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Saturday, 21 March 2009


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This is a very well written article. I agree that making a living as an artist is hard work, more so if you are just starting out. The stereotype of the "starving artist" doesn't deter many aspiring artists because they see art not just as a source of income, but as a way of life. It all comes down to supply and demand - there are lots of aspiring artists and not enough wall space.

Glamorous professions always attract more people. This is also true of professional sports, tennis for example. Only the best (top 200 or so) earn enough to be truly financially independent.

A very interesting article. I guess it all comes down to what people REALLY value, versus what they say they value.

The problem is, art has to be affordable to the masses for the artist to make a living. That means high volume, c.f., pop music.

Maybe artists need something like an iTunes website, where they can sell their art to lots of fans, with each fan not paying very much money yet the volume of sales provides considerable income to the artist. Maybe some way of monetizing an RSS feed of selected artists' works, to digital picture frames. The technology is there today but it's still a bit expensive; you'd need large, high-res displays to be fairly cheap. [Note: This was a big dream of Bill Gates two decades ago and I believe the reason that drove him to own Corbis.] Obviously, stock photo sites have some of the infrastructure, but there is no direct connection to the average consumer.

Or, maybe a way (specialized app, file format) to let people download a large, printable image and print it themselves on their own inkjet. Cuts down some of the COGS and lets the artist virtualize his work.

Maybe the real problem is that while people like art and admire artists, not enough of them like art enough to make being an artist a viable career choice. Especially with today's technology, maybe more people would rather create and display their own art than art produced by others.

I'm following the Ctein experiment with interest. Along with others, his personal style is not aesthetically appealing to me, but it's a big world and surely he can find 1000 fans...?

Terrific article, John.

Thank you for putting this conundrum into words so eloquently.

Excellent article.

Putting ART on a pedestal, turns off a large audience; making an understanding of art only open to a select few is ruinous. When a cheap reproduction of famous art is better than an unknown actual painting, PFUI.

The cultural climate is not conducive to art, that's all.

Ctein's experiment may be successful, for multiples; not sure how to translate it to one-ofs.

Bron, it's a good thing I like carving and gilding, Janulis

As a fine arts photographer by profession, and also a member of the Authors Guild, I found your article beautiful---shockingly accurate in all regards.

I wrote an mss for a book on just this subject a few years back. It was recommended for publication by the editors at a major book company, but got killed off by marketing.

I would add from my own experience that most fine art photography galleries are plagued by owners that have come to the industry without much knowledge, but rather having the finances to "buy in." Most cannot understand works within the present time frame---relying on art history, not making new history with art. Many still believe that digital photography and computers are evil, and a photographer using them a scoundrel.

The modern era of curators in museums often fails to notice work in the present tense for the same reasons. But more and more, curators are trying to make a name for themselves, not for the art they are showing---and the choice of "shock art" is often their ticket to cheap art "highs", rather then meaningful effort.

I also think that 10,000 hours maybe a low estimate. Perhaps I am a slow learner, but at age 49, I feel that I am just getting to the starting gate, not the finish line. It is all consuming.


Thank you for taking time to craft such an excellent, insightful essay, John. It should appear in the Sunday NYT Arts section.

I do not decry Ctein's business plan at all. I questioned its feasibility and perhaps its generous exposure on TOP. But if Ctein can attract sustaining patrons more power to him.

The art world generally has actually enjoyed quite a generous banquet of public and private subsidy programs during the past 30+ years. Aside from the NEA there are quite a few relatively large private programs that provide sponsorship grants for artists, generally on a competitive single-year basis. On a more limited scale I know of several families whose private foundations also provide sustaining funds for various types of artists, again on a competitive basis. Yes, it's true that many of the larger programs are being scaled-back due to economic conditions. But there are still many opportunities for those willing to seek them out and compete for funding.

Of course such grant programs usually carry the expectation of performance, something that Ctein seems reluctant to offer to his prospective sustaining patrons. I wonder how many patrons an author, even a successful author such as you, could attract if you refused to promise to produce any new work during a period of subsidy agreement.

As I'm sure you know, the sustaining patron model for arts support is centuries old. Ctein's version is merely a micro-payment version. Again, I wish him luck.

It is the age-old concept of "Supply and Demand". There are relatively few good(great) artists supplying far to few works of art that are appreciated by a fewer number of potential buyers. The reason that a lot of art is in existence today is because of benevolent contributors that supported otherwise starving artists.

Kiaora John,

What a thought provoking article - I sat and thought at every paragraph about my own experiences as an artist.

I've been a self-employed photographer and artist for the past 4 years and although not making a fortune yet - I am certainly on the way.

Before totally being dedicated to selling my art to generate income, I spent 11 years building my networks, doing the odd jobs here and there and mastering my art (And I am still doing all these things 15 years later!)

I do believe that anyone who has the desire and the ability to create art can do this for a living.

But! And it's a big BUT! It's not a path for the faint- hearted. It requires commitment, discipline, hard work and sacrifice and a change of mindset!

