inside the art fishbowl
October 1, 2017 5:30 PM   Subscribe

What are the dirty secrets and hidden downsides of working as a professional artist, in new media or elsewhere?

As a researcher in STEM, I could tell you our dirty secrets and hidden downsides, the things you only learn after working in the field for years. For example, being a researcher in computer science sounds very glamorous right now. But you realize after a while that
  • many fields of computer science rely on lots of very tedious, slightly different experiments
  • computers wear down your body; many people develop repetitive stress injury and back problems
  • most of your time is spent writing grant applications and chasing after money, not doing research
  • you constantly have to worry about low-level sexism and lack of diversity
  • it's hard to judge good research, so your papers and grants are always being rejected, and for arbitrary reasons
Now I want to know: what are the dirty secrets and hidden downsides of being an artist? I'm particularly interested in lives of new media artists (people working with STEM + art) but am open to hearing about any experiences. What should I know that might scare me off?

Their lives seem glamorous to me because the successful artists I know are a self-selecting sample, and very good at publicity: they're always working on a new commissioned piece, residency, show, talk, book, or conference about their fantastic work, or teaching workshops on art, or having work appear in high-powered venues and publications. What am I not seeing as an outsider?

I already know that artists tend to have trouble making ends meet (but how much do they actually make?), have to work multiple gigs (e.g. in retail), often have trouble justifying their work to their relatives, and are constantly writing residency applications (but with what acceptance rate?). I'm surely missing a lot. What's the art equivalent of the CV of failures?
posted by icosahedron to Media & Arts (17 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
That thing about spending most of your time writing grants. That. But the grants are like a thousand daollars with .0008% acceptance rates. I'm an artist and I had better luck with the NSF than any arts agency.

The work is tedious, hard on your body, and everyone thinks they can comment on its worth. Collaboration can be hard.

It's amazing when you make something that means something to someone tho'.
posted by songs_about_rainbows at 6:17 PM on October 1, 2017 [3 favorites]

Well, I'm close with an internationally renowned fine artist. Works sell for $20-80k last I heard. They will work for a year or maybe two years, preparing for a show. While works occasionally sell outside a show, most of it sells during a one month show. They have no income outside what sells, so they could work for a year and end up with $10k, or $100k, and most of it comes at once after the work is done. Their gallery takes a 50% cut on every work sold; I am told this is actually a very good deal. So while they are very well paid, they are also very frugal.
This person is extrodinarily talented and hard working, and deeply understands how lucky they are! But they also work very very hard and life is much more precarious than you'd think; an injury could ruin their ability to work; their work could also go out of style and they could suddenly stop getting solo shows, etc, and need to go back to small commissions or even bar tending. It's not like a regular career like teaching or nursing or programming where there's always another place hiring or opportunities in other places. Plus there's the insecurity of freelance in terms of insurance etc. I'm actually not sure what else they could do outside of their art; if that stopped I do think it would be something like waiting tables.
posted by john_snow at 6:20 PM on October 1, 2017 [7 favorites]

Sexism. Deeply disturbing amounts of sexism at the gallery and museum levels which means vast differences in representation of artists by gender within the commercial market.
posted by nanook at 6:45 PM on October 1, 2017 [9 favorites]

Art is frequently tedious physical labor. For Inktober I made a quick and simple sketch for the first prompt and then spent at least an hour placing individual dots in varying densities to shade the drawing. And this is a throwaway sketch on cheap paper that I am doing to relax while I experiment with representational but not realistically rendered concepts. When I went to art school, it was normal to spend 10 or 15 hours on a single piece to be turned in for critique the following week. I never spent that much time on calculus or programming homework. It's no accident that many art stores have almost fetishized their ergonomic/healthy body products departments.
posted by xyzzy at 6:53 PM on October 1, 2017 [3 favorites]

I know a very successful standup comedian you have heard of. Literally, they cannot or will not do anything else. It's a calling, and I think working artists have this special opportunity to get really good at a craft -- honestly, most people never do -- but their professional success is subject to the whims of the universe in a way your average accountant's just isn't.
posted by jessca84 at 6:57 PM on October 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

Check out the movie Exit Through the Gift Shop for some commentary on the state of contemporary art, if you haven't already.
posted by Candleman at 7:01 PM on October 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

Great answers so far. Self-answer: I just found a useful piece of commentary on the lack of NEA new media arts funding.
posted by icosahedron at 7:24 PM on October 1, 2017

I'm a professional artist; in many ways I'm deeply traditional and in a few ways I'm working in new media and STEM + art.

I've been extremely fortunate and managed to land a tenure-track professorship. Many of my friends from graduate school have medium-to-high academic debt and are adjuncting or working in a different field (bartending, waitressing, etc) while trying to maintain a studio practice on the side. Approximately 4% of qualified applicants get hired into full-time higher ed teaching positions (not even all of them tenure-track). The rest don't.

As a professor at a teaching-focused institution, I don't really have time during the school year to produce much if any artwork. So almost all of my studio practice is compressed into the summer, and I am not compensated such that it isn't tempting to pick up something more remunerative instead during those months, but for me it is more important to generate artwork.

