Art and Exchange

How do you think about the relationship between your art practice and making money?

I recently read the book Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert.  This book is largely about maintaining a creative practice and one of the takeaways for me was this notion of protecting your creative space and keeping it sacred.  So instead of saying to myself, "I expect that this art project will generate x amount of income", I would say to myself, "I will always make sure that I have the time and space for my creative practice to exist and I will work so that it can be whatever it needs to be, with no expectation of money".  I really love this notion and it solves one of my fundamental struggles with art, which is the work I want to make is often not a money making venture.  I feel devoted to following the work where it needs to go, and I work my other jobs to keep that creative space.

Gilbert talks about how when there are monetary expectations on an artwork, it can actually stifle the creative practice for the artist.  I've heard stories of this-a friend told me about a painter they knew who at one point started to make "Dot" paintings.  These dot paintings began to sell like crazy.  At some point, the artist was done with the dot paintings, but their gallery wanted them to keep making them.  The work suddenly went from an artistic exploration to one of repetitive, factory like, production.  I often ask myself with regards to my life and art- what kind of work do I want to be doing?  How do I want to spend my time?

Screen Shot Etsy

In contrast, over the past couple of months, I've been jump starting my Etsy account.  Since starting my account a few years, I've randomly sold paintings, mostly to strangers, through this site.  It feels so good to sell an artwork this way.  It also feels good to have a window into my studio and my artwork, where I can sell things, instead of having them hidden away in an animation binder.  I like the sense of community that can form by encountering other artists in this site and following their work.  In promoting my Etsy,  I am also facing that I have discomfort around self-promotion and sharing old works and these are humps that I am curious about facing.  The discomfort of self-promotion is both not wanting to annoy people with promotional ads, and not wanting to spend so much time on this act, so that I am no longer making new work.  My fear of sharing of old works is connected to a sense of reinvention that I observe as being important to art-making.  The funny thing is I am always making new things, and not everyone has seen my old things.    

With these tactics in mind, I am trying to embrace both worlds- that of total freedom for creative exploration in studio and that chance that there may be a person interested in purchasing one of my works.  That person may appreciate the artwork or wish to support my practice and vision.  I think living with both sides ultimately means embodying non-judgement and non-attachment to outcome, while all the while committing myself to enjoy my time in studio.

"In Kind" Work
To make a living, I've worked as a teacher, an editor, a freelance artist.  I've received grants.  I've sold artwork.  In the world of grants there is a term "In Kind" which denotes work and deeds that are done on behalf of a program that are not monetary compensations but still directly impact the success of the work.  This might include a voluntary service, space, or donation.

I'm wanting to learn more about different theories around creative practice and compensation.  I've been thinking about all the in-kind benefits of art-making.  For instance,
  • I have artist friends who work at museums and I've been let into exhibits for free.
  • Going to openings we often get free wine and food.  
  • Other art friends are avid dumpster divers and I  have benefited from their finds by receiving free food and hair products.  
  • Among artists, there is often an informal trading of artwork or services. 
  • I've learned entirely new skills by working in collaboration with other artists on projects. 
  • With past projects, I've made supply purchases that carry on into other projects.    
  • I have the flexibility of a schedule, where I can take an hour walk each morning with my dog, the physical health and mental clarity it provides me will have long term health benefits for me.
So much of a our culture seems to define success based on a monetary assessment.  How can we redefine our definitions of success when it comes to creativity and commerce?  Right now I'm defining success as:  the ability to get to my studio 15-20 hrs/week.  Maintaining  sound mind and body by having a healthy lifestyle that includes cooking meals, walking, swimming, yoga, and lifting weights.  Locating and maintaining work that is meaningful and manageable with my skill set.  Continuing to have a sense of opportunity by applying to shows, having studio visits, and broadening my internet presence.  Participating in community by supporting other people's projects and expressing gratitude to those who have supported me in the past.

Artists I see...
Back to the commerce aspect, if I think about other people around me in St. Louis, I see ways that they are answering this question.

Chinyere Oteh helped put together The Cowry Collective, a bartering network that encourages people to trade skills and build up hours that they can exchange for services they need, all the while building community.

In her series Equivalents and American Mythologies, Jamie Kreher has been exploring the idea of a souvenir by making photographs that are printed in a range of formats based on her concept.  Some are small and easily sell-able in the style of a postcard or Polaroid, others are printed on objects such as plates and mugs.  I think for her the aspect of selling is less important, then the concept and the act of making artwork that is affordable.

Detail of Tables at "Equivalents" by Jamie Kreher. Good Citizen Gallery, 2012.
This seasons All the Art had several different takes on Art & Economy in St. Louis. 

How are you thinking about Art and Commerce in your own creative practice?  What are you reading?  What other in-kind assets do you see with having an art practice?  How else are you rethinking success or making money with your art?


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