Most of us are pretty tight-lipped about money — I think we’re more likely to talk about our sex lives than the reality of our financial lives — and so we’re all walking around in the dark.
We see these images of flashy success all around us, stories of six-figure product launches and four-minute work weeks, but nobody’s really talking about what’s going on behind the curtain.
As Eli wrote in this blog post, “We are doing EVERYONE a disservice (including ourselves) by hiding our money stuff.In particular the secret side of it – the shame and the failures and the months where we aren’t quite able to make ends meet – but also the practical side of it.”
So she decided to stop hiding, and invited a handful of her artist friends to do the same for her Naked Money Project.
Sign up here, and every day throughout the month of August you’ll get an essay (or audio, or video) from a different creative, on the subject of art + commerce.
Honestly, I had to think a bit about whether to participate in this project at all, and whether to share my contribution here on the blog, because my business is not helping people make money from their art (for that, go to my friend Cory Huff over at The Abundant Artist).
Truth be told, my very first product was helping people make money from their art, but it’s not my genius zone, it’s not what I do anymore, I’ve worked hard to distance myself from that “art marketing person” label, so I don’t want to muddy the waters.
But another piece of the truth is that having a healthy financial life — a life in which there’s no shame around the relationship between art + commerce — that is a key piece in living a full-color life!
So, with that in mind, here is my contribution to Eli Trier’s Naked Money Project.
The first thing I thought when Eli invited me to participate in Naked Money is how complicated my relationship to money and commerce is. And I had so many of the thoughts that other participants have voiced:
“I don’t deserve to be a part of this, because I don’t earn my income from my artwork anymore.”
But it occurred to me that it it might be interesting to share with you some of the significant moments on my art + commerce timeline, because their interaction has been impactful. I suspect you may relate, and hopefully glean some insights for your own life.
A Few Moments of Significance from my Art + Commerce Timeline
1995 – my first artistic sale:
My best friend commissioned me to make a piece to give as a baby gift to a family she babysat for.
(I charged her $25. I spent 40 hours on it. You do the math.)
I still have the crisp one-dollar bill she sent me along with the check, with “Melissa’s first artistic sale” written on it.
That was a significant moment. Something shifted internally for me when someone valued my art enough to pay me for it.
1997ish? – my first sale to a stranger
Something shifted even more when a stranger valued my art enough to pay me for it. I have a vague memory that I was paid around $200. And I think it was a piece that I didn’t even think was any good.
But if someone else thinks your work is good enough to give you cold, hard cash for it, you can either:
1) Decide they have horrible taste,
2) Decide that there must be something of value in the piece.
If you opt for number two, something shifts inside of you.
1998 – my first feeling of resentment
After a few years of doing artworks on commission, and specifically doing a few ketubot, or Jewish marriage contracts, I was making a ketubah for an adorable young couple and I found myself resenting them like crazy. I was grumpy and grouchy, and I actually thought about quitting my business altogether.
Then suddenly it occurred to me that I didn’t need to quit — I simply needed to charge more! The real problem was that I was being vastly underpaid.
My customers weren’t valuing the amount of work I was putting into their pieces, but whose fault was that? It wasn’t their fault! It was my fault, for undercharging!
So I raised my prices. And I kept raising my prices over the years. Every time I started to feel a niggling sense of resentment, I knew that was a gauge that my prices needed to go up.
1999 – my divorce
Then in 1999 I got divorced, and suddenly instead of just paying for my tools, supplies, classes, and conferences, my creative work had to pay for all of my living expenses too.
I had two and a half years of partial spousal support to tide me over. The pressure was on.
2002 – flying solo
By 2002 I was supporting myself financially 100% through my own creative efforts, and I won’t lie — something really did shift for me as a result.
As a society, we value money very highly, so when you can generate money from your creative efforts, it’s easier to value your own creative efforts. I hate that this is true, but there it is.
On the positive side, I did manage to grow a modestly successful art business… until it tanked along with the rest of the economy in 2008.
On the negative side, the pressure this put on my art burned me the hell out. I lost track of why I became an artist in the first place, and art became just a job.
I remember walking around my tiny post-divorce apartment, saying to myself, “This is not what I want my life to look like,” and “I can’t wait to retire from doing commissions,” and “I just want to get back to making art for me again.”
And ultimately, the burnout is what led me to start my blog, Living A Creative Life, in 2010. It’s what made me so passionate about helping other people reclaim their own innate entitlement to creative play.
