A question I am asked often at the various art shows in which I participate is, “Do you do this full time?” When I tell them simply that my art is my full-time work, I usually get the follow up question, “And you make a living at it?” That’s when an answer becomes more difficult. I’ve given a lot of thought to answering the question about making a living at art. It’s not a black and white issue. What constitutes a “living” for one artist may not be sufficient for another. The question at hand is really, “Does being a full-time artist satisfy the life requirements that an artist faces?” That was the question I had to answer seven years ago when I was deciding whether or not to become a full-time artist selling my photography.
Ultimately, deciding to make a full-time occupation of being an artist is a multifaceted question. Each individual needs to examine his or her own situation and determine what the bottom line requirements will be. In my case, being in a two-income household with a young child meant taking into account the impact of my decision on household finances, child care and my own self-fulfillment as an artist. For me to be comfortable with such a decision, I felt all three areas needed to be considered in order to ensure no negative impacts. The process of analyzing each of my concerns about becoming a full-time artist was enlightening and allowed me to make a decision with a greater level of comfort. The concerns which follow may or may not apply to everyone, but the necessary evaluation process is the same.
Bottom Line 1: More Time Means More Income and Growth
The greatest benefit to an artist in becoming full time is more time to create and market your work. Having worked as a part-time artist for seven years selling my photography, I had a good sense of the sales I could expect to make at the various shows in which I participated. Going full time as an artist would allow me to do more shows and thus bring in more income. I figured I could expand my show schedule three-fold. In theory, going from eight shows per year to 24 would triple my income. Being able to work full time at my art also would allow me to take on more parts of the process of making my work. While struggling with costs as a part-time artist, as a full-time artist I could do the printing, matting and framing myself. The savings from not outsourcing these jobs meant that my bottom line was also much improved. Setting up a studio space inside my house (I repurposed our rarely-used dining room) also added a nice tax deduction benefit. (All artists should consult their accountant for a full list of tax potential benefits.)
Being successful as an artist requires being able to create new work on a regular basis. This can be difficult to do as a part-time artist and will hold back potential income generation. Besides making new work, artists need time to develop their vision and skills. Being a full-time artist means being able to experiment, take classes, interact more with other artists and generally grow. It may also mean having time to join and participate in art groups, organizations, guilds or even an artist cooperative. More time to be an artist means more time to explore and be involved with the varied ways of being a working artist.
Bottom Line 2: Household Finances
My wife and I have both held full-time career positions since leaving college. I had been working for the same company for 15 years when I faced the decision of becoming a full-time artist. I had been selling my work at art and craft shows for seven years before the thought of going full-time seemed realistic to me. The question I faced financially was, “Could we handle our expenses if I pursued art full time?” To answer this question, we had to take an honest look at our expenses and longer-term financial goals, and estimate how much I would need to contribute to the household income.
Leaving my job would mean saving money on transportation to and from work. I had a commute of more than 90 minutes each way. I calculated how much I would save on gas and train fare costs. I realized that, as a full-time artist, much of my gas expenditures would become a tax write-off. Further examination led me to determine other work-related expenses that would also diminish — notably food and coffee expenses.
I was making this career decision at the same time my daughter was starting first grade. Because of the work schedules my wife and I had, our daughter needed to be placed in beforeand after-school daycare. This was an expense of several hundred dollars a month. With me working from home as a full-time artist, I could take responsibility for my daughter getting safely on andoff the school bus, and thus also save us quite a bit of money. The financial calculation was looking better to me.
Also, at the time I was doing these financial gymnastics, my wife was working for a major chemical company and was beginning to find the role of primary caregiver to my daughter an impediment to her own career advancement. Traveling for work and staying late when necessary were difficult for her. Because I worked so far from home, she was the go-to person for getting my daughter to school and back. If my daughter got sick or was dismissed from school early due to weather, my wife ended up being the one who needed to leave work early. While there was no direct financial impact due to this situation, it is likely that there was an indirect, possibly detrimental, effect on her career development. My being able to take on more responsibility for my daughter as a full-time artist would allow my wife to more fully pursue her own professional development.
