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Making a living while working in the arts
July 30, 2012 10:39 AM   Subscribe

Is it possible to make a living in the arts? Meet the double jobbers.
posted by PeterMcDermott (36 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
Pretty much resigned to never giving up the day job here. But one can dream, I have friends who've done it, none of whom are living big.

(in this case "the Arts" extends to "writing about Wolverine.")
posted by Artw at 10:45 AM on July 30, 2012


I'd like to imagine that the Guardian culture section is like a bizarro-universe NYT Style Section. Instead of making up trends and reporting on them, they report on what must have been the status quo for ... ever? I mean, has there ever been a point in contemporary history when a relatively unestablished artist didn't have to support themselves with an outside job?
posted by griphus at 10:51 AM on July 30, 2012 [15 favorites]


"the Arts" extends to "writing about Wolverine."

And that was how Artw got its name.
posted by Beardman at 10:53 AM on July 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


Is it possible to make a living, period? Meet the double jobbers.
posted by Curious Artificer at 10:58 AM on July 30, 2012 [8 favorites]


There have been times griphus, and places, where such a thing could occur. But then either they were: Rich kids of some variety, or in pretty rough circumstances. Or during nascent booms: move to New York in 1950 with some draw

But I mean fuck, an artist can still move to Baltimore or Omaha or New Orleans and work a few days a week in a coffeeshop and make art most of the time. They just can't do it in comfort, which certainly wasn't available in the LES in 1981 either. Or they can be Wallace Stevens. I prefer the latter, because I am really really lazy. So there.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:03 AM on July 30, 2012


There is still Arts Council funding for individual artists.

Also nationalized health care. I firmly believe that the biggest obstacle to creativity in the U.S. is not taxes, and it's not regulations, it's employer-based health insurance. In places like the UK and Australia and etc., you can work a part-time job and create, or you can work two part-time jobs, or you can just freelance, etc. and you can make those decisions based on the pay or schedule or personal satisfaction, and you're free to travel in between gigs, or save up and take a sabbatical to write a book, or whatever.

As your budget and living situation allows, of course. I don't mean to idealize it as I know the economy and outsourcing have affected other industrialized nations, but in the U.S. all of those options are overshadowed by the fear of losing your health insurance.
posted by headnsouth at 11:04 AM on July 30, 2012 [25 favorites]


Fuck this computer. Anyway, as I was saying:
"Or during nascent booms: move to New York in 1950 with some drawing skills and get a job pretty easily doing comics. Move to LA in 1930 with some acting skills and get a job easily in some kinda film, even as an extra. Where are the boomtowns and booming industries now? They exist, but they aren't poetry writing or painting that's for sure."
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:05 AM on July 30, 2012


I'm told that there is some good stuff in the comments - however, I find that every few comments has something reactionary like "could have paid for a hospital", and so I haven't got into it.

However, for those with a interest in this area, you might want to check out Hans Abbing's Why Are Artists Poor - the Exceptional Economy of The Arts (author's subsite link with excerpts and conclusion, google books link).

His research basically points to a long tail distribution of artists, with rich, well remunerated artists like Hirst at the top, down to that skeezy guy who went out with your friend and said he was an artist but really just smoked a lot of pot at the bottom.

Abbing also spent a lot of time working out how artists are supported, and found that even during Holland's boomtime years - when artists could get grants to support them for long periods - lots of artists are supported by a spouse or family.

It's a shame his work wasn't cited in the Guardian article, as I think he's got another book coming out looking at the same area. Plus, then maybe they wouldn't have acted so surprised that the same thing is still happening.
posted by The River Ivel at 11:09 AM on July 30, 2012 [4 favorites]


...Why is the notion that most artists have day jobs suddenly something of note?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:12 AM on July 30, 2012 [6 favorites]


To be clear, it's the guys I know who have managed to go full time that are writing about Wolverine, I have not reached such lofty heights.

