Groundbreaking Insights on Creative Professionals

Art Lights the Way

One of Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Buddhas
One of Afghanistan’s famed Bamiyan Buddhas, which were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001 (Copyright: Embassy of Afghanistan in London)

Art is pure. It is incandescent—the light with which we find our way through this dirty, often disheartening world. Our job on this planet is to uphold and expand the purity and beauty of art. To find the beautiful bits of energy that have been covered and trapped by the grime of bad actions, and uncover them, clean them off, and set them free. However, we must not conflate art and artists. Artists are people like the rest of us. They aren’t children, and it is not our job to protect them. By preventing them from leading the way, we do a disservice to everyone on the planet, and even the planet itself.

Shelter Art, not Artists

What we can and must do is make sure that artists are equipped to lead the way by enabling them to support themselves with their creations—in other words, help them be thriving artists.

That’s crass materialism, you say. No, it’s reality. Maybe, someday, someone will change the model and arrange a societal or governmental system that provides a living wage for artists—one that matches the one provided to doctors and lawyers and politicians and executive directors and teachers, and everyone else—but that’s not the way things are right now.

Art Business Conference

In today’s world artists must support themselves. If they cannot do so through the sale of their work, then they have to find other ways, which means they will not have as much time or opportunity to create art, let alone make sure it is seeable by others.

The Business Professional

That’s what everyone else in the art industry is for, you say—the dealers and gallerists and agents and advisors. Well, that’s correct, but how is it that those people thrive, while the majority of artists do not? All of these people are supposed to be working FOR the artists, not the other way around.

In other industries the producer of the product is in charge. No one suggests that Richard Branson or Elon Musk or Oprah Winfrey subordinate themselves to their business advisors because those people know better. Of course, these wildly successful entrepreneurs all benefit from savvy advice, and all of them have big teams of people to help them—experts upon whom they rely. But those experts work for THEM, helping to implement their goals and visions. I want the art world to work the same way. We should work to realize the vision of the artist, who tells us what that vision is and runs the show.

Those people are millionaires, you say. How can the average artist, who has no resources or savvy or education, hope to control his or her business? Well, Oprah started with nothing. I say teach those artists, and stop telling them that they can’t do it. The only way to be sure of failing at something is not to try. Of course not every artist will become a successful businessperson. Not every local news host becomes Oprah. But many more will succeed if we give them the tools, declare our faith in their abilities as capable human beings, and then get out of their way. The more artists we support properly, the more will lead the way to the kind of world we want to live in, a world in which grace and beauty and dignity prevail.

The Sacrificial Do-Gooder

But money is secondary to artists, you say. They care about contributing to the well-being of others. Well, so do we, right? Do you actually believe that artists don’t want to live comfortable lives, with families, nice homes and studios, and annual vacations? That they don’t want to educate their kids and enjoy themselves? That when they commit to being professional artists, they willingly accept lives of poverty because material concerns are unimportant to them?

Come on, now. That’s a disgusting trope. Artists are just like everyone else. There is no one way to be an artist, so let’s free them to be themselves. The art they create will more than suffice to light our path; they need not suffer for it, and we should not ask them to.

The Special Category

But not enough artists will succeed in supporting themselves without subsidies, you say. But the current safety net is insufficient, and the residencies and grants offered by altruistic institutions and individuals do not bridge the gap. And anyway, why should we perpetuate a failed model in which the most important among us must beg for subsistence instead of being trained to support themselves?

Artists are fully-functioning adults who should be allowed to run their own careers, just like everyone else. They don’t need special assistance, and they don’t need to be told that if they sell their work or pay attention to market trends, the work they make is not “real art.” Who gets to decide that, anyway? Art is art, and its value is subjective.

The more well-fed artists we have, the better the art will be. Competition increases quality. When the third restaurant arrives on a block the food at the others improves. I say give artists the tools to be successful, and then let them go about it. Some will fail, just like some individuals in every profession. Many will not. That’s how life works. Level the playing field, and let the games begin.

Art is not a charity; it is the point of our entire existence. Without it, our world is sterile and confusing. We lose sight of our humanity and of the activities that we are supposed to be accomplishing while alive. So yes, support art, and support artists, but do it by educating them and treating them like everyone else.

You Do Your Job, and Let Artists Do Theirs

Still not convinced? Then please support the arts in whatever way you see fit. Lobby Congress, volunteer, COLLECT! Just don’t tell artists who are working to survive professionally that they won’t make it, that they need a handout or a day job because business is hard and they’re no good at it anyway. That is horrible and wrong, and the opposite of why we are here. And please don’t tell me that I should stop educating and empowering professional artists who are striving to earn a middle-class living from the sale of their work. That is a non-starter. A better option is to join me and the growing numbers of CHF supporters. Together, we’re making a difference.

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AvatarElizabeth Hulings
Elizabeth Hulings is the Executive Director of the Clark Hulings Fund for Visual Artists, and a principal of the business-strategy consulting firm Counterpoise, where she has worked with startups, nonprofits large and small, multi-national corporations, and sole proprietors--including artists of all stripes. Before launching Counterpoise in 2001, Elizabeth lived through five Fortune-500 mergers at the predecessors of Citigroup, Cendant, and Verizon Communications. She also honed her skills at several nonprofit organizations including the International Development Exchange, The Management Center/Opportunity Knocks, and Human Rights Watch.

Comments

  1. AvatarSuprina Kenney says

    Being a visual artist I couldn’t agree with you more! Trying to survive, and market yourself leaves less art making time.

  2. AvatarAndieFreeman says

    Thank you Elizabeth! I completely agree with all of your statements. Artists are like everyone else and deserve a decent wage without having to apologize or explain to people that it’s possible. As an oil painter and a marketer/graphic designer I feel like I should have a leg up on getting my art business to a place where it is supporting itself, but I still need more education to bridge the gap on how to make my business sustain and then thrive. It is a lot to know and realizing that your organization is there providing real information, not quick fixes like so many groups that I also read and follow, is inspiring. I have enjoyed following along with the fellows in their journey and utilizing the information you provide. So, THANK YOU!

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