But! And it's another BIG but! I wouldn't have it any other way...there is no bigger satisfaction than to generate your own income from something that you love and helping people including myself in the process and because I'm a night owl I get to wake up when I want to :-)

I knew the art business was tough, but I didn't know it was this tough! You paint a pretty stark picture, John. I don't have any reason to doubt it.

On a more positive note, I think it's worth mentioning that some artists will create no matter who likes their stuff, and will mortgage houses and move heaven and earth so that they can do it, not always for the sake of their work, but for the catharsis that simply *creating* provides them.

It is a bold idea. I'm with you. Let's hear some more.

Great article and comments, I wish to thank you all, and TOP.

As I understand it, Van Gogh only sold one painting during his lifetime, so even he was not immune. It got me to thinking... perhaps it was the infinite rejection Van Gogh received from others to his work that turned him into the great artist he was. If he had received nothing but praise, and monetized it through gallery sales etc, would he have been as good as he was?

Emily Dickinson is the same. She got slagged off by a poetry critic and never showed her work to anyone again. Did not being accepted create the art, or is it even compatible with success?

I am not saying artists shouldn't make a living, merely pointing out that occasionally, an artist may deny the contemporary aesthetic so completely that only the generations after will get it.

Great article, John, I enjoyed reading it, I could see myself in many of your words. The 10,000 hours seems right on, although be the time I achieve my 10,000 hours I will be in my 90's :-) I wish Ctein luck with his venture, maybe it might break some ground for other artists.

One of the important lessons I learned from the first show I did with a dealer several years ago happened several months after the show came down. He said he wanted to do another, but that we needed to factor reviews and purchases from the first show in planning the second. The message was that he'd found a market for something and wanted me to 'make more'. Unfortunately I had moved on to something else, and didn't want to repeat the same work...photography was feeding me in different, more important ways. Long story short, my new work wasn't something he could easily sell. In order to enter a market you have to integrate it's demands into your product. For art this can be fatal. A serious creative path can feed the mouth or feed the soul, but only a lucky few can have it both ways...10,000 hours or not.

If Ctein can develop a model for having his work 'sponsored' and find it's way into collections, and still retain the creative freedom that comes from working outside of the normal apparatus of the Art market, more power to him.

I'm probably going to upset many people by saying the following.

Being an artist is like starting a new business. You need self dedication, ability and will to sacrifice knowing that you might not succeed.

The main difference is that most businesses can attract investment early on, while artists do not have that luxury.

As for buying art, I like art, I love photography but I find most photography excessively expansive.
Most people on a salary cannot afford buying pictures or paintings they like for thousands of dollars. Even at the hundreds of dollars price range, I'd only be able to buy one or two in a span of years.

Only recently I've found a few artists that have open editions sold over the internet, for reasonable amount of money (i.e. less then $100). This is a price which most art lovers can afford a few times a year.

The main problem is finding the artists you like enough to pay for their work. Maybe what we need a marketplace for Fine Art photography that can showcase artists and making them easier to find.

I would just like to say that I also thought that that was a wonderful article. Learning about the suffering that some artists go through really makes you think twice about the higher prices of art.

I've been thinking about this in a way... printing digitally changes things.

I do all the work on a photo for myself - after I have got my own print, the work is done. The second and subsequent prints cost a few minutes time, plus the materials.

Therefore I could sell A2 prints for about $15 including postage anywhere in the world and break even (using ordinary post and a poster tube). $50 would be a reasonable price with a small profit if I was mainly doing it to get the art out into the community. $100 might be a reasonable price doing it for the profit if the volume was high enough and the work was low enough.

It's really just applying the microstock priciple to art - I want to do the art, I want it subsidised by selling it, and I'd rather 100 sales at $50 than 5 sales at $1,000 if the workload was similar.

The 10,000 hour thing is spot on in my experience.

Most artist, writers and musicians have never been able to live off their work. The full-time artist (as opposed to artisan, who creates things with intrinsic usefulness) is really a fairly recent oddity.

And even full-time professionals live by creating made-to-order work, or create something and then try to sell the result. What Ctein proposes is to be given a blank check, before the artwork is created and with no strings attached. That is a very rare thing even among highly successful artists. Peter Jackson got such a blank check after finishing the Lord of the Rings trilogy, for instance; the result - King Kong - flopped, so he's unlikely to get such a chance again.

I happily congratulate him if he succeeds; the odds are rather small, though, based on how rare such advantageous financing really is.

Surely it takes more than 10,00 hours to make a good artist. There has to be a touch of genius in there also, no?

John, you mentioned the difficulty artists have in balancing relationships (marriage, family, etc.) with the compulsive need to do the work. Most people have a very hard time living with a committed artist. In the few relationships I've seen work, the partners were also artists, or in one case, an extreme introvert who was happy to be left alone.

It's even worse for photographers. Writers and studio artists can often schedule blocks of time for work. For most photographers, the work is out in the world, and it's defies tidy schedules. You're always chasing the light, a location, or a situation, not to mention taking care of business. The toll on family life can be huge. If you're going to put yourself and your family through this, you damn well better have a plan for sufficient income.

