Making Money as an Artist or Creative
One of the most frustrating things about making art is figuring out how to finance making said art. What does it even mean to “make money as an artist”? What is fundraising? How do I get paid? This guide will walk you through what it means to make money as an artist and give you some tips on how to get started. We’re going to go step-by-step so you can develop a money-making plan.
First, An Introduction
I’ve worked with artists since I was 13-years-old. I’m a theater producer and director. I’ve worked in grant writing and development. I’ve also been working in arts service for almost a decade. In my time, as both an artist and administrator, I’ve amassed some insight into how artists can navigate these complex systems and work toward a financially sustainable career.
Plan to Make Money as an Artist
Have you ever gone to the grocery store hungry? You start throwing things in your cart that sound good at the moment but may not make a full meal. You end up spending more money than you would have if you came in with a plan and the right mindset. Making money is like that: if you don’t have a plan, you’ll end up getting and spending cash randomly without knowing if you’ve actually addressed your needs. If you’re getting $5 here, $50 there, and $30 in six months, it’s easy to lose track of how much money you’ve received or if it’s even enough to cover what you’re looking for.
Here’s a quick test — list the last ten transactions you made, in order, from memory. How much money do you have right now based on those numbers? How many transactions did you remember exactly? When you’re trying to make money as an artist, you need to know how much you’re getting and where the money is coming from. It’s great to have dollars flowing in. How do you know how much you’ve got if you aren’t tracking it or planning for it?
You may be saying “Courtney, I don’t have dollars coming in to track” and I would argue that may not be not entirely true. You may not have money coming in from your artistic endeavors, but I will assume that some money to cover your basic needs is coming in from somewhere. Knowing how your non-artistic funds are flowing is as important as tracking your creative money. Do you work a day job? Do you have residuals from previous artistic work? Do you have a trust fund and/or rich relatives? Do you receive a form of public assistance? It’s all a valid part of your financial picture and making money as an artist means knowing what that picture looks like.
Understand Your Expenses
That’s why the artist’s first step to making money is knowing how much they need through a budget or strategic financial plan. A great place to start is by tracking your monthly expenses, using a service like Mint.com or You Need A Budget (YNAB). If you don’t already track your expenses, you can start a basic budget with expenses you most likely know because they don’t change monthly (e.g. rent and utilities).
Let’s say you spend $1,200 on housing, $400 on transportation, $300 on food, and $200 on entertainment monthly. That’s a total of $2,100 in expenses. You can then divide that by 30 — the average number of days in a month. That gives you your daily expenses; in this case, that’s $70. You can then divide that number by the number of hours in a workday. The average workday is 8 hours, so that’s what we’ll use. That leads us to $8.75 — that is your hourly cost in this example. That means it costs you $8.75 every hour just to exist. Once you know that, some magic can happen.
Let’s say someone offers you a quick gig: $50 for about 4 hours of work. If you don’t have a sense of your costs, that might seem like a good deal. However, that works out to $12.50 an hour. If your expenses are $8.75 an hour, this gig is only providing you with $3.75 an hour. You’re actually only making $15 total on this which is significantly less appealing than $50. Money is definitely nothing to scoff at, but if you know what you’re really making, you can be more discerning about which opportunities are worth your time. If you want to dive further into budgeting and rates, I strongly suggest a resource like Artists U.
Get Advice from Professionals on Making Money as an Artist
Think of making your plan as an ideal opportunity to connect with any professionals you may need to enlist in support such as lawyers, accountants, or financial planners. Even your bank or credit union can talk you through the systems that you may need to get paid properly.
- A lawyer is great to connect with for advice on your business model or legal structures. You may be able to connect with a local chapter of Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts or your area’s bar association to receive pro bono legal services.
- You should reach out to an accountant to understand the tax implications of money you receive, to set up your bookkeeping/accounting systems, and/or to assist in filing whatever taxes you may need to file for your work.
- A financial planner can help you manage your personal and professional funds. They can be especially helpful if you’ve received a large grant or award as an individual. They can also help if you’re trying to understand how to better manage your money even if you don’t have a large windfall.
- Banks often have advisors who can talk you through your accounts and financial choices. See if you can connect with someone there for advice.
Know Your Values and Plan Accordingly
When making your plan, it’s also helpful to remember that all money is good money (except when it isn’t).
