The mysterious case of the artist and the money monster

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Money , So they say , Is the root of all evil today…

So wrote the majestic Pink Floyd way back in the 70’s on the troubled relationship between money, creativity and ethics, accompanied by clinking coins and ringing cash registers.

It’s pretty much true to say that many artists relationship with money could at best be described as ambivalent and at worst, downright dysfunctional.

You may feel that:

  • You don’t deserve money
  • That your skills are something anyone could do and don’t deserve remuneration
  • You are more comfortable giving something away for free
  • That exchanging your work for money somehow taints or sullies it
  • Selling your art makes you a sell out
  • That real artists suffer for their art

This relationship with money can be a serious hinderance in the development of a healthy career in the arts. It can hold you back, undermine your confidence and lead to under valuing and under pricing of your skills.

Sustainable creativity…

Over Xmas I bought a lot of my presents from Etsy. I bought some gorgeous things, all beautifully made and packaged. I was struck by the low cost of the items, considering the amount of work and love which had gone into them. For two items in particular, I calculated that after the cost of materials had been taken into consideration, there was absolutely NO profit made by the sellers. In fact they could actually have been making a loss. The sad truth is that this is not a sustainable business. It’s really a hobby, but even then you should cover material costs or you can’t keep going.

You do have to make a profit to keep moving forward and creating more beautiful things

The sad truth is also that if one person sells too cheap, other similar artists find their work devalued as they have to reduce prices to compete. Its a disastrous vicious circle.

Value your skills. Not everyone can do what you do!

Many artists have a really hard time valuing their skills.

Creativity is often viewed as a randomly bestowed talent and not something that has been honed by years of practice, hardship, trial and error and working jobs that you  hate.

Every time you are tempted to undervalue an artwork, when the voices in your head say “it only took 30 minutes. I can’t charge more than $20” you need to change the way you look at it.

It may be 30 minutes now but it more than likely breaks down something like this:

30 minutes + 1 year foundation + 3 years fine art degree + 10 years working two jobs {one with an evil boss!} to finance your art whilst you paint at night.

That’s a LOT of time and skill honing.

When you change the way you look at it, its easier to see just how valuable your skill is and how a lot of training and hard knocks have gone into being able to do it as well as you do.

Think more like a burly plumber

When was the last time you got a plumber round to your house and he fixed your leak for free, or went to the dentist and discovered she would do a whole bunch of complex orthodontic work for $10?

People with skills like these, which they have worked hard to achieve, as have you, just don’t work for free. They have a culture of quite rightly expecting payment in return for their skills. This culture doesnt really exist within the arts so it’s much harder to feel comfortable asking for a decent fee for your work. It is imperitive to your survival as an artist that you do though.

Selling your work too cheaply won’t mean that you sell more. Collectors perception of worth is wrapped up in price so it will just mean that people perceive your work as less valuable and worthwhile. They will still make the same gut reaction as to whether they choose to buy it or not.

Strangely, raising prices can actually stimulate more sales as perception of the value of your work is raised.

Under-pricing and it’s sucky consequences

It is very easy to put too low a price on your art. Unfortunately, the eventual logical conclusion of under pricing is that you have to stop creating art and get a “proper job” as you can’t support yourself from your creativity.

There is nothing romantic or creative about that horrible sickly gut-knawing panic of waking at 3am and wondering where you are going to get the money to pay the mortgage, which is due tomorow and in arrears.

Worrying about how you are going to survive diverts precious energy away from creativity. No one can thrive creatively when under stress.

Money = Freedom
Money is magical. It gives you the freedom to work and create.

Take control and lose the fear of the lurking money monster

Money can be like some creepy monster that lurks in the shadows, giving you the fear down the back of your neck and getting bigger and bigger the more you try to ignore it.

The best way to deal with monsters is to confront them head on. Drag that money monster out from under the stairs and give it a good kicking. You will find, as is often the way with monsters, that when you look at them in daylight they are nowhere near as scary as your imagination made them.

You need to take control of the money monster, dont let it control you and derail your art career.

Beat your money monster by:

  • Getting your finances in order. I know so many artists who have a carrier bag of receipts in their studio. Dont put them off until they are the size of a teetering mountain. Little and often will start to clear them up and put you back in control.
  • Employ a book-keeper if possible. They are brilliant, much cheaper than an accountant and will whip your books into order for you. They often offer a service where you can hand them that carrier bag of receipts at the end of each month and they will go away and SORT IT ALL OUT. Hooray! You can usually find semi retired local book keepers through Google who will do all this for a very reasonable fee.
  • Checking your pricing. Do your prices reflect your skills? Do they need updating?
  • Valuing your skills. Not everyone in the world can do what you do and you have worked HARD to get here. Respect that journey.

What is your attitude to money? Does it help or hinder your art career? Share with us in the comments.

Monette Satterfield of The Artful Business Blog has written a great post about how ideas about money can be limiting to your success. I urge you to check out her blog as she manages to demystify money for us creatives, which is no mean feat.

And now, if you have that Pink Floyd song ringing round your head, heres a quick blast.

Image released under creative commons by Kevin Dooley

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14 replies
  1. Elizabeth Sartell Beamer
    Elizabeth Sartell Beamer says:

    Dear–Its the love of money that is the root of all evil. (1Tim. 6:10) If you’re going to quote it: get it right.

    • Helen Aldous
      Helen Aldous says:

      Thanks Elizabeth.

