A Excerpt on "Making a Living as an Artist"...(and a Rather Candid Response)

NThis week I saw an interesting post on Facebook from artist Nadine Robbins regarding the effort for today’s artist to make a living for themselves. She writes:

"Why so many artists can’t make a living:

- we have to pay to get into shows
- if we get in we have to ship to and from at our cost
- we pay a 50% + commissions to galleries
- we are asked to donate artwork to non-profit events and cannot deduct the artwork
- we are not offered tickets to these non profit events
- travel costs are ours to pay
- art supplies are ridiculously expensive
- we do most of our marketing
- we pay for framing
- we crate and box our paintings with quality materials and almost never receive our “good” boxes back. They are usually substituted with something cheap.
- our art is resold at higher prices and we don’t see any of that money (except for in California)
- if we threaten to go on our own we are told our careers will go to [pot]
- if collectors come to us directly it’s look down upon
- many artists get screwed out of their commissions
- Many of us have second jobs
- age, race and gender have a huge impact on success

I’m not trying to incite anyone and I don’t want to argue. I’ve have great relationships with galleries and artists and I’m luckier than most, but I’m tired of keeping quiet at the risk of pissing off a few people. What we, I, create has value in this world and we should be compensated accordingly. We don’t eat bonbons all day. We work very hard and make sacrifices."

Among the many responses to this was a very candid one from a former gallery owner that some here may find extremely insightful.

Rick Davidman: As someone who owned and directed a contemporary art gallery for 15 years and who has also been a financial advisor for over 30 years, I believe I can provide some perspective on this matter. Unfortunately, nobody owes artists a living. There was barely a day that went by that someone didn’t come into the gallery and ask me or one of my staff “Did you do all of these?” (Even during group shows). After that, we’d get asked how long it took for the artist to do the work and whether the artist made a living from their artwork. There is usually a big gulf between the people who make art and the people that buy it. The role of the dealer is build the bridge that spans that gulf - not by making snide remarks about the customer’s ignorance (no matter how true). That is the way it is. It is essential that artists find a way to support themselves so that they can do the art that they want to do whether it corresponds to the zeitgeist or not. It is far easier for an investment banker or hedge fund manager to make a 7-figure income than for an artist to make a 6-figure one. Either get over it or don’t be an artist. Artists can teach, do commercial work, find part-time jobs, or choose their parents and partners strategically. Dealers, meanwhile, try to do what they can to sell enough work to keep their artists in the studio as much as possible.

Here an artist took offense to Mr. Davidman’s response:

Artist: I take offense to the get a second job [nonsense] Rick. My artistic career and work suffers greatly when my mind is stifled with soul killing tasks.

Rick Davidman: _That’s fine. Perhaps me and other offenders will provide you with extra motivation to be a big success while playing by your own rules. All very successful artists (meaning both financially and by doing new and interesting work) are exceptions. I sincerely hope that you are one of them!

Howard Rehs from Rehs Contemporary added:

"Making a living for most people is hard work and depending on where you live can be costly. Think about what a good gallery does for an artist (at least what we do):

- We take our artist’s works to art fairs and exhibits across the country … at our expense.
- We hold exhibition in the gallery for our artists … at our expense.
- We publish catalogs featuring our artist’s works … at our expense.
- We advertise works by artists in magazines … at our expense.
- We photograph most of the works … at our expense (I say most because some of our artists prefer to do it themselves).
- We take care of the marketing costs for the works we handle.
- We are happy if our artists help with the marketing (through their social media).
- We have never ‘screwed’ an artist out of their share, and at times we give them more than was expected.
- We do not care about the age, race or gender of any artist we work with.
- We never suggest to an artist that they ‘give away’ their works unless there is a real purpose behind it.
- We are available 7 days a week … and not just for business matters.
- We are happy to give advice to artists we do not represent and have done it many times.

