Mid-career artist needs €1.1 million in sales over 10 years to average €30,000/year profit (2011)

Wake-up call for contemporary artists and fine arts students: is the business of being an "artist that sells" financially sustainable?

Putting some basic numbers on paper, especially for university art educators and aesthetes that may poo-poo such practicalities, can be a big wake-up call to revise strategy. In fact, such was the case for a mid-career artist and I after my request for this financial calculation.

The following is the financial breakdown— revenue, expenses, and profit— over a ten-year period:

1,100,000 - Sales over a 10-year period
-550,000 - 50% sales commission to gallerists
-250,000 - Artist business expenses (25,000 per year)
€300,000 - Profit (30,000 per year)

“It’s really scary, isn’t it”, says the artist.

I find it absolutely terrifying.

The expenses estimated at €25,000 per year include travel abroad regarding exhibitions, costs of marketing (including website, business cards, self-publishing limited editions of catalogues, etc.), transportation and crating, production costs (which go up each year), and equipment.

“The costs however wouldn’t be this high every single year, because I sleep at people’s flats sometimes,” explains the artist. “I also sometimes transport my own work and know how to crate works at no cost. I also know how to keep costs down.”

“And remember that the costs here don’t include the time involved in making the work or going to shows and art fairs, or time spent on marketing,” adds the artist.

Additional financial pressures on this artist include the market demand that the art works be made on spec, with over €10,000 spent on production costs by the artist per exhibition. In addition to the risk of unsold works and stock, late payments, cash flow, and other practical business matters add to the strain.

Of course, this calculation assumes that enough art works are sold, consistently, over the 10-year time period.

Add in educational debt accumulated by some private university BFA/MFA graduates in the USA, and the total of required sales can hike up to over 1.35 million in 10 years— or more. For example, adding €120,000 to expenses and taking into account the gallery commission and student loan payments and interest, this increases the required sales figures proportionately.

Any late payments, plus additional interest, can be doubled and added to the required sales figures in the 50% gallery commission structure.

The mid-career artist asked, “And I’m estimated to be in the top 20% of fine arts graduates?”

The artist chooses to remain anonymous “due to art school and art world distaste for publicly talking about money and practicalities.”

“I’m the art school marketing success story?”

To raise the average profit to €60,500/year, a reasonable salary for a marketing / communications manager at a multi-national with 7-10 years of experience, here is one draft of sales figures that the mid-career artist would need to achieve:

1,710,000 - Sales over a 10-year period
-855,000 - 50% sales commission to gallerists
-250,000 - Artist business expenses (25,000 per year)
€605,000 - Profit (60,500 per year)

Add in the American educational debt mentioned above, and the required sales quickly approach €2 million (USD$2.76 million and £1.72 million with current exchange rates).