Many successful artists who earn their living selling work (as opposed to via teaching for me) must make work that is sellable. That is often not exactly, or even at all, what they would make in an ideal world. Very few artists can actually make enough to live off of their work even so. I meet a lot of artists, and some who seem successful (and are, by some measures) are being bankrolled by supportive partners, or have family money, or are working a tech job on the side...

I do a lot of residencies, and I exhibit in a lot of shows. There are a lot of fees to do these things. Application fees, housing, travel, and material costs for most of the residencies, round-trip shipping costs for the exhibitions... it all adds up. There's also whatever the costs are to get the piece of work installable - custom framing which I need for a lot of my pieces costs a pretty penny. There are some exhibitions that have prizes, but A) you don't always win the prizes, and B) the prizes just help cover some of that year's fees. The acceptance rate is hugely variable, and gets better the more you understand your own market and appeal.

What's hot in the art world changes constantly; you can't possibly trail it so you just have to make what you make and hope the pendulum swings your way eventually. Right now due in part to our current administration, LGBTQ-focused work and immigration and identity-focused work are having real moments, but work related to climate change is also starting to become more popular.

A healthy studio art practice can be very isolating, tedious work, too. And often art materials are quite toxic. And sometimes the subjects can be hazardous, too - my focus is on ecological balance and I did a residency in the Peruvian Amazon. Not only did I encounter the world's most poisonous caterpillar, but I spent enough time around the Chagas disease insect vector (Kissing Bugs) to do a painting of them and also got over 20 infected sandflea bites.
posted by vegartanipla at 8:08 PM on October 1, 2017 [9 favorites]

I've modeled for artists for a couple of years (mostly students, a couple of professional clients). What I got was about what everyone else has said -- it's extremely hard to make a living (I think everyone I've worked for is also an art teacher, usually at several different schools), it's physically hard work, and there's a level of intense perfectionism, at least with one artist I worked with, that I think wears you down pretty seriously. I love being a model, but have no desire to be any kind of formal artist.

It's also worth noting that professional-class materials are intensely expensive and there's no guarantee that anyone will keep your favorite compound in stock. Also health issues beyond RSI, especially when working with traditional media. Charcoal is about the only one that isn't formulated to kill you. (I exaggerate, but also. Oil paints are, uh, chemically really interesting...)
posted by kalimac at 8:11 PM on October 1, 2017

I’m a working artist. I AM always working on something or teaching a workshop and doing fairly big-sounding stuff.

Money is the biggest one. Always that. It really overshadows most other things. Also the workload is really insane. I’ve been lucky, but I work a lot harder than I ever have at a job where someone else is paying me. The coolest stuff tends to pay the least. I get rejected a lot (honestly, not enough. Because I should be shooting for more and bigger stuff).
posted by jeweled accumulation at 8:21 PM on October 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

I’m an admin/studio assistant to a moderately successful European artist working in a new media area. I field requests from curators, press, etc., do some minor negotiating, take care of the minutiae in contracts, applications, communications, tech riders, logistics, scheduling and a thousand other details.

Some of the downsides I’m aware of: a gruelling, irregular schedule with semi-permanent jet lag, stress from all sides including high expectations from organizations with low budgets, unreliable people installing pieces and getting things wrong, needing to continually come up with new stuff while under pressure from curators/collectors/fans, getting those ideas realized under circumstances that are far from ideal. The financial rewards can be very good, but very unpredictable, eg torpedoed by things like curators changing their mind at the last minute, galleries suddenly going bankrupt or collectors just not paying. There is little recourse when these things happen, especially when it is international, which it usually is. So, there is quite a lot of risk with high studio costs and a need admin and legal help. It is a business even when the work seems ‘non-commercial.’

When you get to the next level, someone like, say, Olafur Eliasson, it is big business. He employs 90 people at his Berlin studio, which must surely make things much easier, or much more complicated, or both.
posted by stromatolite at 12:17 AM on October 2, 2017 [4 favorites]

I am only a Sunday painter myself but my ex-teacher derived his main income from teaching classes through a local non-profit arts association (which is where I met him), community adult recreational classes as well as students in the public school system as a freelancer (i.e. without the duties but also the security and benefits of a regular public school teacher). He got started in an earlier era when educational qualifications were not compulsory but he says you would need a degree to teach nowadays. He makes a comfortable middle-class living but it's not through selling his art.

Wife of a friend also teaches and it helps that friend is very supportive and also employed in a lucrative field. Alas, I am single :(

I also know of artists who run their own art galleries. They have assistants but I imagine the gallery business must cut into their studio time and be hard to run profitably given the high costs of rent locally etc.

