Friday, February 20, 2009


How Do Artists Make Money?
Valerie Atkisson / ArtBistro

I was having a conversation with a colleague of mine. He asked me, “So, how do artists make money?” After five minutes of explaining the different ways, I thought, Well, there is my next article.

How do artists make money? Many people who are not artists wonder about this, and many seasoned artists wonder the same thing! Of course artists know that to make money, you sell your work. But there may be other ways of making money that you could be reminded of. Here is a short description of some of them:

Selling Your Work

Commercial Galleries

Commercial galleries typically sell artists’ works at a commission. The typical commission that galleries get is somewhere between 40 and 50% of the sale of the work. This is determined by the contract. Whether you submit your work for sale by consignment or enter into an ongoing relationship with a gallery, the parameters should all be written down in a contract.

Nonprofit Galleries

Nonprofit galleries typically show work that is young, edgier, and cutting edge. Depending on the gallery, they will take a commission – usually not more than 30%. Nonprofit galleries typically do not “represent” artists or enter into contractual relationships with them. For more information on non-profit galleries, click here.

Out of Studio

Many artist sell their work out of their studio by arranged visits or open studios arranged with other artists. If you are represented by a gallery, that agreement may extend to “studio sales” or all sales of your work. If you do not have a formal relationship with a gallery representing you, you obviously retain 100% of the sale.


More artists are selling their work online. Any commission from an online website would be determined by the terms of use contract that you agreed to. Different sites charge a different percentage of a commission. Anywhere between 1-5% is normal; 10% is on the high end. Click here to read Best Practices for Selling Work Online I just had a tour of Second Life, where there are a number of artist who are making interesting work. Second Life has virtual “Linden dollars,” but I do know of one artist who is raising “real” dollars for a charity through his artwork.

Private Commissions

Artists will do work on a commission basis. If clients want something of their work, but somehow personalized, like a portrait or a specific idea, they will commission the artist. The artist sets the price and usually asks for a percentage of the price up front. Again, if you have a formal relationship with a gallery or art advisor, any commissions that they bring to you or that you may flat out “do” may be subject to a predetermined commission or percentage. Click here to read Best Practices for Making Commission Work

Public Commissions

Artists are commissioned for public art usually in connection with a new building or construction project. For any public building in the United States, it is a law that 1% of the total building cost go to art for the building. Usually state and city art groups have the latest information of what program is currently accepting applications. There are also private funds for public art like The Public Art Fund and Percent for Art. When artists get a public work commission, they typically get 20% of the total cost of the project as an artist’s fee. Click here to read How to Win Public Commissions.


There are many grants for artists. They are very competitive to get, but as one artist/mentor of mine advised me, “Don’t give up until you have applied ten times.” Grants vary in how much money they give you. Some grants are privately funded and some are publicly funded. Some are given for a specific project that you propose and some are given outright for the work that you do. Read our guide on getting grants.


There are many residencies for artist to get “away from the world” and focus on their work. The length of the residency varies and the amount of money granted to the artist varies too. Some residencies actually charge money. But many will cover at least some if not all costs. You must apply for these residencies and have a flexible enough schedule to go. Many times the most valuable asset of a residency is not the money granted, but the connections an artist forms there with other artists and the guests that may come to see your work, which often include curators and other influential people in the art word. Read Best Practices in Applying for Residencies.

Museums and Art Centers

Artists generally don’t see a cent from exhibits in a museum. In some cases, however, they do. Installation artists are typically given an artist fee for creating a temporary installation. The fee can be set by you or the museum. Sometimes artists are given fees to exhibit in museums, but it is typically given to cover the costs of travel or incidentals. A museum may pay you for a lecture given about the work.

Teaching / Guest Artist Programs

One of the most popular ways to make money as an artist is to teach. Teaching opportunities at a college level are competitive, but don’t overlook Guest Artist Programs. Sometimes you will teach specific classes; other times you will critique students’ work. Also, most colleges have a program to invite artists to come and give a lecture and to show their work to students. They will pay you for this and may pay additional fees if you give critiques of students’ work.

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