2017 – art + commerce now
So what’s the reality of my art + commerce situation now? Well, I’ve figured out that for my sanity and happiness, it works best to keep art and commerce almost entirely detached.
That is to say, I’m happy to sell my art, but I don’t put any pressure on my art to bring in money anymore, so I don’t put any work into promoting it.
Needless to say, I don’t sell much art anymore!
Technically, I still have the ketubah business — the website still exists, but I don’t promote it at all. I get a handful of orders (goodness knows how these customers find me!) each year, and will probably eventually either shut it down entirely, or look into licensing my IP.
And I do have an art shop, where you can theoretically purchase paintings, leggings, and other products, but again, I almost never put any energy into promoting it, so guess what? I almost never sell anything. And that’s really okay with me.
I mean, I LOVE when people buy my work, and I’d love to find new homes for the hundreds of paintings in my house, but my energy is just elsewhere.
I held an artist open studio last May which really really clarified for me that I simply don’t want to put energy into marketing and selling my art right now. It doesn’t feel good to me right now.
That’s not to say it won’t ever; it just doesn’t right now.
So how do I generate revenue?
I run a paid online community for women creatives, called the Creative Sandbox Community.
I have a very small number of 1:1 mentoring clients.
I host an annual retreat (my Create & Incubate Retreat, coming up September 13-17, in Northern California).
I get paid for occasional speaking gigs.
I make some money from affiliate marketing (for example, this year I’m teaching on Life Book, and had some products in another marketer’s bundle.)
I make some money in royalties from sales of my book, The Creative Sandbox Way.
I do the very occasional calligraphy teaching gig.
And the other reality is, right now, my husband’s full-time job as a technical writer is what pays the bulk of our living expenses. When he got laid off a couple of years ago, the stress was phenomenal. We both thank our lucky stars daily for his fabulous job and benefits!
New Direction: Bringing Play to Work!
What I’m most excited about is actually the new direction I’m moving in, taking the work I’ve been doing with creativity and play for the past seven years, and applying it in the corporate and organizational world, helping teams address complex issues using creativity and play.
In a couple of months I’m taking an advanced training in a methodology called LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® that is perfectly aligned with my existing expertise and values, and I’m excited to add this to my toolbox as I launch out in my new career direction.
Innovation, problem solving, strategy, team building — all of these and more are are the kinds of things I’m going to be positioned to help teams with, using play!
Meanwhile, it’s liberating to finally do my art completely unconstrained from whether customers or clients are interested in buying it.
External Validation/Internal Acceptance
When I was first getting started, getting the validation of people wanting to pay me for my art was hugely important — it’s what encouraged me to keep going, and to finally screw up the courage to call myself an artist.
Now, on the other side of the art + commerce equation, my gremlins sometimes tell me I no longer have the right to call myself an artist, but I just smile, give them a cookie, and send them off to get a pedicure (my gremlins love pedicures). Because of course I’m an artist — I make art, whether I sell it or not, so what else would I call myself?
What I’m most passionate about, personally, is getting other people doing their own creative things, whatever they are, and I don’t care a whit whether they want to make money from those creative pursuits, so why should it matter whether I make money from my own creative pursuits?
And yet of course it still does, because we live in a society where money is like a god. So of course it matters, whether we like it or not.
Which is why projects like Naked Money are so important. If we never talk about money, that little god will have total power of you, but when we bring our stories to the surface, it gives us a chance to have some agency.
The one thing I’m clear about is that I don’t want money making my decisions about about my relationship to my art. I want my love for my art to make my decisions.
So for now, that’s why I don’t actively market my art. That may change, and if I ever really want to sell my art it will have to. But for now, I’m okay with it how it is: I make my art for love, and I do other things (which I also enjoy) for money.
That’s the arrangement that’s working for me right now.
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Hear ye, hear ye! This is to serve as official notice that all links to anything for sale, be it books or courses, are likely to be affiliate links. What this means is that if you click through said links and make a purchase, although it won’t affect the price that you pay, a few coins will jangle into my coffers, enabling me to buy a packet of hard gluten-free biscuits to feed myself and my husband for another day, or perhaps a pen with which to create some artwork. Or perhaps they will contribute toward paying a fraction of my web hosting bill, so that this blog and podcast can continue to exist. Thank you kindly for your attention.
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