Some of the pigments in my medium are well-known to be toxic and to be honest, I see others (both pros and amateurs) handling stuff with a casualness that makes me shudder. I try to wash my hands thoroughly afterwards. I don't know of anyone who has gotten sick from it though. I try to use non-toxic paints but the purists will argue that they aren't good enough for professionals. Then again, I am only a Sunday painter and see no reason to take risks when I don't get paid for painting.
posted by whitelotus at 2:51 AM on October 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

So, just my personal thoughts/experiences, take with a grain of salt:

I worked for an arts organization for a few years, I'm a part-time artist, and my partner is a full-time one. One of the things I've personally found difficult is that the boundaries b/w your work life and personal life get blurred in uncomfortable ways. This is perhaps b/c as an artist, you are *selling* your personal/inner life. I found it exhausting after a while when 90% of our social/going-out life as a couple revolved around going to gallery openings, where the subtext was always "we're here to network/sell work for Partner." Sometimes it can start to feel like you're constantly hitting up everyone you know to come to shows, buy artwork, etc, and it can make your relationships feel very transactional in a way I didn't like.

Also, because the business is based so much on personal ties, it's really easy for toxic professional relationships or friendships to take root, because you're always under the pressure to keep things sweet or else loose those connections that you depend on for your bread and butter. (Or a lot of toxic behavior gets written off as "artistic temperament" ... ) And there's no Art Scene HR Department, trust me! So you've gotta watch your boundaries like a hawk.
posted by celestine at 7:02 AM on October 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

It's an enormous amount of work. You don't do the 9-5 thing, especially if you have a show coming up or a grant application due.

No one really likes to acknowledge this, but there are a *lot* of independently wealthy people in arts and theatre. They can afford to work for free or for very low wages. This is one of my big frustrations with the arts right now - it's hard to compete for work when you're up against some trust fund kids who don't have to worry about rent or medication or feeding themselves. It also contributes to an over representation of homogeneous, white, wealthy perspectives in some areas.
posted by Stonkle at 7:40 AM on October 2, 2017 [3 favorites]

I'm not a professional artist, but I know people who are.

The biggest difficulty I see is the neccessity to do everything yourself because there is no money and no time to train/pay someone else to do it. This often means many things never get done, things that a normal corporate company would never allow not to get done. If you are not independently wealthy, or funded/supported by someone with money, you have two choices in how you spend the time to make the money to support your art career - by writing grants and chasing funding, or working a day job and/or working in your art field at something that is profitable (for example, adjunct teaching) but which has no real relation to your own creative ideas and output. One of my art teachers had as her first love printmaking, but had to work for years as an interior designer before she got a job at the local art college teaching art classes. Only one of those was a printmaking class, and it only had 6 students per semester, meaning the college was constantly threatening to cut it altogether. From her demeanor (and sour dropped comments - she had a lot to teach and I learned a lot from her, but she sure did it in the most sarcastic way possible) it was clear she would have preferred to work on her own stuff full-time, but could not afford to do so.

The people I know who are professional artists live the really hard way because they value their independence and their freedom to create above all else. They do not do it because it is in any way easy (the idea makes me laugh) or especially profitable, or even much understood by people who have "normal" corporate jobs (which is most everybody if you're not living in the middle of the New York City Arts Scene, or equivalent elsewhere.) People will judge you if you do not have everything together perfectly at all times, without any understanding of what it is they are judging. They will point to your failures and tell their kids this is why they should study accounting and not the arts. They will fail to see that there is in fact a booming arts and entertainment industry, in which some do in fact succeed and make very good careers for themselves. It's just that such a career is much harder to achieve than it is if one is an accountant, computer programmer, nurse, paralegal, etc etc etc. Since the attitude of "all artists starve to death in their freezing rain-soaked garrets" was so entrenched in my own upbringing I neither pursued an art career, like I wanted to do, nor could I commit myself to something I didn't want to do, like law. It created a dangerous ambivalence, since I knew exactly what I wanted to do, but was told over and over not to do it, by very influential and well-meaning people. This created a lot of problems for me that I won't get into here. My main point: if you want to be an artist, be firm in your commitment and determined to make it work for you no matter what. No matter what anyone says. Otherwise, you might want to reconsider your day job and the securities, if somewhat bland and regulated existance, that that offers. The arts are very rewarding in many ways. It's just not your... average existance, not by a long shot.
posted by Crystal Fox at 11:30 AM on October 2, 2017 [4 favorites]

I work as an illustrator, and to nth what everyone's said above, the money is the main concern. I basically get two or three ad gigs a year through my agent that pay ridiculously well, but for which I must drop everything and go in-house the next day. Everything else, client-wise, I pretty much have to go find myself, and the money doesn't compare to the ad work. I'm lucky to have mostly return clients at this point, but client courting is still something I have to spend daily time on and there's always the risk of dealing with a real nutcase. For a lot of larger gigs, I can expect to get paid one or two months after doing the work, so I have to have enough padding in my bank account to accommodate that at any given time. Also, there is no paid vacation/sick days in the land of freelancing. Even post-ACA, there are a lot of artists who get sick and have money problems as a result.

For my friends who work in the VFX and animation industry, they also either have long periods of unemployment between shows, or they work on commercials and have crazy feast and famine schedules where sometimes they're working 12 hour days and sometimes they get nothing for a month or more.
posted by tautological at 11:57 AM on October 2, 2017

to add on the money talk: I've seen a distressing amount of artists in my town's art community getting into MLM "businesses".
posted by celestine at 4:31 PM on October 2, 2017

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