Why are Artists Poor? | Artquest (2023)

Borrowing the title of Hans Abbing’s important sociological interrogation of contemporary art practice from 2007, let us consider a case in point. A young unknown artist relocated 30-odd kilometres north of his hometown to a capital city, to live in the house of an art dealer. The pair made a business arrangement whereby the dealer would broker sales and commissions for the artist, who in turn would work using a studio in the dealer’s house and also tutor students-cum-assistants. This arrangement delivered the artist’s only source of income for four years: 1631 to 1635. The artist in question was Rembrandt van Rijn and the dealer Hendrick van Uylenburgh of Amsterdam.

Surviving records show that Uylenburgh was the business manager, in charge of providing the finance through sales of original paintings, copies of them and other works; developing a market for engraved prints; and securing commissions from an increasing number of wealthy merchant patrons in the Netherlands. Rembrandt was responsible for artistic production, and his engagement with Uylenburgh was exclusive: he worked for no other dealer, mostly executing portrait commissions, of which he completed around 100. There is no evidence of Rembrandt producing work outside Uylenburgh’s so-called ‘academy’ or of selling his works to patrons/collectors other than through Uylenburgh. In other words, Rembrandt was effectively Uylenburgh’s employee and was evidently very well paid.

Having a single patron was not the norm during the Dutch Golden Age and the innovative Rembrandt/Uylenburgh business relationship was initially criticised by their respective peers. But as the business became increasingly successful, soon establishing itself as the leader of a burgeoning art market in the Netherlands, other artists were admitted into the Uylenburgh stable (or established similar relationships with other dealers). After four mutually beneficial years with Uylenburgh, Rembrandt used his new-found wealth to strike out on his own, buying a house and developing an autonomous practice.

‘For the first time we are talking about a recognisable business in modern terms’, said Ian Dejardin, director of London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery, which in 2006 mounted the exhibition ‘Rembrandt & Co: Dealing in Masterpieces’. The Dutch Golden Age laid down foundations for our modern art business framework, but did not create an artist/dealer model that is recognisable in today’s global art business world. Nowadays only designers of products and packages tend to be employees of design consultancies, working to meet the needs of commissioning business clients. Fine artists are not normally employed by art dealers, but exceptions can be found. Poland offers a recent an example.

(Video) Why must artists be poor? | Hadi Eldebek

Abbey House (AH) was established in 2010. It is a private limited liability company based and registered in Warsaw. Three other commercial companies own the majority of its shares. AH’s key services are to conduct public auctions of Polish contemporary artists’ work, to advise businesses on investing in contemporary art and to manage such investments. The supply side of AH’s business is provided by a stable of Polish-based artists employed by the company to produce works for sale at its public auctions or through private treaty deals which it brokers.

Artists are employed according to the following ‘business model’: ‘AH works closely with a group of up to 30 established and prospective Polish artists by signing a five-year contract with them exclusively. As part of the agreement, Abbey House for the first five years guarantees the artist a monthly stipend to create a certain number of images, one of which is sold by the Company. In the same contract artist agrees to provide to the Company over the next 15 years one image a month at the so-called preferential price.’ This loose translation of AH’s Polish website conveys the essence of its artists’ employment. During the first five years artists receive a monthly salary from AH in return for which they produce ‘a certain number of images’; works will be owned by AH (not consigned to it for sale on behalf of the artists) and artists may only produce works for AH. After five years the employment and salary terminate but artists must continue to produce one work each month for the next 15 years; works will be owned by AH (not consigned to it) but artists may now also work for themselves or others. In effect a 20-year contract operates: artists produce a ‘certain number’ of works monthly for five years and receive a salary, but work only for AH; then produce 180 works over 15 years (12 per annum) without remuneration.

Is this a good deal for the artists? This question recently prompted Jo Caird, a London-based freelance arts journalist who writes for the Guardian and other titles to visit some of AH’s artists in Warsaw to find answers (‘Polish art now: workable model for British art and business?’ Guardian Professional, 3 June 2013). Her initial view was sceptical: ‘But here’s the catch. Aside from their fixed salaries and occasional bonuses triggered when a certain number of works are sold, the artists see nothing from these sales. All proceeds go to Abbey House, which is also free to do what it likes with any works that go unsold. The other kicker? These contracts are exclusive and last five years.’

