If Other Professions Were Paid Like Artists

Last November German conceptual artist Hans-Peter Feldmann was named the winner of the eighth Biennal Hugo Boss Prize, a bi-annual award bestowed by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation for significant achievement in contemporary art, with an attached honorarium of $100,000. In a unique gesture to the museum Feldmann proposed the idea of creating an installation that would involve tacking 100,000 $1 bills to the walls of a large gallery in the museum. (Photo & caption courtesy thisiscolossal.com)

In 2011 German conceptual artist Hans-Peter Feldmann was named the winner of the eighth Biennal Hugo Boss Prize, a bi-annual award bestowed by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation for significant achievement in contemporary art, with an attached honorarium of $100,000. In a unique gesture to the museum Feldmann proposed the idea of creating an installation that would involve tacking 100,000 $1 bills to the walls of a large gallery off the Guggenheim’s ramp. (Photo by David Heald courtesy the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York. Caption & photo via thisiscolossal.com)


Everything is Free Now

This week a visual artist friend posted the following on her Facebook page:

“Just for the fun of it, I counted up how many times in 2014 I’ve been asked to do work for free, but for the distinct financial benefit of those asking. A donation, if you will. Eight times so far, six weeks into the year. I knew I was asked a lot, but I didn’t realize the average was more than once a week. If only paying jobs came with the same frequency.”

If Other People Were Paid Like ArtistsHer post reminded me of this drawing by artist Melanie Gillman (thanks Irene Ogrizek!). Gillman’s drawing satirizes how our culture treats working artists. There are few professions where individuals are expected to give away their time, talents, and ideas. And yet artists are expected to do it on a regular basis.

Why? Because the larger culture has discovered our secret: that most of us will make art even if it doesn’t make money. Most artists create for the joy of the process, because they have something to say, and because they must—it’s as essential as breathing and eating.

Singer-songwriter Gillian Welch writes about this creative dilemma beautifully in her song “Everything is Free.” Here’s the song’s chorus:

Everything is free now, that’s what they say
Everything I ever done, gonna give it away
Someone hit the big score, they figured it out
They were gonna do it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay



The Benefits of Abundance

While it’s true that even lawyers and doctors do pro-bono work for causes they believe in, there is a primary difference: they aren’t expected to give their services away on a daily basis. It’s their ability to earn a stable living that allows them the luxury of being generous and donating their time and services. Financial stability gives them choice.

In other words, abundance (however you define this word) allows generosity. It allows us to give back without harming ourselves.

“Abundance” will be defined differently for each person—we all have varying ideas about what it means to “live well.” But most of us can make do with less than we think we can. And yet simplicity is not the same thing as poverty or insecurity. Artists need to have security in order to thrive. We need our mental and physical energy free for our creative work and the business of promoting it. Worry drains our energy.

Artists excel at bartering, especially with each other. (This is another reason we are so often asked to give away our work—bartering is a familiar currency in our world.) Personally, I’ve benefited tremendously from the gift economy, and it can be a huge help when exchanges are mutually beneficial.

But problems arise when the balance of power is unequal—when we are asked to give more than we receive in return. This can create resentment, especially when time, money, and energy are scarce instead of abundant. The result is that we feel depleted, stressed, and ashamed because we have not taken care of our own well-being first.


“I’m 70 years old, and I began making art in the ’50s,” Mr. Feldmann told the New York Times. “At that time there was no money in the art world. Money and art didn’t exist. So for me $100,000 is very special. It’s incredible really. And I would like to show the quantity of it.” (Photo by David Heald courtesy the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York via thisiscolossal.com)

“I’m 70 years old, and I began making art in the ’50s,” Mr. Feldmann told the New York Times. “At that time there was no money in the art world. Money and art didn’t exist. So for me $100,000 is very special. It’s incredible really. And I would like to show the quantity of it.” (Photo by David Heald courtesy the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York via thisiscolossal.com)



Mindfulness & Money

What is the solution? Mindful decision-making.

My friend, who counted up the number of times she had been asked to give away her work, took a crucial step—she quantified these requests. Now that she is aware of how many donation requests are coming in, you can bet she is going to think twice each time she is asked. She now realizes that saying “yes” to something means saying “no” to something else.