Great topic here.

It seem to me that we are puting aside another aspect of the hole thing. I'm a young designer/painter/student (not ritch...) and so I found that it is most important to participate (a.k.a buy) into the community. The last month I bought a winter coat from a small Montreal base cloth designer. It was relatively costly but hey?! can I say I like good design if I buy a chinese 100 bucks coat? (the coat was half my pay check for a month...)

So don't forget that you can buy 200 crap a buck or a nice "objet de design".


Great article! One thing that occurred to me, however, is that the audience on this site is probably mainly photographers - serious amateur at least. That's what I consider myself to be. I've made a little money from photography on and off, but never even tried to make a living from it. And I can't find enough spare wall space at my home and office to hang my own stuff, let alone anyone else's, and I'd guess that is true also for many others in this audience.

Hello John,

Thanks for this inspiring article. I've read it twice and may read it again. I certainly think that you have enough material here for a whole book. Include interviews, describe the living and working condition of artists and how their are perceived in their community. Let their lives be known by the public at large.

Thinking about this article I could not help but realize how much 'becoming an artist' resembles 'becoming a scientist'. (An '...-ist' being somebody who can more or less reliably live from what they earn and pursue their '...'.)

5 years of full-time study is a typical time to acquire a Diploma (or Magister or Master or ...).

The problem of diving deep into your field of expertise while having to be able to communicate with people from 'the rest of the world' (to sell, to communicate your work, to just live your daily life) is experienced by lots of scientists.

Of course, the problems of establishing oneself as a scientist and finding a reliable way to sustain a family are also familiar to scientists (there are far less professorships than competent scientists).

The list could go on ...

Great article, John. I got my wife to read it so she might understand more of where I come from with my photography.
As an aside, I'm a native Texan and while I've heard of East Jesus, I've never heard of West Jesus. I suppose it depends on what area of the state you reside :)

Great article! But it seems that a lot of people are missing the other side of the coin, so to speak. I live on a modest income, and many of the great prints that I would like to hang on my wall are are beyond my economic reality. Ctein's offer, and hopefully future endevors in the same vein, allow people like me to order a fine print "on layaway". There may be some risk, but the reward will probably be greater than I could otherwise afford.

I'm not an artist but I can attest to the 10,000 hour rule. In the late 70's I became obsessed with the idea of computer software development. To be honest I fell in love with the code. It is a relationship that has endured for many years.

While I was learning this craft I worked in other technical fields and wrote software on the side. Some time in the late 80's I suddenly realized that the thing I had been striving for was mine. I had long been a competent developer but now it was effortless for me to think in the abstract about software. The connections were made in the wetware. It had become second nature to me. This came after 10,000 hours or so.

I may run out of time before I reach mastery of photography. I make the effort every day. Sometimes insight comes as a flash and sometimes not at all. I love the act of seeing a photograph. Someday it may be second nature to me.

That might apply to what usually is known as "finished" art or labour: something that you either like or dislike in the finished form, and therefore, you pay or do not pay.

Such as the photography you were talking about, or the quilts, or the paintings you might see at an art gallery.

What all this dynamic gets twisted is when the end consumer has something to say about the product, and it´s process. And that is something that can ruin this very article for that very reason.

For instance, single family houses or detached houses are a money looser for architects, as the amount of work involved with them does not even remotely pay for the expenses it generates. You talk about how expensive a color tube is. Autodesk charges up to 7000 euros for a single license of Autocad [other cad program fees are similar], 4000 euros for the 3dMAX rendering engine, and Adobe does not get behind charging 2000 euros for the creative suite. That is the very STARTING point for a SINGLE worker to PRODUCE work that does not LEAD to a FINISHED PRODUCT.

This is not a complaint, it is just the way it is and have to deal with that. Which is the reason that leads to be constantly looking for loopholes in the trial versions, or looking for free software that will end up being just a little bit more difficult to use [such as Gimp, or Form EZ].

But my main complain about how disjointed the article to my reality is is about the fact that it talks about the aforementioned "finished-bought" product.

When you are commissioned a job which will require a constant following by the professional, it takes up so much time to just cope with the constant changes that the real talent is not about the thousands of work hours involved, but how to manage your client. In this regard, it is extremely important to educate your client about being a client and how to behave as a client.

The second thing this article does not mention and is growing pretty fast as a commissioning way are competitions. I do not know that much for photography, but competitions are starting to get the "de facto" way to organize and ask for works.

What that means is that the risk for the artist or professional is getting bigger, and the gap between the will and the necessity is increasing.

A whatever-practice can cope with that many competitions per year, and you will be a very, very successful practice if you win one out of seven competitions -in fact, that is a staggering ratio-. What competitions are supposed to bring onto the table is freedom and the hability for new professionals to try to enter the field. But the dark side of this process is that, at the end, only the most powerful practices may be able to participate on the competitions.

