Writer and artist Beatrice Schulz reflects on the necessities and possibilities that open up when you consider how to make money either directly from your practice, or how to support your practice with other work
Making money is not the first thing most people think about when they decide to study art or become an artist. Commercialising and selling your work is often scoffed at in critical contexts, or sidelined in favour of formal or theoretical considerations. The romantic ideal of the artist as a unique creative genius, free from the constraints of material desire, remains a powerful image despite being a total cliché. Some imagine the artist, not dissimilar to the medieval saint, renouncing aspirations of wealth and lifestyle in favour of an authentic commitment to their art practice. Substitute a Macbook for a worn-out Bible, and black leggings and Nike trainers for a monk’s habit, and you have your contemporary devotee. Alternatively, the commercial dimensions of your work are supposed to arise spontaneously or accidentally from a pursuit of truth.
Balancing the tension between the necessity to make a living and the desire not to compromise your work is both a practical and a political task. There is more than one way to commercialise an art practice, and each has implications for your work. A transaction is a two-way process and the way you sell your product – whether that is a traditional art object, a service, or a brand – will in turn influence that product.
The philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau earned a living for most of his life as a music copyist, claiming in his autobiographical Confessions that he did not want to make money from his writing as he felt that commercialising it would compromise his ability to speak freely. Many artists today, like Rousseau, take up secondary employment such as teaching or manual work to pay the bills in order to avoid the necessity to make work that will sell. There are many reasons why this might be preferable. For Rousseau, separating art and income gave him the freedom to criticise the state and put forward views that were unpopular with the book-buying elite. Relying on selling work to provide your main income may also mean that you need to produce work regularly, or produce the same kind of work, and this may not be appropriate for your practice if you require long periods of research or make work that is difficult to sell. A downside of this division of art and wage labour is having to make time for your art practice around your other jobs.
In contrast, Andy Warhol’s Factory repurposed some of the glamour of consumerism, producing artworks that could easily be reproduced and sold. Warhol famously said of the Factory, “I’m a commercial person, I’ve got a lot of mouths to feed, someone’s got to bring home the bacon.” The sales of Warhol’s screenprinted editions funded the bohemian lives of the other artists who hung around the factory, as well as less commercial projects such as his films. For Andy Warhol, commercialising his art practice was a way of desanctifying art and artists, putting artistic production on the same level of cultural importance as industrial production and advertising.
Figuring out how to commercialise your art practice can require as much creativity as art making. Once you leave education you’ll need to find out what works best for you and your specific practice. Whether it's working with ceramics, writing, video editing, or critical thinking, as an artist you are likely to have valuable specialist skills that can be put in service of making money as well as art. If you have manual skills, working as a technician for institutions or other artists can be well paid, and running your own business alongside your art practice is also an option. Piers Jamson, an artist based in Hackney Wick who makes detailed large scale sculptures, also runs a business making plinths for galleries and art fairs. Having money coming in from the plinth business means he can keep his workshop set up with the tools he needs to build his sculptures. Billy AB, a printmaker from North London, has a membership at Printall Studios in London bridge and runs a screen printing business alongside his art practice, producing a range of commissions for other artists and designers.
The commercialisation of your art practice is almost unavoidable. Performance art, associated with artists such as Carolee Schneeman, Marina Abramovic, and Chris Burden, is often intentionally difficult to commercialise. For many artists, it represents a move away from an object that can be bought and sold in favour of something supposedly more authentic: an experience. However, we buy immaterial products all the time, such as childcare, mp3s, consultancy services, therapy, and so on. So museums and collectors, in collaboration with artists, have been able to find ways to commercialise even supposedly impossible-to-sell performance work. What is being traded in many cases is not documentation or even a performance, but the cult of the artist. The sale of a Tino Sehgal piece is a performance in itself, with Sehgal verbally transmitting the contract in the presence of a lawyer. This kind of art is summed up by the title of Marina Abramovich’s recent show at MoMA, The Artist is Present. When you remove the art object, what’s left is the artist, and the value of the work comes from a belief in the unique quality of their presence. Inevitably, new models of commerce are being developed in order to sell an art form that was once anti-commercial.
There is not really, as Rousseau would have us believe, a cut-and-dried choice between freedom of expression and selling your work. Making money is a necessary part of a sustainable practice. From a wider perspective, the culture of unpaid internships and institutions asking us to fill their spaces for free means that only the most privileged are able to forge careers in the arts. To break this cycle, we are all collectively responsible for creating a culture in which we get recompensed for our work.