I did do a story about vampire strippers once though. One hundred and seventy five quid, KA-CHING!
posted by Artw at 11:14 AM on July 30, 2012


(A note on foreign currency conversion for US readers: ArtW's paycheck equates to roughly one-tenth of one percent of your outstanding medical bills.)
posted by griphus at 11:17 AM on July 30, 2012 [8 favorites]


I firmly believe that the biggest obstacle to creativity in the U.S. is not taxes, and it's not regulations, it's employer-based health insurance.

And the debt servitude that's pushed on young people (and their parents) as required, namely student loans.
posted by small_ruminant at 11:19 AM on July 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'd like to imagine that the Guardian culture section is like a bizarro-universe NYT Style Section. Instead of making up trends and reporting on them, they report on what must have been the status quo for ... ever?

Historically, the UK welfare system has supported a million wannabee artists, rock stars, writers, etc. etc. etc. While it was never exactly a good living, it was historically enough to keep body and soul together while people pursued their muse.

Recent welfare reforms mean this is no longer feasible.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 11:31 AM on July 30, 2012 [4 favorites]


Slightly relevant

Patton Oswalt's open letter to "both sides", creators and gatekeepers about the future of making a living from art.

posted by mmrtnt at 12:16 PM on July 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


Triple jobber, here. Which it what happens when the all of your day jobs (and an large chunk of your Plan Bs-Zs) increasingly look just as old-fashioned, unrealistic and doomed to failure as the reason you took all the day jobs to begin with. Might as well spend more time writing those plays!
posted by thivaia at 12:25 PM on July 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


Slightly relevant

That should have been this post.

Amazing letters.

Our careers don’t hinge on somebody in a plush office deciding to aim a little luck in our direction. There are no gates. They’re gone. The model for success as a comedian in the '70s and '80s? That was middle school. Remember, they’d hand you a worksheet, fill in the blanks on the worksheet, hand it in, you’ll get your little points.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 12:55 PM on July 30, 2012


I don't even know how many jobs I have - two, or seven or eight depending on how you define it. I work full-time for four head and neck oncologic surgeons and have AMAZING health insurance (which is why I will never leave this job, even if I win a Pulitzer), plus I am a writer, plus I run a small press, which means I am an editor, copywriter, marketer, web designer, etc all rolled into one. I love my life, but I couldn't do this and have kids too.
posted by joannemerriam at 12:59 PM on July 30, 2012


Historically, the UK welfare system has supported a million wannabee artists, rock stars, writers, etc. etc. etc. While it was never exactly a good living, it was historically enough to keep body and soul together while people pursued their muse.

In other words, other people were compelled to pay for them to not get a day job.
posted by John Cohen at 1:40 PM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


They did have a day job: making art. Other people were compelled to limit the amount of jobs they had to have to "one."
posted by griphus at 1:44 PM on July 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


(Well, "one" assuming they didn't mind living in basements and eating cat food or whatever.)
posted by griphus at 1:45 PM on July 30, 2012


I don't think it's a God-given right that just because you are a writer, or an artist or musician, you can decide that's your job. OK that's fine but – you're not going to have the lifestyle that some of your friends have. You'll have your art, but it's unrealistic to expect that to sustain you. The full-time writers I know have got there through a combination of being very, very good and by doing things other than their primary career.

An artist with a practical mindset and realistic goals?!? Hell, I would buy his book just as a show of support for that. (At least, the downloadable version.)
posted by wolfdreams01 at 3:40 PM on July 30, 2012


Yeah, this is something I first encountered as a young art student, in a very interesting book by a New York City psychologist who had many painters and artists as clients. He said every artist is torn between their "vocation and avocation." Their vocation is the job they use to subsidize their work, but they view that as time lost to what they really want to do, their avocation.

