It’s an art world minefield out there. With the work of some artists selling for record amounts, others are faced with the prospect of having to pay just to be seen. Clearly there are people out there making money from art – and as usual, most of them aren’t the artists. So, are artists being exploited or do we just need to wise up a bit?

Art and money have always had an uncomfortable relationship. On the one hand we all need to earn a living somehow – to put food on the table and a roof over our heads at the bare minimum.

On the other hand art is an expression of emotions, experiences, time and texture, and a whole realm of intangibles that may or may not have an effect on those that experience them.

It’s worth remembering that making art and making money are two separate things. If the art market, or even commerce itself miraculously disappeared overnight, art would still exist. Artists would still make it. It’s a fatal error to think the two go together.

Being an artist can be an expensive existence – there’s materials to buy, studio rent to pay, travel costs to see work and meet people. There’s even entry fees to pay for competitions, if that’s your thing (it’s not mine). That all needs financing somehow.

Focus on the art

You may choose to pay for all this by getting a part-time or even full-time job. And that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with that and it certainly won’t devalue the artistic merit of your work. That way it’s easier to see the distinction between money and art. Concentrate on the art, not the money. It’s a tried and tested method – almost every writer ever has worked this way. Some never stopped.

If you can afford to earn a living based on the value others place on your art, then that’s good too – only the separation between money and art becomes a little more difficult and you need to work harder to keep that distinction.

Note also that if you go down this route you become a slave to market values. If you can’t get more money in return for your work than it costs to make, then this route really isn’t right for you yet. Any business model based on selling something for less than it brings in is doomed to failure.

I never work for other people for free. Never have done, never will. It doesn’t do anyone any favours and only damages the profession. How often have we been told “think of the exposure” when someone wants you to work for free for their benefit? If the value of the exposure was really that good then you’d think they’d be in a position to pay you properly for your services. However, don’t confuse this approach with a ‘no pay, no make’ mentality.

This is where things get complicated. Sometimes you need to take a longer view. I wonder how many artists understand the concept of ‘return on investment’? Sometimes the return may not be immediate, but in the long term can bring in much more money. It’s a gamble. But similarly you don’t get anything for nothing either.

There are times when it pays to spend a bit on your art – it’s called ‘investing in your business’. Contrary to some misguided beliefs, nobody just offers you work or owes you a living just because you are an artist – regardless of how good you are. You have to make it happen.

Know your value

Sometimes an opportunity arises to get your work seen by your target audience (in business this is called marketing). And while it may cost money, if it’s the right opportunity and you work it hard enough, it can pay off many times over. Think of it as working with yourself as the client. The level of your investment is an indication of the value you place on your own work to achieve a certain goal. It’s good to see yourself from the other side of the fence.

Occasionally, I might make work for much smaller fees than I would normally charge. The budget may be tiny, but if the potential to make something you really want to make is there it can be very worthwhile. One piece I made a few years back cost me £250 and 10 days solid work to produce, yet since then it has directly led to over £50,000 of properly-paid work all over the world.

Paul Cummins, one of the artists behind the sea of poppies at the Tower of London, this week revealed how he sold his house and took out bank loans to realise that work. Drastic action perhaps, but somehow I don’t think he’ll be short of work for a few years yet.

In these circumstances the decision has to be yours to make. If the budget is really unworkable and there’s nothing in it for you, tell the client what it really costs. Artists and clients both want the best work at the end of it. If that’s not possible, don’t do it. Leave it alone, turn it down. It has to be your value judgement.

Don’t forget, once you start looking to earn a living as an independent artist, you become a small business. As a small business it’s all about really knowing your market. Knowing who values your art and what they value it for. People who buy items of work aren’t necessarily the people who commission new work – they may both want your work, but for very different reasons.

For many artists, it may seem like the world is trying to squeeze every last drop out of them. But while campaigns like a-n/AIR’s Paying Artists help make the case for appropriate budgets, artists need to be doing their bit too. If we want to be taken more seriously and valued as professionals, we need to all be more professional in the way we value our own work.

Steve Messam is an environmental artist based in the North of England.

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