How to Make Art Like it's Your Business: Starving Artist to Entrepreneur

Ok arty kid, I’ve got some bad news for you. You may have spent the last four to seven years learning to make amazing and thought provoking art, working your butt off to develop your techniques, and your voice, but it’s time for a reality check. It’s one thing to make great art, it’s another thing to make a living on great art.

Now prepare yourself because here’s the really bad news. While you were making the decision to pursue a career in studio art, what you were really doing was starting your own business. That’s right. Studio artists are small business owners, and lets face it, most art schools leave graduates supremely unprepared for owning a business.

See AlsoHow to Become a Professional Artist in the US  

Never fear! The Internet is on your side. Here are five resources and tips for cashing in on your creativity and making the jump from starving artist to expert entrepreneur.


1. Set Yourself up The Correct Way: Talk to a Tax Professional

I know, it’s only June, nobody wants to hear the “T” word. Unfortunately no matter how creative you are taxes aren’t optional, and if you don’t get off on the right foot you could be in for a world of hurt and a mountain of paperwork come tax season.

I own a studio and gallery, small scale, pretty straightforward. When I set up my business I chose to become a sole proprietor. It was the least complicated and least expensive option, or so I thought. Come April however, I was in for a nasty surprise. When I sat down with my tax guy he told me that because of my hasty decision I would be paying double the income tax! Once for myself, and once for my business. It cost me hundreds of dollars, and could have been avoided had I taken the time to sit down with a professional at the beginning of my endeavor.

Meeting with a tax professional doesn’t have to be a huge expense. Most towns have a small business office dedicated to aiding people like you and I. Many of these offices offer free consultations to new business owners and people planning on starting a business. The IRS website also has lots of resources to get you off on the right foot.

While it may be a small extra expense and take a bit of time, it is 100% worth it. The tax code is mind bogglingly complicated. Your classification may vary by income, state, market and any number of other factors; however doing it right could save you thousands.

2. Get Organized: Run Your Business Like a Business

This may be the best piece of advice I’ve gotten to date. As an artist I tend to be a free spirit. I like to work on my own schedule, make my own rules, and draw outside the lines. Fortunately, for the most part I can, but in my business, rules are rules. I open my doors on time every day, shipments have to go out in a timely manner, there are mailing lists, and websites to keep up on, and slacking on any of this just feeds the stereotype of a flakey artist.

As a professional you perform a challenging balancing act. You have to create work to sell, however you spend just as much energy on promotion, marketing, sales, records keeping, etc. If you’re anything like me it is infinitely easier to get yourself in the studio, than on the computer. Allocation of time can be a nightmare, and staying on task when the task makes you cringe can be just as hard.

Apps like RescueTime, and Hours Tracker can be lifesavers. Rescue time sends you weekly updates on your productivity, showing you accurate measurements of the time you spend on particular websites and in particular applications. It helps you get a picture of your procrastination habits. Offline, I use Hours Tracker to clock in and out of the studio. This helps keep me on task, and set prices based on the time I spend on each piece.

3. Insurance: Get Some

Now that you’re accurately tracking your time in and out of the studio, take a second to consider the energy you spend on each piece, the materials costs, shipping costs, the time you spend hauling it to and from shows. Now imagine your booth gets knocked over in a freak storm at a craft show and you lose everything. (No joke, this happened to a friend of mine.) Imagine a masterpiece gets trashed in the mail. How many months does it take you to recoup that loss?

Insurance may seem like a frivolous expense, but it can save your butt in a second. There are a number of low cost options tailored specifically to artists. ACT insurance was developed for creative professionals. Their services include 1-90 day policies to cover you and your work for weekend crafts fairs, or specific gallery shows. They also offer low priced yearly policies to cover you in the studio.

4. Save Those Reciepts

This goes for everyone, artist or not. Those paints you bought last weekend for that rockin’ new mural, the coffee you bought your tax guy so he’d help you get your act together: business expenses. More importantly, write offs. That means money in your pocket come April. Once you start thinking of yourself as a business you can consider a lot of what you pay for business expenses. A friend of mine writes off most of her mortgage because her house is also her showroom. Another friend writes off CD’s and iTunes downloads. He’s a musician and they’re research.

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post vacancies

Grab yourself a twelve pocket accordion file and a second for your car. Every time you buy something even remotely business related, throw your receipt in there. It may seem like a waste of time, but your tax guy can help turn those useless sheets of paper into cash in your pocket.

Or check out websites like this one to find possible write offs for artists.


5. Get Legal Advice When You Need it

Copyright issues, gallery contracts, studio rentals, they may seem straight forward, but small details can have a big impact. There are numerous reasons an artist may need to seek legal advice. Lawyers, and more specifically lawyers’ fees can seem terrifying. Fortunately the Internet saves the day once again with services like a free resource offering volunteer legal advice to artists in NY.

Also check with your local small business office. Often they will offer free or reduced rate legal services, as well as help in filing the appropriate legal forms if ever you need to make a claim.

See Also: How to Become an Art Gallery Curator  

While most of us would love to hide away in our studios full time, owning your art business can be crazy rewarding, and if you do it right, profitable as well. Embrace your inner entrepreneur, I promise you’ll thank me.




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