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Advice from artists who run businesses

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Gina Fairley

Sustaining a creative practice while running a business is a tough juggle as an artist. We talk with those doing it for advice.
Advice from artists who run businesses

Image CC; Phto Alice Achtehof

As an artist trying to make ends meet, the option of full-time or part-time employment is often a necessity to sustain a creative practice. Many artists, however, take the challenge of bringing art and and income together and instead use their creative skills to build a business.

While running a business affords artists the luxury of doing what they love, often it is at a compromise – or cost – to their own personal art making.


Glass artist Brenda Page said: ‘I realised early that I was never going to make a living from making my own artwork - that it has no commercial viability, but I didn’t want to compromise that practice.

‘I have been fortunate to take my business skills I learnt outside my studio glass practice and combine with a passion I have for the medium.’

Page’s career pathway has hopscotched between teaching adult education, running a commission-based studio, developing a production line to sell and exhibiting as an artist. 

She is best known for establishing and managing Blue Dog Glass in Melbourne, which she established 15-years ago, the success of which has been at the sacrifice of time for her own practice.

Today she employs a number of other glass artists helping to sustain their careers, as well as her own.

‘For a long time I worked in an office and realised I was just dying on the inside. I saw not only a business opportunity and way to make a living, but also a way to build a community via the business, without compromising my integrity,’ she said.

Her courage to seize it has paid off.

Bogged down by business

The biggest complaint by artists trying to run a business alongside their studio practice is that they get bogged down by the details – paperwork, invoicing, tax statements, shipping arrangements.  And that doesn’t include the time spent meeting with clients and researching new business leads.

Sydney-based full-time artist Kathy Elliott said that the studio work is only about 40 percent of the time. ‘At the end of the day you don’t always have the energy to then go and face admin,’ she said.

Elliott has been a glass engraver, running a successful studio with husband Benjamin Edols since the early 1990s. At its peak it employed many artists and was a thriving business. But as the glass market has slowed, and the need to downscale has presented different challenges.

Elliott said: ‘There was fear, responsibility and the burden management issues that come with burning gas seven days a week, so the pressure to make the work and turn it into money to pay the bills was always there.’

Image CC

Expect art to play second fiddle

All artists make compromises to pursue a creative practice. These are often magnified when your artwork becomes your business.

Ruth Allen runs a multi-disciplinary home studio with her partner in Melbourne. She prioritised her commercial work of upcycling beer bottles into a production line of glasses over her exhibition work to live, and she feels that her creativity has suffered as a result.

Allen’s mechanism for coping has been to allow herself to give over her days to other people, while stockpiling her dreams for later.

‘I can honestly say that I haven’t made artwork in about six years. I am at the stage where I need to make money as I bought a building, so everything I am designing is to pay the bills. My artwork happens in my brain in the hours between 1 am and 3 am,’ she said.

While Allen is trying to sustain a practice with a mortgage, small family and big dreams, she admitted that it not always the picture you had for yourself.

‘I went through art school and here I am dumpster-diving for beer bottles and washing out cigarette butts. It’s hard work to get from A to B, and you never know where B is. You need to know yourself, and never forget it.’

Get the mix right

One way of sustaining a career path is to diversify. These artists have all chosen to walk two roads – running a creative business and making their own work. They offered the same advice: ‘Do not put all your eggs in one basket.’

Elliott said: ‘We all make plans that we work towards, but in terms of the maintaining your creative relationship with the work, while that is the priority you just hope can still sell and make a living form it – that is the part we can’t control.’

It is a fear that many artists experience when considering letting go of stable work for a full time practice.

Page added: ‘Whenever I invest time and energy into myself the business starts to go down, and when business goes well I don’t get to do anything at all. It is about blocking out little passages of time – an exhibition, a residency, a dedicated half-week. 

‘You can lose your identity so quickly and I find it really challenging to balance those two things. I have also adjusted the way I make art to be more flexible around business hours,’ she added.

Elliot shared Page’s view from her own experience of running a big high-production studio. ‘It is really hard to be creative when you are working on production pieces all the time. It is crushing to any creativity.’

When Elliot’s business scaled back and she set up a studio under the house, she found the time and freedom again that returned a connection to the work, that had been sucked dry by business pressures.

