5 minute read
Economics Of The Arts
November 21, 2016
While in Houston for the holidays, we showed work from our private parts series at Art Crawl, which is where all of the accompanying images are from. Good times with Jamaal Ellis, Christian and Myesha, Katy Anderson, Krista Davenport, Darius Stillwell, Trish Stillwell, and Edward CH Lai (from left to right in the image below).
Following below are related thoughts; more photos to come later. This post is only loosely related to the great fun we had this weekend.
Being an artist means difficult economics. Well, being only an artist means difficult economics because for most there isn’t much income available and the chances are pretty small for breaking into the upper percentiles where sustainable income (to prosper) is achievable. According to this article the median yearly income of an art degree earner in New York is $25,000; for comparison, the median income of a chemical engineer in that same year was over $94,000. Note the statistic in the article is for those with art degrees who made their living as artists and not as photographers, but the story is somewhat the same for them, too, at about $28,000 a year income for 2012. This hits really close to home for us.
So why do people want to be artists or photographers… drive, passion? Perhaps it’s the accessibility and low cost of market entry. But are those good reasons?
I don’t have an art degree because I never thought I could make a living at being creative - I didn’t really believe in my abilities as an artist, and it was more pragmatic to get an engineering degree since at the time I lived in south Louisiana in an area where engineers have a lot of value. Now we run a business in the creativity market, so we are faced with the reality of what that means economically. We frequently have conversations with friends about the difficulties associated with photography as a business (which is just a service sector of the art industry) - the conversations are usually about business and not about creativity. Why? I think the reason is related to a random conversation I had recently on an airplane… see below.
Over the weekend we participated in Art Crawl in Houston. Unless you’re a friend of ours you might be asking yourself “what’s that?” well, despite living in Houston for 4 years I didn’t know either until Myesha told me, and since then I still haven’t seen a single advertisement. It seemed strange to me that Houston would have such a thriving art community and something this big would go unadvertised? Apparently looks are deceiving.
Apparently I was mistaken about the Houston art scene; that’s not a knock on Houston because likely the entire world is exactly the same way, and it probably always has been. On the flight back to Washington I sat next to a nice gentleman, clearly somehow part of the art community in Houston, who struck up a conversation because he noticed me editing photos on my laptop. We spoke a lot about how Art Crawl could be so much more, and why it isn’t: he says he sees a lot of artists trying to make money by selling low instead of having another job and being creative on the side (or something like that, I’m paraphrasing) and as a result people in Houston don’t really take the art scene seriously.
Yes there’s more below.
On a related note, my new airline friend and I also talked about something I had just discussed with another friend: the pricing of art. He volunteered that artists can’t be taken seriously if they are giving away their pieces for the sake of sales, and we totally agreed. By selecting a price point one is also eliminating people from the market, and, personally, I’d rather sell to someone who is prepared to be serious than sell for less to someone who’ll give away my work to a friend when they are bored with it. Then again we have the luxury of having abiding by that philosophy because we have other means of income…. And so we come full circle.
I think of it as ‘people in Houston or, insert city don’t know how to take the art scene seriously’, and one example was the experience we had at Art Crawl in our installation. In the image above you see a total stranger (just kidding, dre) making a point about our installation and the paper we spread all over the floor… for us the idea was to make the installation somewhat interactive, with the paper being an introduction to the raw, gritty content of the images we were showing (on the wall and the ground). To most viewers our props were confusing, they were suspicious of the paper and avoided it altogether; we had to stand in the paper and invite viewers to wade through the detritus to where the images were mounted, and only when we stood there did viewers freely wander over to the images without prompting from us (demonstrating a timidity that we don’t possess and causing us to rethink the way we laid out the installation). In the end it worked out fine but it took some work to educate the viewers about the content and the rationale.
Eleven hours is a long time when there isn’t a constant stream of viewers to discuss the installation, so I had to stay occupied by shooting whatever I found interesting nearby. A couple of skylights did the trick.