What Every Artist Needs

The ultimate question is “What does it take to be an artist and make a living?”

I believe that to be a great artist, one must have Ability, Passion, and Funds. This is not to say that a person with only passion but no ability isn’t able to be an artist. I’ll go into that more later. First, I’ll briefly explain what the three words mean to me.

Ability is whatever it takes to excel at your art work. This is the natural stuff (talent, sensitivity, curiosity) combined with the learned stuff (training, reading, study).

Passion is whatever motivates you. What compels you do make your work? Social justice? Catharsis? Helping others? This is what keeps you coming back for more, and keeps a smile on your face while you’re doing it. Often there’s a specific style of the art form you practice that is where the passion lives.

Funds is how you survive financially in society. In this example, I’m thinking specifically of the funds to be able to earn a living wage to make your work

Below is a venn diagram I’ve been using to help me think about this:

Ability, Passion, and Funds

I firmly believe that anyone and everyone can make art. Art is not a precious thing–it’s a fundamental right for anyone who would like to create something, express something, or discover something to be able to use art.

That said, there are some people in this world, who for one reason or another, have or are trying to devote their lives to making art. Art is their career, and it is their professional life. The venn diagram above is geared towards them.

I have known people who were purely passion driven with their art. They had little to no talent, but they wanted it. These people at one point replace natural talent completely with learned skills. On the other side, I’ve known people with enormous ability, but absolutely no motivation to create art whatsoever. It is a no-brainer, but early on the most successful individual artists are those with both passion and ability.

But very few of those artists have that section in red: funds. If every artist received a government pension and health insurance,we’d have a renaissance on our hands. I won’t hold my breath for that to happen. The arts regularly lose their best and brightest because artists often can’t afford to live and make their work. Many artists live right near the breaking point for years, hoping to “break in”. Looking at the green area, this is the cliche “starving artist”.

I would say that when I look at myself purely as an artist, I sit in that green area of the diagram. I have passion and ability (although most days I’d like to have more of both), but not necessarily the funds. However, I wouldn’t call myself a starving artist, because having a stable income and health insurance is something I value. The funds I have come from my work as a director at an arts services organization. I’m very close to the arts, and work in, with, and for them, but when I’m at work I’m not an artist.

However, to get to the green area in the first place, it took a bit of red. I come from privilege. I don’t have a trust fund or an ever lasting well spring of money, but growing up I was “given everything I could have asked for, but nothing more”. Going to college was not a choice or a dream, it was taken for granted. These funds gave me the ability to go into the arts, to study theatre in the first place. I had four years to train in the bubble that is college, and that is where I had the luxury to hone my yellow part. And then I graduated. And then the red left my life, and I fortunately found enough red to live, and I was fortunate to find it in the arts, although it is outside of being an artist. This is a rather common story in the world of arts administration.

Getting on stage the first time is like your first cigarette. It gives you a glimpse of something greater than you. It’s the gateway drug. And as life becomes more demanding, and as your faith in your ability (the yellow) wanes, you have to take your fix (the blue) where you can get it, and thankfully arts administration is a lovely place to to pay your bills (the red), and support the arts (the blue).

I have seen many artists with amazing abilities use their art to make money, but not in a way that they are passionate about. This gives us the orange section. I’ve heard many artists who live in orange talk about losing that feeling that made them fall in love with their art form in the first place. It’s at this place that the arts feel like a plain old (poorly paying) job. Orange is that passionless, but extremely professional work you sometimes see. It’s that album you listen to, and while it sounds like the band you know and love, you know they only recorded a new album so they could go on tour and play their old hits to the old fans and make lots of money.

The only outer section I haven’t touched on is the purple section–funding + passion. I don’t know many people who live in purple, but the best example I can think of is non-traditional artists who come to the arts at the middle or end of a successful, well-paying career. My father was an interesting example. At 48 he decided to make a documentary. He’d never picked up a camera for anything other than home videos at Christmas, where he would inevitably pan away from the present opening pandemonium and film the geese flying in formation against the backdrop of the Rockies outside instead. Because he had the money, and because he was passionate about it, he was able to make a decent first documentary.

The center of our diagram, the white section, is the combination of all the colors. These are the artists who are the inspiration for all artists everywhere. The artists who live in white are those with passion, ability, and funding, and they keep everything in balance. They do amazing, high quality work, they love doing it, and they make enough money to live the life they’d like.

So how do you do it? How do you live in white? How do you take your ability and passion and tap into funding? How do you take your passion and funding and hone your ability? How do you reclaim your passion if you have the funding and the ability?

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