      However, in this case I am not quoting the bible directly but rather the lyrics of the Pink Floyd song “Money” quoted in the post. Here it is in context:

      “Money it’s a crime
      Share it fairly but don’t take a slice of my pie
      Money so they say
      Is the root of all evil today
      But if you ask for a raise it’s no surprise that they’re
      giving none away.”

      Afraid it is Pink Floyd who have misquoted 😉

  2. Natalie Timmons
    Natalie Timmons says:

    Thank you for this great article. Given the economic conditions of the past two years, many designers and artists have succumbed to the pressure of lowering their prices. If we don’t value our time and our work, no one else will.

    • Helen Aldous
      Helen Aldous says:

      Absolutely Natalie. Its easy to panic and lower prices but it generally never really helps. The tricky bit is keeping your nerve.

  3. Bjarte Edvardsen
    Bjarte Edvardsen says:

    ‘No one can thrive creatively when under stress.’

    Disagree. Some people, including me, say they work better under pressure and with deadlines. If you know you have to make more money to survive, then there’s an element of motivation for working harder. And creativity doesn’t have to come first in the process. Just dig into the work and you’ll probably find the creativity along the way. And if it doesn’t look creative or inspired, then analyze why it doesn’t. You’ll learn something new.

    Great post btw.!

    • Helen Aldous
      Helen Aldous says:

      Hi Bjarte

      I think theres a difference between pressure and stress though. I find like you that if I have no time and tight deadlines it focuses me and gives me a kick up the backside to create something great, but if I’m under stress worrying about something {usually something like money/health/relationships} then my creative brain turns to a big puddle of mushy jelly and I get nothing done at all and end up aimlessly poking at the internet and eating biscuits 😉 I like a bit of pressure tho. Makes me actually DO stuff 😉

  4. Melissa Dinwiddie
    Melissa Dinwiddie says:

    THANK YOU for this post, Helen! I created my online course, the Thriving Artists Project, with this exact message in mind. The ‘starving artist’ mindset doesn’t do anybody any good, and it’s high time to deprogram it!

    Valuing your own skills is always hard, and yet it’s something we really need to do – on an ongoing basis!

    As someone who takes commissions from clients, one thing I’ve learned (over and over again, I’m ashamed to say!) is that anytime I set my prices low out of desperation, I live to regret it.

    Yes, I might get some work that I’d have missed if I’d charged what I’m really worth, BUT:

    – my desperation probably scares away as many people as I attract
    – I set a precedent of undervaluing my work – to myself and the world!
    – I fill my time with underpaid work and am therefore not as able to take on higher-paid work
    – my clients don’t fully appreciate the value of what I’m providing

    and most important:

    – I end up hating and resenting the work because I know I’m being underpaid!

    This is not a recipe for success.

    On the other hand, I’ve had a number of projects where I was afraid I’d overcharged. Maybe I came up with a flat fee bid for the job assuming it would take me 30 hours, but it only took me 10.

    Well, you know what? Every single time this has happened, I’ve bit my tongue when tempted to give the client a lower final payment invoice, and every single time the client has been DELIGHTED!

    Think about it: they agreed to a price because that’s what this project (an art book, a ketubah, a poem turned into a piece for framing) was worth to them. They didn’t care whether I spent 1 hour or 100 hours – all they care about is that they’re getting the beautiful thing they commissioned me to create.

    And every time this happens it makes me realize that THIS is by definition what my work is “worth” in the marketplace.

    Food for thought, for anyone out there stuck in the underpricing mindset…

    In fact, I think it may be time for me to raise my prices again. 😉

    • Helen Aldous
      Helen Aldous says:

      Thanks Melissa for your brillant comment. You have hit the nail on the head there. I found exactly the same when I undercharge for work. Not only does it set a precendece for undercharging but you feel bad and resentful for doing the work for such a low cost, plus you cant fit in higher paying work as you are too busy.

      I have found a good rule of thumb is to take my “gut reaction” price and at least double it as it is always pathetically low 😉

      Its a long road to building up our confidence to be able to say “this is what I am worth” All part of the journey 😉

      Thanks for stopping by

  5. Kristine
    Kristine says:

    Thanks for the fantastic article! I struggle with all of these. Especially setting a value on my art. I resisted it for so long that now that I am considering selling my work, its a huge challenge.

    • Helen Aldous
      Helen Aldous says:

      Thanks Kristine. It is so tricky and challenging. Keep confidence in your own work and skills though and that really helps. Best of luck with it all.

  6. Monette Satterfield
    Monette Satterfield says:

    You’ve done a perfect job of describing those icky “low-value” feelings. Until now, I wasn’t aware that’s what that song was about 🙂

    Thanks for the shout out too – maybe next week, I’ll let the monsters guest for me and see if we can get them to be quiet 🙂

  7. Helen Aldous
    Helen Aldous says:

    Thanks Tom. You are absolutely right that its so tricky to figure actual versus perceived worth. Its also a confidence thing too, to belive that you ARE worth it. Artists are very often low on the confidence too and afraid to ask for a better price.

    I would love to be around in 300 years time to see the prices of todays art. V interesting thought.

  8. Tom
    Tom says:

    I always hated that Pink Floyd song. Now I know why. Thanks for this article Helen. Very insightful. As an artist/designer it is easy to undervalue your abilities. The nature of art is so subjective that it often is hard to pin down the ‘actual’ worth versus the ‘perceived’ worth. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder as they say. I wonder if the work of today’s prominent artists will increase in value in the same way that the ‘old masters’ did after they passed away. Only time will tell I guess.


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