You Either Die an Artist or Live Long Enough to See Yourself Become a Creative Entrepreneur

monetization Jul 23, 2021

A couple of years ago, Damien Hirst shocked the art world by painting his own canvases.

Much like another of his contemporaries, Jeff Koons, Hirst is quite infamous for hiring teams of artists to work on his collections of art under his supervision.

On the other hand, Vincent van Gogh, universally acclaimed as one of the greatest artists of all time, sold only a few paintings while he was alive. Even though a prolific artist, he only found fame after his death.

The stereotype of the starving artist is romanticized to this day. The artist as a solitary genius, the creator of beauty so sacred that we can’t help but love and fear at the same time.

“He’s a true artist,” we find ourselves saying, and it’s these words that conjure up the vision of someone whose inexorable destiny has always been to create, even at the expense of having to endure a lifetime of poverty and frustration and social alienation...

The true artist is often misunderstood. They're utterly and inconsolably alone with their art.  They hide behind the walls of their studios and offices, refusing any sort of contact with the outside world.

But times are changing.

In the past, becoming a successful artist was often determined by the value assigned by art critics and collectors, the so-called gatekeepers. Nowadays, as the gatekeepers are no longer in power, the artist is slowly becoming a creative entrepreneur.

The artpreneur has to design an online brand, they have to build an online presence, and they have to be up to date with the latest social media marketing trends and platforms.

In other words, the modern artist is an influencer first, an entrepreneur second, and lastly, an artist.

It's not enough to pour your heart into a piece of art. You've got to craft a story around it, and you've got to provide enough social proof to attract potential buyers.

The Creative and the Entrepreneur

The artists of the world have little choice in the matter: they can choose to die as artists, starved for applause, fighting for a cause few understand. Or they can live long enough to see themselves become creative entrepreneurs.

Art is no longer seen as a spiritual journey.

The artist is no longer compared to a holy man; inspired, like a prophet; in touch with an unseen consciousness that grants talent, vision, and inspiration.

Art, like all religions as they age, has become an industry. It is an uncontrollable process. The artist, the genius, has become a creative entrepreneur.

This is not the side-effect of social media, this is the side effect of the world of art slowly becoming an industry. From the old masters of the Renaissance having apprentices working for them, to the nobility of the seventeenth century sponsoring artists, to Andy Warhol‘s Factory.

This is not the side-effect of the rise in popularity of eBooks. This started with the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg.

This is not about mass-production but about being able to reach more people than ever before.

The Artpreneur

The artist has become a creative entrepreneur; day to day decisions resemble taking care of a business.

Gauguin, van Gogh, or Francis Scott Fitzgerald decided to die as artists rather than become creative entrepreneurs.

A lot of individuals choose the same route nowadays too. They are frustrated by social networks, they are frustrated by the lack of gatekeepers. Yes, the gatekeepers are mostly gone, but you still have to knock on an awful lot of doors before you earn a bit of income from your art.

The emerging culture of creative entrepreneurship enables you to promote, sell, and deliver directly to the consumer, but finding the consumer and convincing them to buy your art requires a lot of time and effort.

Social media has made art more accessible than ever before. Here, it’s no longer about the gatekeepers, about building and leveraging relationships. On social media, anyone can follow Damien Hirst or Banksy. Anyone can like, comment and share, thus enhancing an artist's influence and their marketability.

Granted, there’s nothing artistic about having to build your brand, your network, your social media presence.

Online marketplaces, self-publishing platforms, nonprofit incubators, collaborative spaces; it's all become an exhausting environment for the creative who values freedom above all else.

Creative entrepreneurship is far more interactive, at least in terms of how we understand the word today, than the model of the artist-as-genius, turning his back on the world, and even than the model of the artist as professional, operating within a relatively small and stable set of relationships.

No gatekeepers, no rules, means you’ve got to do everything yourself.

We now live in a world of working towards 10,000 followers on social media, rather than investing 10,000 hours of practice towards mastery.

And so, today’s artists must aim for maximum engagement. They must tweak, iterate, and optimize. They must scale. If they have a distinct personality, they will catch our attention. Today’s artists have to be online.

It’s not enough for artists to bear their soul in their work anymore. They need to do it on Instagram as well.

No longer interested in putting in their 10,000 hours, the creative entrepreneur is all about maximizing profits. The creative entrepreneur is far more interested in developing the right connections, or being able to diversify their portfolio. The creative entrepreneur can be a poet and a painter at the same time, and thus their reach is enhanced. The creative entrepreneur is acutely aware of what sells, why, and how to best follow trends to increase his influence and income.

The creative entrepreneur wants to optimize, while the artist just wants to feel.

The creative entrepreneur thinks in terms of ROI, while the artist puts everything into their art.

The creative entrepreneur wants to build a network of followers and associates, while the artist wants to create as much art as possible.

The creative entrepreneur has ideas, the artist has ideals.

The artist is the dreamer of dreams, the one who's brave enough to live the kind of life most others don't understand. The creative entrepreneur, on the other hand, wants the rewards, but does not have time for passion.

And this is what it all comes down to passion. It means to suffer. It means to be patient in suffering for a worthy goal.