Just to make myself clear: if you buy a CTein´s print, you buy the very paper with ink on it. You do not participate in the process of the print by telling Ctein to change the red dye every week for a single print, or talking that "mehhhh, the hue of the base is not good enough". Other professions require not only the end product but the delivery of up to thirty end products to be able to get to that client. This is a process that has nothing to do with the efficiency of the practice. It has to do with the professional-client practice and customs.

Your mention of art in the broadest sense brings to mind a statement by my chief when I was a neophyte in medicine. He said it takes 10 years of experience post graduation to get really proficient; you then have 10 prime years and the rest is all coasting downhill.
Now retired, I see that as a reasonably accurate appraisal that probably applies in most fields.

As always, thank you for giving voice to the things that need saying and thank you for saying it so well.

I enjoyed reading your insights, John. I am also encouraged to learn that I have a good chance of mastering photography after another 40 years or so at my current working rate.

My wife is a graphic artist of considerable skill who struggled for many years to make it pay, in the face of challenges eloquently described in the article. Finally-- having the luxury of a well-employed spouse-- she decided to do only whatever pleased her, regardless of gallery owners' or "the market's" demands. Her art work has enriched our lives and others' with beautiful objects, while giving us artist friends, and greater appreciation and understanding for me of all art forms. As suggested in above posts, the great art we revere was largely supported by wealthy merchants and royalty. Millennia of history suggest it has always been thus and thus will always be.
JH Heath

Art is so important to society even though many do not realize it. I started out as a photographer and artist at age 11 and by the time I was 18 I had easily gotten past 10,000 hours. I have probably put in another 30,000 hours since then. I was making a good living as a writer and photojournalist for about 4 or 5 years, but then I had two kids and realized that I would have to choose between that work and the welfare of my family. Could I have made a good living if I had just stuck with it? Probably. But, probably is not good enough when you have a family. I went back to school and got a "real" job, which, as it turned out, was as time consuming as photography and a lot harder. I did manage to raise the boys, and now I am looking toward retirement. Looking back, there is no question that my passion for art has cost me more money than I have made with it. But I do it still, because I have that obsession that Mr. Camp talks about. I can't survive without making art. Fortunately I can afford it because of my "other" job.

The problem is that selling one's own artwork really isn't a real job because there is never a guarantee of an income, except for a lucky (and talented) few. Most real jobs do guarantee an income.

It shouldn't be that way, but it is. In contrast to what most of us deal with, I have a friend who trades options on Wall Street (in my view contributing nothing to society) who had the terrible misfortune of "earning" less than $1,000,000 one of the last 10 years. He was clinically depressed until the next year when he made $4,000,000. By the age of 30 he had $30,000,000. I kid him that all his money came out of the pockets of working people. He laughs, but I am not really kidding.

It is strange how our society chooses to reward its citizens with no regard to contribution to that society.

Thanks to Mr. Camp for a fascinating commentary from a successful working artist.

Near as I can tell, the fine art photography market follows an asymptotic curve. There's a tiny handful of Gursky's or Cindy Shermans selling work to a rarified wealthy collector market at the apex of the curve (the "upper right hand corner"). There are millions of struggling artist/dentists, artist/computer programmers, artist/real estate agents selling a handful of prints per year for $20 each, marking the long sloping lower left corner. As you move to the right, prices per print rise gradually as the number of artists selling at that price falls like a stone. How many photographers can sell prints for over $200? A lot fewer than at $20. How many for $2,000? Not very many, no matter the artistic merit. Once you get above this level, you're in "$12 million stuffed shark" territory, where fashion and the weird political economy of the high end contemporary art world take over.

There are clearly photographers who have perfected marketing, and sell lots of work for oodles of dollars because they've figured out the business side of things. Peter Lik comes to mind. There was a very interesting article in the New York Times magazine in 1999 about Thomas Kinkade, titled "Landscapes by the Carload". It spelled out how Kinkade assiduously cultivated a popular market for his painting style, earning the contempt of art critics—and millions of dollars.

Well done, John! This clearly resonates to the wanna-be artist in me who spends his days doing other [meaningful, thankfully!] work. Your conclusion, that we all need more varied and creative ways to get our work SEEN, is spot on!

Marketing and selling art (of any genre) is no different from selling any other product or service.

I can hear the calls of "hang the blasphemer!" already:)

No matter what you sell, you still have to work to find people (customers) who need, want and/or appreciate what you do.

Just like any other product or service, that takes creativity, research and effort, whether you live in NYC or West Jesus, Texas.

Claiming otherwise is an excuse to accept someone else's assertion that "artists are different" and that you must accept less for your efforts and that long years of suffering is required in order to become successful and in fact that not doing so makes you less of an artist.

Horse hockey.

It doesnt happen simply because you are good at what you do, it happens because you make the proper efforts to find or create a market for your art.

It happens because you take the marketing and positioning of yourself and your art as seriously as you do the creation of your art.

How many of those 10000 hours have you invested in becoming an expert at promoting, positioning and selling your art?

Food for thought.

John, I enjoyed your excellent article.

I think we need to keep in mind that the amount of hard working time devoted by professionals is probably dwarfed by the hard working time put in by amateurs doing it solely for the love of the art or sport or whatever.

