Art and the Day Job

For Charley Friedman, a “typical day would be going to the studio and fixing something at a property.” What he does at the studio – sculptural pieces in a conceptual art vein – would be easily understood by most artists, and perhaps so would be the “fixing something” at one of the commercial properties owned by his in-laws in Lincoln, Nebraska. He is a part-time handyman (and occasional sales and rental agent), part-time visiting instructor at the University of Nebraska and part-time artist. If you want to reach him, call his Brooklyn, New York cell phone, because he and his wife keep an apartment there. (You can’t be a New York artist if you don’t have a New York address.)

“My wife and I have rushed to New York City in a dither for 48 hours just to have a studio visit with a curator,” Friedman said, and they also take more planned trips during the year to take in art shows and see friends. Until the recent recession and even during the anemic recovery, the two were permanent Brooklyn residents, but ongoing problems in the economy made it difficult for them to afford the life there, so their home of 20 years became a pied-a-terre, and his part-time life began.

Which of the various activities takes most of his time changes from one week to the next, largely dependent on what needs fixing at those properties. “To be sure, it is part-time work, but like any job you want to do it well, so it takes time,” he said. “If a tenant calls me at 1:00 a.m.,” because a toilet is clogged or electrical power has been lost, he will “have to attend to those needs.” On the side of his truck are printed the words “Real Estate/Conceptual Art,” and he leaves it to Nebraska locals to puzzle that out.

The story of many artists is doing something, often unrelated to art, to pay the bills until the art began to sell. Over time, serious artists become adept at carving out time in the evening, on weekends, during vacations and even on sick days in order to produce artwork and find exhibition opportunities. The term “day job” itself has a pejorative sound, like “paperwork,” that suggests a degree of unimportance or time being filled. If an artist proves successful, art critics and art historians tend to omit mention of the day job, or it becomes a point of trivia – Julian Schnabel worked as a cook and Richard Serra was a man-with-van mover – because the job has little to no relationship with the art that they create. However, those jobs paid the rent and groceries, and it was not – and is not – an easy decision to give up even the least interesting salaried job for the uncertainty of an art career. Schnabel decided that he would quit cooking when his paintings reached the $6,000 mark, and probably every artist needs some objective benchmark that confirms not only that they feel ready but are ready to devote all their time to art.

Leaving the full-time creation of art to take on part-time work is not the happy story of art, but the current recession has made this scenario the reality for quite a few. Still, Friedman and others look forward to a day when art can be their principal occupation, and it is important for artists to look ahead: What are the signposts that indicate that an art career is viable? When should I give up the day job?

For Lynn Basa, a sculptor and textile artist in Chicago, that tipping point occurred in 2000, when she earned $60,000 from individual and corporate commissions, which was more than she was being paid as a corporate art curator. “My husband said to me, ‘You’re actually losing money by staying in that job,’” she said. “We penciled it out, and he was right.” Part of Basa’s success in selling her pieces stems from working 17 years in the corporate art field, since she knows many of these curators “or I know how to find them.” A large percentage of her sales come from just these private and corporate art buyers. “I talk their talk, and I know how to quickly assess what they’re looking for.”

The tipping point arrived for Washington, D.C. artist Sam Gilliam after he received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1967 and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1968, enabling him to quit his job as a public school art teacher in the nation’s capitol. “With that kind of money and time to pursue my art, I thought the risk of being a full-time artist was worth it,” he said. Actual sales of his artwork were infrequent events at the time, and he hadn’t prepared himself by saving money. “It scared my wife to death that I was leaving my job,” he stated. “I’d be talking with people about art in one part of the room and, in the other side of the room, people were telling my wife, ‘You’re going to starve.’ It became an issue for us. For a while, my wife’s name for me was, Oh You Poor Baby.”

By Daniel Grant

2 responses

  1. Great piece. Sometimes being an artist is a balancing act until you realize or locate that tipping point, the possibility of a reasonable success rate of being a full time artist. Concentration on art production should be the priority but this is not always possible.

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