The second article in our Financial Literacy for Artists series explores financial building blocks for mid-career artists: charging for their time, diversifying revenue streams, and planning for the future.
In Southwest Contemporary’s Financial Literacy for Artists series, we bring you financial content that can apply to artists working in any medium and at any career stage.
Over the past three years, Tamara Bates, founder of the fellowship the dots between, has worked with hundreds of artists in the Southwest and across the country. Her articles share information on the core topics she has been asked about and what she learned as a financial advisor. The images in this series are all from previous dots between fellows.
The columns in this series include:
- What You Need to Know as an Emerging Artist
- What Mid-Career Artists Need to Plan For
- What Late-Career Artists Need to Consider
Financial Lifespan of an Artist: What Early to Mid-Career Artists Need to Plan For
As an early-to-mid-career artist, there are several key topics to consider as your career progresses. In this article, we will focus on three main areas: how you charge for your time, diversifying your revenue streams, and making sure you are setting aside money for the future.
Charging for Your Time
As your career progresses, you may be invited to teach a workshop, speak on a panel, guest curate, or lend your expertise to a specific project or institution. These can be tricky situations to navigate, not only in the beginning but also as your knowledge and expertise progress—what you charged for your time early on needs to shift with your growth and contributions to the field.
The people inviting you to collaborate may have a set budget, but often they will ask you what you charge. This is an area where I see many people not knowing where to turn for advice.
W.A.G.E. is a fabulous tool to explore the going rate for many different types of artistic work to establish a baseline amount. Be aware that where you live and the hiring organization play roles in the dollar amount you can ask for.
How much you can reasonably charge depends partly on the budget of the institution engaging you. Nonprofits must make their finances public through something called a 990—the tax document they are required to file. You can do a quick search of the organization’s name and 990 to see their overall budget and other details, such as directors’ salaries.
The larger the organization, the more you may be able to request for your fee. For example, someone I worked with presented a diversity, equity, and inclusion workshop to grassroots nonprofits. They were being paid a nominal amount for this work—I suggested they offer this same workshop to larger organizations, and they were able to charge four times the amount.
I am not suggesting you only work for large organizations. There may be things near and dear to your heart that you want to keep doing no matter what they pay. My suggestion is to have a mix. For example, you can engage with a handful of large organizations where you can charge your ideal rate or above to balance out lower-paid gigs or volunteer work.
Your peers are also a good source of information as you develop your rates. Keeping a network of people doing similar work and mentors who can guide you and give advice on how they developed their rates is essential. The more we keep money a topic hidden in shadow, the more it festers inequality; having concrete discussions around money with your peers can help everyone develop adequate rates that pay you not just for your time, but for the knowledge and life experiences that you bring to your work.
Diversifying Your Revenue Streams
This is directly related to the topic above—you will likely need to supplement whatever money you are making from your specific artistic activity with a variety of other pursuits. Particularly if your art is time-consuming and physically difficult, another source of revenue that is lighter on your time, body, and mental faculties is essential to protecting your long-term vitality.
We learned during the pandemic that a primary source of income—an exhibition, performance, or paid residency—can disappear overnight. Planning your work life so that you have multiple sources of income is a key factor in setting yourself up to weather the ups and downs of the art-world economy.
These multiple streams can include teaching, a commercial enterprise like a T-shirt business, offering private lessons, a talk that you can give to multiple audiences, or a part-time job in a related or unrelated field. All of these income sources can prevent you from being at the mercy of one revenue source. Aim for a mix of highly paid work, which may be hourly or project-based, along with something reliable and steady that may not pay as much but can give you stability.
It’s difficult, while in the middle of the daily grind, to imagine how you might actively set aside money for your older years, especially if you feel you are barely on stable ground now. The reality is that we all need to save a significant amount to see us through older age. Planning to work forever isn’t a default, because health issues, along with caring for other family members, can often derail our plans for continuing to make money.
Saving and investing, which can be hard to simultaneously implement, are key. Here are a few suggestions to automate: each month, plan to move money into these accounts at whatever amount works for your current budget, and then up these amounts over time as you make more.
- Saving cash in an emergency fund is critical for those who are self-employed. Start by saving one hour of your weekly earnings in a separate savings account. The goal is to save three to six months of your “needs” number.
- Investing in an IRA or Roth IRA is an important consideration if you are not working for an employer that has its own retirement plan like a 401(k) or 403(b), which most of us are not. Future articles will explore these options in depth. For now, just think about an amount like $25 or $50 a month that you can move into a low-cost investment provider, such as Ellevest, Betterment, Fidelity, or Vanguard.
Disclaimer: This information is for educational purposes only and should not be construed as official financial, legal, or tax advice. Please seek specific advice for your situation from authorized individuals.