Why is art so hard as an enterprise? Why do so many artists fail?
When I was an art student at CU Boulder (2004-2007) I made Artforum.com into my home page on my Mac.
Each time I opened a new browser tab, I’d see new happenings in the art world and new events. This probably sounds corny to a lot of people, but, it was one of the best ways for a kid in Colorado to connect with real things that mattered in the global art world. I had chosen to go into art instead of astronomy (a tale for another day), and I was determined to be good at it. I was going to learn the hell out of art.
I remember looking at one of the galleries on the right side of the Artforum.com website, and I started to write down every artist at the gallery, Google them, and find all of their work. I kept a watch on the artists I liked, and watched every artist that seemed to be succeeding.
One of the artists I loved at The Gallery had a painting for sale for $1,600.00. This seemed like an astronomical amount of money! Secretly I wished I could have the painting, and also thought, hey, maybe someday I could paint like that. New York! To have your work represented by a New York Gallery - that was truly making it.
Eight years went by as I continued through school, and, oh god, grad school, and did life stuff.
One day after all that, in 2015, I decided to check The Gallery website again to see how my Favorite Artist in a New York Gallery was doing.
The painting that I had adored as a student in 2007 was still for sale for $1,600.00.
I was flabbergasted. The artist was clearly talented, and she was at a well-represented gallery. In New York! New York, where people have money and taste! Had the site's web designer just quit and gone to Thailand? Wasn’t she totally making it with having her work represented in New York? Whaaaaaaat
Why didn’t anyone buy it? Why was it taking so long?
After calming down, I calculated how much money the artist was making at this rate:
$1,600 / 8 years is $200 per year. About $16 per month.
The truth: Making and selling art is a bit like making and selling whisky. You create it, it sits for ten or twelve years before it is any good, then, a generation older, you might profit on it if you knew what you were doing in the past. Art is a long game. And a risky one.
Let’s look at this situation more optimistically, though. What if the artist made 30 paintings in 2007, all of them $1,600. Let’s say she did this for five years, for a total of 150 paintings at $1600. If all of them sell, this is $240,000. Divided by ten years, this is $24,000. The key for this artist would be to make a huge amount of work, or, to price paintings at a higher premium, or maybe make shock art or something to become more popular. There is a kind of a ray of light here, right?
Unsaid in this whole rigmarole is the gallery cut. The gallery selling the artist's work may take up to 60% of the artist’s earnings on the painting. After that, the artist may have to pay taxes on their earnings. This makes the optimistic $24,000-per-year situation quite worse.
What do artists do during the 8-12 year incubation time for a painting to sell? Some might take on freelance, or pick up dayjobs, set up Etsys, take residencies, or just refuse to go with galleries altogether and sell directly. Or just quit making art.
It is easy to see why artists give up on art as an enterprise. You can have the right formula - honed talent, great ideas, representation, an MFA, industry respect, but a 100K degree is no guarantee that someone will buy your $1,600 painting.
Thankfully enough, it is a better world to be an artist than ever, where outsider art gets recognized during artist lifetimes (Sorry, Henry Darger), and platforms like Patreon have sprung up for collaborative microsupport.
Instead of having to go to art school to learn and sink 100K into a degree, an artist can make a painting and get feedback on it quickly by uploading it to Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, instagram, or Youtube. It’s not quite like a showing amongst impressionist peers, or even like Critique Day at art school, but I think Critique Day would have been more useful if Russian instagram porn bots had been involved. Using just the internet, a young artist can see what works and what fails as art. Seems obvious, but, this is something that artists have never had before.
Some things change about art as an institution and some things stay the same. The home page of Artforum hasn’t changed since 2007, so you can still see the galleries I was crawling and researching on the daily on the right side of the website.