Although Caird’s report of her visit does not say she read AH’s artists’ employment contract, she does offer valuable secondary evidence of how it is working. She spoke to Anna Szprynger, a 30-year-old painter who signed with AH at the outset of its operations, who ‘acknowledges that being tied to one company exclusively for such a long period has its downsides, but as far as she’s concerned, the advantages of such an agreement far outweigh the disadvantages. The monthly salary of 5,000 Polish Zloty (just over £1,000) easily covers the rent on her bright live-work studio space just north of Warsaw city centre, bills, groceries and the odd evening out. Given that the average salary in Poland is around 3,500 Zloty, Szprynger considers herself comfortably off’. Another of AH’s inaugural young artists, Jakub Slomkowski, ‘approached the deal with caution, but felt that it could offer him the chance to take his practice up a gear, not just in terms of his painting but also the performance art and musical strands of his work’. He does not see his employment with AH as a ‘bad deal’: AH is ‘working hard on his behalf: he is saved the hassle of publicising his work, while his name becomes known; in two years, when the contract has elapsed, he will reap the rewards’. Slomkowski confirmed that employment contracts with AH do not allow artists to sell their works to buyers directly for the first five years. Caird interviewed other AH artists, all of whom were pragmatic and positive about their deal. Is this a good deal for AH? Jakub Kokoszka, AH’s Chairman, told Caird that the company’s business focus was offering art as investment to ‘the sort of super wealthy individuals who, up until now, were more likely to spend their cash on designer handbags and fast cars than on paintings’. Łukasz Gorczyca, director of the prominent Warsaw-based Raster Gallery, criticised AH for ‘being more concerned with business than with art and of exploiting its artists’, and considered AH’s sale prices as ‘absurd’ and ‘nothing to do with the real market situation, either in Poland or internationally’. It is clearly too early to judge whether AH’s business model will work in practice, with two more years to run on its initial contracts of employment.

(Video) Why are Artists Poor?

This revisiting of the relationship of artist as employee and dealer as employer appears to be unique. It is certainly not a customary model in today’s Polish art business environment or elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe or Russia: artists and gallery dealers did not rush into each others’ arms following the collapse of Communism and the development of market economies. On the contrary, many artists in such countries were and still are reluctant to sign up with any galleries as their dealers (exclusively or otherwise), preferring to sell directly themselves or consign to auction houses for primary sales. In these ways such artists seek to guard against what they see as the real risk of dealers influencing the content and form of work in order to be more marketable, and to avoid paying up to 50% commission fees to dealers (auction houses in such countries charge sellers consignment fees of less than 10% of the hammer price). Accordingly, many contemporary art gallery dealers do not develop a primary market for a stable of artists by taking works from them on consignment, but operate only in the re-sale/secondary market with stock bought at auction, from other dealers or collectors, or directly from artists. A customary artist/gallery business deal is hard to find in such countries, and certainly not one of employment.

Developing economies in India and South-East Asia have experienced a correlative and significant growth in their art markets. The newfound wealth of individuals and businesses in such territories has stimulated investment in contemporary art, the re-sales of which have achieved profitable returns. These new contemporary art economies have yet to establish customary trading practices or norms for artists and art market professionals – including artist/gallery business deals. Similarly, a customary artist/gallery business model has yet to emerge in other developing contemporary art markets such as China, Latin America and parts of Africa.

Australia has experienced an upsurge in the market for contemporary art made by its indigenous peoples, often called Aboriginal Art. Collaborations between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians have resulted in the production and marketing of a range of contemporary works, including especially paintings on canvas and cloth depicting designs and images that would traditionally have been painted on leaves, or carved in wood and rock and sand. Such works are sold in cities such as Sydney by dealers and at auction, and fetch significant prices. City dealers visit the artists in the outback, where most live communally in relative poverty and generally poor conditions. Materials are regularly supplied by dealers, who pay relatively small fees to artists compared with the much higher re-sale prices paid for their works by collectors in the cities. Such artist/gallery deals are effectively employer/employee relationships. Likened by many critics of the practice to slave labour, the prevalence of such deals was a key reason why the Parliament of Australia introduced the Resale Royalty Right for Visual Artists Act in 2009. Non-indigenous contemporary artists in Australia also benefited from the Resale Act; their relationship with gallery dealers tends to follow the customary model established in Western Europe and North America.

A customary artist/gallery model has been established and is recognisable in Western Europe and North America. It is a deal to which most artists aspire. In past decades artist/gallery deals were based only on trust, not on a well-negotiated and defined contract, whereas in recent times artist/gallery contracts are increasingly recorded in writing. This is partly because younger and emerging artists and gallery dealers have a far more professional and business-like attitude than earlier generations; partly because of the globalised nature of art business, and the strong influence of Continental European legal practices (usually requiring business contracts to be written); and because gallery dealers need to secure the artists’ services on an exclusive basis – gallery dealers are artists’ agents and do not operate as their employers.

