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It’s Time to Remove the Stigma Around the Commercial Artist

According to Nobel Prize-winning physicist Werner Heisenberg, “Life’s essence should always be clearly noticeable behind the love, or the music, or the work.”  In art schools, however, there is often a distinct boundary drawn between the commercial artist and the fine artist in terms of their ability to attain this lofty distinction. Whereas fine art exists to elevate aesthetic enjoyment of life’s essence, commercial art is often seen as mere enticement to consumers to buy a product. Fine art requires talent, whereas the commercial artist simply utilizes acquired skills. Fine art is respected and critically acclaimed; commercial art might be appreciated, but you will never find it in a museum. Despite never having been ‘pure’ to begin with, the latter half of the 20th century has witnessed a rapid collapse of these distinctions–and that was even before bloggers and Instagram celebs began to outpace art critics for influence.

In addition to being perceived as ‘pure,’ fine artists also have a reputation for being perennially unhappy, hungry and underemployed. But the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP) out of Indiana University is setting out to prove this conventional wisdom about the distinction between these supposed discrete fields and the wealth and happiness of artists wrong.

In compiling data to help art schools improve outcomes for their graduates, SNAAP has uncovered some surprising – and hopeful – findings. Among the results, the survey found 92 percent of the 13,581 survey respondents said they were employed, with 57 percent either making or had made a living from their work (the survey was designed to eliminate art-related jobs from the tally, including art teachers and art administrators). Six out of ten artists claimed to be self-employed, and 14 percent said they run their own company.

Although they largely reported being happy enough with their art school education, claiming that they would do it again, SNAAP respondents noted that instruction on the business realities of being an artist was the number one place where art schools fall short.

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Artist who have been able to combine their artistic talent with strategic thinking have found a way to break the mold.

Independent Artists Are Becoming More Realistic

Luckily, there is a new generation of independent artists–who also double as strategic thinkers–who have been able to not only reverse-engineer success for their own benefit but are willing to share that information with the greater public.

The new media ecology may have disrupted the idea of media as a public square–a central gathering place where people come to have their diverse voices heard–but, on the plus side, with relative ease of access and cheap, easy-to-use tools, the internet is allowing once-consumers to use their creative talents to build new avenues and audiences for their work.

Among the growing number of podcasts that fill the business gap for independent artists, a few standouts include songwriter Cathy Heller’s Don’t Keep Your Day Job, and poet Mark McGuinness’ The 21st Century Creative. These podcasts are representative of a growing trend among independent artists to move along the following trajectory:

Freelancer: One who makes creative work that meets the needs of a client.

Agency: One who helps other artists produce client-driven work.

Product: One who packages this knowledge into courses or other packages that offer the information up to a broader audience.

In essence, this model establishes a new class of creators among commercial artists who make work for money and work for fun. This rising class of artist entrepreneurs dispels the myth that being a successful artist need be exclusively tied to the gallery model.

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“Making it” doesn’t always turn out as you’d envisioned when you decided to become an artist, and that’s okay.

Why “making it” isn’t all it is cracked up to be

Cathy Heller was just like thousands of other singer-songwriters in Los Angeles trying to make it, a girl who once spent hours and hours in front of the mirror singing into her hairbrush. As an adult, Heller moved to LA, honed her craft, played at any opportunity, made friends with other musicians, bought tons of records, toured and recorded. When she got a major record deal, she thought she’d made it.  

Then Heller learned that sad truth – that the cachet of a record deal wasn’t going to pay the bills. Eventually, she quit the record company and decided to skip the middleman. Using IMDB, she located the people–namely, music managers–who were directly responsible for hiring musicians in film and television, and began to reverse-engineer the process of becoming a successful commercial musician.

Regarding the secret to success, Heller likes to tell a story about a standby seat she occupied on a flight from New York to Florida, next to basketball legend Michael Jordan. He told her the secret to his success was ‘polite persistence.’ She recalls him saying: “If you have the persistence, if you have the grit, and you have the passion for something, it doesn’t matter if you’re the first draft pick, or if you’re the 150th draft pick. You’ll become the one that everyone is talking about.”

It took years and a lot of trial and error, but eventually, Heller found a niche for herself with songs like ‘Let Your Colors Shine,’ about the uniquely colorful spark that lives inside each of us. Instead of writing songs to accompany scenes of heartbreak or big breakthroughs, Heller composes soundtracks for sweet, understated moments.