The artist is all about passion. The creative entrepreneur is all about profit.

And the truth is that in this brave new world, we must choose one or the other:

You either die an artist or live long enough to see yourself become a creative entrepreneur.

A Blessing and a Curse

On one hand, artists have access to a platform that enables them to reach out to fans and potential customers alike. They can easily design and sell prints in a couple of hours, without ever having to purchase an initial stock.

At the same time, they don't have to rely on the patronage of a few wealthy customers, or on the whims of art dealers and galleries.

On the other hand, they have to develop an additional skillset. Or several. Their work is the product, and thus they have to market the product, sell it, and portray an attractive brand image. There's less time to create, to absorb art, to brainstorm ideas with fellow artists.

Not when your email inbox is full of inquiries from prospective customers.

But, of course, the alternative is the same kind of obscurity not even van Gogh or Gauguin experienced.

How to Make The Switch From Struggling Artist to Artpreneur

Being a struggling artist is almost always a mindset problem. You ignore the realities of the market and act in ways that make it impossible to earn a decent income from your work.

The most common reasons why artists struggle are:

  • You want full control over your work
  • You are unwilling to compromise, improvise, and adapt to circumstances
  • You do not want to do anything other than create art
  • You fail to acknowledge the importance of optimizing your workflow to allow for more time to network, market, and sell your art

These are also the main reasons why a lot of artists struggle to become creative entrepreneurs and truly capitalize on their portfolio of work.

It’s Not How Good You Are, but How Good Others Think You Are

It’s not enough to be passionate about the work you do. Even if you truly love what you do, even if your goal is to get better at it every day.

To make money, you must create something that other people are willing to pay for. In other words, your work must be the kind of product other people want.

First of all, it’s a game of experimentation. It requires years of work, years of consuming popular art, in order to figure out what people are willing to buy. Also, the competition is a lot more fierce in the world of popular art and culture.

Secondly, it’s a game of compromise. Odds are that what you are trying to make isn’t what people genuinely want to buy, and this can break your heart unless you see yourself as a creative entrepreneur.

The main difference between an artist and a creative entrepreneur is that the creative entrepreneur understands the balancing act:

  1. You have to do what you love to do, create the type of art that most engages you mentally and spiritually
  2. Provide people with the type of art they like to consume

It’s not one or the other. It’s not choosing one of two paths, but trying to walk the thin line between the two.

Making the Switch From Struggling Artist to Creative Entrepreneur

A creative entrepreneur is someone whose habits, beliefs, and actions are determined by the realities of the art market.

Their goals are aligned with a desire to provide people a product they want.

As a creative entrepreneur, your job is to find ways to navigate through a world of constraints and limitations in order to give people what they most want.

Yes, you are an artist. But you are also an entrepreneur.

1. Value

An entrepreneur’s main goal is to add value to their customers. The same principle can be applied for art.

This is the realization that often eluded some of the greatest artists in history, such as Paul Gauguin or Vincent van Gogh.

You must have a deep understanding of what people want to consume. This means spending quite a lot of time trying to understand your potential customers.

What is it that they most like?

What are the types of art they admire?

What is trending? What is popular?

Artists focus all of their time and energy on their craft, on reaching mastery, while creative entrepreneurs do everything they can in order to provide customers with as much value for their money as possible.

2. A Polymathic Approach

You are not just a writer, a painter, or an actor. There are many other skills you must develop in order to turn your art into a viable business.

Selling art is a business. You will either have to learn every aspect of that yourself or outsource the business aspect to someone who knows what they’re doing.

Even so, the creative entrepreneur must work on building a brand that is in tune with the realities of the market. This means taking advantage of social media, blogging, podcasting, and vlogging in order to reach potential customers.

3. The Framework

Think of creative entrepreneurship as the framework that enables you to provide work that is wanted, not just create the work that you need to:

  1. Art is a business like any other. Treat it as such.
  2. Establishing a successful business requires a number of different skills.
  3. You need to take into consideration what your customers want.
  4. A business has to be profitable.

An artist is constantly working to produce a masterpiece, while the creative entrepreneur knows that the important thing is to ship products, to deliver more art.

It’s no coincidence that some of the most popular artists were also extremely prolific, such as the likes of Pablo Picasso or Andy Warhol.

Creative entrepreneurs don’t waste time trying to create perfection, but they rather focus on the feedback they receive. The more art they create, the more feedback they receive, the easier it is for them to course-correct.

As a creative entrepreneur, your job is to ship a minimum viable product.

A Solid Business Requires Multiple Streams of Income

Most artists deploy the following strategy: hope.

They hope that if their work is good enough, the money will come. Somehow. Someday.

This is not a strategy, this is playing the lottery.

Creative entrepreneurs have a very different approach: they are constantly on the lookout for new streams of income.

It can be selling limited edition prints, it can be writing a book, it can be selling the rights to some of your art, it can be a collaborative effort with another artist or brand.

If you want to stop being a struggling artist, then you must think less like an artist and more like an entrepreneur.

This requires a huge shift in your inner game, a change in the way you create art and how you adapt to the feedback you receive.

It’s not how good you are, but how good other people think you are. This is the mantra of the creative entrepreneur.

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