Surviving as an artist in a bad economy

March 05, 2009  in  Art as a profession       Related posts:  

Sigh. Money sucks. Well, no, money is fine, just dandy in fact. It’s worrying about money that sucks. When I made the decision to become a self-employed artist, I knew that it would mean a lot of work. I was trading a decent, steady income for something much more fluid and random. And I was ok with that (and yes, my wife was ok with that too). I was trading a dull, grinding job in corporate design for a job that tapped into all of my skills, and allowed me to stretch and grow. My income would go way down, but my satisfaction would go way up. At least that was the theory. And back when the economy was doing fine, this was all ok. But now, when the economy is sinking like a leaky boat, that once confident decision gets a little more… stressful.

I constantly question if I made the right choice. If I had stayed with that corporate job, I’d probably have a large salary and a huge portfolio of work right now. I’d be pretty high up in the ranks in some swanky office. Sure, I might be miserable, or at best bored. But I’d be secure. Right?

Maybe. When I look around, I see so many friends and family with “stable careers” who are now out of work. Cutbacks and layoffs have made their secure jobs not so safe any more. One nice benefit of working for yourself is that you can’t be laid off. You may not be bringing in the money like you should, but at least no one can take away your ability to make money.

My career isn’t stable or predictable, true. It’s a non-stop roller coaster ride. And as I white-knuckle the safety rail before another crazy hill, I may look longingly at those calmly riding the ferris wheel. But would I trade it all in for what they have? (Deep breath.) No, not willingly. This ride may be crazy, but it has also been the most satisfying job I have had. It takes everything I got just to keep going. And as unstable as it is, it is at least in my control.

It’s up to me and whatever skills and ideas I can muster up to keep afloat. Whatever challenges I face, I have to face them alone. But there is no safety net when you work for yourself. As the economy tightens, I have no one to rely on but myself, and I am constantly made aware of the sharp reality of my own limitations. And that freaks me out! But at least I have the chance to try. At least the control over my life is in my own hands, instead of constantly worrying if today’s the day I get laid off.

But that also means embracing the craziness of being a professional artist in a scary economy. That means constantly going over numbers, stressing over every expense, and worrying about bringing in money for our family. That means constantly wondering if I am doing everything I can to find new buyers, new markets, new sales. The answer is usually, no, there is a lot more I can do, a lot more I have to do. And that is scary, because I’m the only one here.

Did I make the right decision, years ago, to give up my design career for this crazy life? From an economic sense, no, not at all. But from an emotional sense, yes. I can only hope that as the economy continues to play chicken with us, that I can hang on, and can keep this career going.