How artists really make money

Often how artists really support their creative practice is hidden. We ask emerging and established artists to get candid.
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Money by Andy Warhol

As artists, writers, arts workers and creatives, it can feel like we are on a pendulum swing between feeling dismal about making a living, and being struck by dazzling glimmers of hope about our artistic careers.

​The median creative income for Australian artists is $7,000 – and $22,500 for those working on their practice full time. Clearly that isn’t enough to live on, yet a culture of secrecy keeps the struggle out of view and how artists actually support themselves often remains a mystery.

Day jobs are ​regarded as an embarrassing necessity, actual earnings are rarely revealed and the resulting pressures – including their physical and mental health implications – are camouflaged.

What we need in the arts sector is a committed shift towards transparency. Especially in light of the cuts to the sector in 2015, if we don’t speak frankly about our finances and the associated challenges, artists will continue to be shut out from honing strategies to develop a career, as well as look after themselves in the process. People will simply give up on their creative pursuits because, like they have been told their entire life, it is just too hard.

We can already see this in the attrition rate for Australian artists. Even though we are all born with the propensity to be artists, it’s eventually beat out of us as only 0.2% of us stay that way, with only 0.004% making a decent living out of their art alone.

We must commit to speaking openly about the trials and triumphs of being an artist to reveal what really goes into making a living from our work.

In recent months importance has been placed on having these candid conversations. The online project I’ll Show You Mine aims to break down the barriers preventing artist from speaking frankly the strategies they have developed to make work in Australia. From a yearly breakdown of earnings by Dan Koop, to the importance of regular exercise to stave off burn out, the project demonstrates that sharing our experiences helps others feel less alone.

Artist, writer and musician Honor Eastly is currently in pre-production for a podcast also focusing on the topic. ‘Often it’s a shrouded secret, so I’m interested in helping more people – myself included – understand how they can make a sustainable career in the arts,’ she said.

From the emerging to the established, we ask a variety of artists to speak candidly about how they really make a career out of their creative pursuits, and the techniques they have developed along the way.

The hybrid career

Author of He Died with a Felafel in His Hand John Birmingham has been writing full time for around 25 years. There have been times he felt owning a home or having children were forever precluded from a writing life.

‘Luckily Felafel came out sold a lot of copies and I didn’t have to worry as much about money, so I was able to do more of those conventional things, but for 10 years I didn’t have that and I didn’t’ expect to get it.’

His latest book How to be a Writer is due out in May and will focus on how to be productive and make a living from writing.

While the dream for many writers is to secure a big trade publishing deal, be an in demand freelancer, or sell directly to their readership via self-publishing, the reality is often what Birmingham describes as a ‘hybrid model.’

Even as full-time writer, Birmingham’s income ​has been a mixture between his book royalties, freelance magazine writing and more lucrative commercial writing jobs.

‘If you are trying to make your living as a poet, good fucking luck. There is very limited market for that kind of writing, it may be beautiful and worthy and add a value to the human race in 500 years, but you are not going to get paid for it.

‘You can’t expect to make an honest living out of that form of writing, but there are forms of writing that you can,’ he said.

Support from family or a partner

Up until recently, artist Lily Mae Martin has lived a hand to mouth existence, from working in telemarketing or balancing four jobs, to living off Centrelink payments.

‘Art just always had to fit around this. But I took a risk and enrolled in university – to focus on my work but also put a degree under my belt. I remember being so poor I’d go to openings to eat my dinner!’ she said.

Now as a stay​-at-home mum, Martin takes on work depending on her family situation. Having the financial support of a partner is often kept under wraps for many artists, but such realities needn’t be stigmatised.

‘Sometimes I’m grateful because I don’t have to seek work, my husband will be working and I’ll do the parenting or house stuff as well as make my work and then go on to sell that,’ she said.

It’s about finding a combination that works for you and the approach you take to your creative work. ‘I’ve taken in commercial illustration work but I find that sort of work a little too close to what I do in my art. So that can be troublesome on many levels – I like to do different things to my practice because my art is inspired by life.

‘But ultimately, I’m lucky. My art is supported and encouraged by my family – my husband and my daughter – I wouldn’t be half the person or artist I am without them,’ she said.

The Centrelink supplement

​Writer, musician, performer and arts activist Justin Heazlewood admits his hybrid income has been supplemented by Centrelink payments for most of his adult life. He lived on social security while writing his book Funemployed.

‘This kind of arrangement is vital for an independent artist. I mean, it’s not enough to live off, technically, but if you add up all the bits and bobs, glaze it with Centrelink (or a part-time job) and frenzied supplements form Bank of Mum, you just might have yourself a living,’ he declared in the resulting book.

