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Debunking the “Starving Artist” Myth

Inspiration Lab member Alisha Thomas is the owner of Wait. What? Consulting. After studying design in college and co-founding or joining several arts-inspired companies (like the nationally known Freaker USA), she decided to use the financial knowledge she gained along the way to start offering her own bookkeeping services. Now Alisha helps small business owners in creative fields manage their finances. Here, Alisha explains why making money from your art is actually, truly, totally possible.

I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “starving artist.” When I was in college and told people my major was art, I would get the eye roll and questions like, “How is she ever going to make money with an art degree?” But if you stop to think about it, you’ll realize everything around you was designed by an artist: the color of the Post-it notes on your desk, the graphic on your coffee cup, the shirt you're wearing, the packaging your socks came in — not to mention all the art that was used to market those products. So, if art touches so many things in our lives, why would it be such a bad investment for your future? Personally, I don’t think it is. I think artists aren’t encouraged enough to make careers out of their creations. If you want to make money doing pottery, there is absolutely no reason you can’t be successful if you have the right mindset. I work with creatives every day who tell me they “don’t do numbers” and are “bad at math.” Somewhere, someone said you can’t do both — art and make money — and that simply isn’t true.

The first step is believing you can make money doing your craft. Identify other people who are doing what you want to do. We all know social media can make us all feel “lesser than,” but finding and following successful artists in your field will help remind you what’s possible. Then, commit to taking the necessary time and effort to become highly proficient at your skill... and keep going and going and going.

The second step is niche down HARD. Do you like making pottery? Okay, but what makes your pottery special? What if all your glazes are pastel and each piece is named after a country singer? If you really focus on what you want to do and what makes it unique, you won’t get bored or feel like you’re selling out. When you try to “market” your work, it will come from a place of real love for your product, and that will make it easier to sell and connect with customers. Plus, nowadays, the internet makes the point of entry easier than ever.

The third step (and this is the money part) is understanding BASIC business finances. You need to know if you are making money, where your money is coming from, and where it’s going.

You also need to be sure you are following the rules (i.e., taxes and laws). I talk to creatives every day who have so much anxiety around the money part of things. They could be doing super well and making income, but they feel confused and disorganized. On the other hand, I also work with people who aren’t making any money but feel like they’re working all the time. If you read either of the last two sentences and thought, “That’s me,” then you aren’t alone. My biggest piece of advice when starting your business is to open a business bank account (and keep your personal life out of there), get QuickBooks so you can track everything, and check to see if you need to be paying sales tax. I recommend thinking of mastering the financials as learning a new skill instead of a burden. You weren’t born knowing how to make pottery, use Photoshop, or sew a dress. You had to learn those things. But you also don’t need an MBA — you just need to watch some YouTube videos, listen to a podcast, book a meeting with a consultant, and take an interest in learning how to manage business finances. I promise you are smart enough to do this.

So you don’t actually need to starve for your art. Of course, you don’t have to make money from your art, either; that is completely up to you! I know that seems contradictory, but if you have a job you like doing (maybe you’re a teacher sculpting young minds and you also love creating macramé sculptures), you can also create art just for you! If you don’t want to deal with sales tax or having a separate bank account, then you don’t want a business and that’s okay. You can always create just for yourself and your friends and family. Just know that if you ever wanted to turn that craft into something that generates income, that door is open to you too.


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