I was sitting with a photographer the other day talking about his problems with the IRS. It’s not the first time I’ve heard this story of a desperate attempt to simply get by met with woe. Finding ways to sustain a professional art practice requires agility, creativity and a lot of sacrifice—and not just financially. Alas, the cliché of the struggling artist exists for a reason.
Along these lines, there have been a few puff pieces and infographics floating around recently that touch on the feasibility of art world professionals successfully getting by on their craft alone. Apparently Los Angeles and San Francisco boast the largest number of working artists per capita. Apparently classical musicians make more than hip hop artists. And, in news that appalled reporters at Hyperallergic, our nation’s top museum execs make millions. In Seattle, artists are faced with the challenge of a marginal art market. Seattle has yet to develop—to put it gently—a robust art market comparable to those of larger cities, and artists’ motivations for sticking around here, while varied, never have to do with the ready availability of cash flow.
Still, many make it work. So what’s the reality of trying to get by as an artist here in Seattle? It’s not a definitive sampling, but I asked a small cross-section of emerging and mid-career artists in Seattle to share if and how they do it. I asked for two things: a synopsis of how they make it financially, whether it be trust funds, day jobs, grants, selling work or just living cheap as hell. Second, I asked for a glimpse into a typical day of their lives. Here is what a few (very candidly) reported back. Some of it’s romantic. Some of it’s inspiring. Some of it will make you tired just to read.
JUAN ALONSO-RODRIGUEZ (website)
I have been supporting myself solely on my art for over 20 years. Being able to do this consistently for such a length of time means I’ve had to adjust my spending habits to the instability of my finances and try to have many of my bills paid in advance as much as possible. I am most comfortable when I can have six months of expenses taken care of or at least scheduled with funds to cover them in the bank. There is lots of planning and budgeting involved and I’ve learned to be creative (always legally, of course) in acquiring or making things happen when I can’t afford them. From household goods, clothing, restaurant meals to services, “mutual gifting” is great and everybody wins.
I do have the advantage of being married to someone with a steady job that besides some sense of security also provides me with the very essential health insurance. If I were single, I would likely not own a TV nor afford cable, and I do take advantage of occasional access to “our” vehicle when necessary, which is officially in both our names—but I rarely drive it and have never paid for it. These I consider luxuries (including the insurance), and I’m very thankful for them.
I have learned to be very constant with marketing my work, and keeping my name out in the public view. Being very involved with the art community and with local art organizations and institutions has been crucial for meeting potential collectors as well as providing me with an art business education I couldn’t have paid for. I also believe in paying it forward. I think if you do something that promotes other artists or art in general, it can’t help but come back in a positive way; not so much from karma in the spiritual sense but from the simple fact that someone you’ve helped along the way is a lot more likely to help you than someone you’ve dismissed out of arrogance. The better the arts community is, the better off I will also be. I continue to apply for grants, especially when I want to try something new and I have not been shy to let people know when I need help. All in all, I think I’ve done OK for a high school drop-out immigrant with English as a second language and no art education.
Day in the life…..
Today, I woke up to my 7:00 alarm as usual. The first thing I see when I open my eyes (barely) is a wall that is filled floor-to-ceiling with art mostly made by friends. This comforts, inspires, and reminds me that I love what I do and I am part of a community. I am not functional until I’ve had my morning Bustelo (Cuban coffee) espresso. Once semi-awake, I sit at the computer, greeted my beach wallpaper, and begin to deal with daily emails—mostly insignificant, but always a few that require some TLC: kindly saying no to some requests, scheduling appointments for folks to visit my studio, sending out invoices or reminders, bookkeeping, re-sending emails that so many folks claim they did not receive even though they’re in my sent folder, holding virtual hands, updating the Facebook page so people know I’m still alive, updating blog, etc. Today was no different.
Breakfast was a banana followed by a vitamin cocktail and a shower in my freshly painted whetstone grey bathroom. I do take long showers and I solve a lot of problems as I soak, but I’m way greener than most in other ways. Yes, I still feel guilty. I try to walk the 2 miles to my Pioneer Square studio as often as I can and today I unfortunately ran into an unpleasant detour as a mentally unstable young man had triggered a large cordoned-off police area. It didn’t end well for him; very sad. A reminder we need to have more awareness and access to mental well-being and less access to guns.
