Art-makers alert!

“Don’t Quit Your Day Job,” warns artist and filmmaker Juri Koll of  Los Angeles  (New York Times, November 8, 2013). Koll describes yet another unintended result of increasing college costs: full-time artists may become extinct. He explains:

“In the United States there are about 115,000 young people who graduate from college with art degrees every year – often with huge student loans to pay off. Calculating 10 years back, that means there’s at least another million early-to-mid career artists on the market. There are about 6,500 art galleries and art dealers in the U.S., all with as many artists as they can handle.”

In other words, artists can’t make a living at art alone. He points to other countries that generously provide their creative citizens with grants, subsidies and tax benefits.

I can remember a golden time when our own National Endowment for the Arts did provide many grants across the country – and it still was not enough. In fact, I don’t remember knowing of many wealthy artists in my 75-year lifetime – just those who had very good connections or didn’t mind spending much of their time in self-promotion.

It is commonly assumed that artists don’t think about money, and that someone who makes a career of art is likely a trust-fund baby or a pampered spouse; only the rich can paint or sculpt. My impression is that many serious artists compromise, working part time or intermittently. And I think graduating with a degree in the arts is not a bad thing no matter what your career is going to be.

One of my writing professors advised me, circa 1970, to work at Circle K in the day and write at night. She was well-aware that I had three children to support, but, not being a parent herself, did not make the connection between minimum wage and paying for food, rent and the gear that kids need and grow through year after year — or the need to save for their college education.  Thus I chose a sensible job that required my writing skills, and gave up my hope of being discovered as a talented literary artist. This is very common. Look at my peers.

It seems nearly everyone I know of my generation is now, in retirement, writing that novel that has been percolating over the decades. Most of us self-publish, so we are right back to the question of whether an artist is willing to spend a lot of time in self-promotion. At our age it’s not just time, it is physical and mental energy that is at stake. There also is the matter of money for us. We see how our savings can be siphoned off by a growing army of pros who want to help us.

Another article today reveals that publishers are trolling for talent by looking at the sales records of self-published novelists. Is this built on the belief that cream rises to the top? Perhaps, but we have to consider that a self-published author becomes a success only through hard work and an expenditure of a small fortune – and probably isn’t enjoying the Golden Years from the upper deck of a cruise ship.

It boils down to choices. Long ago, Marlo Thomas introduced a song that was meant to inspire girls to strive for equality in life, to be “free to be” whatever they wanted to be. This somehow got misinterpreted as the sky’s the limit. I wonder…who would Marlo Thomas be if she hadn’t first been the daughter of a famous showman? Was her father’s genetic legacy real talent, or was it ambition?

My choices were based just as much on opportunity as anything, but I did have a desire to work at a career I could be proud of , not because I would be famous, but because it was work for a greater good. Over the years, as a business writer, I chose my clients carefully. My children, I am pleased to say, also are all doing community-spirited, “good” work. They also are doing well, thank you.

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