State of the Arts

Victoria Ward

The art of earning an income from art

If you’re like me you will be shocked that its Labour Day weekend already. The end of summer always sneaks up on me. It seems ridiculous because the thing about August is that it is known in my household for being a cooler version of July, no bugs and a signal that grant application season is upon us again.

Having been a professional artist for a long, long time I have filled out my share of grant applications. There have been years taken off; times of shear burnout and defiance toward what has become a necessary and brutally degrading form of potential income via lottery. While I have over the years been a recipient of some money, its tally would amount to what someone working at a catering job for one year would make.

Although I love to receive grants for my work and believe all professional artists more than deserve them when they are granted; I would rather sell my work and earn my income in other ways. Philosophically I have always been a kind of free market person (well, except for the Marxism), or should I say I am someone who likes to have my work and services purchased for what they are worth.

Free market types will tell you that price is determined by demand. But I think price should be determined by a product or service’s worth (worth being defined by me as time and labour). I think this because most of what consumerism derives from is a manipulative means of producing goods no one needs. We are persuaded to need them by the advertising and marketing industry.

Art should be valued by the artist and the individual who is paying. Not just one over the other. If you read about art and its value right now you will find that prices are at an all time high and that investors are scooping up art works in droves. This scares the bejesus out of me because investors did just that with real estate in the US and now real estate is an industry turned on its head. It could also burst and turn the clock back to a more reasonable pricing situation where master works are not out of reach of galleries and only sold to Russian energy billionaires. But who knows? The world is a strange place. I mean could anyone have guessed that something called Pussy Riot would become a beacon for human rights?

Artists are notorious for being weird about their art’s worth. There is the artist who prices their work beyond reason because they believe themselves to be the second coming; there is the artist whose work is essentially stolen from them at a rock bottom pricing strategy; and there is the artist who seems to price their work all over the place. Making art isn’t like getting a salary; it doesn’t fit that mould. And here is where things get really tricky.

Cosimo il Vecchio, the greatest of the Medici’s by Bronzino. He paid artists. The Koch brothers should wish that they had this man’s clout and style.

Artists are totally reluctant to indulge in a dialogue about their income. This is because many earn their money totally from subsidies, some are still at their parent’s trough, others have full time teaching positions and they don’t want that held against them, some inherited their cash, many artists come from money, and some are engaged in somewhat less than legal industries. And there are hobby artists who refuse to do it full time “because that’s insane” and have a regular income but still want the prestige of being a professional artist – these people make it impossible for all of the above to discuss anything.

I don’t blame artists for being cagey about their incomes; it’s more complicated than working as a teller in a bank or behind a counter of a restaurant. But you can’t have it both ways. Your art is either tied to your income or its not. If it is not tied to your income then its value is based on what? The materials? Did it appear magically? Because if it didn’t then you, or someone spent time on it and that is tying income to art.

However if you have invested in your own work and then been able to profit from its increasing value, well then you are the Mitt Romney of the art world. Bravo! But I suspect most artists do not fall into this category.

Seeing your art as income erases boundaries for much of the public who don’t get it. I have suspicions though that it is the art world who does not want this frank discussion because of the naïve belief that putting a price on something makes it seem less a thing than it should be. Perhaps that is true but its flip side is that without such a measure making art can be seen as a less serious aspect of life and something no one has to pay properly for.

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