Portrait of the Artist in Red Ink


By Thane Peterson Recently, high school basketball phenoms Kwame Brown, Tyson Chandler, and Eddy Curry made headlines when they were picked for three of the top four slots in the National Basketball Assn. player's draft. It was the ultimate hoop dream come true: Eighteen-year-old high school seniors suddenly becoming multi-millionaires for playing a game.

Yet, physically gifted as these athletes are, what were the chances that they would succeed so gloriously? Of the millions of kids who play high school ball, only a tiny fraction of 1% can make a career of it. The odds of becoming a wealthy professional artist aren't any better. I'm not talking about graphic and industrial designers and other people with more of a commercial vocation. I mean painters, sculptors, and art photographers -- the people whose work you see hanging in art galleries and museums.

MANY CALLED, FEW CHOSEN. Of course, tens of thousands of people every year make a stab at it. It's hard to say exactly how many fine art students there are in America, but I would guess the total in any given year is well north of 100,000. As of last fall, some 108,000 students in the U.S. were pursuing BAs or MAs in art and design at 227 U.S. schools accredited by the National Association of Art & Design in Reston, Va. That number includes design students, but excludes all the people studying at the 1,500 or so part-time and unaccredited programs listed on www.artschools.com.

How many of these students end up becoming full-time artists? "I personally don't know a single artist who doesn't have another job," says the Chicago painter Dan Devening, who teaches at Northwestern University and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to supplement income from his paintings. Adds Bill Barrett, executive director of the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design in San Francisco: "I get parents asking me that kind of question all the time. They're forking out $30,000 a year for art school, and they want to know where it will lead."

Good question. If you're talking about pure artists who pull in at least $75,000 annually, Barrett guesses the total is "maybe a few thousand in the entire country." If Barrett is right, something like 20,000 or 25,000 art students come out of school each year -- and scramble into a "job market" that consists of only a few thousand spots, total. And that's to make less than $100,000 -- not the millions that NBA stars can bank on.

FORTUNATE FEW. So what should you do if -- eek!! -- your child wants to become an artist? It's always possible that you have raised a rare, gifted Kwame Brown of the art world. Some artists do live charmed existences. Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns, for instance, all were discovered in their 20s and pursued long and prosperous careers producing art on their own terms.

Consider the painter Julian Schnabel, who turns 50 this year and first soared to fame 20 years ago. He is prolific and has apparently managed his money well. He owns a cavernous studio and living space in Greenwich Village, a former perfume factory that's probably worth the price of a B2 bomber. He hobnobs with famous actors and writers, and lodges his beautiful wife and family in hotels like the Paris Ritz when they travel. These days, Schnabel makes movies as well as art. To get started, he largely financed the $3.3 million budget of his first movie, Basquiat, out of his own pocket. But even a golden boy like Schnabel, however, had his lean years.

Schnabel toiled for a decade before the price of his paintings rose high enough so that he could finally afford to quit working as a cook. That happened when his prices hit $6,000 (in 1980s dollars, of course) -- which probably sounds like a lot of money for a painting. Believe me, it isn't. I figure the price-per-painting has to top $20,000 or $25,000 before an artist of average productivity can earn a secure, middle-class income.

AN EXPENSIVE MUSE. Once prices get above $2,000 or $3,000, the art market consists of a few thousand private collectors worldwide who are willing to pay thousands of dollars, or tens of thousands, for a work by a living artist. They rely heavily on the art world's opinion makers -- dealers, advisers, museum curators, journalists, academics, and auction-house personnel -- to winnow out the best artists. These days, it's rare for an artist to be successful without having gone to art school (which, as Barrett notes, cost $30,000 or so per year), and without being signed by a decent gallery.

Therein lies the rub. Galleries invariably take a 50% commission, with the less scrupulous demanding even more from young, untested artists. Then, Uncle Sam takes an additional 30% or 35% of the remainder in income and self-employment taxes. From there, the math is easy to figure. A painter who sells 10 paintings per year (a lot more than some slow-working painters produce) at $20,000 each grosses $100,000, or $70,000 or so after taxes. Subtract the cost of paint, canvas, and studio rent, and it's not hard to see why being an artist is hardly lucrative. On top of that, notes Kay Rosen, 50, a Gary (Ind.)-based painter who is one of the few American artists successful enough to live solely off sales of her work: "Even if you do that for two or three years, your income can be erratic. You never know what's going to happen the fourth year."

I doubt more than a few hundred artists in the world can consistently command $20,000 or more per painting. Rosen's go for $8,000 to $20,000, depending on size (big paintings typically sell for more than small ones). Even some of the artists in the German business magazine Capital's annual ranking of the world's 100 most prominent artists command less than $25,000. That includes such red-hot, thirtysomething artists as New York-based painter Inka Essenhigh, Icelandic sculptor Olafur Eliasson, and the German photographer Thomas Demand -- though I suspect their prices have soared above that in recent months.

ODD JOBS. Far more typical is the artist who sells 10 pieces per year at $3,000 each -- netting an annual $15,000. Or (full disclosure here) one like myself who, without gallery representation, sells a few paintings per year for an annual take rarely topping $1,000. Factor in the $5,000-plus annually I'm paying for materials and studio rent, and you can quickly see what a loser a career in painting can be.

Still, the stereotype of the starving artist isn't quite valid, either. Most artists make a decent -- if modest -- living by teaching, and from grants and fellowships. "A lot of artists travel from one residency to another. It becomes a way of life for some of them," Rosen notes. My sculptor sister works as a graphic designer at The Sharper Image four days a week to make ends meet.

Victoria Miro, one of London's most successful art gallery owners, started out as a painter. Miro notes that artists who do make it big tend to invest their money in stocks or real estate -- rather than squander it on drink and drugs, as legend would have them doing. Says Miro: "They tend to be more financially astute than most people think."

Artistic skills also are in far more demand than most people imagine. Bill Barrett recalls a recent visit to Pixar, the movie animation company near San Francisco, with a group of art school presidents. One of the presidents, of course, asked Edwin Catmull, the company's president and chief technology officer, what qualities he looks for when hiring recent college grads. Catmull surprised the academics, Barrett recalls, by replying: "We look for people with incredible drawing skills." Much of the early work on a film, Catmull explained, is done on paper, not on a computer, so an ability to draw is crucial.

MONEY ISN'T EVERYTHING. At the Art Center College of Design, a prestigious art and design school in Pasadena, surveys show that 87% of new fine art graduates are working one year out of school. The percentage increases over the following four years.

"From what we can tell from speaking with artists in general, new fine art practitioners probably average under $30,000 in income the first year out of college, and their income approaches $40,000 after being in the field about five years," says Jan Kingaard, a spokeswoman for the school. "From there on, it's all over the map." Despite this relatively modest pay, she says, "Ninety percent of our graduates report being very satisfied or satisfied with their careers."

The bottom line is that an art school grad will hardly ever rival an MBA in earning power. The odds of becoming wealthy purely from making art, as Schnabel has done, are extremely long. Then again, no sane person ever started making art expecting to bring in a lot of money. And the odds probably aren't any worse than those stacked against an aspiring musician, novelist, or Hollywood star -- not to mention a professional basketball player. It's in the nature of dreams that the fondest ones are usually the least attainable. Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BW Online


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