Some may be familiar with my name as a local gallery owner for the better part of 25 years. In June of 2012, I became the Chief Fine Arts Curator at the Indiana State Museum, overseeing the fine art collection and exhibitions. In the coming months, I'll share my thoughts on a variety of topics related to the visual arts.
In my past life as a gallery owner, I was frequently asked by artists for advice on how to sell art to earn a living. This made sense, since I had to sell it to make my living. Truth is, my advice was pretty straight forward and simple - identify the best opportunities to sell your work or services, and do everything possible to make those opportunities payoff. Trouble is, most of the people asking weren't prepared to do this. This subject was on my mind when I recently attended a lecture at the IMA titled, The Art of Making a Living in Indiana 1850-1950. The three guest speakers were Martin Krauss, Curator of Prints and Drawings, from the IMA, Rachel Perry, former Chief Fine Arts Curator at ISM (my current job) and Laurette McCarthy, Independent Scholar and Researcher.
While I believe I have a pretty good grasp of the regional art market from the past three decades, I was curious to learn what it was like to earn a living for folks like T.C. Steele, William Forsyth, and their contemporaries. Works by many of these artists are now collected and bringing good prices; I wondered how much art they were selling in their day. There were clearly fewer artists competing for customers, but demand for the work and how they managed to find customers - without the internet, no less - was unclear.
Each of the guest speakers took a span of years from earliest to latest, recounting experiences and accomplishments of their selected group of artists, and provided a pretty good idea of what they endured. Not surprisingly, all came to much the same conclusion: times were tough. From the top of the class down, it was a constant struggle. Our big dog, T.C. Steele, was constantly chasing the buck. While best known for his landscapes of Brown County, he mostly paid the bills with commissioned portraits. He financed his travels abroad with future commissions and relied heavily on every successful artist's safety net, the patron. Like most of his fellow artists of the day, he had to hustle to put food on the table and paint on his brush. The more I learn about Steele and his resourcefulness, the more I respect him. This was a guy who could paint and knew how to make a living at it. The story was pretty much the same for his contemporaries. You had a few artists who married well or had family money, but for the most part, few artists had it easy.
And not much has changed since Steele's days; you still have to hustle to make a buck as an artist. However, through galleries, nonprofits, alternative spaces and the internet there exist more opportunities to exhibit and sell than ever before. While I don't think it will ever be easy, there's a living to be made.