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Making Art, and Money



The art world, somewhat like music and fashion, is a polarised industry, with whopping six digit figures changing hands on the one side of the spectrum, and a constant hustle just to make ends meet on the other. Unlike most other industries, the art world comprises both big business and intense personal expression; the two often vying in opposing directions. Negotiating the art world from any perspective – be it as an artist, a gallerist, collector or administrator – is challenging, and each has its own set of factors and agendas that need to be considered. For an artist who wants to engage with the professional art world, innate and original talent is the first obvious prerequisite, together with an understanding of the workings of the industry. These two factors are key for artists to achieve long-term financial success.


Most artists don’t choose to be an artist, they are artists. However, this fact alone is not enough to succeed and prosper as an artist in the highly competitive and fickle art world. Senior art advisor, Dr Fred Scott, highlights the changed landscape of contemporary art, where almost anything can be considered ‘art’. In this regard, he says that “the test to stand a chance of making an impact in the market depends on the artist’s ability to improve on what already exists […] Artists should have a good grasp of art history and art techniques. They should also beau fait with streams and developments in contemporary art in order not to duplicate what already exist.” Usha Seejarim, an indepdendent artist and arts educator, cautions however that “many artists have highly developed skills in the vocation of their medium of artmaking, but lack skills related to business, administration, marketing, financial management and the like.” Usha initiated The Art of Access: an online platform making contemporary art accessible by inviting industry leaders to share their knowledge and experience of the terrain. She says that artists who have business acumen of sorts are better at realising financial success. Hlengiwe Vilakati who owns and runs Jo Anke Gallery agrees, explaining: “We launched Finart Creative Leadership Forum with the aim to close this gap by introducing basic financial concepts that artists can apply to make informed financial choices.”


Matthew Krouse, long-time arts journalist and current media liaison for Goodman Gallery, highlights the importance for artists to be able to deal with money in a sensible way without “partying themselves to death when the going is good, then starving to death in leaner times.” Managing cash flow with an erratic income is a major challenge that Usha also noted, particularly when it comes to the high costs involved with art making.


“Making art is a huge risk,” Usha explains, “artists pour all their resources into producing work, with little to no guarantee of financial return”. Apart from the direct costs of the (often very expensive) materials needed to produce artworks, there are many other significant expenses that artists have to fork out for from their own pockets. These include things like framing, professional documentation of finished work, studio space rental, packaging, as well as exhibition participation fees. And then of course there is the actual time and intellectual property artists put into their work, which seldom has a price attached to it. So if sales are low at the end of an exhibition, many of these expenses are not recuperated.




The common perception is that signing with a gallery provides the solution to these challenges. On the whole, galleries can provide support for artists on many levels, such as providing production budgets to cover the costs mentioned previously, administrative support as well as extensive marketing and exposure to wide networks of potential collectors and buyers, all of which accumulates to grow the career of an artist and elevate their public profile. However, Matthew cautions that the “downside comes when you sign with a bad gallery whose profile does not suit the content and approach of your artwork.”


Matthew stresses that artists need to understand the relationship and role that managers, curators, gallery owners and/or producers play, who also each have their own creative insights and business agendas. “Finding the right facilitator for the work you produce is key to finding the right audience that will pay for what you create,” he says. “There has to be a personality fit and there has to be an understanding that resources are shared. A gallery, with all its facilities and artists, is like a family setting – and you know how difficult families can be.”


Galleries are business with bills to pay and overhead expenses to cover each month. As such, “many galleries steer artists towards making works that are more likely to sell,” Usha explains. “There are a number of artists who have discovered an appetite in the market for a particular kind of work and have begun to ‘mass produce’ work. This can be highly viable financially and can even be sustained for a long time.” Conversely, this can force artists to compromise their vision and artistic integrity. In addition, some galleries feel that they need to protect their assets by being possessive of the artists they represent and withholding information about buyers and sales details as well as depriving artists of other opportunities. “This kind of unhealthy sense of ownership can stifle an artist’s career,” Usha says.




From the gallerists perspective however, Hlengiwe explains that what she looks for in artists to work with is a spark of passion and pioneering work, plus discipline and etiquette. Matthew says galleries “look for artists with some sort of Factor X, whatever that may be: unique personal history, wackiness and eccentricity, as long as it doesn’t become a liability.” However, he continues, “stability also plays a role and growing body of work that is consistently good and enduringly meaningful in the historical moment and beyond is most important.” He cites local photographer David Goldblatt as a shining example; “an artist who has never compromised, who has consistently worked on four or five big ideas with universal meaning – ideas that have retained power over five decades of production.”


Therefore, fostering a symbiotic relationship that cultivates growth, expansion and creative development on the long-term is key for artists looking to go the route of signing with a gallery. Usha’s advice to aspiring and independent artists on the other hand encourages them to go out and look for opportunities and become active members of the art world. She advocates social media as an important platform for artists to use to market their work, establish networks and grow their own public profile. “Have the maturity to approach individuals in the industry to give you critical feedback on your work,” she continues, “as much as the praise and commendations from friends and family can be encouraging, it serves only to inflate your ego and retard the growth in your work. Don’t become complacent, consciously and continuously strive to take your work to the next level.” This note of excellence is reitterated by Dr Scott, who also acts as MD of Stephan Weltz & Co Fine Art and Design Auctioneers. He says that “in order to build a reputation as an artist, the artist should consistently produce outstanding quality work and not allow poor pieces to enter the market through self-policing the works.”


So then, is it getting easier or more difficult for artists to make a living from their art? Matthew says that while it has always been difficult for artists to survive solely off their art, there are now other art industries that can take artists in and supplement their practice without them having to resort to waitering. So does the notion of the ‘starving artist’ still exist? “Maybe not the starving art,” Usha says, “but definitely the struggling artist.” Making a living as a practicing artist is never going to be easy or glamorous, but for many artists this isn’t a choice, it’s simply who they are.


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