It seems there aren't enough people championing the amateur and their concerns.

I applaud ctien with their experiment and I hope it works.

I just finished reading "The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art"

What an amazing and eye opening read about the current art market and how it works. I strongly suggest it for all artists wishing to sell their artwork.

One interesting example in the book is the author going to different galleries and asking them to list the top 25 contemporary artists alive today. The only photographer and woman on most of these lists was Sally Mann.

Dear John,
All said so well. Having been a photographer for 35+ years my life has always been extremely financially precarious. I do though admire people that have the talent to sell themselves as it seems so alien to me.
But my work ethic runs counterpoint to having 'financial subscribers' to support my work. I chose to do what I do and am willing to take the rough with the smooth. Unfortunately current times are that there is no smooth and I am now looking for a job just to stay alive.

Sometimes I feel like I'm overdetermined to comment on a subject like this, as I have a curious knack of being good at things that are difficult to make a living at - academic research, writing, photography... - but somehow I never acquired the skills or innate ability or whatever it is that makes it possible to persuade other people to pay me to exercise those talents.

I'm a lousy marketer, in other words, in buyers' markets.

Anyway, what I was noting more as I was reading your article, John, is the way that sites like ArtFire, 1000Markets and Etsy seem to respond to that conundrum of artists who need to eat but also need the time to perfect their art - and to the general public's presumed reluctance to spend more than a pittance for good artwork.

There's an ongoing undercurrent of discussion at Etsy, for example, in which artists who have put in their 10,000 hours and who are trying to treat their vocation in a business-like manner, express their frustration with the way that the site administrators seem to favor those who produce cheap trendy work - often inexpertly made by relatively inexperienced crafters - over those artists whose work is quirky and well-made, but expensive.

Basically, you have people who have devoted years and substantial income to improving their craft trying to compete with hobbyists churning out a lot of quickly made, unoriginal items - and the site itself takes advantage of this dynamic by drawing on the cachet having "real artists" gives, writing a series of articles featuring successful craftsmen and -women called "Quit Your Day Job" and encouraging an atmosphere of creative support. What most sellers discover, however, is that Etsy focuses more on promoting the cheaper trendy stuff it believes will sell, because it is easier to market to the general public.

Specialized venue sites, like Zenfolio, or juried sites, like 1000 Markets, address these issues partially, but there's still a lot of pressure to produce "images that sell" rather than to follow one's muse (or however you wish to describe that unpredictable creative curiousity).

I don't think I've yet put in my 10,000 hours as a photographer (despite having begun at age 10 - I'm almost 40 now) and I worry sometimes about whether my wishes for commercial success might be distorting my artistic development - I'm basically a stubborn, independent person who follows her own vision, but the lure of a regular income is seductive.

I think it's good to explore options like Ctein's 1000 Fans idea - it might not work for all artists - but it's not as if all artists are experiencing wild success doing things the "usual" way.

A thoughtful, and well articulated presentation with a number of respectable responses.
I do want to question Hugh though. I will present an example.
I enjoy photography I have tackled it on and off for 40 years. the last 5 years I have become somewhat of a craftsman with it, in that I can "build" a picture. After a couple years of encouragement(abusive nagging)I rented space at a local Art "fair" (you know the type that show up during tourist season) My wife was thrilled that in a weekend I sold $1000.00 in prints.
I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised.
but here's how the math works:
Space rental $75.
Tent Rental $50.
Pre cut mats/bags etc. $500.
New mat cutter for PITA 3X2 ratio $400.
Mat Board $100.(I am the PITA insisting on 3x2
Ink $250.
Frames $200.
Time spent printing 40 hours at $$$/hr
No I didn't sell all of the prints I made, I have many in storage should I decide to repeat the effort.But I would still have to replace the items that were sold.
Then we haven't taken into account the roughly $10,000. in equipment and the thousands of hours invested in capturing.
So selling prints for 50-100 is fun (150-250 with frames). It hardly pays for anything.(my wife hasn't added it up yet)
I think you will find that these days, the "name" photographers that consistently make mortgage payments supplement image sales with books/workshops/articles/sponsorships.
A performance artist friend always referred to those practices as "The hustle buck" the actions needed to perform to "market" his art.
I am very happy that I am not an artist, but just as happy to have worked with and known exceptional artists in my life.

It would appear that there is a 20,000 hour rule for successful artists who are working in a field that doesn't have agents. You spend 10,000 hours mastering the art and 10,000 hours mastering marketing. Unless, of course, marketing doesn't require the equivalent perseverance to attain mastery. I seriously doubt that marketing is that easy.

That would explain a lot about how difficult it is to be a successful artist. With a profession, 10,000 hours gets you to a skill level where you can get a job. If doctors had to put in 10,000 hours learning to find clients once they completed their internships I don't think they would be likely to be nearly as good as doctors. The marketing effort would interfere with their practice.

