Dusty Demerson, Colorado Landscape Photographer | Why Artists are Starving

Why Artists are Starving

January 20, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

The Business of Being an Artist


We’ve all heard the term “Starving Artist” and we probably all know friends who fit the description. I’m sure there are many reasons why artists tend not to be prosperous financially. Of course, there are a few great exceptions to this statement but I’ll bet there are more that are struggling than prospering. I’ll use a personal situation as an example.

I’m involved with a local co-op gallery of wonderful artists. We have a good (but not great) location on the main street of my small, tourist – oriented town. Our rent is partially subsidized by another organization that uses the back of our location for their offices. Each artist pays rent of $80 per month and works an 8 hour shift in the gallery each week. Let’s assume that any of the artists could get another job for $8 an hour which is the low-end of the pay scale in my town. If you crunch the math the monthly cost of participating in the gallery is $80 in rent plus 32 hours at $8 each, or $336. Typically we only pay rent for the 4 months of the season so our seasonal cost would be $1344. The gallery keeps a 20% commission for its operating expenses so each artist needs to sell $1,680 in art each season to break even….sort of. Put another way, we each need to sell $420 worth of art each month.

Let’s say I do sell $420 this month. Great! Well, not really. First of all, I’m doing this calculation using a minimum wage formula that would still qualify me for food stamps and other social bail-outs. It’s also an affront to my college education, not to mention grad school. But let’s move on. So I sold $420 worth of my art this month giving me $336 in take-home pay. To achieve those sales I also have had to invest time and materials. Let’s say it took me 5 hours to create the art I sold for $420. Again, at $8 per hour I must subtract $40 as an expense. I also had the work printed, matted and framed for $100 bringing my total expenses to $140. I have invested $140 to create $420 worth of art which now provides me a net income of $196.

Artwork sale                    $420

Gallery commission    -$ 84     $336

Materials cost                -$100    $236

Labor cost                       -$40      $196

I think you can see where this is headed. My 8 hours in the gallery and 5 hours creating my art has made me $196 or roughly $25.50 per hour invested. That sounds great until April 15th. On tax day I will pay self employment tax of about 14% on all of my income. I owe $27.44 on this month’s art sales. But I will also end up in the 15% income tax bracket so I owe $29.40 in federal income tax. Here’s the silver lining! This income level will probably help me avoid any state income taxes and I’ll have $139.16 left over after these expenses to buy food, insurance, gas, my car, tools, etc. I’m essentially working for $10.70 per hour after taxes.

What seems like a decent deal in a co-op gallery really doesn’t count for much at the end of the month unless my art is selling like hotcakes. $420 in gross sales provides a net of $139.16 after taxes for 13 hours of work.

The reason there are so many starving artists is not because they are bad at their craft. It’s because they don’t crunch the numbers. There are a few solutions. Raise prices, cut expenses, shift to being a part-time artist or just enjoy a great hobby and forget trying to make a living at art. What will you do with this information?

By Dusty Demerson

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