Art Careers – Can You Really Make a Career as an Artist?

Name: Patrick Howe
Job Title: Artist, art gallery owner, art instructor
Where: Seattle, WA
Current Employer: Self
Years of Experience: 7
Relevant Work Experience: I have exhibited my artwork widely in galleries and museums. I have also taught art for many years. I was the head preparator for the Portland Art Museum. In the past I have worked in ad agencies as a creative director and award-winning art director.
Education: BFA from the Museum Art School (now PCNA) in Portland, OR, 1974.
Salary: Use the PayScale Research Center to find art occupations and salaries.

Art Careers – Can You Really Make a Career as an Artist?

Many artists struggle to find a balance between work and art, wondering if they should get a day job, become a commercial artist, or focus on a fine art career. Before committing to the life of an artist, many want to know: can you really make a career as an artist? According to this Salary Story, the answer is yes, but it won't necessarily be easy. Patrick Howe, an artist, art instructor and owner of a Seattle art gallery, describes how he made the leap from toiling at a day job to doing what he loves. If you're a struggling artist or just want to know more about art careers, don't miss Patrick's advice on what it takes to create a successful fine art career.

PayScale: Please provide a detailed description of your job duties.

I own and operate one of the few artist-owned art galleries in the Seattle area. My artwork is based on two themes, Beauty, and Metaphors of Awakening. The works of Beauty are of landscapes, still lifes, scenics, and people. The Metaphors of Awakening artworks utilize symbols and metaphors relating to the grand topic of the spiritual evolution of human consciousness. I paint pictures in the painting studio in the back, and sell the artwork in the retail space out front. The retail space is also regularly converted into a space for painting classes. I offer oil painting classes, watercolor classes, and drawing classes. I also have art openings at the gallery, to present new works to the public. The space is sometimes used for private group events, such as birthday parties, for people who want to have a party in a prominent and stylish art gallery.

PayScale: How did you start your fine art career?

I was an artist from early childhood. Being an artist is not a career like others. An artist is who I am, and you never stop being yourself. In that sense, I was initially motivated by life’s creative impulse, of which I had no control or say, I could only flow with it. Beyond that, teachers and books showed me the way. I opened Patrick Howe Gallery, in Seattle, in 2004, because I had been working in the ad agency field, as my day job, for many years. And I painted and exhibited my artwork on the side. However, advertising and marketing did not offer the depths of true creativity that I yearned for. At a certain point I realized that, if I did not make a leap into true creativity, I would never come fully forth as an artist. Friends thought I was crazy, but opening Patrick Howe Gallery has turned out to be a wonderful and successful thing to do.

PayScale: What do you love about your job as an artist?

First of all, what I do is not really a “job.” They say that if you do what you truly love, then you will never have to work another day of your life. That describes my situation. The first thing I can say about what I love about being an artist is the tremendous inner peace that making art evokes. I work alone for many hours and there is wonderful tranquility in that. Furthermore, I am constantly exploring new artistic ideas and themes. Being explorative is psychologically healthy, and one of the primary attributes of the creative individual. My work also allows me to go out into nature to paint, draw, and take photographs. Being an artist also allows me to associate with other professional artists, many of whom are open-minded, and equally respectful of life. Many artists, like myself, tend to look at life, nature, and the world as a wonderful symphony of form, and not merely as material resources to be exploited.

I also love teaching others what I know about making art, and creativity. Being able to communicate artistic concepts, and techniques, is in itself an art. But I find joy and satisfaction in seeing others discover their artistic capability. They find it to be wonderful, and so completely different than their normal, familiar life activities. My students are also my teachers because they will sometimes approach a creative challenge, or ask a question, that I had never considered. So it affords me the opportunity to always think and communicate in new and fresh ways.

PayScale: What are some of the biggest challenges in art careers?

From the creative point of view, the biggest challenge is in combining a personal passion to explore creativity within the commerce of the marketplace. They are not always compatible. Fortunately, my artwork has broad commercial appeal, so the artwork does well in the marketplace. And my oil painting class, and watercolor and drawing classes, fill up easily. But it is a well known fact that it is difficult for the fine artist to become successful commercially. In addition, having a career as an artist, one must be comfortable working alone, and be able to stay motivated and self-disciplined. The primary challenge from the business point of view is the same as in many businesses, and that is finding an endless stream of new customers. Also, if you are a one-person operation, like I am, you will have to spend many hours every month doing bookkeeping, paying bills, buying supplies, marketing, maintaining inventory, running errands, making phone calls and myriad other things that are not particularly creative but must be done nonetheless.

PayScale: What advice would you give to someone pursuing a fine art career?

Artists come to me often seeking career advice. And I usually tell them that the most creative freedom they could possibly wish for would be to have a spouse, or other financial resources, to support them in their artistic pursuits so they did not have to think about the commercial side of art at all. It is easy to fall into the trap of painting For the market, rather than out of pure inspiration. Beside producing less quality art, painting for the market also takes all the fun out of creativity, because you end up cranking out, like on an assembly line, subjects and styles that you have no real interest in. When you get to that point, why not just get a regular day job? Many artists, once they discover that they can sell their art, try to make a career out of doing what they love. But, they find that the love wears off very quickly when they try to live off of the sale of their artwork. That’s when burnout, disappointment, and frustration enter in, and it’s not worth it.

Practically speaking, if you want to start a business, then other products would be much easier to sell than art. If you want to be an artist, then do not base essential income on the sale of your art. If what I am saying is true, then why am I successful? My success is the result of the convergence of several factors. One is that my artwork is highly likable and therefore commercially viable. Another is that because I had 20 years experience in the advertising and marketing fields, I am able to bring those skills to bear in my business. Another reason is that I operate my own gallery so I realize much greater profit on sales than if I were trying to succeed through typical art galleries. Another is that I offer oil painting classes, and watercolor and drawing classes in my gallery, and I do everything I can to offer the best art instruction possible, which attracts more art students, and art sales.

PayScale: What is the craziest thing that has happened while working as an artist?

The most crazy thing is that I’m here at all.

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