I was once asked to interview for an exciting start-up company. There was a lot of buzz around them as they were in the process of expanding operations globally. It seemed like a rocket ship you wanted a seat on. But I had never worked outside of non-profit or government before so my friend, an investor in the company, gave me a little advice. He told me that "this is a company on the brink. It is teetering on the edge of success and complete financial ruin." Reading between the lines, what I heard was “these guys are working 24/7 to survive and you will be too but it might not even be worth it because you could be out of a job in 6 months so it may be best to stay where you are." I would never have thought this company was struggling because I only heard about their successes and bright future.
To be a full-time visual artist is to be a business. But in the business of art you only hear about successes and bright futures (or how to get there). You don’t hear about the not so exciting realities of ‘just getting by’ because even in the seemingly more progressive realm of the art world there’s a corporate style of toxic positivity that prevents anyone from telling the truth in a way that might make them look like they don’t know what they’re doing. The focus is always on new works and the creative process - public relations BS meant to target collectors. But I’m not a collector, I’m a fellow artist and business person and I want to know how the sausage gets made.
Like hopeful start-up companies, maybe success as an artist is just staying one step ahead of complete financial ruin. I’m saying this for all the young artists who have yet to discover this struggle through the cruel passage of time and are inundated with messaging about successful artists where success is largely defined by money, celebrity and contingent on a strategic social network, not simply talent.
I hope that we can redefine success so that no one has to feel depressed that they have to work a soul destroying day-job to pay their bills while they paint at night or have FOMO because their best friend who went into investment banking after university is spending their summer in Istanbul (while you burn with rage at home because you know they only went to the Hagia Sophia to take selfies).
Being an artist is a great privilege. Success shouldn’t be defined by income (and I don’t mean income alone, I mean income at all). For instance, statistically I qualify as a racialized woman. In Canada, that means as a visual artist I am likely to make less money than a white woman and only 82% of what a man would make. And what does that mean for me? I can expect a median annual income of a whopping $17,900.*
You know what? That’s not so bad and I’m a little above that. Though it's still below the poverty line I wouldn’t say I’m impoverished in the slightest. I’m also one of the lucky ones who has a partner who splits housing costs (you singles can do the same with roommates or living with family). If I can pay the bills and be doing exactly what I want to be doing all of the time, then income above that is irrelevant to me. Maybe I don’t make a lot of money anymore and I can’t go to Istanbul, but if you asked me if I consider myself successful I would say “heck yeah!”
So let’s be realistic about success as an artist. If you define it by how fulfilling it is to contribute something new and interesting to this world, or how meaningful it is that others are touched by your work (even if it's just one person who isn’t your mom), then you can be proud that you have accomplished something that very few others on this earth have.
*I cite 2016 census data here as it is the only available data on artist income for Canada at this time