Now there are some things we expect in return from the artist:

- Supply us with great works of art.
- Deliver the works in good condition (ok, an expense to the artist)
- Keep us informed about shows you are going to participate in (other galleries, etc.).
- If they are contacted by a potential buyer, direct them to one of your galleries.
- Be open and honest

Working with the right gallery should be a partnership … the artist is the manufacturing plant and the dealer is the showroom and sales department."


I agree with Mr. Davidman completely, except to say that I think the responsibility falls to us as artists to bridge the gap and connect with our collectors.


The statement about artists choosing their parents strategically made me laugh.

The reality is that in almost all of the arts (acting, music, visual), there are a few who make a lot of money, and the compensation drops quickly from there. (Poor dancers. I don’t know if even the best-paid dancers make a lot.)

The distribution of pay is much different in the arts than it is in other professions. Other professions might have a distribution of pay that is somewhat like a normal distribution. The arts seems to have a pay distribution that is more like an inverse-chi-squared distribution.

An analysis of the factors (economic or other) which cause this would be useful and interesting.

I do not have a relationship with a gallery, so I do not know if the relationship is asymmetric.

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Money can be a very emotional topic to discuss and both sides sound very emotionally invested (to me, at least).

Both parties speak from their own perspective considering themselves to be the good party of the partnership- the gallery owners do not take into consideration galleries that don’t pay, lose or damage works or asking for funds from the artist; while the artist does not take into considaration artists that cannot be rallied upon, who are late with delivering works and that cut off the galleries selling under them.

Here’s my view on one of the points mentioned- it is true that art production costs a lot and it is also true that curating an exhibition and having the space to do it costs a lot. In that regard both parties have to spend money to make money.
Some galleries however do ask the artists to participate in the sunken costs of the showing, adding additional costs to the art production, and since their sunken cost is taken care of by the artist, the gallery doesn’t have the same incentive to sell the artwork as before.

When an art dealer says “nobody owes artists a living”, it means they view their profession from a very capitalistic perspective, and they view art works simply as a product they sell, which is fine.
We don’t have to speak of the importance or the emotion invested in said product.
However, we can equate it to any other product- most products are first bought by the retailer and then sold. With art, this is not the case for over a century because art dealers found out that makers of art products didn’t have the time and means to create and to reach all the people who might buy the art.
This was the case before the Internets became what it is, now it’s easier than ever to reach potential buyers so galleries have to adjust as well.

Plus- sure, if you don’t earn money doing your profession, it becomes a hobby and thus you have to do something else with your working hours. But if the money making is hindered by other factors such as galleries that ask money from artists instead of buyers, I think it’s very disrespectful to say “you better marry rich” (a nice way of saying have sex for money) :thinking: but that’s just me.


For me the most troubling aspect of this model isn’t the 50% (plus) we fork over in consignments and other costs. It’s the question of who controls the relationship with the collector and the lifetime value that flows from that relationship.

When a gallery sells one of my paintings, that gallery holds the relationship, and most of the time I never even know who purchased the painting. If the gallery goes out of business, that relationship, and all the value and goodwill it represents, is gone. Even if a collector seeks me out in another gallery, they’re building a new connection with a different business, and it’s not the same thing as the mature rapport they had with the previous gallery. And let’s not forget that half of small businesses fail within 5 years, and even the biggest gallery is still a small, small business.

When I sell a painting directly, I hold the relationship with the collector, and I can continue to build and nurture it indefinitely. I made 9 of my last 10 4-figure sales myself. Not only did I get to keep ALL of the money from those sales, but guess what? Those collectors are now on my mailing list and I can continue to share new work with them until they tell me to stop.

If this sounds like a whole lot of work, it’s because it is. But, those who are willing to put in the effort are in a position to reap the rewards.

If this sounds like an anti-gallery rant, it certainly isn’t. I’ve always had positive relationships with my galleries and never had a serious issue. I view them as an important sales tool, but like any tool, they need to be used carefully, and with respect to their strengths and limitations.


A very interesting point Jeff~~~ Thank you!

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