You don’t need to be a struggling artist to know that most artists aren’t wealthy. But with a single painting recently selling for almost half a billion dollars, you may be thinking: why are so many artists poor if art buyers are willing to spend that kind of money?
Most artists are poor due to the disproportionate distribution of finances in the art world. A handful of the most popular artists contribute an overwhelmingly large percentage to the overall art economy, while most emerging artists go unnoticed and struggle to sell their art.
Even with the fact that most artists don’t make so much money, an increasingly large number of aspiring young artists are opting for the art profession. In this article, I’ll explain the details of why many artists are poor and how to make a decent living as an artist.
Why Are Artists Poor?
(This article may contain affiliate links. This means if you click on an affiliate link and make a purchase, I will receive a commission at no extra cost to you)
Up Your Creative Game! Master your craft with classes taught by the world's best creatives → View All Creative Courses
There are clear correlations between being an artist and poverty. A specific report suggested that three out of four artists make less than $10,000 from their art per annum. Most other studies report that artists have even worse financial status. One thing is clear from all of these studies: artists are undeservedly poor.
Ironically, the advent of social media has given artists more visibility as artists, which should help them sell their art, consequentially making them more money. However, the reverse seems to be the case.
Artists weren’t always poor. It used to be that artists received subsidization from wealthy patrons. These art subsidies allowed an artist to focus on their craft and increased their economic position. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case. So as you see, the starving artist myth only became true over time.
Unlike most other professions, you don’t earn much more as an artist by being simply better. Many talented but relatively unknown artists earn far less than what popular artists earn. Here are some reasons why artists overall have relatively low incomes.
1. The art economy is disproportionately distributed.
When the average person thinks of the pricing for art, they think of the $91 million sculpture by Jeff Koons or Da Vinci’s painting that sold for $450 million. They look at these figures and wonder, why are many artists poor when art is so expensive?
The answer is simple; art isn’t as expensive as it looks on the news. While you hear of artworks selling in the eight and nine-figure range, the average visual artist will never sell artwork in the six-figure range, at least not in their lifetime.
The world of visual art has a large divide: the popular and financially successful artists and auction houses, and the lesser-known and struggling ones.
Most of the money goes to the tiny percentage of trendy artists in the art world, while emerging artists (and the galleries that represent them) take in almost nothing.
To better understand the average price of artworks, open up Etsy and look at some of the best-selling designs. Most artists sell their works for very low prices, while the most expensive artworks of well-known artists can sell for north of $10 million.
2. There are too many artists.
Paintings, drawings, and sculptures aren’t items the average human needs for survival, unlike food or clothing. Moreover, with only a small segment of the population that’s into art collecting, it’s evident that the art market is somewhat limited.
Even with this technical restriction, many students are applying to study Fine and Studio Arts. This course was the 29th most popular university course last year.
This creates a paradox. People are increasingly taking up art as a career, creating artworks for a market that barely exists in the first place. This further increases the likelihood that an artist is a poor artist.
How to Make More Money as an Artist
Since most of the reasons why artists don’t make a lot of money aren’t entirely their fault, there is usually little they can do about it on their own.
However, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do about it as an artist. Thousands of professional artists are selling their artworks, which are not much better than yours, for significantly better prices.
Most of these successful artists have many things in common. If you can adopt some or most of their behaviors and mindset, you can make more money for yourself as an artist.
1. Market yourself and your art on the internet.
If pure statistics are anything to go by, the most popular artists also make the most sales, even if their artworks are inferior. Since there is no objective scale to measure the value of a painting or drawing, those who pay the most always go for popular and relatable artwork and artists.
Thanks to the internet, the divide between popular and emerging artists is closing gradually, and you should take advantage of this trend.
Not having an Instagram account in the 21st century is unforgivable for an artist. Also, listing your artworks on online stores like Etsy and Amazon will only give them more visibility, increasing your chances of making more sales and money.
2. Don’t be an art perfectionist.
People see art with different eyes. That artwork that you think was marred by mistakes may turn out to be the most successful one of your career. If you always long to make everything perfect, you’ll never make money from your artwork.
To make the most of your art career, you shouldn’t be afraid of putting out even what you consider to be the worst of your artworks. Let the art market decide if your work is good or bad. You’ll be surprised when you make regular sales of your artwork that you may have considered inferior.
3. As an artist, don’t work for free.
As an artist, it’s almost certain that you’ll receive a request to work for free in exchange for exposure. This is absurd, and accepting these requests will only set you in the part of failure as an artist.
Whenever you receive a request to work for free, put yourself in the shoes of another professional, say a doctor or a lawyer. Can someone just walk up to you ask you to represent them in court for free?
If it would be absurd in that case, then it’s almost undoubtedly absurd in your case too. If you want to make money from your art, you’ll need to act like a professional, and professionals certainly don’t work for free.
Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, like in the case of helping a nonprofit, but that doesn’t disprove the rule.
Also, finding your stolen artwork on a website on the internet doesn’t mean you’re getting famous. It means they’re infringing on your copyright, and you should take legal action.
If you don’t want to be part of the 77% of artists making below subsistence levels, you must learn to be truly professional and treat your art career as a business.