Secrets to surviving
on an artist's income
A life built around playing guitar,
painting landscapes or making movies has plenty of advantages. You
get to do what you love, and sometimes you even get applause.
What you usually don't get is a steady income.
The same tradeoff is familiar to real-estate agents,
antique dealers and anyone else who's ventured into a profession
that offers big dreams, large expenses, few guarantees and plenty
of dry spells.
"A short film costs about one thousand
dollars a minute," says Chiedu Egbuniwe, a 30-year-old filmmaker
in Brooklyn, N.Y., whose second short, "The Boyfriend,"
has been shown at 20 festivals this year.
"At the beginning, you need to pay for that yourself,
so you need to save."
It's not just film that's pricey.
"I have several clients who are opera singers,"
says Susan Kennedy, a certified public accountant in Houston, who
is affiliated with Texas Accountants and Lawyers for the Arts. "Opera
clothes are ridiculously expensive, but they're necessary for auditions."
She has about 50 clients who are individual artists,
and also advises prominent arts organizations on their taxes.
Even when artists get a windfall, such as a big sale,
they often don't know what to do with it, financial planners who
work with artists say.
Josh Silverman, a financial representative in Boston
for Northwestern Mutual Financial Network who spent several years
as an art dealer, says his artist clients have different financial
priorities than his lawyer and venture-capitalist clients. But,
he says, artists still need a plan.
"I'll talk to artists who don't like that
they can't depend on art, and my answer is to get a supplemental
job and minimize the pain of that. It's great if an artist can make
a living off painting or sculpture. But if you can't, I think you
need to take a hard look at how to do that.
"If people want to make art as a career, they
need to treat it as a business," he says. "You need to
be very honest about how it's going."
Silverman says when he worked for art galleries he
hated seeing artists make serious financial decisions with no guidance.
"An artist might get a $30,000 check from
a gallery show, and no one would help with the finances. No one
at the gallery would say, 'You need to take some money out for taxes,'
for example. And no one would help him plan."
That's part of what motivates Silverman to work with
artists as clients.
"I understand the impulse to buy 1,000 tubes
of paint, but that might not be the smartest move at the time,"
1. Have a personal financial
When Silverman gets a new client with an irregular income,
he makes the same suggestions he makes for every client -- with
"I stress the fundamentals: risk management,
protecting your ability to earn an income and figuring out your
He also encourages his clients to dream. He might
suggest saving for their own studio or using the proceeds from a
super-successful gallery show to buy a studio outright.
"This way you don't ever have to think about
where you're going to paint," he says. "So often the transient
thing happens to artists. A place to work is key to doing great
For people with children, he strongly suggests life
insurance. Disability insurance is difficult to obtain for sculptors, musicians
and others who work with their hands, he says, but it's
a must and he tries to steer his clients to planners who can help
them improve their chances of qualifying.
In almost every case, "I recommend that people
come up with a real game plan, a written plan, and stick to it."
2. Be frugal.
"Being an artist and always feeling that pressure has
made me notice how expensive even the cheap stores are," says
Kate Ledogar, a painter who shows in Boston galleries and also paints
portraits on a commission basis.
She says she gets great deals buying used clothes.
Egbuniwe suggests that anyone who wants to stick it
out in a field like film spend a month writing down everything you
"The little things -- magazines, gourmet coffee,
really add up. You can buy a coffee maker at home and just make
Silverman preaches saving money and living below your
means while pursuing an unconventional path.
That resonates with Ledogar.
"One thing I've thought about in wanting to be
an artist is that I'd better set myself up financially to do this,"
says Ledogar, who until recently directed the Brookline Center for
the Arts in Brookline, Mass.
"So I saved money from summer jobs, starting
when I was really young. I saved in college when I bused tables,
and I put everything in my bank account. I tried to create a little
"But I'm still thinking about how I can make
the small bundle of money that I saved continue to work for me as
I continue as an artist."
3. Keep housing costs down.
Michael Phillips, a real estate agent in New York, says
that living in a cheaper apartment can make a big difference, especially
in a market where housing is as expensive as Manhattan.
"We live below what we can afford in terms of
rent," he says.
This way, if a commission doesn't come through when
it should, at least the rent is paid.
"It's very difficult to know when you're going
to be paid, and it's very easy to live with an excessive dependence
on credit," Sullivan says. "Low rent works as a buffer."
Egbuniwe, the filmmaker, says, "If you think
you're going to be an artist and live like some wealthy person in
Manhattan, that's not realistic."
Living in Brooklyn instead of Manhattan saves him
$350 a month.
"I thought I should create a situation for myself
where it would be an easy way for me to control my costs,"
Ledogar says. "So I thought of buying a condominium.
"Now I have some rental income because it's two
bedrooms, and I can rent the whole thing if I want to travel. For
the moment, it's worth a lot more than I paid for it, and it's been
a good purchase."
Although renters can claim tax deductions for a home
office, going for the home-mortgage deduction and the predictability
of homeownership and a steady monthly housing payment is something
some people on variable incomes suggest.
"The whole rental situation is so unstable, and
landlords can just raise the rent. I can't be run out, money-wise
or otherwise," says Ledogar, who recommends reading up on low-doc
or no-doc mortgage loans.
4. Be tax-savvy.
Artists and self-employed types tend to be afraid of the
IRS, says Kennedy, but she encourages her clients to deal with their
taxes sooner rather than later.
"I get calls from people who haven't filed in
five years," she says.
The smartest tax planning, according to Kennedy, involves
thinking ahead. "You need to try and save for taxes as you're
earning, especially for people with fluctuating incomes."
She tells her clients to "put something aside;
25 percent is what I generally suggest. Most of the time it will
cover taxes plus something for retirement. Even if you put aside
10 percent of your check amounts, that's good too."
Kennedy also prods clients to save every receipt to
qualify for as many deductions as possible. A photographer, for
example, while out driving might see something that would make a
good stock photo, and his gas and tolls might then be deductible.
The same is true for a real-estate agent who scouts out homes.
"Try to do it as you're spending the money.
That's the trick," says Kennedy. "Discipline yourself,
and for that, the shoe-box method works."
The shoe-box method is basically throwing your receipts
into a box.
"You'll be happier for it, and later, you can
try some of the really great software -- Quicken and MacMoney, for
example, " Kennedy says.
You might really need that shoe box full of deductions
in April, she says.
"The biggest thing that kills artists is the
self-employment tax," she says. "Many artists aren't prepared.
They may owe no income tax but they do owe self-employment tax."
But artists also miss out on some of the pleasures
of the tax system. "Some people are afraid to take all the
deductions" that are coming to them, she says.
Recording-studio space, travel costs and meals are
all legitimate deductions that should be used. A home office is
also a major tax break, but it has to be set up properly and used
exclusively for business.
For artists and people who really need the savings
from smart tax strategies, it's doubly important to keep good records
and note anything you spend that might be remotely related, just
Once, Kennedy accompanied a rock-singer client
to an IRS audit. "He had it arranged month by month, and the
IRS was so impressed," she says. "He was organized, he
was prepared, and all his expenses were all there. They really wanted
to help him."
-- Posted: Aug. 20, 2002