(Video) Hans Abbing: Why Are Artists Poor?

A balance has been struck by artists and galleries to arrive at a mutually beneficial customary model in Western Europe and North America. Typical contracts require galleries actively to promote their artists through exhibitions, broker primary sales of new works and commissions, and share the proceeds of sales (often, though not necessarily, equally). Artists may appoint one or more dealers to represent them – exclusively or non-exclusively – in one country or continent or worldwide; dealers rarely represent a single artist (except perhaps at the start of their dealing career) and usually act for a ‘stable’ of artists. Operating at their best, such deals allow artists to retain artistic autonomy to create work they believe in and dealers to nurture the careers of artists they believe in: both earn reputational and financial rewards.

Over 50 years ago, from a public seminar on The Creative Act at the Convention of the American Federation of Arts, Houston, Texas, April 1957, Marcel Duchamp said: ‘Millions of artists create; only a few thousands are discussed or accepted by the spectator, and many less again are consecrated by posterity.’ His comment rings true today. Only a few thousands of galleries deal in contemporary art, enjoying market dominance over the millions of artists who create. Dealers can pick and choose which artists they will champion. Relatively few artists are chosen.

In today’s highly developed world market economy, goods are manufactured in response to consumers’ needs. Artists live in a different economy (which Abbing demonstrates is exceptional), chiefly operating from a starting point of total freedom and autonomy: works are produced, then a market is sought. A tiny percentage of artists achieve artistic and/or financial success during their lives. Most artists are unable to monetise their works alone and need external support to do so. Support can come from a variety of sources nowadays: a minority of individuals and businesses finance unknown artists because they believe in them and expect nothing in return; governments and foundations can likewise be altruistic, though many expect something in return; agents and gallery dealers expect to be paid for services rendered to artists or to make profits on re-sale margins. Employers of artists not only own the products of their employees’ artistic skill and labour but also own intellectual property rights in their work.

Artists want to be free of obligations to produce, not to be the piper whose tune is called by the payer. But there is usually a price to pay for autonomy and self-determination. Rembrandt ended his lucrative arrangement with Uylenburgh in 1635 to go it alone. His business affairs were held together reasonably well for the next seven years by his wife until her death in 1642. Without his business-minded wife or Uylenburgh, Rembrandt’s business fortunes declined: he sold all his assets to avoid bankruptcy, became an employee of his art-dealer son, died in penury in 1669 and was buried in an unmarked grave.

(Video) Why are Artists Poor?

Why are artists poor? It is a question of both the necessity and the price of autonomy and artistic freedom. Caird ends her report by saying ‘The Abbey House artists I met are glad of this opportunity – perhaps their British peers might be too?’ But there is unlikely to be a queue of British artists wanting to sign up to this new employment model.

© Henry Lydiate 2013

This article is from the Artlaw Archive of Henry Lydiate's columns published in Art Monthly since 1976, and may contain out of date material.The article is for information only, and not for the purpose of providing legal advice.Readers should consult a solicitor for legal advice on specific matters. Artists can get free online legal information from Artquest.


Why are artists so underpaid? ›

Artists are paid so little because it's very difficult to put a value on art. Art is not something we can objectively say is worth a specific amount of money. Often people paying for artwork or an artist's services neglect to realize just how much time goes into creating art.

Why do artists struggle so much? ›

In the modern world, there are many reasons why artists struggle in life. The challenges of getting recognition, regular work, and a liveable wage all impact the mental health of our creatives and affect their well-being.

Why do most artists fail? ›

Artists fail because the lifestyle is lonely, insecure, and the hours are long. Artists also fail because they're dreamers and think that good art sells itself. Artists fail because they don't know how to market their work and run a small business.

Why do artists deserve to be paid? ›

Your art, your work, and style are unique. If someone wants your service, you deserve to get a decent payment even though other artists have worked for free. You set the value for yourself when you firmly ask for a payment. A paid deal is always professional, fair and frank.

Is being an artist a low paying job? ›

The average salary for an artist is $68,690 in the US. The average artist salary ranges between $42,000 and $110,000 in the US. Hourly rates for artists in the US typically range between $20 and $52 an hour.

Why do some artists never make it? ›

Lack of Knowledge: Many artists are willing to do the work but don't know what to do. Many don't know where to start or are afraid that they will do things wrong so they don't do anything. This includes marketing, performing, songwriting, legal issues, recording and other important facets of their careers.

Why do artists have low self esteem? ›

Artists are especially prone to self-doubt due to the nature of our work. We pour our hearts and souls into our creations—whether it's painting or sculpting or writing or crafting—and then have to find the courage to put that work out into the world, which is full of critics and judgment and rejection.