I got to my studio at about 10:30 where I had four paintings in progress ready for a few coats of varnish that require drying time in between. This gave me time to frame some works while I waited. Lunch was a bowl of soup from the upstairs (Grand Central) bakery and entertainment provided by the very fascinating audio book, The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer. If I were drawing, I’d have to listen to music, but while doing auto-brain tasks, an audio book is great.
I walked back and got home around 5 pm and started writing this. Done at 6:30, it’s time for a second shower to head out again.
Dinner with Roger and a bottle of wine tonight was at Panevino. Do you know if you try spelling that on an iPhone, it wants to change the word to Landfill? WTF? Since our friend visiting from NYC was running a little late, we stopped at Via Tribunale and each had a blood orange crush at the bar and finally met up with Theo at Purr around 9:30. Since he’s a big shot at Ralph Lauren, I introduced him to Shawn, who is a local fashion model and also works at Purr. If he makes it big, I’m expecting a cut. Several drinks later, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say I believe we took a cab home. At least, I don’t remember walking or anything else for that matter.
STEPH KESE & ERIN POLLOCK (aka KeseyPollock)
To fund our latest project we raised $45,712 on Kickstarter. It was one of the top most funded visual arts projects ever on Kickstarter. We also received a $4,000 project grant from 4Culture. The money was a game-changer. We spent every single penny of that money on wax, propane, steel and other materials. The work we are making is extremely material intensive (and expensive) but we did everything else we could on the super cheap: borrowed tools, used a volunteer labor force for installation, installed our show in a donated space and were sponsored by several local breweries/distilleries. The bar profits went to pay the show costs (insurance, security, paint, plywood, etc).
On a personal level, we lived well below the poverty line during this working period, funneling all of the raised money into the work. For the past 7 months we’ve survived mostly on credit cards and lived cheaply. (Erin lives in the basement of a house with 7 roommates, etc). We work with fire, propane torches, hot knives, and other dangerous tools in a studio where the ceiling falls down in chunks and the tap water is orange. Our parents have generously paid for our health insurance. Without that support we would have been without.
Our show is still up, but so far we have sold enough pieces to sustain ourselves for a little while and re-evaluate. It is worth noting that less than 20% of those sales went to Seattle buyers. Right now we are in discussions about whether Seattle has the market or the culture of buying art to continue to work here. We really want to stay! Artistically, we are rearing to go. But we worked 80 hour weeks for the past 7 months which left no time for a “day job.” In order to continue to make work that is this involved and labor intensive, we will need to continue to find new ways to support ourselves through our artwork.
Day in the life…..
Every day is different, but we usually get to the studio around 10 am, spend a lot of time hand-sculpting with wax, editing video, doing photo shoots with our wax characters, logging photos, melting, drawing, writing, trucking materials back and forth, party planning, etc. We usually leave the studio between midnight-2 am. We are coming out of a maniacally productive period, with no days off for a couple months. This next month might be all about sleep and reminding our friends that we still exist.
ALICE GOSTI (website)
Performance artist, choreographer, dancer, curator
The way I make my living changes constantly. In the periods when I’m touring a lot, I cannot keep a job, which means there is no income and my expenses are covered either by my savings or by crowd-sourcing. Over the years, I have managed to lose none of my very own money for tours….while I have, let’s say, invested my savings in research and development of new pieces. In the past four years of work, I’ve received one grant. I have successfully raised funding to cover expenses for two international tours through crowed funded websites (Project USA and Kickstarter). My expenses have been covered for other national tours by hosts and local organizations. Some of the festivals I have been involved with have covered most of the production expenses for the work.
This summer, I knew in advance that I was going to stay in the area, so I fortunately got my job back at the Pink Door Restaurant. Right now this is the main source of income that helps me cover all my regular expenses (rent, insurance, classes, food). As a friend of mine once told me, I’m really good at getting things for free, which I believe to be only partially true; most of the time they are work exchanges.
As of now, I work in exchange for rehearsal space at a discounted price. Classes, workshops and intensives I also get at a discounted price or for free in exchange for work. I volunteer to see shows because I would otherwise be unable to afford attending everything I need to see to be an educated, present artist in this community. I write in blogs for a venue so I can afford seeing the shows they have. When I dance for other choreographers, I assume I will not get paid, so that I do not have to plan on it. I try to accept and find projects that have some funding, but so far I’ve never said no to projects because of lack of funding. But I do ask for it and make sure that the people involved know the commitment I can give and the risks I am taking.
I live cheap. I didn’t used to. Less I work a regular job, less money I have, less money I spend stupidly, more I make my art.
