Art Therapy: How Do Artists Make a Living? by Cara Ober

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Dear BmoreArt,

I graduated a little over two years ago from art school and, although I’ve shown a little and sold a few paintings, I can’t seem to grasp how artists make a living off their work. From my experience, most places catering to emerging artists feel like they are trying to take advantage of young people by charging ridiculous fees for unjuried shows – which might be acceptable if it were a prestigious institution or venue – or trying to buy my work for less than I can deem profitable. I just refuse to do these things anymore, mainly because they won’t advance my career but also because it just isn’t financially plausible.

I want to make painting my full time career, instead of a part time endeavor. I’ve contacted galleries in Chicago, where I’m currently living, but have mostly been ignored or rejected. People keep telling me the next step is to go to grad school, but honestly I’m afraid I’ll graduate with a MFA more in debut and less informed about a career in the arts. I know there is no “easy fix” and I’m definitely willing to pay my dues, I’m just hoping you have some advice that I’ve overlooked. I am feeling very discouraged.

Fulltime Artist-to-be


Dear Fulltime Artist-to-be,

I was once asked, ‘Do you want a sexy, fast art career or a slower one that lasts a lifetime?’ As young artists, getting your first show can be very frustrating and there is a lot of pressure (not to mention student loans) to sell work right away. However, this is the last thing you need to be thinking about. Art sales are a definitive measure of success, and we all want to be successful, but early in your career you want to focus your energy on putting down roots, setting up a network for yourself, and creating opportunities that will all lead to a rich future, full of more opportunities. This might sound maddeningly vague, but it’s the truth.

Your questions all have complicated and specific answers, so I am just going to jump right in. I have a number of different suggestions for you to consider, both short and long-term, in moving towards your goal of making a living from your art. One huge favor you can do yourself is to read the book Art/Work cover to cover. It’s the best manual out there for contemporary artists, especially young ones. It addresses many of your concerns and will help you get the ball rolling.

I have an MFA myself and I think they are spiffy for some people, but please know you do NOT need to go to grad school to get galleries to show your work. All they care about is the quality and content of your work. If you need an ‘educational environment’ to make your work, apply to some residencies, especially the ones you can attend free of cost. If you are already carrying debt from your undergraduate degree, the last thing I would advise is adding more. If you attended a good art college, your portfolio should be competitive enough to get your career going.

In terms of working with an art gallery, the best first thing you can do is a lot of research – online and in person – to figure out where your work fits. Chicago is a great city for young artists. Do you have any artists friends there, especially from art school, who are exhibiting their work, starting their own art spaces, and doing interesting projects? The best way to get your own career going is through your friends and colleagues. In the beginning of your career, it’s much better to set yourself up for a long and busy future in the arts – so meeting other artists, especially people making things happen for themselves. Start thinking up interesting projects to do with your friends and actually do them – in a home or apartment is fine, as long as it is well curated.

I have no idea what kind of galleries you’ve been working with or what kinds of sales you have had, but in the beginning of an artist’s career I think sales are much less important than having your work seen in the right context, press, and exposure, which all lead to more and better shows, while a sale does not necessarily do that. I am not sure what you mean by ‘non-juried’ show, but if this means a ‘pay to play’ approach, just avoid this. It leads nowhere and can even look bad on a resume. The same is often true with cafes and restaurants. Sales can happen there, but you need to be thinking long term right now, not short term.

As far as approaching galleries, never do this by email. Always do it in person. If the gallery shows young people – people your age, then go to their openings and start a conversation. After they see you a few times, invite the director for a studio visit. If the gallery shows older established artists, don’t bother.

Juried shows are fine to apply to. They are always a crapshoot in terms of getting picked, but you never know. Use strategy and only apply to shows where the juror is likely to be interested in your work or where the media is specific to what you do. Juried shows at good non-profit spaces can lead to more exposure, but usually the best exhibits for a young artist are at spaces run by your peers – they can be collectives with members or experimental artist-run spaces.

As far as making paintings full time, I don’t know anyone who does this. Even really successful artists have day jobs. I’m not sure how plausible this goal is, but it’s definitely something to keep in your ten year plan. It can be done, so your best bet in figuring this out is to find artists who are making their living exclusively from their work and ask them questions. Being a studio assistant to someone like this can be a great learning experience.

You seem like a smart and capable person, so I am sure you’ll figure this out. Just know, it’s not going to happen fast. When you are young is the time to get involved and plant as many roots as you can. I am assuming you have a day job to pay your bills and after that you have studio time. If I were you I’d pick a local nonprofit art center and sign up as a volunteer, even if just for one event. Or, if you have artist friends, get involved with an artist-run space as a volunteer or curator, and eventually you will be included as an artist, too.

Great big hug,


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