alternative income
Art Business

Five Alternative Income Strategies for Independent Artists

The old adage “pick a job you like and you won’t work a day in your life” may hold true for artists, but making a living wage still applies. For many emerging and independent artists, earning enough money to survive means developing an alternative income strategy, like finding a part-time job.

Independent artists, on top of making new work and running a studio or art business, often have to make time for specific requests – daytime visits from curators, early afternoon visits with the press, meetings with collectors – that require working around the schedules of others who engage with their artistic practice. Artists get the fun task of paying the bills while still keeping up with these everyday demands, which can seemingly be endless.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the average hourly rate for independent artists, musicians and performers was a paltry $25 an hour in 2016. In the fine arts industry, the “independent artists” category is not listed among the top five performing salary positions. While these statistics may be bleak, if anyone had warned art world heavy-hitters such as Anselm Keifer, Ai Wei Wei, or Cindy Sherman of these statistics, the art world might be sorely lacking.

Along with making a living, a mountain of debt often weighs heavily on working visual artists, as well. According to 509 respondents to Occupy Museum’s open call for data on working independent artists, the total collective debt of artists surveyed as of January 2017 is $45,899,930.32. Student loans and relatively high costs of living in vibrant art cities such as New York and Los Angeles can result in a heavy burden for artists to bear, especially emerging independent artists who are just starting to launch an art business. This data isn’t an excuse not to deepen one’s practice, but an opportunity to objectively reassess one’s overall financial state in order develop artistically under solid financial circumstances.

art business
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics details artists’ earnings.

Art dealer Alex Maldonado notes that “Most of the emerging artists I come across have some sort of student loan debts in varying amounts. The lucky ones are the artists who do not have to worry about how large they can make their work or what types of materials can go into it since cost is not a factor.”

When taking into consideration this combination of factors – costs to produce work while simultaneously staying on top of debt and everyday living costs – most independent artists resort to finding alternative income strategies to ensure that they are able to create work while staying above water financially. We’ve nailed down five ways that artists can earn different sources of income, along with two auxiliary strategies that are worth considering as a contemporary visual artist.

Five Gigs Independent Artists Can Use to Earn Money

Arts Administration

Artists are well-placed to handle the practical side of maintaining arts organizations and institutions. Arts administration as a field encompasses a variety of positions, ranging from gallery directors, registrars and collections management to marketing, public programs, and operations. Museums, galleries, and non-profits do not run themselves, and often it is artists managing the work behind the scenes.

Artist Delano Dunn recounts his time working at the Whitney Museum as an opportunity to stop and look at the art on display. “That job introduced me to the work of so many great artists, “he said. “I usually had an entire gallery to myself, and I learned so much from that about artistic practice.” A large majority of independent artists have taken on an administrative role in the arts at one time or another, whether researching artists’ works, drawing up contracts or creating public programs around an exhibition.

While some of these roles are full-time (10-6, mainly, in the arts), there are many organizations who prefer hiring on a part-time or freelance basis. Arts administration as a field offers a wide range of opportunities, while also setting artists well along the path to understanding how others should be managing their artwork at exhibitions.

independent artists
Occupy Museums takes over Whitney Biennial with a Debtor’s Ceremony, Whitney Museum.

Art Handling

Who better to handle works of art than independent artists accustomed to moving, wrapping, and installing their own? Especially for interdisciplinary artists, working as an art handler can be the prime opportunity to learn industry best practices for handling, shipping and storing everything from video works to large-scale public sculptures. Art handlers can work a variety of hours for larger companies or choose to work for clients in a freelance capacity. This flexibility and categorical knowledge is handy information for any artist, as well as a clever way to save on services related to moving and handling one’s own artwork. Knowing how to wrap and install a variety of works properly means big savings while navigating exhibitions and gaining a wider audience – savings that can go toward more materials or public relations when starting your own art business.

Artist’s Studio Assistant

When starting out as an artist, there is no better role to take on than assisting another artist in their studio. Can the work be difficult, resulting in long hours and unexpected tasks or personality clashes? Absolutely. That in no way diminishes the experience of witnessing first-hand how established independent visual artists run their studios, resulting in inspiration (or a list of no-no’s) on how to run one’s own atelier. While this work can often feel like an apprenticeship – when assisting with someone else’s work, credit can be minimal or nonexistent – it yields a richer understanding of the intricacies of the art world’s particular ecology, as well as important contacts that can help to advance one’s own career. Consider it a long-term investment along the path to greatness.

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Artists are natural teachers, and teaching can be a great alternative income strategy for artists.


Artists to a varying degree have studied teaching methods throughout their entire education – from taking undergrad classes to completing an MFA program, the precise methods used in teaching visual artists how to create work have undoubtedly shaped their own practice.

Experienced artists with the patience and acumen to transition into arts education, whether at the university level or any other age level and background, have another alternative income stream available to them for a lifetime. There will never be a shortage of creative souls seeking arts education, and while public schools may not always have a fully staffed art department, there are always creative studios and alternative programs seeking teachers for part-time work.

Teaching also offers greater flexibility in terms of studio time; however, word to the wise: teaching can yield lower salaries than anticipated for entry-level adjuncts, and those classes will not be planning themselves. Teaching is, therefore, a solid alternative income option for independent artists who are steadily selling more works and frequently exhibit their works locally but are seeking a way to give back while supplementing existing income.

Freelance Design and Merchandise Sales

There is no shortage of ways to promote work out there, and it may be savvy to pursue online outlets where services or mass produced artwork can be sold. For those attuned to the design end of things, sites such as Orangenius, Dribbble, Behance, and even Fiverr will list portfolios and serve as platforms to nail potential gigs, usually demanding a quick turnaround. If one’s artistic style relates to pop culture, or is easily mass produced, then these creations can be listed at sites like Society6 to gain more exposure. For some independent artists, this isn’t a feasible option due to their medium or practice, but for others, these options could serve as alternative income sources to support their work.

Ultimately, artists should work on developing a practice that includes time for alternative income streams.

Rather than develop a schedule that solely leaves room for art-making, artists should carve out some time for steady work that can serve as a reliable revenue source. Whether that’s working as a studio assistant, a teacher or at a museum, mapping out an alternative income strategy can keep an artist’s financial woes at bay – and leave plenty of stress-free time to create in the process.

About the author

Audra Lambert

Audra Lambert is a curator, arts marketing consultant and editor.


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