A fairly hard-hitting topic to begin with but this is the internalised argument I seem to have been having with myself since finishing art school 7 years ago. Like many fellow artists that have found themselves staring at the blank canvas that is the inside of a tertiary institution at one point or another we all seem to come out with the same negative notion that MONEY=BAD. Can creativity and business sit side by side? Is it so wrong to make money from your creative skills? And is it possible to do so without becoming a sellout?
One of the first things I ever remember being told at art school was "that I was to forget everything I had ever learnt as I would not be needing those skills here". I still remember it vividly to this day. A fairly perplexing and brash statement to make to a group of 17 year olds that were mostly there because they didn't know what to do with their lives but had won all the art awards in high school so it seemed like the next logical step. In the years to follow I didn't really learn any skills to replace the ones I had been told to forget however, I was taught how to think.
I was schooled heavily in conceptual art as the 90's had seen a rebirth in conceptual artists namely the YBA's- Damien Hirst, Tracy Emin etc. My lecturers had been taught this school of thinking and thus it was thrust upon me. At the time I didn't really think about it but now I have this question- Don't business and conceptual art rely on one important factor? That is that a good idea is what will set you apart from others. Another interesting point that seemed to be overlooked by lecturers was that the Damien Hirst's and Tracy Emins' of this world were certainly not going hungry. They were sponsored by no other than Charles Saatchi, a wealthy businessman with an eye for collecting art who had made his wealth in advertising. But somehow Charles Saatchi was rarely talked about nor did his influence ever even come into the equation.
Furthermore, I was taught about real success. Success is only deemed acceptable if you have made your artwork using your heart and soul, stained it with your blood, sweat and tears and made it whilst living a bohemian artistic existence (which could better be translated as living on a couch in a 3x1 rental with 8 other art students on a staple diet of mi goreng and cask wine). You were told you would be crazy to expect to make money from your artwork commercial galleries and agents are in fact revered by art institutions as lucifer and his henchmen reincarnated. This leaves you with the only viable career path you can take at the end of your stint as an art student and that is to be sucked back into the afore-mentioned tertiary institution to teach others the truths of life as you have been taught. If this not an option (or you are not a good enough "artist") you can continue to live an existence funded by the government in the form of social security and the odd grant preparing conceptual artwork for artist run galleries that would never dream of selling. This is if you want to stay in line with the high level of thinking and intelligence that your lecturers and their surrounding art circles rotate in and be a part of the local "art" world.
If you decide that you want to be able to make money from your skills as an artist you are thus deemed as a SELL OUT and banished from your former art family. Even if you decide you want to take on a career path that relies on your artistic skills and creativity (usually because you're smart enough to realise that you need to make money somehow) such as design, graphics, fashion, architecture you still won't be allowed to retain the same level of artistic intelligence or credibility as set out by the local art scene.
So having said that, can creative entrepreneurs really make money? Is it as simple as a change in mind-set and perhaps a few artists taking their heads out of their own arses, myself included? Does pursuing your creative passions mean a life full of hardship and pain purely because you were to pigheaded to accept the way that the world really works?
There is a preconceived notion that artists must starve for their art. And the biggest offenders of perpetuating this idea is the artists themselves. And this idea that you can't get rich as a creative type is perpetuated by those who say they would not survive without grants from governments or arts organisations.
Personally, over the last 3 years I've become a believer that you can make serious money as a creative entrepreneur. But, in order to do so, you have to treat your creative passion like a business. If you want to make serious money, then you need to get serious about your marketing, sales, cash-flow and systems. And you need a business model that works – not one that relies on grants or handouts.
All to often I hear artists say- "I want to focus on creativity not business, I don't want to deal with that" or "I want to focus on what I'm good at – being creative. I just want to be an artist." And this extends into other creative pursuers- writers, artists and musicians. I just want to sit around and draw pretty pictures all day too, maybe go on a holiday (for inspiration obviously) and never have to look at a spreadsheet, BAS statement or business plan ever again. But guess what? That's delusional.
I've come to the realisation that if I need to get serious about the business side of my creative passions myself, if I want to earn a proper income from it. No one is going to do it for me. No more excuses about not understanding how business works. It doesn't mean that I need to complete an entire business degree or study accounting or read the corporations act. It means waking up and realising you don't know everything, that you might not know the best way to do things. Get some help, educate yourself in the things that are most important and you need to ensure that you address key factors in your business – especially sales and marketing. Have you heard of the internet? There are thousands upon thousands of business resources at the tap of a button.
"I don't like to sell my art, I want my work to speak for itself. I want people to love it and buy it because it speaks to them. I'm just not a salesperson, I'm not good at that." - I hear this a lot too. But if you aren't going to sell it why are you making it in the first place? And if you do want to make money from your art (only selling it to the right kind of buyer) who is going to sell it for you?
Selling in the 21st century has become so much easier than it used to be, thanks to our old friend the internet. It only take minutes to open an online store, through platforms such as Etsy or Shopify. You don't have to cart your wares around half the country trying to get in the most exclusive of galleries. Half your battle can be won by building your profile and networking online in order to get on the radar of the right people (potential customers, buyers, collectors, interior designers, influencers etc.). Over time, the more of a presence you build the more people get to know, like and trust you. And when it comes time to buy, refer or promote your products, they are comfortable doing so. In fact, sometimes, they do your "selling" for you by genuinely recommending your products to their networks.
It's also important to build a community or become part of one or a few. These can be on various platforms Facebook, twitter, instagram, linkedin and blogs. Being able to link yourself with communities that have a common interests allows you to share resources with each other, recommend different products and suppliers to each other and in turn other communities your contacts may be a part of. One of the benefits of a nurtured community is that they become fans, advocates and informal ambassadors of your brand. And word of mouth is one of the most successful and oldest advertising tools in existence.
What I come to understand ultimately, it would be wonderful if we could all simply explore our creativity and hope that money rolls in as result of our artistic genius. But the reality is that unless you treat your creative passion as a business, then it will forever remain a hobby.