I tried balancing the two, by getting a job in printing and graphics, thinking that a job involving graphic arts would be enjoyable and keep me stimulated artistically. But I just ended up having no time for my artwork, and the work was horrible and low paying. Now I am underemployed and have plenty of time, but I have no money to pay for materials for my artwork.
posted by charlie don't surf at 3:41 PM on July 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think describing a social welfare system as being "compelled" to support people is a very loaded and manipulative way of talking about it. Unless you think that all taxes are compulsion - which some libertarians do, but I find it hard to take their views seriously as they tend to ignore the "compulsion" involved in the very idea of private property and a system of courts endorsing it.

If my income is going to be taxed, I personally am very happy with the idea that some of it goes to making my fellow citizens more secure and giving some of them the opportunity to pursue creative careers in which they have some talent. I might not like everything they produce. Even more importantly, I certainly will not see all the things they produce - how could I? And some of the investments won't pay off. There will be some cheating.

But that is a side effect of having a culture: there are bits of it you don't see and bits of it you might not like. I'm okay with that - you get what you pay for, and if that means paying more for a population of happy artists making a lively culture, that is a wonderful thing. And if the price of that is some benefit fraud or some bad art, so be it.

I would also add that the amount lost to the economy by corporations and the wealthy not paying taxes is vastly higher than benefit fraud and bad art combined. It would really be much more just to direct that anger and contempt upwards.
posted by lucien_reeve at 2:24 AM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


Otherwise, I think this is a really interesting article. It shows how the arts - much like the university - are having to adapt to the changes brought in by the Conservative Revolution of the past thirty years.

In the past, both universities and the arts were public goods: maintained by the government, they were intended to serve the needs of society as a whole, on the grounds that a technologically advanced, democratic society needed an educated citizenry and that culture should be accessible to everyone and was one of the things that made life worth living. As a result, the infrastructure of mass education was created, with California serving as a model for the rest of the world. Education and the arts, formerly the preserve of the wealthy, were made available to (almost, in theory) everyone.

The Conservative Revolution attacked that. There are all sorts of reasons why - but the practical effect of the Conservative philosophy has been to atomise society and to change the arts and education back into something that only the idle rich can afford to do.

These people are swimming against that current and I admire them for it. Like those who pursue academic subjects outside the over-burdened, under-paid and compromised conditions of modern academia, they are adapting to survive. There are definitely benefits and disadvantages to working on art as a second job - because you are less dependent on it for income, you are more free to do it your way - but it can be a frustrating experience, not being able to do something you know you can do really well.*

*In my case, I should emphasise that I am certainly not talking about my own short stories, which are written for fun, but about something else altogether.
posted by lucien_reeve at 3:20 AM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


I suspect that the really successful artists happen to chance upon a commercial niche.
I know my sister, who makes wonderful jewellery, and has a degree in fine arts and works part time repairing crystal figurines, could never make a living off the art she wants to do.
That is because the art she wants to do is perfect rings and necklaces and things. And perfect sometimes takes three or four attempts before it is perfect to her, and potentially dozens and dozens of hours.
So she works for a week to produce a ring that is very nice, but for nearly every potential client, not drastically different from another one they can buy for $100.
She could produce work that is more commercial, that is, quicker to make with less perfectionism, but then she feels it is work, not art.
My guess is many successful artists luck into art that happens to be commercial too, so they can produce commercially valued results while still feeling artistic integrity.
posted by bystander at 3:39 AM on July 31, 2012


If my income is going to be taxed, I personally am very happy with the idea that some of it goes to making my fellow citizens more secure and giving some of them the opportunity to pursue creative careers in which they have some talent. I might not like everything they produce. Even more importantly, I certainly will not see all the things they produce - how could I? And some of the investments won't pay off. There will be some cheating.

But that is a side effect of having a culture: there are bits of it you don't see and bits of it you might not like. I'm okay with that - you get what you pay for, and if that means paying more for a population of happy artists making a lively culture, that is a wonderful thing. And if the price of that is some benefit fraud or some bad art, so be it.


You may be happy subsidizing other citizens pursuing creative careers so that our society can be filled with art. But what about me? I want to be an artist myself, but I don't get any of your subsidy. Quite the contrary, I work a day job that can get rather stressful at times.

