Making Art and Making Money

A New Generation of Artists Proves They Don’t Have to Starve (or Sell Out)

By Camron Bridgford

Michigan-based artist Emile Tromp displays one of her designs.

Michigan-based artist Emile Tromp displays one of her designs.

Molly Dilworth, a site-specific installation artist based in Brooklyn, N.Y., is what many would consider a successful artist. She has a plethora of public art commissions, exhibitions, grants, and awards to her name, including the large-scale painting “Cool Water, Hot Island,” which was commissioned by the City of New York in 2010 and resided in Times Square for 18 months. Yet, Dilworth doesn’t consider her choice of profession a financially safe one.

Community Support

Various governmental and community organizations now have programs to help support the arts. Here is a small sample:
Create Denver
Create Denver serves 20,000 people and 2,900 businesses in the film, music, fine art, gallery, fashion, and design industries through offering grants, hosting exhibitions, providing small-business loans, and conducting career development services for artists.
“Denver has a growing creative scene that needs tools to be properly supported,” says Create Denver Program Administrator Lisa Gedgaudas. “This assistance will not only provide jobs for artists, but can improve the community as a whole and attract tourists and new residents.”
The Barnett Center, The Ohio State University
The Barnett Center for Integrated Arts and Enterprise convenes students from the Department of Arts Administration, Education, and Policy; the Fisher College of Business; and the Moritz College of Law to work together on community-based case studies. This graduate-level think tank works to identify and solve artist-defined problems and create more effective management models for arts-related organizations.
“The Barnett Center was developed to provide the real-world connection between the creative community and other business sectors,” says the center’s director, Sonia BasSheva Manjon, Ph.D. “By partnering and collaborating across disciplines, problems in the community can be solved a lot easier with both linear and creative minds at the table.”
LEAP Institute for the Arts, Colorado State University
LEAP (Leadership, Entrepreneurship, Arts Advocacy, and the Public) collaborates with Arts Incubator of the Rockies, a nonprofit arts advocacy program, as well as the City of Fort Collins, Colorado, to provide creative-sector students with leadership skills and experiences that better prepare them for the current job market.
“LEAP really helps students understand their value as creative people in the world,” says Katie Rothstein, associate program director. “Students learn how to create and manage an arts career, develop a more flexible definition of what success in their field looks like, and gain experience to see themselves as entrepreneurs.”
Private Business Coaching
Business planning coach Lucinda Kerschensteiner helps artists develop structure and goals for their businesses. Kerschensteiner recognizes the potential for many artists to improve their financial situation, as well as the economy and entire community, with their art.
“Most of the people I work with see themselves as creatives and believe this to be their personal strength,” says Kerschensteiner. “However, once they learn the business piece, some also discover they have entrepreneurial inclinations and begin to enjoy and embrace the business of their work.”
Kerschensteiner also notes that, given basic skills on business planning, many artists gain a level of confidence they previously lacked by recognizing the potential and opportunity their creative work provides.
In other words, Kerschensteiner says, “They really begin to understand they are in more control of their success or failure than they think.”

“I realize I am lucky to get to do this full time, and that what I have as an artist is not typical,” says Dilworth. “But while I can get by day to day, I wouldn’t say that I have long-term financial stability.”

The glamorized idea of the starving artist conjures images of Bohemian eccentrics like Vincent van Gogh and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who were willing to give up financial security (and in their cases, also battle alcoholism and illness) to embrace their calling. There is a notion that unless you are among the elite few, supporting yourself through an artistic career is unlikely.

Most formal art education is focused solely on the craft with few skills applicable to the job market, and many artists suffer from a deep-rooted self-consciousness that being financially successful can be viewed as selling out. In lieu of formal education, successful artists like Dilworth learn to manage the business side of their ventures through trial and error.

“I’ve never received formal training on how to negotiate a contract or build a project budget,” says Dilworth. “I’ve had to learn how to communicate and work effectively with lots of other professionals, like engineers and art administrators [on public art projects].”

Hitting the Ground Running

Jacob Danklefs, a multimedia artist and owner of Dank Customs, also supports himself solely off of his art. Danklefs customizes the surface of shoes through painting, burning, graphic media, and water-transfer printing. His creations sell for hundreds to thousands of dollars.

Danklefs’ interest in shoes started young. “I remember designing and drawing shoes and sending them to Nike as a child,” says Danklefs.

After his first customization in 2002, Danklefs realized the potential of using premade shoes as a canvas for painting. He quit his regular, full-time job and recently customized a pair of sneakers for LeBron James.

Like Dilworth, Danklefs doesn’t have a formal business plan. His success comes from talent, instinct, and a willingness to work long, arduous hours.