Dark times can seed creative breakthroughs

American Amber Cowan says that a lot of innovation in artwork comes through necessity.

When she was a student she ran out of money to buy materials, so she turned to using found / recycled glass. It was not by choice.

‘That change not only affected my work visually and aesthetically but also commercially. It now had history. If I was better funded I don’t think I would have made that discovery,’ she said.

Cowan had juggled between being a full-time professor at the Tyler School of Art at Temple University in America and maintaining a high-profile career as a practicing artist. Her commercial success is throwing that balance out of kilter, and she has recent decided to drop her stable teaching obligations.

She has moved from working in a solo studio to a share space and said that tapping into that energy has been amazing. ‘There is always someone working and it is great being surrounded by that work ethic to keep me going on a daily basis … and it’s also cheaper.’

In a similar way, Allen’s practice was forced to change due to financial pressures.

Allen said: ‘My practice has twisted and changed in areas which I am not always comfortable and into genres beyond my skill level but I am responding to client needs.’ But paying the mortgage comes first for Allen.

Elliott concluded that there are always dark times as a result of those choices: ‘Sometimes we loose our way. Sometimes you are inspired, and at others completely distant from the work.’

Big may not be beautiful

Allen started her upcycling business in 2010 at that time in Melbourne when there was a huge cultural drive around sustainability.

‘It allowed me to be part of a much bigger movement. A lot of my colleagues have opened up bottles to make a bit of money but what I did was push the business really far. I earned a lot of money and it has made me comfortable with my mortgage and set up a studio with equipment to take me into the next stage.

She added: ‘Now I am really tired of it. It was never meant to be forever but you just can’t drop your bread and butter like that.’

Allen is again putting her own practice on hold to upsize her business vision, this time to turn her studio into an open access space and run workshops. Again she is responding to bigger picture changes, picking up on a void created when Melbourne University closed its hot glass program.

‘I have clients who are steady who have a lot of money and are interested in doing bespoke projects,’ she added.

Elliott has taken the reverse journey.  She said that the 1990s was like a ‘magic carpet ride’. ‘The studio glass moment was so buoyant and on the back of that success we build a studio at Brookvale in Sydney.’

They closed the studio three years ago and moved operations to their home. Elliott’s creative partner and husband has taken up carpentry to supplement their income.

‘We are definitely making less work – we used to have people working for us – but there are pros and cons. Not making as much work means you are not exhibit as much, which means a reduction in income. But it is a better balance and we have more time to create, and when opportunities come up at short notice we can completely focus on them,’ she explained.

Whether up-scaling or down-scaling is the answer it would seem that for artists there is always a financial pressure impacting their work.

Playing the business game brings results

Many artists think that being commercial is somehow a sell-out. Today it is essential to sustaining your practice as a business.

Cowan advised: ‘Go to art fairs and talk to people – I find it helps. Artists need to engage.’

Allen has had success selling her production work at markets. ‘When you went to art school the last think you think would be that you’d go to markets to sell your work. You’re skilled, you’ve travelled and you’ve exhibited – but in fact markets are really useful.’

The design market in Melbourne each year attracts around 65,000 people. ‘That is huge exposure – they saw you and they saw that you make glass, so I am talking about creating a presence of what you make in everyday situation and that is about sustainability.’

Walk-away advice

  • Treat your studio practice like a job, not just your business – be constant and consistent in making your work.
  • Look for inspiration- the passion is there across both your business and own studio work but the inspiration to do new projects and delve into new areas often lags from simple exhaustion. It is vital to keeping your own work alive.
  • You need to constantly challenge yourself by asking, “Why is it important?”
  • Keep lots of eggs in lots of baskets – diversification of your business and your studio is key.
  • Secure your assets – setting up a studio is expensive. By owning the building or locating your studio at home you minimise the risks that are out of your control.

The panel was presented at the AusGlass Conference, presented at the National Gallery of Australia. The panel was chaired by glass artist Debra Jurss.

About the author

Gina Fairley covers the Visual Arts nationally for ArtsHub. Based in Sydney you can follow her on Twitter @ginafairley and Instagram at fairleygina.