So when you say that taxes should go to subsidize art, you are essentially saying that I have to give up my money - that I could spend to finance my own artistic aspirations - and give it instead to some other artists who are either too lazy or too proud to do what I do and hold down a real job in addition to making art. What gives you - or our government - the right to make that decision? After all, artistic funding comes from everyone's tax dollars, not just your own.

I would also add that the amount lost to the economy by corporations and the wealthy not paying taxes is vastly higher than benefit fraud and bad art combined.

I fully agree with this point, but the existence of a greater injustice doesn't negate the existence of the lesser one.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 11:23 AM on July 31, 2012


So when you say that taxes should go to subsidize art, you are essentially saying that I have to give up my money - that I could spend to finance my own artistic aspirations - and give it instead to some other artists who are either too lazy or too proud to do what I do and hold down a real job in addition to making art. What gives you - or our government - the right to make that decision? After all, artistic funding comes from everyone's tax dollars, not just your own.

Exactly how much could you finance your own artistic aspirations with the six dollars of your tax money which is going to these other artists?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:36 AM on July 31, 2012


Empress, this is more of a stand on principle than a stand on economic value (as I said, I fully agree that there are far greater social injustices that could be corrected, especially when it comes to sharing the tax burden). Day jobs are work, while making art is fun. What gives you or anybody else the right to ask that I work so that somebody else can have fun? It just rubs me the wrong way, that's all.

The fact that most "artists" come off as somewhat pretentious when I meet them in person only makes it worse, because if there's anybody I absolutely don't want to see my money going to, it's somebody who views themselves as a "special snowflake." Surely you can understand that instinct, even if you don't agree with it?
posted by wolfdreams01 at 12:06 PM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


Empress, this is more of a stand on principle than a stand on economic value (as I said, I fully agree that there are far greater social injustices that could be corrected, especially when it comes to sharing the tax burden). Day jobs are work, while making art is fun. What gives you or anybody else the right to ask that I work so that somebody else can have fun?

With all due respect, if you call making art "fun," then this is further evidence for me that you haven't the slightest clue what you're talking about.

Let me introduce you to an actual artist. He designs lights for theater, dance, and corporate events. The corporate events are the ones that bring in the big bucks, but are few and far between (especially now, in the era that many think banks are evil - they're all circling the wagons and cancelling a lot of showy corporate events, and putting him out of a job). The theater and dance events pay a pittance. But he puts the same creative effort into both kinds of work.

And that creative effort often involves solid weeks when he has 18-hour days, which often begin with him having to show up at a venue at four in the morning, climb ladders to change big heavy bulbs or color filters, then climb down and check to see that he hasn't nudged it a fraction of an inch out of place and then climb back again to fix it, and then again to fix it more, over and over for each one of as many as 40 different lights. They also often involve lengthy meetings with directors and producers trying to negotiate the right kind of balance between "what the director wants to see on stage" with "what is achievable with the given budget, the given circuitry of the building, and the laws of physics," and with his own artistic sensibilities (and believe me, he has them - I have served as his stage manager a couple times, and have seen more of his work, and I can definitely tell when he's lit a show). They also involve on-the-fly problem solving - I once saw him make a light template out of a pocket knife and a tinfoil pie plate, simply because the factory-made custom one we wanted was too much money and would take too long to produce. He just went into a corner with a copy of the image we wanted and did it.

And that's not counting the hours and hours before hand of analyzing the blueprints of the space in question, calculating the spill of the lights that are availble to him, reviewing the play for the different artistic "beats" of the play and deciding how each bit of the scene should "look," and then plotting it all out on one of the most complicated design software packages I know of in an attempt to figure out where to put the lights in order to make all that happen in the first place, in such a way that he can make the lights multi-task and not have them getting stuck behind poles or struts or curtains or something.

He loves this work. But he would be first to tell you that it is absolutely is work, and it is a fucking lot of work. Far from seeing himself as a "special snowflake," he is working his ass off to not have to have an office job like I do, and he is hanging on with his fingernails.

