The Business of Art

In a tough economic climate, artists and art schools are focusing more on the business side of the creative process.

Sallie Goetsch began writing fiction at age four and grew up wanting to be a novelist. By the time she finished her undergraduate degree in classics, she had completed four or five novels. But instead of launching a career writing her own books, Goetsch decided to help other people write theirs, as a ghostwriter and writing coach.

The El Cerrito resident said she feels creatively fulfilled, and unlike many professional writers, she can pay her bills. “Certainly, you have a much more certain income than if you’re trying to sell stories to magazines or trying to sell novels,” she said. “I’m not saying I’ll never go back to writing fiction, but I will say that I don’t feel a burning desire to do it.”

Goetsch is one of a breed of creative people who are figuring out how to pursue a creative career and still pay their bills. And in a climate that’s undeniably hard — and getting harder — artists have no other choice.

Sean Fletcher knows this better than anyone. As both a conceptual and performance artist and a professional financial planner, he has spent his entire adult life balancing — and even combining — his day and night jobs. He described the problem afflicting today’s would-be artists the way an economist would: As fine arts programs proliferate, “the market is really saturated with artists, so the supply line is flooded.” And that drives down the price of art, and the living wage for artists. And while making a living as an artist has never been easy, the enduring recession has made it even harder to break into — and stay afloat in — the creative professions: Cash-strapped cities are slashing public art budgets, would-be patrons have less money to throw around on nonessential — and expensive — hobbies like art collection, and grant-giving organizations are facing unprecedented budget cuts.

At the same time, the rapidly escalating cost of education may have hit artists harder than other students. Though tuition at art schools has risen at roughly the same pace as at other types of schools, unlike medical, law, or business schools, art schools can’t promise their students a high-paying career or a reliable means of paying of their debt upon graduation. “As education becomes, increasingly, an investment, you do need to think more about what you do with an MFA,” said Glen Helfand, an art critic who also teaches at both the San Francisco Art Institute and the California College of the Arts.

But according to Sydney Metrick, a Richmond-based psychologist specializing in artists, art schools have historically failed to give their students the tools they need to navigate the workplace after receiving a fine arts degree. “People are coming out of art school woefully unprepared,” she said, referring to some of the people she works with. “They might teach you painting or sculpting, but they don’t teach you how to be in the business of being a painter and sculptor.” But, she said, it’s a two-way street, as many artists are willfully underprepared for life after art school as a matter of principle. “Many artists have an aversion to thinking about their business,” she said. “When you ask them, who is your target market, they can’t answer that.” For his part, Fletcher said that when he was a student at the San Francisco Art institute, the full scope of the school’s career resources consisted of a brown bag speaker series, which drew about three people on any given session and was often canceled because of lack of attendance.

But recently, some schools have been working to bridge the divide, real or imagined, between art and business. Helfand, for example, teaches a graduate seminar at CCA that’s intended to give students a sense of how to make a living as an artist, and similar courses have appeared at schools nationwide. Helfand’s course is aptly called “the Real World,” and it’s wildly popular. Helfand invites financial planners, curators, and agents as guest speakers and said he aims to make his students aware of both the resources available to them and the variety of ways one can make a living as an artist.

There’s no reliable empirical way to parse out how or if artists make their livings, but at least from an impressionistic standpoint, Helfand, Metrick, and Fletcher said the vast majority of the people they know in the arts supplement their income in other ways. “I know very few artists who make a living completely off their art,” Metrick said. “Most of the people that are are doing it in a multifaceted way: they’re teaching, they’re on the festival circuit.” The majority seem to teach, either privately or in a high-school or college setting; some work in loosely related creative fields like game design; others find other creative ways to pursue a professional career in a way that complements, or at least doesn’t impede, their art practice.

Robert Lindsey fell into doing large-scale murals in homes, stores, and offices after studying fine art at Stanford. It’s not necessarily what he always imagined himself doing, but he gets to paint all day and makes a much better paycheck than he likely ever would selling paintings. Metrick knows a painter who does art for wine-bottle labels, a jewelry-maker who travels the festival circuit, and a quilt-maker who specializes in customized memory quilts. Fletcher has found a way to integrate his art life with his professional life by creating conceptual performance pieces focusing on themes of commerce and trade.

“There is a way to make it overlap,” Fletcher said. “It is almost always possible to do both things full-time.”

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