As an artist do you emphasize money or art?

Today is July 11 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “as an artist do you emphasize money or art?” Today's Navigate the Chaos post is for all those who are artists, would like to be an artist, or who have a child.

As Sara Benincasa wrote in Real Artists Have Day Jobs: (And Other Awesome Things They Don't Teach You in School) “the biggest myth we are fed as artists is that we need to sustain ourselves solely on our art. This is ridiculous. Every artist has at some point in time had some other job. Some of them kept these jobs their entire lives.” To help fill the need for reality based advice this article highlights a variety of dynamics artists should consider as they navigate their career.

Since success will most likely require a long-term commitment rest assured there is absolutely no need to be a starving artist as you travel your career path. The Starving Artist is a stubborn myth and residue from the 19th century when Henri Murger published a series of articles on the unconventional lifestyle practiced by those pursuing musical, artistic, literary, or spiritual interests in the Latin Quarter of Paris in the 1840s.


French dramatist Théodore Barrière worked with Murger to produce a play. Following the production’s success Murger published Scenes of Bohemian Life (original French title: Scènes de la vie de bohème) in 1851. Numerous interpretations of the bohemian lifestyle have been found in culture ever since and include performances, movies and publications with Giacomo Puccini’s opera La bohème in 1896, and Jonathan Larson’s musical Rent in 1996 as two of the more famous productions. This starving artist myth is in contradiction to the evidence that suggests one need not starve to create or engage art. If starving artist is a component of your definition of success, however, that is entirely up to you.

The 2017 Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP) had over 65,000 arts alumni from 84 postsecondary institutions participate and concluded “67% arts alumni currently work in the arts while another 31% are engaged with the arts in some other capacity.” Thus, college students majoring in art work and/or are engaged in art in some capacity. Moreover, according to the National Endowment of the Arts 2019 report Artists and Other Cultural Workers: A Statistics Portrait “2.7 million individuals have a primary or secondary job is as an artist. Of the 11 specific artist occupations, musicians compose the greatest number of moonlighting artists. In 2017, an estimated 100,000 workers held second jobs as musicians. An additional 54,000 workers held second jobs as designers. As one contemporary observer noted “the idea of the starving artist is complete and utter BS.” Indeed it is since many successful artists held day jobs.

There is no need to be a starving artist because many successful artists held day jobs. Working during some part of the day was common place for artists of the past and continues to be so today. Here are five of the countless artists that held day jobs to help finance their art.

  • Frank O’Hara published Lunch Poems as a series of reflections he made from his work at the Museum of Modern Art.

  • T.S. Eliot wrote The Waste Land by night and worked accounts at Lloyds Bank during the day.

  • Wallace Stevens won the 1955 Pulitzer Prize in poetry. When Harvard University offered him a faculty position, he declined it since it would have required him to give up his vice-presidency of The Hartford insurance agency where he supervised real estate claims.

  • Richard Serra is an American minimalist sculptor who started a furniture removals business in New York called, Low-Rate Movers. He employed many of his fellow struggling art friends, including artist and composer Philip Glass, who worked as his assistant helping him to install shows and move furniture.

  • Sujatha Gidla published Ants Among Elephants in 2017 while working as a conductor for the New York City subway.

If you have a day job and create art during a small portion of your day, you then have the freedom not to depend upon your art for money. One of the most famous English playwrights of the 19th century understood this. In 2013, a letter by English playwright Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) was found in a box stashed at the back of a wardrobe in Oxfordshire, U.K. The letter revealed the author’s thoughts on how to succeed as an artist. “The best work in literature,” Wilde penned, “is always done by those who do not depend on it for their daily bread and the highest form of literature, Poetry, brings no wealth to the singer.”

Instead of thinking you must earn money from your art, why not think differently and create your art without any regard for it to generate income? If you hold firm to the belief that selling your art must be the only way for you to generate income, ask yourself why that is? Clearly there are plenty of examples of artists from the obscure to the famous, who worked another job to earn money. Is this approach not good enough for you?

If you would like to create art and then sell it as one of your revenue streams that’s fine. But you do not have to. Remember, what you do with your art is solely up to you. Your definition of success should be entirely your own. You can just create art and see what happens. You could develop new skills and learn how to market your art. Perhaps you launch your own website where people learn about your art, and if they should so choose, purchase it.

Artists who have navigated the chaos have figured out one thing above all else, they must create art. Art is the air in their lungs. They create their art so they can live. And they work another job so they can then create art. Therefore, the job that provides them income is the very source of their art which gives their life meaning.

If you are an artist, or perhaps you want to be but are afraid of being poor, ask yourself, do you place your emphasis on your art or money?