Visual Artist Compensation – We’re different

Compensation in the world of visual art.

It occurred to me how unique the visual artist is within the expanding “Creative Class”.

Back in 2010 Richard Florida correctly predicted that global business was going to change the way organizations succeed (The Rise of the Creative Class). Sir Ken Robinson, (The Element), had actually laid the groundwork for this analysis over the previous couple of decades.  The Creative Class is now about twenty percent of the working population, people who use their creative skills as a key part of their employment, (from business and banking to manufacturing to entertainments) plus all the other people who use their creativity to make a living who are not employees.

The Internet and social media have made our world much more diverse. For artists there are more options than ever to pursue an artistic life. This is great.

But the Visual Artist still remains in a unique place when it comes to compensation.

If you work as a Creative employee the business you are involved in and the society in which you live pretty much dictate the remuneration you’ll receive.   It’s a job.

All the performing arts – music, dance, theatre – generate income through repetition.  No musician, dance troupe, or stage work charges $5,000 a ticket for one performance, never to repeat that content again. The opposite is true. Given the opportunity, musicians will play their best music over and over until they die, actors will go onstage until there are no more parts they can play.

Film and Television depend on repetition and residuals. Not all actors get residuals, but they do get enormous compensation if their work brings in big bucks, and there is a well established system of compensation for all creative people involved.

Novelists and other book creators are a little different because they mostly work on small advances, relying on a cut (residuals) from mass sales to pay for their efforts. No book writer ever sells just a single printout of their manuscript, never to see another dime.

But when the Visual Artist sells an original work, an actual object the collector can own and see every day, the Artist gets paid only once.

Further, and unlike all the other arts, visual art is an investment. That is correct: visual art increases in value over time. Your work appreciates in value after you sell it, but you (or your heirs) don’t see a dime when it is resold.

Not so with all the other art forms, where the creators get residuals or percentages when the work is shown, covered, reissued, preformed or staged, and their heirs can inherit that income.  (Yes there are some grey areas, I’ll get to that…)

Did I mention, the Visual Artist gets paid only once for the original work?

The problem with this ‘one and done’ way of making a living is that the Visual Artist can easily burn out.  It happens before our eyes now, as artists try to put out weekly YouTube videos, do time lapse painting demos, teach art classes, keep up on the business and fulfillment, and keep to an intensive painting schedule to make enough and better work.  Suddenly you’re not working a forty hour week but an eighty, and after two or three years the gas tank is empty.

SO, the Visual Artist needs to charge enough to make their efforts worthwhile, while not overworking.

Overlaps, grey areas.

So, yes when music and books are sold second hand the creators get no cut. But these objects or files are mass market items to begin with and depreciate in value, and even when ‘collectible’ these objects still don’t have truly significant value until the creator or someone famous has autographed it.

And yes, some current modern art is instillation art, which can be moved from one gallery or location to another, earning income for the artist from each iteration. If you can do this it is one income stream.

And yes, the Visual Artist can sell prints of their work.   There are pros and cons to reproductions.

Artists retain ownership of the image, the copyright. That means that the owner of the original object can only resell it, and cannot make money from the original in other ways. The Creator can reuse the image or the idea or the form or the concept.

So, yes, the Visual Artist can make copies and sell them. The problem with that is that collectors don’t want near perfect copies of the art they just paid a boatload of money for selling for substantially less. Availability decreases value; scarcity increases value. In fact, the gallery circuit does not want you selling any prints of any of your output, (or at least prints that point back to you…create different art and use a different identity, a pseudonym).

Years later, perhaps, when an artist’s reputation is improved by the sale of prints of older work, thus increasing the value of his or her ‘brand’ and increasing the value of all the artist’s work, then print sales are okay. At the same time, when you are going rogue (read The Rogue Art’s Survival Guide by Rafi Perez) and doing all your own marketing and selling you absolutely need as many streams of income as you can manage.

The good news is that today there are many new opportunities to prosper as a visual artist, and selling only your original work is not the only way to make a living.

In the bad old days before the Internet took off, getting an acceptable print made of your artwork cost thousands of dollars, and not all work could be reproduced. A whole industry evolved where visual artists would create reproduction friendly art and submit it to the brokers who worked with or were the printers who supplied the “Framed Art” type poster shops that were in every mall in North America. Great efforts were made to anticipate which genres would be popular in the next quarter, which styles and artists would sell, and competition was fierce. That system is almost completely gone now.

There are still farmers’ markets, county fairs, pop up weekend art shows and smaller local venues to show your work, and people expect you to have prints of your work available in a range of prices. The draw back is that you have to have a thick skin, hustle your work out there, and have no weekends free for half the year as you move your inventory around the country. But if people like your stuff, you can make a year’s worth of income and profit in six months, then spend the winter in your studio, which your sales have made possible. I’ve seen it done.

And you can still sell original work through Internet sites, but the small stuff sells better, because of the lower price tag and acceptable shipping costs.

As you can imagine, once your expertise graduates you to impressively sized canvases, not only is shipping an issue (even a rolled up 2 m x 1.5 m – 6 ft x 4 ft – canvas is a big item), the price tag should be in the 5 to 10 thousand dollar range. Who is going to drop 10 grand on an original work they’ve only seen as a jpeg on a computer screen? Right. They will need to see your original work in person, if not the item in question, or at least others similar to it.

Thankfully attitudes have changed. Used to be a couple generations ago only artists who made a living solely off their art were professionals, everyone else was an amateur. Pejoratives were dabbler, accomplished, Sunday painter, hobbyist, dilettante, putterer and tyro.

Today we accept that creative people may have different ways of making money, sometimes a paying job, some times part time work, sometimes using your creativity. What matters is that you work steadily with professional dedication, then put it out there, let people see it and put a proper price on it.