Making your Art Work

• Ever dreamt of living as an artist?
• Want your hobby to become financially viable?
• Long to be your own boss?
• Want to be inspired, rather than tired?

‘Art’ and ‘income’ are not words that tend to sit comfortably in the same sentence, ditto with ‘passion’ and ‘profit’. So just how possible is it to live as an artist? To use a phrase from a book by Stephen Walsh, to succeed, you need the “art and the engine.”

Over the years I have seen really talented artists fail because they don’t have the engine, whilst some less than talented artists have succeeded because they have the ability to create interest and energy around their work. Take Damien Hirst, one of the world’s top living artists (think the shark in a tank of formaldehyde and the skull encrusted with diamonds), who took an unprecedented move by by-passing his galleries and selling a complete show for £111 million (1.99 billion) breaking the record for a one-artist auction. Interestingly, though perhaps not unexpectedly, Wikipedia describe him as an entrepreneur, rather than artist in their one word description of him. Described as “average” by his art school tutors, Hirst did not, it appears have the makings of a man who was destined to exhibit in the Tate gallery. Yet the man has an extremely powerful V-8+ engine!

So we can whine about talent that doesn’t get noticed and appear appalled when art and the need to make an income, appear in the same sentence but the truth is, like any commodity (unless we happen to be trust fund kids) our art needs to be for sale in order not just to survive, but thrive. And remember we are selling our art, not as some would like to imply, our souls.

Since the publication on my first book on art, I have encountered many people with engines, fewer with talent and very few with both. South Africa is not a country filled with a rich heritage of art loving inhabitants. The majority of the population have had to focus too hard on survival to be concerned with adorning their walls, whilst even the minority often have art at the bottom of their list of essential ‘must-haves’. So living as an artist in Africa would not be the choice of anyone who has a fear of rejection or expectations of luxurious living.

I wrote the book Making your art work (sold out, but since republished as How to make an income from your art ISBN-10: 1845284941 ISBN-13: 978-1845284947) in an attempt to bridge the gap between art and income. Whilst there is no magic wand, there are certain things that you can do which will help such as knowing how to approach galleries, should one consign work, how to price your work, set up a website etc., as well as the more psychological aspects of dealing with creative blocks and dealing with rejection.

I’m also amazed at the number of artists who want to be commercial, yet who seldom if ever go to galleries and look at artists who are experiencing success. First Thursdays is a great way to see what’s happening in the contemporary Cape art world. (First Thursdays) The galleries in Cape Town host events and exhibitions on the first Thursday of each month until late at night.

The other thing I have noticed is that most artists starting out tend to emulate a better known artist. Not a problem in the beginning, but if you are to become an artist in your own right, you need to develop your own style (think Marlene Dumas or William Kentridge), otherwise whilst you may get some piggyback sales, but you’ll never become recognised in your own right. Art is also a muscle, and like training at the gym, needs to be exercised regularly. (Like every day.) If you only show up occasionally for an art session, chances are you’ll have lost confidence and artistic fitness.

Art is subjective. What one gallery owner loves, another might not. So look for a match for your work and if you get the brush off (get it!) then try the next one. It must be said though that after four galleries have given the thumbs down it might be reasonable to imagine that you may not be ready for that step and a bit of exercising may be the way to go. See the rejection then, as a move to push you to greater and better things, rather than a permanently closed door.

78%* of Americans will make at least one career change. More often this change will be to experience greater self-fulfilment. Common choices involve community work or work that expresses their creative spirit. The desire to opt out of mainstream living and pursue your passion is common to most of us, but to do so requires both the art (talent) and the engine (ability to get your work out there). So before you give up your day job (and the comfort of knowing that the 26th of each month heralds cash being paid into your account), spend time honing your artistic skills and putting petrol in your engine.

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