Taking care of our own financial needs is not selfish, it’s essential. And like the doctors and lawyers who donate time to causes they care about, abundance, as well as balance, will allow us to be generous when we are approached for a donation.

We all carry around a lifetime of subtle (and not-so-subtle) cultural and family messages about money. These money myths become so ingrained that we forget to question them. We assume they’re true, when in most cases, they aren’t. Too often we simply coast on auto-pilot, not examining our decisions and often saying “yes” when it should be “no” and vice versa.

Do Any of These Distortions about Money Sound Familiar?

A detail of Hans-Peter Feldmann installation at the Guggenheim (Photo & caption courtesy thisiscolossal.com)

A detail of Hans-Peter Feldmann installation at the Guggenheim (Photo by David Heald courtesy the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York via thisiscolossal.com)

  • Distortion 1: People can’t afford the art, services, music, etc. that I create.
  • Distortion 2: If I follow my passion and do what I love, I won’t make money.
  • Distortion 3: I’m “selling out” if I set my prices appropriately and charge what I need to charge to make a living.
  • Distortion 4: Price is what matters most and cheap sells.
  • Distortion 5: Money corrupts. I’m a better artist without it.
  • Distortion 6: I am doomed to be a starving, struggling artist forever.
  • Distortion 7: Being a successful artist in a capitalist market is impossible.
  • Distortion 8: It’s not fair that artists have it so hard in this society.
  • Distortion 9: It’s not fair that other artists are more successful than I am
  • Distortion 10: My ideal customer is someone like myself or my friends, and since we’re struggling artists, I should keep my work affordable.
  • Distortion 11: It’s not cool/ladylike/hip/proper to talk about money.
  • Distortion 12: My gut tells me to say “no” to giving away my time, but I have to say “yes” to stay on this person or organization’s good side.
  • Distortion 13: If I keep giving away my art and services, someone will eventually notice and appreciate my work.
  • Distortion 14: (And the most insidious of all) I’m not worth it. I don’t deserve to make a good living doing work I love. (This is shame talking.)



It’s time for artists to discuss the topic of money openly and without shame. We can’t expect abundance to simply fall into our laps—we need to seek it out. We need to know what our goals are financially. We need to quantify them, write them down, and mindfully draft an action plan that will help us achieve these specific goals.

Yes, it’s true that our culture isn’t easy on artists. And yes, being an artist is hard work, even when the money does come in. But too many artists have accepted their role as victims. Perhaps it’s time to move past the things we can’t control, and instead, focus on what we can control. We can’t control the competition pool for grants and residencies and shows, to give one example, but we can control how we present and price our work and how often we apply. Perhaps a day job is necessary right now, but is it also necessary to stick with grueling work that is an ill fit with our creative lives?


Here Are Some Questions to Consider:

Hasegawa Yosuke uses currency notes as the base material to make creative Origami art.

Hasegawa Yosuke uses currency notes as the base material to make creative Origami art.

  • Which of the above money distortions derail me most in my financial life? What are the origins of these beliefs? My family? My peers? The larger culture? Are they really true?
  • How much money do I need to make each month to be comfortable?
  • How much money would I like to earn each month (my pie-in-the-sky goal)?
  • How much am I short of my goal at present? (If you are short.)
  • How can I best close my income gap? Can I do it by selling my work? By applying for grants? (Concentrate on ways of making money from creative work or on jobs that compliment your artistic practice. Get specific about numbers.)
  • Which daily luxuries are worth paying more for and which ones can I let go of to save money? (Cable TV, for instance, or a new car versus a used one, etc.)
  • Notice from the previous question that certain items are worth paying more for—a good cup of coffee from the local coffeehouse, for example, versus the burned swill from the gas station, or fresh local produce from the farmer’s market versus imported produce from the grocery store. Why should art be any different? Why wouldn’t your ideal customer pay for a painting, drawing, book, concert, or piece of furniture they truly love? Why wouldn’t they pay for uniqueness, beauty, meaning, good design, or an interesting point of view? (Remember, you are not your ideal customer, and you are not merely selling art, but an experience.)
  • If I am not my ideal customer, then who is? Who would I like to see buying my work?
  • How can I connect with these customers virtually or in person?
  • How can I price my work so that it fits into this market? (Remember, setting a price too low can actually hurt you.)
  • How can my marketing materials also situate my work in this market? (This means your website, business cards, artist statement, social media presence, etc. If you aspire to sell your work in a more exclusive market, then your prices and everything related to your work should send a unified message: “I belong here.”)
  • How much time do I spend on each piece I create? (You need to know what your labor is worth.) How much money do I spend on materials? (Don’t forget to factor these numbers into your pricing.)
  • When I am asked to provide free work or services, how does my body respond to the request? (Listen to your gut. There are cases when donations are appropriate, and others situations that are actually harmful. If it is difficult to say “no” when approached face to face, have a response ready, such as, “Can I think about it? I have a lot going on right now and want to check my schedule.” Practice saying “no”!)
  • If I suffered less anxiety over money, how would this liberate me? In what ways could I be more generous? (Consider how this explodes the myth that money is harmful.)