Bottom Line 3: Family Happiness
One of my biggest concerns about wanting to become a fulltime artist was the feeling that I was being selfish and a bit reckless. Working out some of the financial questions helped allay some of the fears of being reckless. I also wanted to make sure that my decision would not have a negative impact on my family. This turned out to be less of an issue than I expected. In fact, there turned out to be several benefits to family life by me being a work-from-home artist. Indeed, it was now looking like pursuing art full time was the best thing I could do to improve our family’s happiness.
As I mentioned earlier, working from my family’s home studio allowed me to take on child care responsibilities and allowed my wife to concentrate on her career in a way she could not do otherwise. It was also turning out that we were not comfortable with the before- and after-school care my daughter was receiving, and my daughter was miserable there. My being at home also meant having someone available to handle those everyday chores and responsibilities that created headaches for us when both my wife and I worked outside the home — getting my daughter to a doctor, accepting deliveries, being home when repairmen came, etc. While there was still some uncertainty concerning the financial impact of me becoming a full-time artist, there was nothing but joy felt about the idea of being able to pursue that dream from home. Being a full-time artist was going to be great; being a full-time father was going to be even better.
Bottom Line 4: Personal Satisfaction
Being a full-time artist was my desire, so one might wonder what concerns could there be about personal satisfaction? This is a question that artists should not take lightly, as it may not be as obvious as it sounds. I worked hard to obtain a degree in biology (animal behavior specifically) and worked for 15 years as a biologist, ultimately achieving a promotion to Section Chief with responsibility for almost 20 people. I was unsure how working from home, alone, without the daily interaction with co-workers would affect me. If you think that working alone for long hours will be a difficult transition, becoming a full-time artist may not be your way to career satisfaction.
It is also true that being self-employed means an entirely different level of responsibility. As a full-time artist, I get no paid vacation or sick days, nor holidays off (in fact I am often at a show on holidays). It also means dealing with the stress of not having a regular paycheck. In my previous 9-to-5 job, if I had a bad day at work, I still knew I would receive full pay. A bad day at a show means less income. In fact, there are no guarantees of a paycheck at all. Becoming a full-time artist was not only a major identity change for me, but an entirely new way of life. Full-time artists are totally responsible for every aspect of their business. You’ll have to get used to being your own computer problem-solver (there is no IT department), bookkeeper, shipping clerk, purchaser, secretary and any other hats you will need to wear.
Bottom Line 5: Decision Made
After careful financial analysis, my wife and I decided to spend a year to prepare for my transition from working for a company to working for myself. This would allow time to get our finances into shape, pay off credit cards, put money away for emergencies and generally get our fiscal house in order. Taking a year to transition would also give me time to apply to additional shows and ramp up my entire production process so that I had enough work to sell.
Being a full-time artist has been a wonderful experience, and after seven years I am more convinced than ever that it was the right choice for me and my family. Because I allowed myself time to consider all the issues and made the decision based on multiple factors, I felt confident going into this new life. I have discovered that many of my concerns were justified and that the forethought and preparation I put into the transition was warranted. When my wife lost her job last year, the effort we had made to institute sound fiscal practices really benefited us. I’m not sure that we would have managed our money as well if we had not prepared for my own career transition.
I do still periodically re-evaluate the decision, which allows me to continue to work as an artist without the feelings of guilt and insecurity that can sometimes go along with this choice. It has taken a while, but I am comfortable with the track I’ve taken. Now when someone walks into my booth at an art show and asks me “Do you make a living at this?” my reply is simply, “I make a life at this.”
Paul Grecian is a full-time fine-art photographer specializing in nature and travel imagery. From his Bucks County, PA home he has access to wonderful local and regional locations on the East Coast, but mostly works close to home. His work has appeared in a variety of magazines, calendars and corporate projects. For more information, visit www.paulgrecianphoto.com and www.lambertvillearts.com.
© Professional Artist 2011