Art, to the non-artist, is a funny sort of business. Your basic self-identified artist wears clothes with holes in it and has a lot of really creative recipes involving ramen packets, but an art gallery on your street basically tacks another zero onto the property values (and rents)
So how does that happen?
Supply and Demand, Part 1
Without getting fancy about your economics, you can basically assume that any product gets cheaper as more people or company manufacture it, and gets more expensive as more people or companies demand it. Lots of producers in a small market — low prices. Few producers in a demanding market — high prices.
The person who buys an artist’s work is usually not the end consumer. Most artists are selling to a distributor: a gallery curator, a publishing house, a periodical, etc. Those distributors have access to everyone who wants to produce the kind of art they deal in. Hint: there’s a lot of those.
So because more people grow up and say “hey, I want to be a painter” than grow up saying “hey, I want to spend all my time networking and going to auctions so I can sell paintings successfully” you end up, in any given field, with curators and publishers and so on who have their pick of a lot of talent, and all that talent has to make itself both known and competitively priced to those few purchasers.
Supply and Demand, Part 2
Now flip to the other side of the equation. A gallery owner or publisher isn’t selling art. He/she is selling his/her taste and authority on the subject. The product for sale is basically the stamp of approval saying “this is real art, not street fair junk.”
There are a lot of people out there who want to feel like they appreciate art. Demand is high. Since many of those people also don’t trust their own taste or ability to tell “real” art from “junk,” they don’t have the ability to go directly to artists. The vast supply that dealers can take advantage of isn’t useful to them. They’re limited to gallery selections, which means supply is low and prices rise accordingly.
The Pay It Forward Problem
How do you bake the perfect loaf of bread? Bake a thousand bad loaves.
The same principle applies to art. It’s a constant process of refining skills, and the end product of a lot of those refining experiments isn’t saleable. A writer might spend years perfecting a single manuscript. A painter might fill a folio with sketches before finding a workable subject. And you aren’t getting paid for that work.
This is why most creative artists have a day job, as in “don’t quit your.” The process of “making it” is a process of paying it forward, often for years at a time, and the reality is that almost no one ever makes so much in the long run that it was worth passing up a salaried career.
Sometimes it’s good to be a writer. Graphic or three-dimensional artists have it much, much worse on material costs. You’re back to supply and demand with a little history thrown in: there aren’t that many companies making high-quality art supplies. They don’t have a lot of incentive to bring prices down. And the graphic arts in particular have a serious historical association with the upper classes, meaning art supplies have been a big-ticket item for generations.
The Inevitable Crap-Shoot of Public Taste
Monet couldn’t get into contemporary art shows, but we hang his paintings in museums now. J. K. Rowling will never work another day in her life, but no one’s even heard of Maria Susanna Cummins, who achieved comparable success with The Lamplighter in the 1850s.
That’s just how the game works. You never know. The rules that at least sort of apply to more structured careers — show up on time, work hard; be nice to people — might get you ahead in art or they might not. But either way you won’t see anything like the same steady, upward progression in personal worth, and it’s entirely due to factors beyond your control. Frustrating, right?
None of this adds up to guaranteed failure. The important thing to take away from all this is that artistic success takes time. Public taste and knowing the right middlemen have to intersect with you having not only inspiration but also time to produce work and money for supplies. It’s a formula with a lot of variables.
Persistence counts for a lot. Being an artist means being willing to pay it forward and accept little or no profit for a long time. Figuring out whether or not you’re really in for that long haul is the first thing any aspiring artist needs to do.
And after that, start thinking of creative ways to serve ramen noodle soup. Would you like some of my recipes?