I have a friend who put in his 10,000 hours over 5 years as an artist and then started marketing his work. And the art making stopped because marketing was so time consuming. He decided he had to back off the marketing a bit after half a year of making nothing new.

The classic book Art & Fear mentions that a successful abstract painter who kept track of his time found that he had at most 8 days a month to paint. All the rest of his time was taken up with the business of art. This would imply that you need to be pretty close to mastery before you start marketing, because at 8 days a month and 8 hours a day it takes 13 years to run up 10,000 hours

The bottom line is that you will probably fail as an artist (in the sense of making a living at it) unless you have an entrepreneurial drive at least as strong as the art drive if you are working in a field without agents. And I think that combination of personal character traits is very rare.

It makes my personal decision to focus on the art, keep my day job, and make the marketing secondary in my life seem pretty reasonable.

Dear folks,

Some relatively (and uncharacteristically) brief comments from me:

1) JC, this is the best article I've ever read on this subject. I am in awe. It's so good that I bookmarked it so that I could refer other people to it easily when I wanted to. I've never bookmarked any other articles published on TOP.

2) I am feeling a bit embarrassed; please don't refer to what I'm doing as "the Ctein plan" (in contrast to "Ctein's plan"). It implies an ownership and credit for an idea that I haven't earned and do not deserve. Really, it's the "Kelley plan." The only modest innovation is applying the model for authors and musicians to photographers, and that was Peter Hentges's idea.

Sorry, it's all that physicist training: one simply does not ever, ever, ever take credit for someone else's idea.

3) The Kelly model is not well suited to one-offs, where production cost is a high fraction of the total cost. That's why JC is pointing out that one needs to do lots of innovative and creative thinking about different ways that artists can support themselves. One-size-fits-all.… not!

4) Performing arts have it worse. They are hugely expensive to execute and ticket buyers won't pay but a small fraction of what it costs. Dance troupes are even worse off; 99% of them (conservative estimate!) would have to disappear if they depended on ticket sales.

5) Whatever schemes you come up with, remember to include administrative costs: something that Ken Tanaka pointed out early and importantly and Inaki reaffirmed. There are always some. And there is handholding to be done, schmoozing with patrons and making nice to buyers, answering questions (both sensible and inane). All that takes time and should be included in your administrative costs.

~ pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

Thanks for a beautiful, insightful piece of writing.

There is another factor at work in the modern era that makes it hard for us to swallow the cost of art: namely, that we have forgotten the true value of things.

I don't mean that in some metaphysical way, though that could be argued as well, but a coldly economic one.

Take the mundane things sitting on my desk - mobile phone, watch, LCD screen, SD card to name but a few. All of these are the products of billions of dollars of R + D spending over decades, and are only cheap enough that I can buy them for a few dollars because of the stunning economies of scale that modern industrial design and manufacture allows.

The problem arises if you are enough of an oddball that you are not satisfied with things that can be mass produced in their millions. If you want something bespoke, original, customised - in other words the produce of the art (or craft) of another single human being - then you start to realise the true cost in time and effort that these things truly have.

Articles like this remind us of this truth. I don't, however, see the trends that have got us where we are reversing anytime soon.

For the record...once and for all...

My earlier post was in no way designed to impugn Ctein or to cast doubts on his intentions. I have absolutely no direct knowledge of Ctein's personal traits and have no reason to doubt that he would deliver whatever he would promise.

My "performance" references were in reference to the contrast between typical grant programs and what Ctein is proposing.

'Nuff said on that.

Separately, this is one of those articles in which the comments have been nearly as rich as the article, eh?

Curiously, nobody has mentioned the great patron of the arts for the last 60 years, teaching. For those who can do that.
A lot of picture framers amongst visual artists.Illustrators, back when, too.
Artists for parents, trumped by having wealthy parents, works well. Choose your parents wisely.

Another point, is the repetitiveness that is required of the artist who would sell enough to live. Like Gilbert Stuart's Washington portraits, his $100.00 bills.

And then, if the stuff won't sell, what do you do with it? This may be just rumor, but there is the story of the SW artist having a great bonfire. Like the protagonist of Lawrence Durrells Alexandria Quartet, having his writings used to start the morning fire; a form of censorship he could appreciate.

I rant, therefore I must be an artist.

This was a very timely article for me. My one year old daughter just "colored" for the first time a couple days ago.

I deeply appreciate how many thousands of hours I spent painting and drawing as a child, and am looking forward to my children getting a good start on their 10,000 hours while they're young.

Excellent writing John! It's very humbling for me to try to express myself in such company, but I won't let that stop me even though it probably should.:)

To me the artist's dilemma is quite simple to solve: artists shouldn't try to support themselves through their art. Since artists, broadly speaking, are creative and resourceful people, it shouldn't be impossible for artists to find an easier way to earn money and support their art. With the odds so stacked against artists earning a living through their art, then why not fish more productive waters? Inasmuch as earning money requires time, effort, and skills antithetical to those skills required for creating art, why put those skills into a field as barren as commercial art?

