Your Money or Your Art!


Underground Insider, Kitty Boyce on washing your mouth of the dirty word of ‘starving artist’, deciding to believe otherwise and steps toward artistic solvency.

My business teacher–of which there was only one headlining the single required business class in my entire $80k Bachelor of Arts degree program–always said, “This is how you make it in the business: Marry. Well.”

And like several other one-liners to break up the monotony of learning how to balance your checkbook, I remember little else from that class. I do remember being told several times by several more fabulously successful artists turned adjunct, “Don’t get into art for the money.”

Because everybody knows that being an artist is like playing the lotto: you don’t seriously bank on it. But we do it anyway. If I may paraphrase the Bard, “The [art] world must be peopled!” I got all those loans co-signed, shouldered all that debt, maxed all those credit cards and…and…what have I done?

The lotto, like an art degree, is sold to the masses on a great fanciful what-if. What if you’re the next Walt Disney or George Lucas? What if you’re in the right place at the right time and can laugh all the way to the bank? Oh, that one required business syllabus may regale you with the glories of write-offs, but you lose even more money itemizing deductions if all you did was spend, spend, spend. Coffee, dotcom webhosting, ergonomic chair, new haircut, printer, more coffee, upgrade smartphone…

Fortunately, financial success as an artist is not just a numbers game, or doomed by the fact that society thinks artists have no value…that’s not true. Artists are still revered as aliens, or gods, or people who can draw a killer tattoo. Maybe you grimace at mainstream society’s dorky ideas of what you’re good for, but last time I checked, getting your art carved permanently into someone’s flesh is still a pretty nice complement. I know you don’t want complements right now–well, of course you do, but–you want three square meals a day too.

So, I’m going on record to insist that the absence of business education on the part of art schools is what’s killing off the larger percentage of grads once they hit the street. And for those of you natural-born savants also struggling to make a buck, I’m hazarding a guess you didn’t think to teach yourself any small-business math either. Academics and many home-grown creative types are still laboring under the unspoken laws of Renaissance patronage, which only the uber-elite of fine art still practice. There are many, many fresh-faced Michelangelos coming into the world, but few Popes left with Sistine Chapels to paint. The rest of us plebs are in a glut of middle class buyer leading middle class artist, blind leading blind. The game has changed, and with it come some oddly counter-intuitive rules that we need to acknowledge and play by.

Where reality’s foot comes down–sometimes on your neck while you’re biting the curb–is business. If you want to make money, you don’t just learn to paint or invent a new paperclip, you make a business of paint and paperclips. And the problem is that there isn’t much business training in art school. Colleges, TV and the funny pages exist to perpetuate themselves first and foremost, and then create the next generation of well-informed yet snarky doctorates. If art is your life, then it’s also your job. To make money, you have to sell your stuff. Don’t fight it. Don’t cite creative prostitution, bad juju, bad parenting, weak meds, your day job or crushing loans as your crutches. Don’t ponder getting a bigger degree with more letters after your name and more zeroes at the end of your bill. Definitely don’t doubt your present ability.

Above all, don’t panic.

This isn’t a give up and go home story. I’m actually hoping to save your career. If you want it, if you can taste it, if your soul trembles at the thought, this is where you belong. You’re ready. You only need one thing: business education. It’s not a magical thing. It’s math. It’s paperwork. It’s planning and promotion and analytics and a whole lot of stuff artists are somehow “protected” from, and excused for. Well, you’re no longer excused. That laser-beam of discipline and precision craftsmanship needs to be turned toward wealth creation too. One begets the other. I hazard a guess at what most of you are thinking at this point: You’re mourning the atrophied part of your brain that once did sums, dishes or organization. You’re afraid you don’t have the time or inclination. That’s fine, you can still get away with that point of view without being labeled defeatist so long as you get someone else to do your homework for you. You’re creative, remember? So figure it out! Make friends with a business grad. Read how-to books and blogs. Hire out to India. Call your mom. Work your angles harder than you ever have before!

So, Artists, here’s three game-changer facts and a selection of corresponding links to get you started. By no means are these all the answers. But they’re a shade more insightful than Speed-Dating for Fun and Profit, or wearing a romantic “Starving Artist Seeks Patron for Mutually Beneficial Marriage” sandwich board on a busy Beverly Hills street corner all weekend.

1. We aren’t any longer hunter-gatherers who can bring home a Saber-Toothed Freelance Gig and eat like kings through winter. People in general, (not just artists) can’t play feast-to-famine roulette without serious damage to our will to carry on. Don’t just follow the herds hoping to pick off the weak. Fence off some fat cows and start a burger joint with the leftovers. Become a real live small business owner. For further sage advice and dire warnings check out this site and article.

2. We are in an agricultural stage of worldwide networking and business where we plant seeds. Lots of seeds. Small efforts done in bulk. But that’s where the numbers game stops, and we separate the wheat from the chaff. Get smart about those seeds. Check out for a solid understanding of employing social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to a lucrative advantage.

3. We were never lonesome doves. Every great master learned the ropes from a master before him, and has a body of worker bees behind him. Those bees will save your life. It takes a village to raise a barn. Or idiot, or whatever! They are all that stand between you and a slow, grinding abject failure, choose them wisely and in abundance. Join the group page for Artists Underground on Facebook!

Artists! I implore you! All you need is business education (or someone else’s business sense,) and a network. It’ll take all your time and ingenuity to plant that buzzing orchard, but the ground is fertile and the seed is free. Be fruitful!

Stay hungry. Stay Well-fed.

– Kitty Boyce


Kitty B. is on her third or fourth creative incarnation, from Subway sandwich artist to freelance illustrator, and finally writer. Her hobbies include quoting herself and paraphrasing others. She may be found bagging groceries, sassing strangers or muralizing outrageously upscale homes. Currently she takes lots of selfies and plays good cop to C.R. Cohen’s tough-lovin’ bad cop.

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