Friday, August 24, 2012

From Corporate America to art

Yesterday somebody posted a question to the SAQA email list that sparked much discussion.

"I'm in the midst of a career transition, and am considering all kinds of new paths to take.  I've been a graphic designer most of my career, working primarily for publishers and design consultancies.

"However, my first and truest love is visual arts. I studied painting and printmaking in college, and I have a decades-old dream about finding a place out in the country that has an outbuilding I can convert to a studio, with room to do fiber arts and mixed media works on paper. To finally be able to say that I'm an artist whenever anyone asks me what I do.

"Has anyone here transitioned from Corporate America to fulltime artist?"

Having spent my previous life in Corporate America and my current one as fulltime artist, I thought I might have some insights for her.  In addition, one of my avocations is career counseling.  So here's my answer to the writer, in hopes that she might find it helpful and some other readers might find it interesting:

I infer that your "career transition" means that you need another career, and that you are considering fulltime art as a way to make a living.  That means your task is very different from the person who is retiring from corporate life and can do art as a labor of love.  So if you are going to do this as a business, you need a business plan.

You need to figure out what you can do that will bring in revenue, and how much of it you will have to do to bring in sufficient revenue to meet your needs.  You don't have to just make and sell art to get revenue; you can also teach, write or do art administration.  You'll have to do research on which of these activities seem possible in your situation, and how much money you could reasonably expect to make per hour, per work or per whatever other measure you would like to use.  Also take into consideration that in any freelance business, you generally can devote only about half your time to revenue-producing activity; you also have to market yourself, find and cultivate potential customers, keep track of your finances, maintain your website or other public presences, do paperwork and other tedious chores. 

What concerns me about your question is that you seem to have a wish more than a business plan.  You talk about a dream about a certain way to live and a certain way to describe yourself, but not about what you might do to earn money.  

Realistically, unless you have been selling art consistently and profitably in the last couple of years, you should probably not expect to do much as you embark on your new path.  Even established artists who were doing quite well financially until the economic downturn are finding it extremely difficult to sell in the new climate.  Many artists I know, in all mediums, believe that the whole paradigm of non-billionaire people buying art has changed, perhaps permanently.  

Unless you have very good reason to predict that you can buck this tide, you should probably look to other ways to earn money.  But again, unless you have a solid reputation as an artist it will be difficult to count on making money as a teacher or writer.  Especially in fiber art, the market is crammed with workshops, books and magazines, and even if you are successful in establishing a foothold as a teacher, it will take time to build up enough business to support yourself.

If this sounds pessimistic, I'm sorry.  The world is tough these days and it's hard enough to earn a living at established and traditional vocations, let alone from those based entirely on discretionary spending.

But let's look at the bright side.  Your dream is to find a place in the country with a studio, to make art and to call yourself an artist.  None of these aspects of your ideal life depend on this stuff constituting an actual business.  Perhaps you would be happier if you found a day job in another field, one that you could leave at 5:30 every night, and come home to evenings and weekends of making art.  You could make some money on this "second shift," and if you were very fortunate, you might be able over time to grow this into a fulltime business.

Meanwhile, why not call yourself an artist if that's what you dream of doing?  You don't have to produce your tax returns to do that, you just have to make art.


  1. I found the "business" of promoting myself (looking for venues to show art, creating postcards , talking about myself, sending out samples to magazines hoping to get published) so very tedious. I admire people who can do this. I am not one of them.

    So, now I have a full time job and I make art in my time off. I make it and stack it up and feel good about looking at it and that is enough. I am an artist.

  2. Long ago I was told "do what you love and the money will follow". Since I loved fiber arts, I did not believe that and went on with a life and a career that had nothing to do with fiber art.
    After 30 years I returned to my love and began working on art quilts in earnest. But I find the old saying is still not really true. It seems that only a very rare few are supporting themselves through their fiber arts. And as mentioned above it is not solely the production of their art that sustains them. There is quite a full time job of marketing and other related activities required, or a partner who contributes to their support, or a retirement from a previous career that left them with a nest egg.
    So, while I dared to begin to believe for a moment or two that "do what you love" would bring some financial support, I now face the reality that doing what I love is essential regardless of what I earn from it.