What percent of artists are successful? ›

Only ten percent of art school graduates make a living from their artwork.

What artists had poor mental health? ›

Popular Artists and Mental Illness

Plath and van Gogh were just two of a very long list of suffering artists. Edvard Munch, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and Frida Kahlo are also said to have suffered from depression.

Why are artists so moody? ›

This predisposition might be spurred by family interests, exciting teachers or mentors, or by their own talents. Artists may also be acutely sensitive to the ambient moods, sounds, pictures, people and events in their lives. They may resonate to their surroundings at an unconscious and deep emotional level.

Why do artists destroy their own work? ›

More often than not, we see someone destroying his work as an act of frustration and self-loathing, one that fits our culture's view of artists as tortured souls, suffering for their creations, demolishing them in an act akin to infanticide.

Why can't I get good at art? ›

Reason 1 – You Need More Practice

This is probably the most common reason why people struggle with drawing. They simply need more practice to get better. Drawing is a skill and like with any other skill, you can't expect to get better without practicing it.

Why do artists get burnout? ›

Creative burnout occurs when a combination of stress triggers combine to shut your body down. These include; self-doubt, perfectionism, long work hours, strict deadlines, money worries, relationships, and over-ambition. The problem with being an artist-entrepreneur is knowing when, or how, to stop and take a step back.

Why do rich people buy fine art? ›

The pleasure of owning it

that it is a famous piece of work. Moreover, this art enriches their immediate environment, their homes, offices, or somewhere in between. They want places where they spend the most time to be aesthetically pleasing. Art hanging down the walls of an office gets the creative juice flowing.

Why do artists feel like frauds? ›

This is called “creative imposter syndrome” or “artistic imposter syndrome.” The work you're producing as a creative person tends to involve putting yourself out there, whether it's by revealing your feelings in a poem or letting yourself be vulnerable in a stage performance.

Why do people pay millions of dollars for art? ›

Quality is the main consideration, made up many different facets: the prestige of the work, the prestige of the artist, the rarity of the artist on the market, the value of other works sold by the same artist, and finally, the provenance, that is, the history of a work's ownership as a guide to its authenticity.

How many artists are underpaid? ›

The struggle is real. A just-released survey of international artists yields some dismal findings: In the US, a full three quarters of artists made $10,000 or less per year from their art. Close to half (48.7 percent) made no more than $5,000.

Is it realistic to make money as an artist? ›

The answer is yes. As an artist there are many avenues that you can explore to monetize your talent, allow yourself to be your own boss and spend your days doing what you love. Picture this: Waking up every morning without dreading the day ahead because you are in charge of your day and what you do with it.

Can you live off being an artist? ›

Being able to support yourself as an artist, and maintain a high-quality life through finances generated from your artwork, can and does happen all the time. But rarely does it happen overnight, and realistically, until your career gets rolling, it is necessary to earn a living through other means.

Why do artists do still life? ›

They can evoke a mood, demonstrate an artist's skill, and remind you of life's hidden and temporary beauty. A work of art that depicts collections of objects is called “still life.” Here are the qualities that define a still life, and reveal why artists return to the genre again and again.

Why are so many artists depressed? ›

It is often said that artists are more likely to suffer from depression than ordinary people. Some possible reasons include the creativity and self-expression that artists often need to use in their work, the emotional intensity of the artistic process, and the ever-changing and competitive nature of the art world.

Is it true that everyone is an artist? ›

Everyone can make art because everyone has a unique way of looking at the world. And when you express yourself in a focused, meaningful way, that becomes your art. Everyone is an artist in their own way. Maybe it's keeping a journal or writing, drawing, painting, sculpting, or playing an instrument.

Are artists highly sensitive people? ›

Creative people have a heightened sensitivity to their surroundings. Their sensory experiences (i.e. the way they perceive sound, light, smell, etc.) are intensified. They may pick up on the little things in the environment that others miss or see patterns where others see randomness.

Why being an artist is stressful? ›

Being an artist means wading through much murkier waters. And figuring out your own path to success can be extremely daunting, especially when it's your dream to make a living from your art. A roadmap can take the stress out of exploring new places, but artists don't really get one.

Why can't artists manage themselves? ›

When artists don't understand how the business works, they can get frustrated and dismissive. That kind of pushback can hurt a campaign and make our job harder. Additionally, some artists have very sensitive egos that are easily bruised. And, at times, their reactions can alienate team members and be counterproductive.