Only you can know what your values and needs are. The best way to fund your project or practice is however it gets funded. The only bad money is the money that doesn’t align with your vision and values. There isn’t one path to making money, so don’t get caught up on how your work “should” be funded. For example, if your work is supported through ticket sales or commissions, you aren’t required to get grants. If you’re selling objects, you may not need to crowdfund. Be intentional about where you want your money to come from (how to decide is discussed in the next section) because every tactic requires planning, resources, and effort. Focus instead on how it can be funded and on finding multiple funding streams.
Your plan should include:
- A basic understanding of your expenses including your hourly costs.
- A list of professionals you may want to follow up with for more information.
- Potential revenue streams that you may want to pursue.
These are covered in the next section.
- A set time to revisit your plan as you get more information and opportunities (at least every 3 to 6 months).
Now that you’ve got the outline for your plan, let’s review some ways you can actually receive revenue!
How to Make Money as an Independent Artist
Your money-making tactics will largely fall into two categories: earned or contributed. Oftentimes artists think that one is better or easier than the other. That’s simply not true. Each type of income requires its own skills and resources to receive successfully. Both types of income involve networking, marketing yourself, and being willing to step outside of your comfort zone. Earned income can be more transactional — you provide a product, a buyer purchases it. Contributed income is more intangible — you’re convincing people who may not benefit from what you’re making to support it. Below are some ways you can receive each type of income.
Money is considered earned income when the person providing money will receive a good or service of equal or greater value in exchange. In other words, it’s when you’re selling something. This includes (but is not limited to) ticket sales, advertising, class/camp/workshop fees, artwork sales, and merchandise fees. Basically, if someone is giving you money and they expect anything in return, you are earning that money. Here are some examples of ways to earn income:
This artisan is using their skills to make many products that could be for sale. Could merchandise sales be a part of your artistic money-making strategy?
If you are asked to create a work for someone, that is a commission. These can be large-scale, long-term projects or small, one-offs. Commissions are different from regular sales in that they are often special orders designed for a specific person or function rather than your general stock. For example, if someone commissions you to write a song to perform at their wedding, that is different from you just writing a song that someone later ends up singing at a wedding.
Is there something you can do with your art that is commissionable? Is there a tangential skill or a secondary discipline that you practice which could be supported in this way? Sometimes, we get so focused on our primary craft that we forget we have other skills to offer the world. If we operate from abundance as opposed to scarcity, we can be surprised at all we have to offer. It is worth noting that commissions are often more expensive than regular purchases of goods, so price them accordingly.
Ticket and merchandise sales are some of the most common ways artists make money but they are not without their challenges. Often, ticket sales are considered a byproduct of doing great work and not a money-making strategy in itself. That is a missed opportunity to be intentional about funds coming into your work.
What is your ticketing strategy? A ticketing strategy details not only what your tickets will cost, but also when they’ll be released, how many comps you’ll provide, and whether or not you’ll offer discounts. Are you doing pay-what-you-want or tiered ticketing? Are you offering premium seats or other perks to people who pay more? Are you doing low-cost admissions while limiting comped tickets so that everyone has to pay (even if it’s just a little bit) to see what you’re offering? High costs can be limiting but more financially fruitful. Low costs can get more people into your work but may not allow you to recoup expenses.
You may have to do some research to see what your intended audience can handle. There are many ways to think about setting ticket prices to generate income that also takes care of your audience.
The same principles for ticketing can apply to merchandise sales. How are you being thoughtful about what you could be selling? Maybe it’s worth it to get a professionally-designed, high-quality t-shirt that you can charge a bit more for and sell year-round. Or is there a fun item that references your work that people could purchase? Merchandise sales aren’t just an add-on to your creative endeavors; they can be lucrative income streams in their own right. Please note, you need to be mindful of sales tax and/or regulations around sales in the areas in which you operate.
Artists sell their work on their websites, on platforms like Etsy, or on social media.
You are the expert on what you do. If people are reaching out to you in order to “pick your brain,” you can charge them for that expertise. I have often said that one shouldn’t be both busy and broke — if people are able to use your time, they can pay you for the privilege. You are always in control of who you wish to support and feel free to donate your time in service of building relationships or for causes you believe in. Know, however, that your expertise has value — it is worth being compensated for.
When it comes to setting your rates, it’s helpful to understand what it costs you to live (as we talked about earlier). What are your expenses (office/desk space rental, supplies, travel, labor)? What professional memberships do you have? You can then begin to see what an hour of your time actually costs and then base your rates on that. You can definitely negotiate or offer bargains as you see fit. The important thing is to be thoughtful about how you’re spending your time and whether or not you’re getting what you need (i.e. money) in return.