I grant that there are artists who are destined for commercial art, and they'll find their way despite the odds, but for the vast majority of artists it isn't even remotely feasible for them to attempt to carve out a living through their art, and this doesn't mean that some of them are not great artists, just that their art, and commerce, don't mix in their situation. So why fight it?

There are so many fields in which someone could earn money, why does the artist seem to want to limit himself or herself to just one field?

Dale, I think we're making the same point in different ways. Framing, galleries, shows all add too much overhead.

What I am working through is more on the lines of..
1) I would make the first print for myself anyway - because I need (want?) to make photos - therefore all the time and equipment costs are irrelevant, because I would do it anyway.
2) Because I print digitally, the additional cost to produce a second print is about 10 dollars. Mailing it anywere in the world in a poster tube - about another 10 dollars. I am not matting, framing, or setting up a gallery.
3) What I need is to reach a suitable audience cheaply -i.e. via the web, and get the concept across that they could pay 25 dollars for a poster from a shop, or 50 or 75 dollars for a signed original print (not NOT a limited edition).

This is the best article on this subject I have read in a long time - by a milestone. Well written, beautifully said John!

What a fantastic, salon-like experience to read this rich article and then the incredibly cogent letters that follow it. My local Photoguild of some 145 members often struggles with these questions, and how one becomes "successful." I have forwarded the link to John's article to them all--it says it all so well.

And John--as an avid reader (and hardback buyer) of your work, I now now why that "F-ing Flowers" is often working with the cop with the Nikon habit. I'm guessing you are not a Canon guy. Just a guess.

Superb article.

John Scott hints at the problem...

Corporations are always looking for places to get money. Only things that are "scalable" are candidates for "corporatization".

The problem most photographers now face is that comsumer cameras have become good enough and ubiquitous enough that corporations can just run photo contests to get "acceptable" images for their purposes.

It seems to me that in order to survive in photography, you would either need to concentrate on some subject that the average person would not (or could not) typically photograph and hope that your images become popular enough to support you...or do work that is simply not scalable like Jeff Wall type images.

My guess is that the "100 True Fans" will work best for the case where the photographer commits to a limited popularity subject and therefore becomes the "go to" person for images about that subject.

I can see parallels here with my own professional work. There are many believe they can do what I do, and can to a limited extent. There are many others in my field with less knowledge who do work in the same area. My effort goes into applying my skills beyond the capabilities of others but the actual time I spend on them is low compared to the total time I work. I use certain projects to enable me to work on areas in which I have an interest or think are important but no one is prepared to spend money directly. A lot of learning, training and hard work got me to the point that I can consider myself successful.

I'm an engineer.

In some ways I see the art world in a similar way. There are plenty who see art production as easy and want to have a go. Most miss the additional effort required to make it pay (no profession enables one to spend all one's time on the fun stuff). Few have the extra skills to really make it work and many who make it pay use a commercial line to support the more creative efforts. I don't see it as any different to any other line of human endeavour.

What rankles, to some extent, is the feeling I get that artists feel they should be treated differently to others in some way. If you are really good enough, you should be able to explain to me what extra you bring that makes your work more valuable than the next guy, just as I would have to do when selling my professional services.

"What rankles, to some extent, is the feeling I get that artists feel they should be treated differently to others in some way."

I mainly just know photographers, not so much artists in general (although a few of those), but I really don't think artists feel they're especially entitled. Possibly the opposite--they're grateful for the satisfaction they find in creating.

I do think some people end up bitter and unfulfilled, but those are (again, from my limited experience) people who really have paid their dues, who really do create superior work, but who, for a variety of reasons that might come down to nothing more than personality, lack of marketing or schmoozing skills, or luck, have not had even a small share of success. I can name a number of people (real people, who I know) who are like this.

I don't think it's a feeling of unearned entitlement that makes them feel worthy of special treatment. If anything, the opposite--they know they're worth much better treatment than they receive.

There, you got another 2¢ out of me!


Despite John Camp's eloquent piece on challenges of surviving as an artist, I'm not enthusiastic about subsidizing a photographer: First, I imagine most TOP readers are working photo enthusiasts who aren't exactly flush... Second, let's recognize that viewing and buying photos isn't highly popular.

So, how to get photo enthusiasts, with their magnificent gear, to engage with the work and development of others?

It's like bringing soccer to America: A viable audience requires a generation of grade-school, high-school, and college players.

Enthusiasm for TAKING photos is at an all-time high...but transforming that into support for pros may be hard.