And if you have a problem with someone like him getting a grant, then God help you.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:36 PM on July 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


Empress, I greatly respect your friend's work ethic, but our discussion was about artists, and I'm not sure what your friend has to do with that topic. Are you seriously claiming that designing and installing light fixtures is art? If we're going to define art so broadly, then why limit it only to light fixtures? Let us define designing and installing all fixtures to be art, so that my plumber and electrician can finally get the respect they deserve as gifted artists!
posted by wolfdreams01 at 1:30 PM on July 31, 2012


Are you seriously claiming that designing and installing light fixtures is art?

He does not "install light fixtures." He is a lighting designer. And yes, that does make him an artist.

Although, yes, design is also considered an art as well. There are museums devoted to design and everything.

You know, in those conversations with artists you were talking about, I'm not so sure THEY were the pretentious ones.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:50 PM on July 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


My guess is many successful artists luck into art that happens to be commercial too, so they can produce commercially valued results while still feeling artistic integrity.

True. The most successful artist I know from my circle of friends is a printmaker. A press costs a lot of money, and so did his downtown LA loft. His primary moneymaking work is monoprinting. He prints dozens of them, he does horribly commercial still life prints of flowers, etc. He inks the plate, runs a few prints, and re-inks it and just churns out the prints. He doesn't really care how good they are, because of the buyer: a picture frame maker. They put his monoprints in frames they're selling, and when the buyer purchase it, he discards the monoprint.

EmpressCalipygos: He does not "install light fixtures." He is a lighting designer. And yes, that does make him an artist.

That makes him an engineer or an artisan. But definitely not an artist. An artist is someone like Jim Turrell, who is an artist who designs art installations of lighting fixtures. But he might hire your pal to install his art.
posted by charlie don't surf at 6:26 PM on July 31, 2012


I think EmpressCalipygos's point still stands though, that art is definitely work, at least the kind of art that would be receiving grant money. And there are many possible artistic endeavors that are not directly profitable, but still can add some beauty, culture, community, or serendipity to our world. I think that's worth supporting with a certain amount of public funds. It may not be mission critical work, but it is work nonetheless to stage an exhibition, or for an orchestra to perform, or to commission a photographer to document something of cultural importance.
posted by malapropist at 7:18 PM on July 31, 2012


That makes him an engineer or an artisan. But definitely not an artist. An artist is someone like Jim Turrell, who is an artist who designs art installations of lighting fixtures. But he might hire your pal to install his art.

Lighting design is not a visual art, but a lighting designer is still an artist the way a director or a set designer or an actor is also an artist.

And no, a theatrical lighting designer would NOT accept an offer to install someone else's light installation, because "installing someone's lighting" is not their job. Lighting designers don't even install their own installations. Theater has its own artisans and engineers who do that; they're called electricians, just like the ones who would install Jim Turrell's work.

You accept that Jim Turrel's designing of art installations is "art". Why do you not accept that someone designing installations for use in a stage show is "art"?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:55 PM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


It’s deeply weird to me seeing people say LDs aren’t artists. Describing them as engineers is plain inaccurate, although if you want to keep the term Artist for the sort of visual artist whose work gets put in galleries, I’d accept Creative as a substitute.

I would be kind of curious to see where you'd draw the line though, EmpressCallipygos. Which people who typically get credited as being part of the Creative Team aren’t actually artists? I’d have a hard time fighting for Artist status for Vocal Coach, Casting Director or Dramaturg.
posted by the latin mouse at 3:10 AM on August 8, 2012


So long as "artist" also includes the designers I'm good. Not sure where the other techies would fall - because they are still working in an art-related field, which has requirements and a job market that is often very different from the more traditional ones. The work a stagehand does may not be artistic on the face of it, but it also can't translate quite so neatly to other fields - there's a difference between moving set pieces and, say, moving furniture.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:37 AM on August 8, 2012


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