At what age do most artists become successful? ›

Modern painters also did their greatest work in their 40s, according to a new paper by Economist P.H. Franses that finds that artists make their greatest works, on average, when they are around 42 years old.

Is it hard to be a successful artist? ›

As I mentioned above, building a successful career as an artist takes time and hard work. A lot of time and a lot of work. If there's one common trait I've seen among successful artists, it's that they aren't afraid to work. Successful artists are dedicated to their creative efforts.

Who is the number 1 artists of all time? ›

Top 10 artists of all time (1958–2021)
  • The Beatles.
  • Madonna.
  • Elton John.
  • Elvis Presley.
  • Mariah Carey.
  • Stevie Wonder.
  • Janet Jackson.
  • Michael Jackson.

Are artists emotionally unstable? ›

Studies of artists and writers collated in Scientific American confirm that artists and writers are up to 20 times more likely to suffer from bipolar disorder (also called manic depressive illness) and 10 times more likely to suffer from depression.

What is the artist curse? ›

The artist curse is when you don't enjoy your art the same way others do. You don't see it the same as others see it. You sometimes don't understand why others like it.

What artist lost their mind? ›

Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) By far the most famous example of an artist with mental illness is the immensely popular Vincent van Gogh. Van Gogh suffered from anxiety and depression throughout his short life, and he once wrote, “I put my heart and my soul into my work, and lost my mind in the process.”

What artist has Down syndrome? ›

Judith Scott is an internationally-recognized fiber artist who also had Down Syndrome. She created over 160 sculptures and pieces of art at the Creative Growth Center in Oakland, California.

Who suffers most from mental illness? ›

Women are nearly twice as likely to suffer from major depression than men. However, men and women are equally likely to develop bipolar disorder. While major depression can develop at any age, the average age at onset is the mid-20s.

What personality type are artists? ›

Artistic personality type is impulsive and independent

These individuals are creative, impulsive, sensitive and visionary. Although they are creative, it may not necessarily be expressed with paint and canvas. Creativity can also be expressed by an artistic personality type with data and systems.

Why do artists feel lonely? ›

Artists are often isolated, because they don't know any other artists. For some of us, the only chance we have to socialise with others who do things that are similar to us is the internet. And even there, you have to be part of a group or a “clique” sometimes to be accepted.

Are artists more narcissistic? ›

Artists are perhaps solipsistic, but they are not narcissists. Artists care deeply about being understood for who they honestly are. Art becomes simply a method of communicating this honest self. Both the artist and the narcissist feel that they have unacceptable parts that they need to compensate for.

Are artists usually lonely? ›

Being an artist often means doing solitary work but that does not mean that you are a solitary being. Remember that you are human too, and too much solitude will lead you to feel isolated. This will also impact your creative spirit and your work. So incorporate meetings with people on a regular basis.

Are artists hard on themselves? ›

More often, artists are extremely hard on themselves, critical of their work, and care quite a lot about everything. We can become rigid about our routines, frustrated with the creative process, and just generally stuck.

What is artist depression? ›

The concept of artist's depression is nothing new to the creative community, however it's often neglected. We all go through creative lulls when it feels like talent and craft are out of sync and things just aren't working.

Why do people believe they can't draw? ›

Impressional students start to believe that there are things that they can do, but other things that they can't and perhaps never can. This is one reason why a middle school student may cover their drawings as they work. They fear the judgment that may come – either spoken or unspoken.

Does art boost IQ? ›

Better memory and IQ

Although kids may have memory issues, allowing them to engage in painting and sketching might assist improve their recall abilities. They may encounter less difficult conditions of their ailments when they strengthen their minds through imagination and thought.

Why is art a skill not a talent? ›

Art has elements of SKILL, just like learning to write an essay has techniques, or playing football has techniques. If you never learn those basic skills and steps, then of course you will have limited skill! But, if your education incorporates those techniques and skills, you will become more skillful.

Why are artists difficult? ›

1) They have a creative mind

The fact is, artists don't have the same deduction system or system of values as others, and that's the reason why we find it hard to understand or follow their train of thought. Also, their minds tick a bit differently than the average person's, because diverse details move it.

How much should an artist be paid? ›

How Much Do Artist Jobs Pay per Month?
Annual SalaryWeekly Pay
Top Earners$52,000$1,000
75th Percentile$40,000$769
25th Percentile$26,000$500

Is being an artist a high paying job? ›

The best Artist jobs can pay up to $132,000 per year.

An artist produces creative works in the form of painting, photography, sculpture, drawing, performance, mixed media, or other art forms.


1. The Alpha Theory: Why Great Artists Die Poor & Art History is Wrong. - StoryBrain
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