"When bankers get together for dinner, they discuss art. When artists get together for dinner, they discuss money." -Oscar Wilde
Listen to Ann Rea's interview with Alex Blumberg, of National Public Radio.
(Dreaming of Being an Artist)
A letter arrived announcing that I had received a scholarship to attend one of the top art schools in the nation. I was seventeen. I felt my childhood dream of becoming an artist was coming true.
However, The Cleveland Institute of Art, established in 1882, was expensive, and the scholarships did not cover all of my expenses.
Even though I worked summer jobs, was an art history tutor, and I worked at a design firm, I graduated with a significant amount of student loan debt.
Today art students attending the top 42 art and design non-profit schools in North America are paying over $50,000 in annual tuition on average. Tuition at The Rhode Island School of Design is $67,720 per year, more than Harvard at $63,025. Unlike Harvard, art school endowments are underfunded, so they offer smaller and fewer scholarships.
(Starting To Sell My Art)
Two years after I earned an expensive degree in art I did not have time, energy, or interest in making art.
I worked at a variety of completely unrelated and dull jobs in corporate America and the federal government where I was not equipped to deal with mean-spirited office politics. Although it helped me pay back my student loan bills it was at the cost of my health and well-being.
For over an artless decade I experienced deepening depression and debilitating anxiety. Talk therapy, anti-depressants, and anxiety medication did not help. As a last resort, I returned to making art to quell my anxiety.
I started selling my art and feeling better.
(Can You Make A Living As An Artist?)
I only wanted to make art that I felt proud of and to make a decent living, but I didn't know where to start.
When I asked my art professors about how I could make a living as an artist, I was typically dismissed, shamed, or told that I should expect a life of financial struggle.
To be fair, an art professor's job is to teach students how to make art, not how to make money; it falls outside of the scope of their curriculum and academic expertise.
I learned that there are no jobs for fine artists and artisans. Without jobs, it is impossible to build an art career. If your parents discouraged you from pursuing art, their financial concerns are justified because you need to build an art business.
(Is Living Scarier Than Dying?)
My coworker Angela and I were complaining about our project management consulting jobs. Her hair was just starting to grow back in a cascade of black curls. She was receiving treatment for Stage Four breast cancer so I decided that we needed to have a more upbeat conversation. I asked her:
"If you had a magic wand and you could do anything and be assured of success, what would that be?"
"I would be an interior designer."
"Do it! There is nothing stopping you."
"I'd be too afraid."
"Angela, you've just fought Stage Four cancer. Is learning how to be a successful interior designer scarier than having cancer?"
(The Scarcity and Permission Based Art Establishment)
I started to have some success within the art establishment until I realized that the terms that I had to agree to would make it impossible for all but a select few artists to be successful.
- It is important to note that on average, small businesses gain about 85% of their sales by way of referrals. However, art galleries do not share art buyer's contact information. So I was actually losing a substantial percentage of sales by having representation.
- Even though art buyers preferred to know and to support me directly so that they can enjoy a meaningful exchange and relationship, the art galleries did not want me to speak to "their customers."
- If I made a sale outside of the gallery they insisted on their cut. Even if they had nothing to do with the sale and had no relationship to my customers.
- I had to consign my art with the galleries, they did not buy it from me. Yet they took 50% of the sale, a standard wholesale price split.
- Galleries pressured me to offer discounts and they expected me to absorb the losses. This degraded the value of my art, my brand, and reputation.
- Artist representatives customarily demand exclusivity. So even if I found other distribution channels the gallery expected me to ask for permission before pursuing it. This limited the number of opportunities that I could pursue without the threat of losing my representation.
- Since I quit the art gallery scene, the informal estimates are that over 50% of art galleries in the US have closed since the most recent recession.
- Many art galleries have taken to charging artists monthly fees, on top of the commissions that they take, before they pay the artist.
I toyed with the idea of earning a Masters in Fine Art (MFA) with the hope that it would give me an advantage with the art establishment or help me secure a rare low-paying teaching position.
Then I considered earning a Masters of Business Administration (MBA). However, an MBA revolves around the trade of goods or services - later I realized an artist's product is "emotion."
(What We Can't Learn From Art History)
I was fortunate to have an iconic American artist for a mentor, Wayne Thiebaud. I thought:
"If anyone knows how an artist can make a living, it's Wayne Thiebaud."