In Copyfight, Heazlewood breaks down the true cost of going on tour and how his income is derived from writing, royalty earnings from album sales, appearance fees, merchandise, and grants.

‘It all sounds pretty exciting – until you consider that it’s sporadic, and often takes months of playing “Invoice Hunter” to get paid,’ he writes.

Heazlewood’s hybrid income includes a deal with his publisher Affirm Press, where he buys 100 books in advance at $12.50 a unit and sells them for $25 on his own website.

On the other hand, there are weeks when his income is way off the Centrelink spectrum. Occasional speaking gigs help him earn an appearance fee than can range from $500 to $2,000​.

‘The Holy Grail was $15,000 for a corporate to write a song and produce a music video. Such opportunities seem to come along once a decade,’ he said. 

The day job

A day job is often looked down upon as a disappointing Plan B, but in reality it can be quite liberating for an artist.

Writer, illustrator, and author of The Positivity Kit, Lisa Currie, supports her work through book advances every year or two alongside seasonal jobs, such as working in an ice cream van at festivals.

Currie prefers to work part time jobs that are unrelated to her creative work.

‘It gives my brain a refresh and it’s nice to do something physical and stimulating, as opposed to sitting at a quiet desk making things like I normally do. It’s where I get a lot of my ideas, working mundane jobs. Not that it’s always fun working hospitality of course, but it’s better than killing the love of your craft by trying to squeeze money from it before you’re ready,’ advised Currie.

Local rapper Defron juggles three jobs including as the Hip Hop and Electronica Project Coordinator for The Push; workshop leader for Creative Write It teaching creative writing to primary and high-school students; and a waiter and kitchen hand for Village Cinemas at Crown Casino. He also occasionally helps out at Langridge Artist Colours at their factory in Yarraville.

While it may sound like a juggle, Defron prefers it to working 9 to 5, which he attempted and found was the ‘the most destructive to my creative routine, very close to impossible to handle both.’

For Honor Eastly, it’s also important to make sure you have another job that you like. ‘You don’t have to love it, it’s unlikely you will. But do something that will allow you the mental space and time to work on your art.

‘As they say, boundaries helps inspire creativity. Also, having a job that you are invested in means that you can take some pressure of your artistic practice. This will help you make good art and not get stuck in the art game.’ 

Those who can, teach

As our appetite for experience and skill grows, many artists and writers are making a decent dime from teaching their craft.

‘I’ve been slowly building towards the practice of teaching workshops on emceeing and hip-hop at high schools. Really any area where you can flex your passion and get paid I find helps build your esteem towards your main goals. It keeps you in that creative headspace,’ said Defron.

While teaching may be bread and butter for some, for others it isn’t worth it. ‘I also do some teaching, but again that can be tricky – often jobs don’t cover the cost of babysitting so I can’t take it on unless it pays me adequately,’ said Lily Mae Martin.

In spite of her prominence as a performer and the pouring of countless hours into her arts career, Geraldine Quinn openly admits that in the government’s view she is long-term unemployed.

‘It’s getting harder and harder. I have applied for hundreds of normal jobs, job which I’d happily do. But because of my age, the fact I do get great paid performance gigs/do festivals now and then, and the changing market, it’s getting pretty grim. Plus being over-qualified is an easy way for employers to filter out applicants in a glutted market.’

Quinn has turned to one-on-one teaching, which has been rewarding yet presents it’s own set of challenges. ‘I’d like to do more of that, because people getting better and developing new work is exciting, but I’m also concerned that if every artist is teaching or starting a course we risk cannibalising ourselves. That’s a legitimate concern.’

Saving it up

Trying to earn enough money while making art splits your energies. Another option is to get a lump sum in the bank and then clear some time for art.

If you are lucky, the lump sum could come from a grant but but given their precarious nature, artists are pursuing alternatives. A workaround to balancing a day job with a creative practice is to work steadily for a period of time to save up enough money, then take a sabbatical and use the savings to put on an exhibition or pursue a project.

‘An art career is always an investment, and a risky one at best. That being said, understanding the art industry and being able to build a clear intelligent plan is going to move mountains for the financial results of your practice. Career planning isn’t just for CEOs and suits,’ concluded Eastly.

Madeleine Dore
About the Author
Madeleine Dore is a freelance writer and founder of Extraordinary Routines, an interview project exploring the intersection between creativity and imperfection. She is the previous Deputy Editor at ArtsHub. Follow her on Twitter at @RoutineCurator