How to be an artist who makes a living from their art

wanna-be-an-artist-stuff-to-think-about

A lot of people reckon it’s an easy path, deciding to become an artist.

They imagine lazing around casting a critical eye on things, dropping hackneyed French phrases and calling everyone darling; or else hiding in a garrett (do they still exist?), clutching your shirt together at your throat, one hand shaking either in a fever of excitement while gazing upon your latest work in progress, or else through a slight over-enthusiasm with the red wine bottle from the previous night, before throwing yourself into a frenzy of paint, canvas and belief in one’s own greatness.

Times have, however, moved on.

These days if you actually really honestly do decide to choose the path of being an artist – a real live proper one, who pays the rent, puts on exhibitions, sells your work even – you will need to take a deep breath and balance your creative passion with a proper grown-up work ethic, and – bear with me here – a bit of financial acumen. Things like setting yourself up as a business (check out http://www.firmengruendung-niederlande.com/ for example), working out your strengths and weaknesses, and having an eye on the future.

The way is littered (yes, metaphorically) with people who decided that they wanted to be an artist – a full time, professional, I’m-paying-my-rent-with-this-stuff artist. And that is, let’s face it, an act, a decision, worthy of respect. But the truth is sadly that the majority of those who set out to be a professional artist don’t last – they do it for a few years, sure, then get a job to pay the bills, then realise the job isn’t such a great job, gulp, then find another job, one that suits their creative skills; then, let’s say, kids come along, and it’s time to apply yourself seriously to earning money and providing a stable family life and yada yada yada….until before you know it you’re sitting in your mid forties at carefully curated dinner parties telling the assembled about how you were once a proper artist, one who produced art, and exhibited it, and, you know, lived the life.

But there’s that little touch of regret dancing around the edge of your mind, thinking: you know, I really wish I’d kept at it. Not given up. Wishing that you’d kept it together to keep going, produce that one more artwork, put on one more exhibition that would have turned the corner and made your name, and plopped a few zeroes on the end of that number at the end of your bank statement.

But we don’t want that to happen, do we? No we don’t.

So let’s take a deep breath and face facts: you’ve got to do a bit of sound thinking in the direction of finances and in terms of things like business planning, so that you can add those zeroes to your bank account, get that rent paid, and keep doing what you love.

First things first (and yes, some of this is going to sound boring, but ten years down the line you’re going to thank me for this, trust me):

Become a legal business entity

Yes, it’s true. You’re a business! Congratulations 🙂

If you’re active economically – and that includes buying, selling, making available products and services, and yes folks that’s how some people see art, then you’re not only a person person, you’re also a legal person. The state sees you as a legal business entity, and expects you to see yourself as one too. So get with the program, guys!

The truth is that it’s actually really quite useful, regardless of anything else, to be a business entity as well as a regular person. The most obvious one is of course that you can offset your costs against your income: and as an artist, I bet you spend most of your money on things to help you make art, am I right? So take the leap and become a business. In Germany for example there are various forms of business entity, and the best way to figure this out is, to be quite honest, to leave it to the professionals.

Getting an accountant or tax advisor in isn’t nearly as difficult or expensive as you might think

Getting an accountant or tax advisor in isn’t nearly as difficult or expensive as you might think and trust me, they save you a LOT of money over the years. Doesn’t have to be situated in Germany either – I highly recommend using someone like http://www.firmengruendungschweiz.com/ – don’t get put off by long German names, they’re Swiss which means a. They speak English, b. They know what they’re doing and c. they’re used to working with, within, and without of the European Union. The legal intricacies of the European and specifically the German business and tax setup means you will definitely do much better if you bite the bullet now and be a legal business entity – which can include being a freelancer, a small company, or…well, you get the picture.

Make a business plan

Yes, that’s right, a business plan. Take an excel sheet or word document, whichever approach works with your brain (use google docs/ google sheets, it’s free and online so you never lose it and no, there isn’t someone somewhere looking over your shoulder and waiting to bombard you with advertising emails based on what you do there); there are a few resources out there to help you with a business plan, here’s a link to a perfectly set-up business plan for artists. The business plan doesn’t work only as a business plan; it helps to focus your mind and lay out your ideas, hopes and ambitions, and make it all a little more real.

Figure out your USP

Spoiler warning: I will be using various marketing terms, if you’re someone who recoils automatically at the sight of those, forgive me, and read on…anyway, it’s invaluable to figure out just what makes you you: the same as if you were running any other kind of business, or if you were offering a non-artistic product or service, you need to see what makes you stand out from the pack. When you approach a gallery, when you approach media outlets like blogs, podcast producers and newspaper and magazine editors, you’ll need to be able to give them a reason to feature you and not the other dozens of artists beating a path to their (digital) door and hoping for a feature.

Do you paint in a certain style? Use an unusual photographic technique? Do you have an interesting backstory – you know, raised by wolves in Alaska and only learnt to speak a human language after being discovered by a nice family who were camping nearby? Whatever it is, use it. You need to make yourself stand out, and you need to make your art stand out. And, just as with the business plan, it also helps to focus your mind on what you do, who you are, and where you’re going. So: USP.

Look at alternative revenue streams

Yes, that’s right. I said it. Revenue streams. One of those words like USP, ain’t it? But like I said, bear with me. If your (real or imagined) main revenue stream, where you either do or would like to make your moola – showing/selling at exhibitions, doing live sketches, etc. – dries up, it’s hugely useful to have other places where you can pull in some money. Think about:

  • Your designs on merchandise: use a print-on-demand service like Printful and put any number of your designs or images on a variety of products like mugs, teeshirts, smartphone cases, you name it.
  • Commissions: put a page on your website where you offer to create individualised artworks for special customers. Don’t be timid with your pricing – if someone wants to give the gift of a one-off artwork to their partner they’d often rather pay a bit more than a bit less.
  • Grants: Happily enough, the state is often willing to help their struggling artists out a little: look around and see what grants may be available. They can be extremely useful in keeping the wolf from the door for another few months!
  • There are plenty more…here’s another useful link to some ideas for passive income for artists.

 

So there you go. Hope this helped. Any feedback please feel free to write us on FB messenger, and here’s wishing you a long, successful and most of all happy life as a professional artist!

Photo by Ovan, courtesy of Pexels.com

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Noel Maurice is one of the founders of indieberlin. Originally from the UK via a childhood in Johannesburg, he has been resident in Berlin since 1991. Describing himself as a 'recovering musician', he is the author of The Berlin Diaires, a trilogy detailing the East Berlin art and squat scene of the early 90s, available on Amazon and through this site.

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