Since she began operating her own company Catch the Moon Music, Heller has expanded her multi-six-figure business into an agency, helping other musical artists crack the licensing code. Finally, by creating affordable DIY-courses and the Don’t Keep Your Day Job podcast (which is a great resource for artists of all disciplines), Heller makes this information accessible to a global audience of hopeful singer-songwriters and creatives.

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The art industry is constantly changing and diversifying; being at the forefront of those changes is essential to relevance.

Adapt Your Art Business to an Evolving Landscape

The art industry is changing. The world is changing. Change is nothing new.

One of the trickier aspects of Heller’s story is that insights gained in forging a new path cannot be replicated by simply following someone else’s formula. Statistical modeling of innovation suggests that only 2.5 percent of any given population will become Innovators, bringing new ideas and ways of working, doing and thinking into the world. After that, you have Early Adopters, Early Majority, Late Majority and at the end Laggards, who remain tied to old systems long past their expiry date.

According to ARTnews, 46 major contemporary art galleries closed between 2015 and 2017, a marked uptick from the 12 closures worldwide between 2012 and 2015. While the global visual art industry is still dominated by brick-and-mortar auction houses and galleries –  online sales account for only 7% the market – that industry is diversifying, presenting a major opportunity for the commercial artist willing to fill the gaps.

Brussels-based art collector Alain Servais, who tracks international gallery closings on Twitter at hashtag #groworgo and contributed to the ARTnews article, is among a growing number of voices demanding galleries adapt to the fact that technology is bringing the art world to a bigger, more diverse audience.  

Online galleries are also on the ascendant. Rise Art, for instance, which offers its online customers the opportunity to rent a piece of art before they buy, claimed in early 2017 to be growing at an average of 30 percent a month and dedicates a portion of its catalog to artworks under 500 dollars.

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Many of the great artist we love had jobs on the side; the rigid barrier between fine art and commercial art creates the myth that masks this truth.

Commercial Artists are Natural Entrepreneurs

Andy Warhol, among the 20th century’s most well-known and beloved artists, was a highly influential commercial artist and graphic designer before he exhibited his work in galleries. Romare Bearden treated everything from book covers to theater programs as canvas, insisting that the New English Art Club treat his work as a commercial artist as equal to fine artwork by Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, and John Singer Sargent.

The reality is that the modernist idea of a rigid barrier dividing commercial artist and fine artist is largely a myth. Maintaining it masks a larger, more complex story about how artists support themselves and their work.

Artists have jobs. T. S. Eliot worked at a bank. Henri Rousseau was a tax collector. Maya Angelou was San Francisco’s first Black streetcar conductor. After the Met premiere of his opera Einstein on the Beach in 1976, composer Philip Glass went back to fixing pipes and driving taxis.

There remains a romantic notion that obtaining gallery representation is the key to long-term sustainability and recognition as an artist. Some artists, working in coffee shops or doing other low-wage work, hold out for the day when a gallery will step in to establish them in the marketplace. Becoming a successful gallery artist is rare, happens gradually and requires a consistent track record of shows, accomplishments, and sales.

So while the commercial artist-business model is not a solution for everyone (there are musicians who would rather die than make sugary pop songs to accompany a Starbucks commercial), some are willing to take a less aristocratic attitude and learn the skills it takes not only to make the work but to establish a market for it. Letting go of rigid ideas about commercial artist versus fine artist, their ability to fill a client need can actually open up new possibilities for creating new art audiences leading to a more sustainable creative life.

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Erin Sickler

Erin Sickler is a mindfulness & creativity coach living in the Hudson Valley. A former NY art curator, she has worked with some of the world’s most successful living artists and now writes about expanded modes of being on the creative path.

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  • Necessity is the mother of invention. I have been an artist for the past 4 decades working internationally across media platforms on projects sometimes initiated by me in partnership with a diverse client-base. Making art for a living is problem-solving. If some of it ends up being great art, all the better. Thanks for your illuminating piece.
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    • Hi Edward, Thanks for your comment and kind words. Was reading today this comparison between the “starving artist,” which includes an insatiable craving for validation, and the hungry entrepreneur” who not only seeks a vision but takes complete responsibility for it.

      Of course, some artists are “hungry entrepreneurs” and some would-be entrepreneurs are “starving artists”–they’re not fixed or comprehensive categories–but one thing I’d really like to dispel is the romantic aura around the starving artist.

      Maybe we can blame Baudelaire who said: “Genius is no more than childhood recaptured at will.”
      I think what he meant by this was the idea of the “child” in the Nietzschean sense, as being filled with wonder, appreciation and a sense of playfulness, but it seems to have been often interpreted as life-long adolescence or dependency.

      Best to you, sir!