Wayne Thiebaud had spent most of his career toiling away as an art professor, and it wasn't until he was age 79 that he became one of the rare few that the art establishment chose to recognize. He had a one-person show at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art that was on a national tour, and his paintings had started to sell for over one-million dollars in the secondary art market.
So I asked Wayne Thiebaud for his honest feedback about my art. He encouraged me to pursue my art and he supplied me with a glowing letter of recommendation. I asked him how I could make a living with my art.
"I don't know, I'm not a businessman."
His response revealed a pervasive and twisted disconnect about making art and making money.
At that moment I saw the truth.
Wayne Thiebaud is a businessman even if he does not consider himself a businessman. Because he has several licensing deals, his design graced the license plates of millions of California's cars for years, and his son was running the Thiebaud Art Gallery in San Francisco.
The unintended hypocrisy of this remark made me realize what art historians and critics never explained; the only reason an artist is successful is that at some point in time there was a market for their art.
Until the mid-century, artists cultivated their own market niche. When the middleman arrived, artists stopped identifying with their businesses.
- Are artists ashamed of making money for doing what they love?
- Have artists heard the phrase "starving artist" too many times?
- Do artists feel intimidated by business?
- Are artists so identified with their art that they feel like they are selling a part of themselves?
- Do they lack enough focus and self-confidence to conduct commerce?
I realized that I did not want to compete with other artists for limited opportunities within the scarcity and permission-based art establishment just to show my art; I wanted to sell my art and build relationships with my patrons.
(We Are Not Getting Out of Here Alive)
I thought a lot about Angela. One day after another ugly encounter with my "Team Leader", nicknamed Snotty Scotty I thought:
"I'm done. Life is way too short to be living a life I hate. I am going to live where I want to live and be a successful artist.
If it doesn't work out, I'll do something else, but at least I will be doing what I really want to do. I'll face my fears or die trying."
In 2005 I moved to San Francisco where I had no contacts. I sat in my live work/studio overlooking the Pacific Ocean and I wrote down my goal as if it had already manifested:
"I am so happy and grateful now that I sold over $100,000 of my art in 2005."
Then I fired all of my representatives and asked them to return my art. I brainstormed with a friend about all of the ways that I could sell my art. I settled on a plan to partner with wineries where I painted original oil paintings of their vineyards and sold them the reproductions of my paintings.
The wineries resold my fine art reproductions in their tasting rooms and gave them as gifts to their very best customers, landing the wineries a permanent advertisement in their clients' hearts and homes long after the wine was gone.
In exchange, they agreed to host me at wine tastings where I could sell my original oil paintings.
I sold $103,246 of my art in 2005.
(Failing Is Part of Succeeding)
These wine industry partnerships worked well, for a while.
As I received press attention on HGTV and ABC, in The San Francisco Chronicle, Fortune, and The Wine Enthusiast magazines and in Jonathan Field's book, Career Renegade, artists from around the globe began contacting me for help. I started a blog about my favorite subject, Artists Who THRIVE.
But then two major wineries, who shall remain nameless, decided to break our agreement.
Even though I had painted over 120 paintings of their vineyards, they decided that they did not want to host me at wine tastings because it was distracting from the sale of their wine.
Each winery broke their written contract with me and one threatened to countersue me if I pursued a legal remedy. Two other wineries tried to steal my copyright, one winery owner and well-known winemaker threatened me:
"I'll destroy your reputation in Napa Valley because I can."
I was stuck with a lot of art inventory and no productive distribution channels to sell it.
(Creating The 8-Part Road Map)
I felt sorry for myself for a while. Then I realized that I was just focusing on the wrong niche.
Instead of marketing to a middleman, the wineries, I shifted my focus to my real customers, individual affluent collectors. Though my partnerships with the wineries failed, I was able to build a reputation and a following.
I knew that I needed a better plan, so I spent months examining every aspect of my business. I evaluated each of my failures and the resulting lessons, and I identified eight primary objectives:
- to remain committed to SMARTER goals and to build productive habits because it yields focus and self-confidence
- to know my "Why", who I am and what I stand for and what I stand against
- to serve a profitable niche
- to have a clear, concise, and current written plan to sell my art
- to connect with and celebrate my niche market
- to sell my art in a way that didn't feel sleazy
- to protect my copyright because my intellectual property was not only my brand but a significant percentage of my current and future income
- to know how much money I am making and how much I am spending
These are the same objectives the of artists who follow me and those who I mentored; including, Colleen Attara, an eco-artist who launched a handmade recycled greeting card line that is selling in over 100 stores and Kate Bradley who developed a strong following as a children’s portrait painter.