As artists, it’s time to shift our mindset from one of scarcity to one of abundance. Pricing our work appropriately, saying “no” when necessary, and setting concrete financial goals for our creative practice are signs of self-respect. The larger culture exploits artists, in part, because we allow it. We may not be able to change the world, but we can certainly change our response to it.


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By | 2016-11-11T21:49:11+00:00 02.19.14|Process|9 Comments

About the Author:

I’ve spent almost 20 years helping thousands of successful artists of all disciplines and working to make the arts more accessible. (One friend likes to call me “the arts enabler.”) From 1999-2012 I worked at The MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artist colony, but I've also done time at an arts magazine, a library, an art museum, and a raptor rehabilitation center. In May of 2012 I left MacDowell to pursue writing, speaking, curating, and creative projects full-time. In 2015 I was named a “Top 100 Artist, Innovator, Creative” by Origin magazine. I've appeared as an arts and culture commentator on New Hampshire Public Radio, and in 2017 I was the recipient of the Wampler Art Professorship at James Madison University. I am the founder of the Gwarlingo Salon series, which connects artists like DJ Spooky with rural audiences in the Monadnock region. In 2017 my collaborator Corwin Levi and I will publish our first book, Mirror Mirrored, which combines Grimms’ fairy tales with vintage illustration remixes and the work of contemporary artists like Kiki Smith, Carrie Mae Weems, and Amy Cutler. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, but have called New Hampshire home since 1999. My studio is located in the historic, mill village of Harrisville. I miss fried okra, the early southern spring, and restaurants that stay open past 9:00 p.m., but rural life agrees with me. In New Hampshire I can see the stars, go kayaking or snowshoeing, watch bald eagles fish in the lake, and focus on my creative work in silence. I no longer have to worry about traffic jams; deer, wild turkeys, and frost heaves are the primary road hazards here. Although I live in the country, I’m fortunate enough to be part of a vibrant arts community that extends beyond this small New England village. The quiet days are punctuated by regular travel and frequent visits to museums, theaters, readings, arts events, lectures, and open studios around the country. (You can read my full CV here.) Thanks for visiting Gwarlingo. I hope you'll be in touch.


  1. kevin Harrison February 20, 2014 at 7:06 am

    Making a living being an artist is very difficult, I have been self-employed as a sculptor since 1979 and have always been chasing the next project, sale, commission, luckily something always turns up just in time to pay my rent and buy shoes for my children. But we must not confuse Fine Arts with the Applied Arts. It may be an old fashioned modernist concept but fine art comes from within, and not really dictated by a capitalist society, in the main we are observers from outside’ looking in and making statement about the ‘condition of man’ with a universal perspective. Times have changed and many young ‘fine artist’ are really ‘applied artist’ working to a clients brief, this has changed the dynamics between the public and the personal. This is not nesacerily a bad thing, just a different way of seeing the artist role in the world. e.g. less a magic man more a producer of consumerables.

  2. Judy Dunn February 20, 2014 at 7:34 am

    So true! I have worked long and hard with these issues, and over time have educated myself about the downsides of the donation.

    My experience has been the donated goods are seldom presented in a way that shows them to best advantage. Items are often raffled or auctioned off, at far less than their market value….those participating want a deal! They have never resulted in a follow on sale. And, the kicker for me is the tax code. I can only write off the cost of the materials for my donation, not the market value of the donation. My labor is not valued at all, and in general that is where my income is generated.

