, 2014 [5 favorites]

Maybe this is not negotiable, but the "London-based" bit could be the main issue due to the cost of living.

I want to +1 this because, like, there are comparable cities in the US where artists tend to congregate and go broke, but they're also cities where it's perfectly possible to struggle to make ends meet as, like, an accountant or a sales manager. Find the cheapest place to live within reasonable transit distance of the city for periodic day trips, makes a big difference. I used to have a tax client who was a regionally-well-known fiber artist who seemed to not only prefer living in a rural area, but also it helped with the mystique, like buying a wall hanging was more Authentic because the person was living in a little cottage in the mountains instead of in town, and ceramics could very well go likewise.
posted by Sequence at 10:14 PM on July 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

What does she think her business model is? If she doesn't think she has one or needs one, then ask her to explain why she is better than all the other working artists who have to hustle to make a living.

High-profile residencies, critical acclaim, and being signed to a prestigious gallery are all good things, but they are best looked at as multipliers of other efforts. For example, they make it more likely that she can land gigs doing workshops. Those workshops pay something, but they are also a chance to connect with people who love ceramic art and have some money to spend on luxuries like ceramic workshops with critically acclaimed artists, and if they have the money and the interest for that, they'd probably like a piece, or two, every year. Keep doing that, and she starts having a steady market for her work, and broader exposure, and a base of people who might lead to larger commissions.
posted by Good Brain at 11:35 PM on July 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

My wife is a glass artist.
Your friend should get this book.
"Smart Business for Contractors" - Taunton Press

The book is written for the construction trades. It spells out what you have to do to become profitable. It's accessible in a way that other business/finance books are not.

I think the struggle for artists who have some kind of official education is the conflict between "high art" and dirty yucky world of making a living. They feel like they've sold out if they make a batch of Christmas ornaments for a craft fair.

That said, the struggle is constant. We've found that starting by selling a large variety of things then narrowing as you learn what is selling helps.

You must do marketing. If only to provide an easy way for people to contact you. A simple website. And schmoozing. In this business you don't have to be a suck up, but you really need to turn up the charm. Again that's part of the dirty "not art" world of selling your work.

Finally, having a partner with a "day job" can take the edge off the slow periods untill you get going.

Good luck!
posted by Ignorance at 4:17 AM on July 5, 2014 [16 favorites]

Even among top, top craftspeople, your friend is sadly in good company in struggling to make a living from her craft.

Years ago, I was exploring the pragmatics of craft as a career, so I went and interviewed each of a couple dozen artists at a prestigious, juried show in Boston. These are folks whose work is top-notch, but pretty much none of them could make a living without taking one of the paths mentioned above -- teaching, managing a staff of more junior artists to boost volume, or going into production mode to make the same top-selling items every day. Others who look like they're doing well -- admiringly profiled in magazines, etc. -- have other sources of income.

Unless one of those paths appeals, even the exceptionally talented, smart, dedicated, and lucky artist will likely find it's not a viable career.
posted by daisyace at 4:24 AM on July 5, 2014 [4 favorites]

How much of your friends work is made by her and how much is made by apprentices and students? The successful craftspeople I know of are actually designers who run workshops where the majority of the physical labor is actually done by other people. This lets the artisan focus on where they add the most value and get the actual time consuming production done by lower cost people.
posted by alms at 4:44 AM on July 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

Can she get herself on the cover of some of the national and international Arts magazines?

My next door neighbor took up art at a prestigious school as an adult, has a great personal story and pleasant abstracts. A few years ago an editor for a national magazine was in town and asked to see his work, I noticed them having a pleasant lunch on his deck. A few weeks went by and chatting he mentions she had sent him a bill for several thousand dollars.

So is she doing craft (etsy) or fine art (increasing prestige shows)? There seems to be a market for high value art, the criteria for high value is what it goes for. If her pieces are 50-90k each then just a few sales go further. Perhaps there are other niches between high prestige and etsy?
posted by sammyo at 6:05 AM on July 5, 2014

Look at this gal's shop. Her work is incredible and her website is pretty good too. I don't know if she sells a lot of pieces but surely something like this...? (On preview, what Ignorance said)
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 7:54 AM on July 5, 2014

Unfortunately putting art out there and then passively waiting for sales is unlikely to pay the bills. IME, buyers want to connect with their artists - now more than ever. When I did freelance character illustration several years ago, contact between the client and myself was minimal (besides the initial process) and this was the norm. Now, however, people want that interaction - they want to see what you're doing, they want to hear you talk about what you're doing, or they simply want to feel a deeper connection with you, the artist. They don't just want the art - they want a story with it.