I have food stamps.
I live in a house with three other people in an affordable neighborhood.
I have a non-smart phone, as I cannot afford investing in a smarter one.
I have a sliding scale, income-based insurance.
I wish to not make ever too much money, so that in 25 years, my school loans will be forgiven
I save money to go home (Italy), always, since you never know when and if I will have to go last minute.
I don’t eat out anymore—or I do only for meetings.
I bike as much as I can.
I keep all my receipts and am learning to do my tax returns on my own.
If other artists do things for free for me, I try to offer some sort of exchange for them.
Day in the life…..
I get up around 9 am. If I am going to a morning technique class I wake up sooner, as the advance technique classes at Velocity begin at 9:30 am and it takes me 20 minutes to bike there from where I live. I shower every morning. I have coffee and breakfast. If I don’t go to class, I turn on my computer, check e-mails, check for deadline for applications for festivals, grants and residencies. Check my eternal TO DO LIST, which never seems to be empty. I try to have rehearsals in the mornings, as I mostly work at nights. Which means that I have to stop whatever I am doing around 3 pm to get ready to get to work by 4. Tuesdays have been my rehearsal day for a couple years now. I also try to not work on Tuesdays, so I can spend the whole day working on my art. I used to go out dancing at Havana—their nineties night.
Yesterday, it was my first day off from all this in months. And now I am behind on my internet and on writing this.
(Above photos by Ethan Folk and Bruce Clayton Tom)
JOEY VELTKAMP (website)
Artist, writer (BEST OF)
The nitty gritty
When I first started showing my art back in 2006, I kept hearing folks tell me that “real” artists don’t have day jobs. My last full-time job ended a few years ago and I decided to just take the jump and work on making art as my full-time job. I think that during my best year, I was able to sell about $13,000 worth of art-related things (commissions, teaching a class, but mostly art sales). At age 41, I decided that there’s nothing romantic about living on less than $15,000 in a town as expensive as Seattle. Luckily, I have an amazing village of friends and family who always make sure their bear is fed and has beer in his fridge.
I’m working for a friend now 3 days a week and that takes care of my core finances like rent, cell phone and gas. The rest comes from art sales. After a couple of years of non-stop hustling (by the time you write your rent check on the 1st, you’re already stressing about paying next month’s rent), it feels pretty nice to have a stable income coming in. And I get to hang out with friends all day and play with puppies. I don’t think I could have an art-related job, because I need the break from it. My day job takes up about 30+ hours and then I try to work on art for 30-40 hours/week, depending on upcoming deadlines.
Don’t let anyone tell you how you have to do it. If it’s important to you, you’ll find a way to make it work! I think I’m finally getting the hang of work/life balance. Especially in the summer, I’m all about dock life and being in that water.
Day in the life…..
(Friday) Wake up about 6:30, do computer work until about 8.
Finish quilt for SAM show next week (Glacier quilt).
Work on a new quilt (Rainbow chevron quilt).
Contract work from 2-3 pm.
Since I’m so close to the lake, I jump in for a bit.
Hang with Holly for a bit.
Pick up boyfriend at work, go to Farmer’s Market and pick up dinner.
Work on art together while watching bad TV.
The nitty gritty
I’m a gallery owner and curator—I run Length/Width/Height Gallery in Georgetown. Before it went brick and mortar, LxWxH began as an art-by-mail project, which is still ongoing. Currently the gallery pays for the rent of the space, which is more than one could hope for in the first year of brick and mortar business, but it isn’t yet a paycheck. That’s the goal, naturally. I spend a lot of time planning and daydreaming.
During weekdays, I moonlight as the Youth Programs Manager at Gage Academy of Art. There, I work as a non-profit arts administrator responsible for the visual arts education of kids age 4-18. It’s a 40-hour-a-week commitment most of the time, especially this time of year because of summer workshops. In addition to this, I’m a freelance art writer. This is something I enjoy very much, and consider it part of my curatorial practice. Occasionally, though rarely, I sell my own artwork. I have two commissions in progress right now plus a piece for an upcoming show in August. This year is the first time I’ve actually applied for grants. I’ve already been turned down for one and I’m waiting to see if I get anything for the next, which is a national award for writers.