    I now willingly say no, and encourage other artists I know to do the same, or to donate a gift certificate for the purchase of their work, and only if it is a cause that truly matters to them. Finally, I make it a point to educate the person requesting about the tax code implications for artists….they often consider the tax write off as a benefit for participation.

    Thank you for addressing this issue so effectively. There are enough drains on our time and money with out being a willing enabler in the process.

  3. Leigh Medeiros February 20, 2014 at 3:01 pm

    YES YES YES! Thank you, Michelle, for such an important article. I think this issue is SO timely and appropriate. At the approach of my 40th birthday last year I looked around and realized I was super broke and becoming bitter about my art “career.” I spent the past year diligently cultivating mindfulness and new habits around money. I wrote a blog post (when my website was brand new and no one was reading it) called “12 Ways to Kick Your Starving Artist to the Curb” and within a few weeks it went viral. It was read by more than 5,000 people in dozens of countries around the world. Artists are HUNGRY for this information. Now I teach a Starving Artist e-course to help spread the word: You don’t have to suffer. You have permission to want – and even love – money. I think we’re at the beginning of a sea change when it comes to money and prosperity, and I thank you for being part of it.

  4. Claramarie February 20, 2014 at 6:37 pm

    I recently read Rudy Rucker’s historical novel, AS ABOVE, SO BELOW, about the life of Peter Bruegel the Elder. A lovely read, it is interesting in the context of this article, as it details the life of a financially successful painter whose work, far from being merely a fad, has enjoyed lasting respect for going on 500 years. In his case, the apprenticeship system brought him into professional recognition. A smaller world, a radically small population, and things are very different now, economically and socially; but it is refreshing to read about artists who not only made a good living, but EXPECTED to do so.

    Thanks for this intelligent look at what – inside ourselves – holds us back as artists.

  5. Joni Rodgers April 23, 2014 at 3:32 pm

    Great article, Michelle. (Good enough to make me donate!) I get exhausted fighting for my income as a writer. We’ve got to teach emerging and aspiring artists that giving away their work for little or nothing not only trains the marketplace to pay less, it trains them to expect less. Keeping our prices and our craft standards high is our best hope for the future.

  6. Maureen Shaughnessy August 9, 2014 at 4:40 pm

    I can’t believe I so randomly ended up here today. Synchronicity. I’ve been thinking alot about this same issue lately, having been recently asked to donate a large artwork for a nonprofit fundraiser (I said yes willingly and immediately because this organization’s work is near and dear to my heart and this is a great way to support them) I just hope that the piece I am donating goes for more than market value, for my own satisfaction and feelings of having made a large donation. However, I usually say no to these requests. And I, too, like the visual artist you used as an example in this article, am asked regularly to donate my artwork. I agree with everything you wrote. Thank you for putting this all together so clearly. I’m going to share your post.

    I was just going to read and not comment, but then I read the other comments and my mouth fell open to see Joni Rodgers commenting here. Hey, Joni — do you remember singing at St. Paul’s church in Helena with me when you lived here? I have lost track of you. It’s great to see you are doing your writing.

    Anyway, Michelle, thanks for your wisdom. This is a fine site.

    • Michelle Aldredge August 15, 2014 at 9:55 am

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments, Maureen. I’m so glad you stumbled on the article! I have passed your comment along to Joni too.

      This article struck quite a nerve with readers. I’m actually going to be appearing on New Hampshire Public Radio’s Word of Mouth program next Wednesday to discuss the topic.

      Thank you for reading Gwarlingo. I hope to hear from you again.

  7. Robin MacArthur August 21, 2014 at 8:41 am

    Wonderful article, Michelle! I highly recommend reading our friend Andrew Simonet’s book, “Making Your Life as an Artist.”

    It’s a guide on how to “make a living” as an artist, interweaving the practical, the spiritual & the philosophical aspects. Available free online (ha) or via Andrew’s site: http://www.artistsu.org/making/#.U_XoKF5H3lI

    • Michelle Aldredge August 23, 2014 at 2:52 pm

      Thanks for the recommendation, Robin. I am going to check this book out!

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