(A More Profitable Iteration)
I joined The Luxury Marketing Council and became a student of luxury marketing. I started working with affluent collectors. This time I got paid up front and my patrons hosted me at private parties where we unveiled the paintings to their friends and family. I met more affluent customers.
This private offering is much more profitable, enjoyable, and far less time-consuming.
When my intern graduated from the Academy of Art University of San Francisco with an undergraduate degree in Fine Art Illustration, I was appalled because she accumulated over $200,000 of student loan and credit card debt to finance her education yet she had no job prospects or any idea how she was going to make a living with her art.\
Inescapable student loan debt binds her and so many other artists' future.
When I asked my former intern what she had learned about how to make a living as an artist, she showed me her "Designing Careers" course curriculum. It was a bunch of handouts slapped together in a cheap plastic binder.
The instructions on how to file a US Copyright application were outdated, a significant misstep. Copyright registration is the legal instrument that protects an artist's primary assets, their intellectual property. It is vital that artists understand this, as copyright represents a significant portion of their current and future revenue.
She paid $3000, plus administrative fees, for this flawed course and she will be paying compounding interest on it for years.
Her school, the Academy of Art University in San Francisco is a for-profit venture. I am all for making a profit except that their product is less about the quality of their education and more about their valuable antique car collection and real estate portfolio "the largest in San Francisco." These holdings are indirectly financed with federally backed student loans.
I spent a year diving into the lessons that I and artists whom I had been mentoring had learned and distilled it into eight foundational business and marketing courses for fine artists and artisans, The MAKING Art Making MONEY Semester®. My students are shaping "The New Creative Class" where the middleman is irrelevant.
I want to help other artists take their power back by gaining self-confidence and focus. My Four-Part Code© process helps artists:
- know who they are and what they stand for, and what they stand against, their "Why"
- determine their mission, their "What"
- how they can serve their mission using their art and other resources and skills, their "How"
- who resonates with their mission and will buy their art, their "Who"
So that I could help more artists thrive I opened up a portion of my paid program. Guest students are welcome to attend my live weekly online training for free, as long as they constructively contribute to the conversation.
I also partner with a number of US Small Business Development Centers, county arts councils, and non-profit arts organizations so that artists can gain free access to this education.
I stand behind The MAKING Art Making MONEY Semester® by offering a 30-day, no questions asked, money back guarantee.
A student officially graduates only after they have earned back their tuition investment, at a minimum, through the sale of their art during their final "Prototype Project." This goal holds a student accountable; it tests their offerings, and it confirms their grasp of the principles. The results of a student's final project can:
• kickstart their fine art enterprise
• test their commitment to sell their art
• or affirm that making art would be better left as a hobby or pursued as a business later
Aside from increased art sales, my students report a significant measured increase in their self-confidence and focus.
Artists walk a solitary path. This is compounded by a lack of support from experienced mentors and artist communities that are often filled with jealousy, competitiveness, and snobbery.
The MAKING Art Making MONEY Semester® global community is a warm, welcoming, intelligent group of varied artists who interact one-on-one via live video calls. They have direct access to me via our Facebook group and during a 50-minute exit interview.
We have a range of creative talents; including, a stay at home mother with a Masters of Fine Art (MFA) returning to her art, an Emmy award-winning creative director, and a Harvard MBA.
My vision is to help over 10,000 artists thrive in less than ten years by securing their creative freedom through business savvy. Join us.
Ann Rea is a San Francisco-based artist. Rea's artistic talent is praised by her mentor, Wayne Thiebaud, an American art icon. She has been featured in Inc. Magazine, Fortune, The Wine Enthusiast, and Art Business News, in The San Francisco Chronicle, in the book Career Renegade by Jonathan Fields, and on HGTV, ABC, and The Good Life Project. Rea is a favorite instructor on Creative Live's "Money and Life" channel, broadcasting to over one million students worldwide where Alex Blumberg, NPR Producer of “This American Life”, crafted Rea’s life as an artist.
"When bankers get together for dinner, they discuss art. When artists get together for dinner, they discuss money." -Oscar Wilde