John Camp makes many interesting points about the cold realities of being an artist today, and I believe that extends to most any type of artist. As an art educator and advocate of art education, I've felt this narrowness in existence for a long while. However, the conundrum for me, for educators, is the realities of the message that filters down to youngsters. I deal with high schoolers and undergrads and keeping the fires burning but yet without deluding youngsters to the realities of the world proves to be a tough test. At the HS level, we seem to put it in perspective for with limited time. The kids are distanced from the 'realities', and are buying a wider brush stroke--that including the skills and attributes learned in the 'art experience'--that beyond experiencing art in a high form (performing,criticizing, aesthetics, history) to design, visual culture and communication. High schoolers get it for the most part. However, at the undergrad level, I see many students beyond the realm of design (the practical ones) who get lulled into 'being and believing they are the artistes' of tomorrow by all knowing art professors who fail to complete the picture and/or have not traditionally attempted to create the support in curriculum to complete the picture (marketing, patronage, business skills,etc.) Other learning areas in schools, such as math and history have gotten it. Students realize that the vast majority of their ranks will not become novel 'high end' mathematicians or historians. However, they do realize the importance of this knowledge and skills base, and include it in their repertoire. Arts educators need to realize this in their practice also...that not everyone needs to BECOME an artist, but for the 21st century, that it is more imperative that 'all' have the strong opportunity to be able to think like an artist, particularly in many of the realms they will work as part of in the near emerging fast changing future. Also, there will be a constant need to recreate, to re-energize, and to provide fluidity in most of what they do...and this will best be served in 'artistic' skill sets that all believe possible to possess, but not so much in being full time artistes. There is a major difference here, and it falls on educators for a mindset change. JOHN--we will be in Minneapolis the third week in April(16-20)...4-5000 arts educators, the largest group of such in the world. Do come and visit and talk to us, for your message is strong and needed and to be reckoned with. By the way, your books have provided me over the last decade with a 'super' escape! Look for me...I am on the Board.

Other learning areas in schools, such as math and history have gotten it. Students realize that the vast majority of their ranks will not become novel 'high end' mathematicians or historians.

Ralph, I would respectfully disagree. The myth of the available tenured academic job is alive and well - at a time when qualified (even over-qualified) applicants far outstrip the available positions - and more and more people are encouraged to attend grad school.

I suspect, thinking on this and the other thoughtful comments that came after my own, that this is a problem of larger scope than just art - if the work one does, the contribution one makes, cannot be boiled down to a line of numbers on a spreadsheet, it is devalued.

One response is to try to convert those contributions to a numeric metric - as in teaching - but I think that's more about accepting this yardstick as valid.

That, I believe, is what needs to change - learning to see value in things that aren't easily reduced to numbers and statistics.

Unfortunately, that requires thoughtful, personalized education, which is one of the victims of that sort of numeric thinking.

I think that's what I like about experiments like Ctein's - it demonstrates that there are other ways to think about things than the status quo.

I have been an artist for over forty years. A comment above, Aaron, I think, mentioned his daughter, age 1, just started drawing. My mother put everything I did as a young child, up on the refrigerator. (We only had a 3 room apartment in Brooklyn,NYC.) She was widowed young and was ambivalent about my dream of being an artist. I knew at age 10 that I wanted to be an artist. My mother wanted me to be a teacher, for security. Going to a teachers college on the GI Bill at 16 seemed a better option that a local college in NYC and living at home (that 3room apartment). (My dad, a dead WWII vet was my eligibility for the GIBill.)

In college, my first required course professor said, "You don't mind getting dirty. You are an artist.". He kept all of my work. I was too shy to take elective courses in art. In my senior year, my professor was head of the dept. and offered to get me a scholarship for a master's in art anywheres in the US. I asked, "for art or for education?". He only could get me a scholarship in education. I said, "No, art is too precious to teach.". I taught social studies (and two related in a junior high school experimental concept called "CORE"). I lasted 5 years. A personal tragedy that I survived, made me say, "I could be dead. I'm making the break to art.". My new spouse said, "Take a class and ask if you should continue.". I did. Later, the teacher at the New School said, "I couldn't say no, but you'd have gone on anyway.". I also went to the educational testing service for testing:I scored very high on art interest and 3D skills. The counselor said, "You'd better stick to teaching because you refuse to consider doing advertising." He didn't consider the possibility of art as a career because of the income problem. Same as mom. (And as a young woman, in the mid1960s, I was given both the women's and men's tests! It's different now...)

I put the tests results away, we moved out of NYC for spouse's job and I started my art career. I took a summer class in clay at Tulane and fell in love with clay.

I totally separated money from my art career. There's a whole separate set of problems for women artists in re galleries, etc. However, only a small percentage of artists, like actors, etc. earn enough from the sale of art to support ourselves. I experimented with pottery to support my sculpture, but I was making 25cents an hour, even though I sold every bit of pottery (due to adding in labor and other costs).

I worked outside jobs to support my art career:artist-in-residence (I liked it, although it did confirm my self-knowledge at 19 that art was too precious for me to teach it day after day.)for a couple of years, management consulting (creative idea:setting up filing systems,etc. for small offices). Then I became too ill to work. I have continued my career since 1985, am remarried, now a senior citizen and continue my art career as can. (The issues of disabling illness are for another comment, another time. I concentrate mostly on making art and running the small Disabled Artists' Network, which I began in April, 1985.)

Art is an itch that must be scratched. Like Les Payne said on Earl Caldwell's "Caldwell Chronicle", WBAI on about Jan. 3, 2009, artists are born. Artists are people who want to change the world because they are not comfortable with it as it is, not change it completely but enough to feel comfortable. Yes.

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