Weekends are the best part of the week: two blocks of full days that I spend writing, making art, writing grants, working at the gallery, installing a show, taking down a show, making catalogues, doing administrative work, taking care of art shipping and/or/handling, meeting clients, meeting artists, writing articles or essays, researching new artists, reaching out to other artists, building the upcoming calendar, website maintenance, photo editing, social media upkeep, building press releases, building class curricula (sometimes I teach, too) and so on. This is all completely manageable because I’m a workhorse and thrive on deadlines, but the cost is my social life. If I want to leave the office early enough in the day to do all the work I do outside of it, I have to get to work by 7:30 am and I typically work until 8:30 at night.
My rent is cheap because, ironically, we bought a house in South Seattle at the bottom of the market last year. It means that my mortgage is cheaper than anything I’d be renting, which is really hard to wrap my head around, but it’s true. I have a big studio, which is really awesome. I’ve never had that before. You don’t even want to know what I pay in student loans, and I don’t even have an MFA. I’m not much of a consumer and most things outside of equipment are bought second hand. The flashiest thing about me are tattoos and motorcycles. Beyond that, it’s all pretty boring.
Day in the life…..
Tuesday, 5:40 am: alarm goes off. I resist snoozing and finally get out of bed and go to Gage, arriving at about 7:15. I’m there until about 3:30 pm. My daily morning thrill is a ride on my motorcycle, with the hopes that I’m early enough to go the speed limit on the freeway.
Lunchtime/periodically throughout the day: catch up on some work-outside-of-work emails and phone calls, quickly edit a draft of something, make an event for an opening, draft a press release, wolf down a sandwich if I remember to get one.
3:30 pm: Run out the door to meet up for an appointment at the gallery.
4:30 pm: Arrive at a LxWxH biz meeting over cocktails. Two hours!
6:45 pm: Arrive at my next meeting, a studio visit (with Tim Cross, last pic). One hour!
8:00 pm: Arrive home, do some work on taxes, catalogue printing/binding and a blog post. Cats take over my lap and my desk. Intrepid, I continue despite them but they are cute and it’s difficult.
9:00 pm: Call it quits about an hour and a half past “quitting time,” but it’s like that because I was out running around. I grab a book and some cats and read until I pass out an hour later. I’m pretty sure I forgot to eat something.
BOOST THE MARKET, GO BUY SOME ART! (THERE’S A TON OF IT THIS WEEK)
Because of festivities last week, this Thursday is a clusterfuck of Pioneer Square and Capitol Hill gallery openings. I suggest the following:
Surf & Turf at SOIL: work by Jessica Dolence, Trisha Holt and Erica Schreiner
“Their medley of work circulates around the definition and varying associations of a Surf and Turf meal. Rumored to have originated in Seattle during the World’s Fair, the meal consists of steak and lobster, symbolizing middlebrow cuisine and culinary kitsch.” How can you resist a statement like that?
SuttonBeresCuller‘s Three Way at Greg Kucera. The melting picture frames, bronze floor bananas and high-sheen, non-functioning bulbs are pure sex, but the glass-etched reproductions (prints, technically) of graffitied, scratched-and-stickered-to-oblivion mirrors sourced from Linda’s Tavern take lowbrow to new heights.
Warren Dykeman‘s I might exaggerate…at Davidson Galleries. Dykeman’s figurative collage work and paintings interleaved with text and popping, graphic iconography are always pure visual pleasure.
Olympic Sculpture Park’s Summer at SAM opening event. Lots of live music, Heather Hart’s new temporary installation Western Oracle, food trucks, a great view—the whole nine yards.
ROUGH CUT at Cairo. Includes paintings by Justin Duffus, video/installation by Bennett Shatz and “tangible objects” by Adam Boehmer.
Cute at Blindfold Gallery: work by Anna Nash, John Taylor and George Rodriguez‘s always great ceramic sculpture.
Friday, July 12: Shaun Kardinal’s Inertia at LxWxH Gallery. Kardinal ventures into larger-than-postcard work, including installation and large-scale collage with his new works at the popular Georgetown gallery.
Saturday, July 13: Deborah Lawrence at Joe Bar. Exquisite, colorful, intimate collages from a master.
Ongoing: Yellow Fish Epic Durational Performance Festival at Hedreen Gallery. Created and curated by the aforementioned Alice Gosti, this two-week festival offers experiments in durational performance by twelve artists. Upcoming performances this week by Shannon Stewart, Spike Friedman, Vanessa DeWolf, Sean Tomerlin, Alice Gosti, Ryan Law and Takahiro Yamamoto. Check for daily schedule. (Full disclosure: this is the gallery I curate!)