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How to Make a Living as an Artist


Kate Spencer '79
Kate Spencer '79

What does business have to do with the arts?

Kate Spencer K’79 learned about this the hard way when she walked in on two professors competing in a critique of her art. “It didn’t even have anything to do with me,” she said. “It was just two professors debating, but I had to watch my pride deflate right in front of them. I learned that day that my ego was something that I had to manage if I really wanted to make a living as an artist.”

In her talk “Six Elements for Financial Success in the Arts,” Spencer says that business and art are closely connected—but not exactly the same. “People think that art can be run like a business, which is true, but in the arts you’re wearing your heart on your sleeve. Your ego is so entwined in it that you can’t even begin to separate it.”

Spencer has been a full time artist for 20 years. After graduation, she moved to New Zealand, where she works on her oil paintings and does consultations, lectures, and courses to teach others how to make a living from their art. 

In her lessons, Spencer identified six areas that are the most essential to financial success in any artistic field.

First, all artists need to network. “A lot of artists hate to do it, but it’s a muscle that needs exercising,” she said.

For those that might struggle with face to face interaction, Spencer encourages new ways to network. “Find online opportunities to make connections with people. Do it in your own way and push yourself to do it in new way—that’s where the magic really happens and the possibilities become infinite.

She also encourages students to take control of their own brand and market themselves as artists. “You have a brand whether you know it or not. You can consciously shape it and take charge of it through your presentation, whether it’s online or through your resume and CV.”

On the financial side of things, Spencer encourages artists to always know their documentation. “Keep track of all facts and figures regarding your income and taxes. It’ll save time and it’s essential to make a living — you need to know what’s happening in your finances.”

In order to make a living beyond selling goods and services, a crucial part of making income as an artist is finding funding and sponsorship. “It puts you on the map so you can learn about new opportunities as soon as they come up. Whether it’s for funding, exposure, or networking opportunities, developing these kind of relationships can turn into lifelong collaborations.”

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