All of the things you mention that your friend has done are all fairly passive sources of income (ie: they are established and require little 'upkeep'). What is she doing actively? Does she have a website? What social media is she using? If she's not engaging her customer base, she's taking a "wait and see" approach, which doesn't work well if you're trying to make a living with your art.

Though this may be a foreign concept in the 'fine art' world, I'd suggest she beef up her online presence by creating her brand on at least the following: Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumbler and Etsy. She could also do some short YouTube videos - some art/technique tutorials perhaps? Or she could post videos of her in her studio working on art.

Also, I think Thinq makes a great point. Large cities are expensive to live in, and as such you have to be very proactive (and somewhat aggressive) about selling yourself to make it in them. I think the alternative of finding a place with lower cost of living is therefore valid - especially if marketing yourself is something your friend, as a fine artist, feels is beneath her. A simple move could mean the difference between being an artist that's now making it or one continuing to struggle.
posted by stubbehtail at 9:02 AM on July 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

It is good for her to have a London base. What is she actually earning and how much time does she need to put into making art every week to fit her current requirements? If she's not selling enough art, she may need to find a more entrepreneurial gallery. Most artists don't make anything and only a very small number find fame in their lifetime. If she is already critically acclaimed she should look into presenting a television show about the historical and modern craft for BBC. I am sure BBC Bristol could be interested in a meeting.

Ask her to look into what 4-day-per-week activity would be a useful way of earning extra dosh. I would say a good place to look at working is in the admissions office of a local college or university. Here is a job that might not look like a natural fit but is much more lucrative than working as an academic/artist, freelance curator, or secondary school teacher:

It is also important to remember that she will almost certainly be coming in at the very bottom of many jobs. Anywhere she can use her real-world experience to soften the fall for others dreaming or planning the same route could be well-served by her. I am guessing since she probably does her taxes as an artist that she already deft at form-filling.
posted by parmanparman at 9:39 AM on July 5, 2014

A working artist I know - presence in museums, shows, etc - uses some of the simpler molds she uses in her sculptures to make high end beeswax candles that she sells through boutiques and a nationally known luxury goods shop. It's a way of bringing in money that is loosely but not too firmly tied to her fine art. I think she also had an etsy shop just for the candles.
posted by PussKillian at 9:41 AM on July 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

I used to be on friendly terms with a woman artist. She was mostly doing the full-time mom thing at the time. She and her husband had moved to someplace in New Mexico because it was the third largest art market in the US (after New York and some other large, expensive city) and was way cheaper. So I will Nth the suggestion to consider moving only I will say if she moves, pick a place that has both a decent art market and a lower cost of living. It does not have to be "move to the boonies and risk being a big nobody OR make it in the big city." There are places that can serve as a happy medium, at least for some artists.

I will also suggest she do some research on people who do or have made money working as artists and see what wisdom she can glean from that. I would also see if I couldn't somehow network with financially successful artists. Maybe even start an online forum for trying to talk with other artists about the business end of art.
posted by Michele in California at 10:10 AM on July 5, 2014

Oh, duh: The woman artist I mentioned was married to an artist and he was supporting the family with his art work. So, yeah, their strategy worked. I am sure location was not all there was to it but adequate sales combined with low cost of living was working for them and location was part of that.

Sorry I left that detail out. Whoops.
posted by Michele in California at 10:45 AM on July 5, 2014

Is she able to exhibit at a show such as Frieze or The Affordable Art Fair? Or produce a less intricate range for crafter fairs such as The Crafty Fox Market? Although it sounds like she's getting critical recognition, this will put her work into the path of people who don't follow the art world closely.
posted by mippy at 8:08 AM on July 7, 2014

Also, someone who is not verging on household name territory is unlikely to land their own BBC presenting gig, but there are a number of shows now which use craftspeople and artists - the Kirstie Allsopp shows, Mastercrafts,and possibly others.
posted by mippy at 8:10 AM on July 7, 2014

« Older Art of Science, Art of Nature   |   Moving to Naples, Italy! Need help with lots of... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.