by Paul Bindel
A few months back, a gallery-owning friend of mine met with an artist for an upcoming show, and the artist’s first question was, “What are people buying? What images are selling the most?” My friend was annoyed at this formulaic approach. “If we’re only making art for the market,” he asked, “what kind of closed loop are we creating?”
Point taken, but this artist, along with the rest of us, still has to pay “New Denver” rent. While creativity is democratic (if you can speak, you can tell stories; if you can hold a pencil, you can make drawings) the art market is not.
Back in 2015, I had to weigh my own need to make money alongside my need to create, forcing me to rethink idealistic beliefs like “art is good; business is bad.” I left a steady teaching job to pursue writing and took whatever work I could get. There were a few rabbit holes—like the time I wrote grants for a bitter divorcée—but even these somehow became useful experiences.
Was this selling out? Maybe. I had less time to work on my poetry and plays, but my writing helped others and earned me a paycheck. It’s an eternal struggle that every creative person goes through, and there’s no universal solution to this conundrum.
We’re all dancing for somebody. Some for the market, some for our parents or lovers, others for ourselves, and still others for Lovecraftian deities. How do you find an audience that will pay for the work you want to create? Let me know if you find the perfect answer (email@example.com), but here are some stories of people I know who’ve found ways to make it work.
Some artists, like my friend Frank Martinez, stick to a personal vision. Frank challenges himself to change and grow with each series of paintings. When one of his shows sold out, his gallerist suggested more of the same style. It was so popular, there was potentially some good money to be made. Frank, however, was ready to move on, so “Bye, Felicia!”
“It comes down to authenticity,” Frank says, “I don’t disparage someone for creating art only to sell, but it’s not something I can do.” This approach certainly comes with some sacrifices. You might need to keep a day-job, or to live simply (hello, coupons and roommates) while you realize your vision. For many artists, a little momentary discomfort is worth it to achieve your artistic vision.
Other artists, like Jonathan Saíz, make a discipline out of collaboration. Through “So Wrong It’s So Right,” Jonathan posts other artists’ works on Instagram in 24-hour auctions. Even more, he never takes a commission. “In the old model,” he says, “we were taught there’s limited wall space, and we have to be competitive. What I’ve found is that collaborating with other artists has done nothing but make my work and my network stronger.”
This approach may require you to give before you get; particularly to other artists in the form of purchases, Patreon, or just lending a hand with their projects in any way you can.
“Do you believe in magic?” Jonathan asks, “If you don’t believe we’re in an energetic game where what we give is what we get back, then you’ll always need to be properly compensated before moving forward. But if you believe that the energetic system feeds off what you’re doing, then giving first in order to get is a way more economical way to live.”
Still other artists like Romelle see market needs and meet them, alongside her art. To supplement her painting, Romelle takes Airbnb guests on photoshoot tours of Denver street art, teaching them how to take better selfies while she makes $125/person. This also gives her the chance to talk about local art and instruct tourists on why tagging artists on social media is important (an artist’s Instagram follower-count can have a big impact on their income).
This approach isn’t for everyone, especially if it takes you away from what you perceive to be your main work. Do what feels right.
Ultimately, finding patrons who connect with you and your work is a long term process, without a single path. The only north star is your integrity and, often, patience. Artist Angela Craven spent hours organizing a solo show, only to sell one piece. Though “two years later someone called me about buying a piece they had seen in the show,” she recalls, and they ultimately bought two pieces and are considering a third. “You’re always planting seeds, even if they may not have an immediate return.”
Fund Your Art: City & State Edition
Your tax dollars finance highway expansions, belligerent wildlife relocations and traffic cop salaries. So shouldn’t they also fund the creation of beautiful things? Well, it just so happens that they do! Denver alone issues more than $500,000 in funding each year to artists, creative businesses and arts organizations.These Colorado and Denver programs can not only fund your art, but also establish your name in the wider (above ground) arts community.
Available each summer and winter, this State of Colorado program supports creative business owners and entrepreneurs in leveling up. If your creative business receives this grant to develop management practices, revenue streams or new audiences, you’ll need to match it.
The MO behind this grant, open in April and May, is building Denver’s musical ecosystem. Anyone can apply, though priority goes to music programs for kids, who can obviously take Denver’s music scene the furthest, chronologically speaking.
The OG graffiti prevention program, Denver UAF now also promotes community building and social change. Proposals come in every February, with thousands of spray paint cans emptied late summer and fall. Bonus tip: neighborhoods with fewer existing murals take priority.
This September placemaking grant allows artists to collaborate with neighborhoods or place-based nonprofits. The resulting temporary installations might highlight a place’s unique history or improve residents’ experiences. If you love partnerships, this grant is for you.
Denver approved $937 million of bonds in 2017, and thanks to this program, millions of that will fund public art. Requests for qualifications happen 3-6x per year. Worried you can’t deliver Blucifer-scale work? Most public artists hire designers and fabricators—you can too.
Anyone can apply to this summertime matching grant so long as you make the case that your new project aligns with the City’s cultural plan. One tip is that the City wants an economic impact—money should go to communities or locations that haven’t always had access to art.
Many more public art grant opportunities, Callforentry.org, Varies
Paul wants to build the cooperative commons in Colorado through affordable, community-centered financing and cross-class, interracial coalition building.
With 40 public art agencies in Colorado and mural commissions around the state (even in a new King Soopers!), Call For Entry is the place to stay connected. Don’t wait—create a profile, upload high quality images of your work and apply!
Originally from rural New Mexico, Paul Bindel spent five years teaching writing before transitioning full time into marketing at Doghead Creative, a digital marketing firm that specializes in content writing, strategy and social media.