Earned income streams are great to consider because they don’t usually come with the limitations of contributed income (which we’ll talk about next.) Simply, you are providing something for sale and your audience is purchasing it. The above examples are just a few ways you can make money as an artist using earned income. What are other ways you can think to generate earned income? Brainstorm items you could sell or small projects you could make to generate both interest in your work and income. Use your creativity and challenge yourself to expand your opportunities.
Money is considered contributed income if it is donated and/or the payer receives no benefits in return. This is the case with donations, grants, and (sometimes) corporate sponsorships. Oftentimes, and especially for individuals, these funds are project-based: that means the funds are given to support a specific event or initiative. For example, a donor might give to an organization that runs an after-school program even if their kids don’t attend. The donor is supporting the program but not receiving a direct benefit. If that same person gave money and expected their child to be given preferential admission to the program, that would not be a donation. General operating support and/or unrestricted grants (i.e. funds to keep the lights on) are both rare and very competitive. Following are some examples of contributed income and ways that artists could access them.
This is one of the most popular ways to generate income for your artistic work. Donations are dollars given to the project with no expectation of any goods or services in return. People can give just because they believe in what you do and how you’re doing it. If the donor would like a tax-deduction for their gift, however, the recipient needs to be a tax-exempt charitable organization (or fiscally-sponsored).
There are a variety of ways to solicit individual donations: direct asks, crowdfunding campaigns, and matching gift campaigns, for example. Direct asks are self-explanatory: you reach out to people you have a connection with and ask them for donations. Crowdfunding is asking your online network for contributions in a time-limited campaign. Matching gifts are funds that are given to match previous donations under specific criteria.
These all involve making a personal connection with your potential donors. If you don’t want to pitch yourself to the public (donor prospecting, scheduling meetings and talking about your work to as many people as you can) soliciting individual donations may not be the best tactic for you.
On that note, almost all institutional funders (foundations and corporations) want to see that your artistic endeavor has a pre-existing base of support. Individual patrons are the lifeline of any creative project: they are the people who love what you’re doing enough to give to it with no expectations of a personal benefit. Those people can be hard to find but they are more than worth the effort. They are likely to already have an emotional connection to you and your work. If you take care of them, your individual supporters will be with you as your success ebbs and flows. Cultivating and stewarding individual donors is a great way to consistently sustain yourself and your art.
Grants and Foundation Awards
Grants from foundations are another common way to make contributed money as an artist. Grantmakers can reward the body-of-work for an individual artist or a specific project. Grantwriting is a skill that can be very lucrative for some artists. If your work connects with the mission of the funding organization, you can definitely make money using grants. Grant applications often require extensive documentation of your work, which can include:
- Organizational Documents
- Financial Records
- Marketing Materials/Programs
- Résumés and Bios
It’s important to review all of the requirements for a grant to make sure you and/or your project are the right fit.
Corporate sponsorships are ideal if your project has a big audience, is large-scale in nature, and has highly-visible naming/marketing opportunities. Oftentimes, corporate sponsorships aren’t given with charitable intentions: they are cleverly disguised advertisements. Generally, corporations want to put their logo or name in front of as many people as possible. If your project isn’t playing to huge audiences, consider connecting with small or local businesses. Otherwise, corporate sponsorship may not be the best source for financing your work.
Making Money as an Artist Takes Grace and Patience
Making money as an artist is by no means a simple endeavor. It requires planning, perseverance, and intentionality. And some luck doesn’t hurt. I understand that it can all feel so overwhelming. How can anyone be expected to do all of this and make something creative? How do you invest in yourself and in the work? Approach all of this through a lens of resilience and self-care. Be kind to yourself. Take small steps and celebrate each win. Give yourself grace and patience. Your work is valuable even if the dollars aren’t showing up yet. Keep at it. Build your money-making repertoire and refine your business skills as you refine your artistic ones.
About Courtney Harge
Courtney Harge is a producer, director, and professional arts administrator originally from Saginaw, MI. She is the Founder and Artistic Director of Colloquy Collective, a theater company based out of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. She has worked for the Elaine Kaufman Cultural Center, Theater for the New City, The Public Theater, Gibney Dance, and, most recently, the New York Foundation for the Arts with a focus on institutional fundraising, crowdfunding, and fiscal sponsorship. She holds a Masters of Professional Studies, with Distinction, in Arts and Cultural Management from Pratt Institute and a Bachelors of Fine Arts with Honors from the University of Michigan in Theater Performance. Her credo (#HustlingKeepsYouSexy) is not merely a hashtag; it’s a way of life.