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Art Business

Freedom of Movement: First Jobs Supporting an Artist Studio in the Gig Economy, Pt II

Another integral part of an artist’s practice is supporting the work they want to produce by focusing on building up their artist studio. Here we explore advice for artists seeking to create work, connect with a wider community – and find the right home for their art-making while making a living in the gig economy!

From the Artist Studio to the Collector’s Home

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Approaching your artist studio as a space with multiple nodes of practice geared to different audiences or goals is another way to approach a “holistic path” when building your life as an artist! Atlanta-based artist John Folsom’s first jobs were in Nashville, Tennessee photo labs and were strategic in nature. “[This] gave me access to materials of photography. I learned how to see, I learned how to print, and I could go in after hours, which cut costs [when producing my work].” Today, Folsom makes a living with his art, yet employs multiple approaches in building his life as an artist. “One thing I think about is the business side of it. Andy Warhol often crosses my mind. He would have all these commissions but then would have moments where he would ask, ‘…but what are we going to do for the art?’ I try to do that. The work I produce for galleries is pretty commercial in that it is landscape based and seeks an immediate engagement with the viewer. [This type of] work finances things that don’t have a certain market sensibility. It’s successful for me because I’m able to work in these different ways.” Folsom also has learned that interior designers are significant players in the regional art market, as they often recommend work for people’s homes. Staying in touch with interior designers working in your area may be a helpful method for finding new avenues for your artwork to have a life outside of the studio in visible environments or perhaps  find a home with a new collector!

Similarly, Bridgeport, Connecticut-based artists Ruben Marroquin and Liz Squillace combine commercial projects in their artist studio with their personal studio practices. Like Folsom, Marroquin recognizes interior designers as partners who bring monetary and marketing benefits, “The dynamics are unusual because often the artist’s name [may not be] mentioned and that can feel like a missed opportunity, but designers will pay for the work and you don’t have to invest in a gallery exhibition. When I have gotten a credit on a renowned designer’s Instagram post, that has brought tons of phone calls…this opens up new connections and collaborations that are monetarily and creatively beneficial.” Sharing an adjacent studio with Marroquin, Squillace sees her practice as having multiple aspects that perform different functions, “I’m always excited to sell a painting, but the bulk of my income is through client-based work. I don’t like to think of gigs as ‘side jobs’ because, in a practical way, I have tried to blend making money with making art so there is hardly a separation. I put as much artistic talent into preparing and burning a screen for a client as I do working on more personal work. I actually feel more purpose in commercial work because I’m helping others achieve their goals and am engaging in problem-solving.”

Pittsburgh-based artist and activist Shaun Slifer employs a diverse array of approaches, including printmaking with the artist cooperative Justseeds, curating at the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum, and various individual projects that often aim to dig up alternate historical narratives. His projects include a mix of research, activism, and alternative exhibition strategies. With an emphasis on educational/activist work that often involves ephemeral materiality, Slifer’s practice is primarily reliant on hourly-wage jobs such as art handling, a part-time position at Justseeds, and working in museum education. One of his first jobs in Pittsburgh was cutting vinyl lettering, but he found that it wasn’t very sustainable. “I worked weekends and nights. I was constantly dealing with people thinking I was charging too much no matter what I was charging. It ran me into the ground and didn’t add up.” Now a mid-career artist, Slifer finds that people sometimes encourage him to monetize his social practice work, saying things like “You should do that thing you did and sell that.” Slifer describes his perception of this impulse, “By and large the suggestion is that you get a ‘real job’ in this passive way –  that you, as an artist, aren’t able to identify what is market viable, so let me help you do that. When an artist wants to do something that’s not market viable people don’t understand because it rubs up against the capitalist model.”

Collaboration and the Artist Studio

Folsom’s touchstone of Warhol is apropos in thinking about capitalist models. Warhol – whose first job was that of an illustrator –  did, after all, simultaneously redefine, resist, and redouble capitalist approaches to art. He also enjoined that work and life were inseparable in Andy Warhol: The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (1975), which arguably, still rings true more than 40 years later. The artist quips about his approach to art-making throughout the tome. “I suppose I have a really loose interpretation of ‘work,’ because I think that just being alive is so much work at something you don’t always want to do. Being born is like being kidnapped. And then sold into slavery. People are working every minute. The machinery is always going. Even when you sleep.” Andy Warhol’s frank ruminations on art were as relevant then as they remain now.

One New York City-based established artist and former MacArthur Fellow speculates that one way artists in the U.S. might be able to find freedom of movement in the “machinery,” is the establishment of a Universal Basic Income, a model for providing all citizens of a country with a given sum of money regardless of their income or employment status. Cooperatives and collectives can also be useful to artists, along with creating work in an artist studio, to support them in maximizing freedom of movement with the added benefit of connecting with a larger community. Trebor Scholz writes and lectures on Platform Cooperativism as a possible solution to gig economy woes in the spirit of banding together for financial security. “Platform cooperativism,” notes Scholz, “is about cloning the technological heart of online platforms and puts it to work with a cooperative model, one that puts workers, owners, communities, and cities — in a kind of solidarity that leads to political power.” Liz Squillace found that collective sharing of resources provided her with interpersonal and professional encouragement as a young artist. She cites Stamford, Connecticut’s Loft Artist Association as being “Crucial for getting me started. A supportive art association that worked together to put on shows, offered studio space, received grants, had a gallery, and hosted open studios. They provided a window for me to see it was possible to support myself as an artist.”

Forming new avenues of collaboration, shared resources, and frank discussions with other artists in a wide network around equanimity and income are all useful methods of finding the next pathway to your security as an artist in the gig economy. By harboring a welcome – and productive – artist studio environment, artists can entice new avenues of conversation, community engagement and sales opportunities!

Have advice on making your artist studio a welcome place to invite conversation? Have experience in supporting your studio through commissions or other paying gigs? Share your insights in the comments below!



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Terri Smith

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