“I have a blog site and Instagram account where I post photos of the shoes I’ve done, which is the main way I get business; news and other websites have also picked up my photos,” says Danklefs. “But to get everything done, I work about 70 hours a week.”

Art on the Side

Less-established artists, such as Grand Rapids, Michigan-based 2-D designer Emilie Tromp, pursue their art on the side and work another job to make ends meet. Tromp has a business plan for her custom design and calligraphy business that includes long-term income goals for one, five, and ten years; the number of shops where she wants to sell her work; and the types of design products she envisions creating in the future.

Tromp acknowledges a fine line between keeping her own aesthetic while also making a product that people want to buy and can afford.

“It has taken a while to learn what will sell and what people are willing to spend,” says Tromp. “To sell your work, you often have to let go of some aspects of design while still maintaining a balance with your style. It’s also important to be willing to publicly advocate for your art. It’s not entirely comfortable, but I have to do it in order to get into trade shows and boutiques.”

Jessica Swenson, a Texas-based digital painter, earns extra income by substitute teaching. Swenson, who began making art in middle school, decided to paint for a living when she realized that other careers wouldn’t leave her enough spare time to do what she loves.

“It takes hard work, patience, and penny-pinching,” says Swenson. “You have to be willing to claw your way up. Every little success is hard earned ... and when you do happen upon success, you have to be aware that the surplus of income probably won’t last.”

On the business side, Swenson maintains a spreadsheet of inventory, costs, gains, losses, and goals, and she works hard to put herself and her work out in the community.

“I think it’s easy for artists to give up and feel like they lack talent, when really all they lacked was a business sense. If people don’t know you or your work, they can’t support you,” says Swenson. “It’s an incredibly rewarding business, though. Being able to create sales from practically nothing feels pretty magical.”

The Artist’s Anti-Business Plan

Honolulu-based Jen Thario considers herself an artist whether or not she sells work—and a formal business plan doesn’t fit her vision.

“[I believe in] making the work I want, and then finding the place where it belongs,” says Thario.

Some of what Thario considers her best work is not easy or possible to sell. For example, if she wanted to make money on her compostable graffiti installations, which utilize trees, she would have to uproot the installations from their locations, destroying the works’ intent.

However, Thario considers other creations—even those she has handcrafted—as products because their sole purpose is to be sold.

Thario strongly believes in networking in her local arts community through various activities, including collaborating and sharing exhibition opportunities with fellow artists; continually improving the production of her art through trial and error; joining artist co-ops; and participating as a volunteer, member, or advocate in art institutions such as museums, galleries, and art centers.

“The most financially successful artists I know are exceptional at one thing—getting themselves an audience,” says Thario. “They network tirelessly, and they participate in and give back to their arts community.”

[Any reference to a specific company, commercial product, process, or service does not constitute or imply an endorsement or recommendation by the National Endowment for Financial Education.]

Making Art by artist Molly Dilworth
Artist: Molly Dilworth
Age: 39
Location: Brooklyn, NY
Education: Masters of Fine Arts
Art type: Site-specific installation
Hours per week spent on art: 70
Other employment to support art: No
Average price of art: Installation budgets $15,000-$50,000 (artist takes a small portion after expenses); sculptures or small paintings: $500-$10,000; digital prints: $15
Most ever made on a single piece: Public art commissioned for $500,000
Making Art by artist: Jacob Danklefs /Dank Customs
Artist: Jacob Danklefs /Dank Customs
Age: 29
Location: San Antonio, Texas
Education: Some college
Art type: Multimedia
Hours per week spent on art: 70
Other employment to support art: No
Average price of art: $450-$600
Most ever made on a single piece: $1,000+
Making Art with artist: Emilie Tromp / LIEFdesign
Artist: Emilie Tromp / LIEFdesign
Age: 28
Location: Grand Rapids, Michigan
Education: Bachelor’s degree in sociology
Art type: 2-D Design
Hours per week spent on art: 35
Other employment to support art: Part-time nanny
Average price of art: Letterpress cards, prints: $10; custom wedding invitations, logo design: $150
Most ever made on a single piece: $300
Making Art with artist: Jessica Swenson / Artistic Oddities
Artist: Jessica Swenson / Artistic Oddities
Age: 26
Location: San Marcos, Texas
Education: Bachelor’s degree in English
Art type: Digital painting
Hours per week spent on art: 30
Other employment to support art: Substitute teaching
Average price of art: Prints: $15; custom paintings: $50-$200
Most ever made on a single piece: $200
Making art with artist Jennifer Thario
Artist: Jennifer Thario
Age: 45
Location: Honolulu, Hawaii
Education: Masters of Fine Arts
Art type: Mixed media
Hours per week spent on art: 35
Other employment to support art: Curatorial/exhibitions assistant and lecturer
Average price of art: $500
Most ever made on a single piece: $6,500