The Artist's Guide

How to Make a Living Doing What You Love


By Jackie Battenfield

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A comprehensive guide for both emerging and mid-career artists to pursue a career in the visual arts.

Providing real-life examples, illustrations, and step-by-step exercises, Battenfield offers readily applicable advice on all aspects of the job. Along with tips on planning and assessment, she presents strategies for self-management, including marketing, online promotion, building professional relationships, grant writing, and portfolio development.

Each chapter ends with an insightful “Reality Check” interview, featuring advice and useful information from high-profile artists and professionals.

The result is an inspiring, experiential guide brimming with field-tested techniques that readers can easily apply to their own career.


This book is dedicated to my sons, Drew and Ian,
as they begin their professional lives.

An artist’s life embraces every job description of a small business: creative director, marketing director, bookkeeper, construction manager, secretary, janitor, technician, and publicist. It is a self-directed life run by a committee of one. Being an artist is a profession. It is not a vow of poverty. If you ask artists to define success, most will say that it’s having the time, space, and money to make art. However, many of the skills needed to succeed are acquired only through painful trial and error. This book is designed for emerging to mid-career artists and provides guidelines on setting and achieving career goals that reflect a wide range of artistic values.
Since 1991, I have supported myself and my share of family expenses primarily from sales of my art. My husband is also an artist and self-employed. Together we are raising two sons. The elder just graduated from college, his education entirely funded by art, and our younger son just started. Every time a tuition bill arrives, so does art income. We buy our own health insurance, fund our own pension plans, take vacations, and—most important of all—still create art. We have reached this enviable position not through lottery winnings, a trust fund, or being “discovered,” but through diligently planning and pursuing available opportunities. This book is my chance to share how I’ve built a satisfying career from the ground up and show you how to do the same.
To begin, I need to go back in time to January 1989. I was married to an artist, seven months pregnant, and the mother of a four-year-old. I had a challenging job directing a nonprofit art gallery and unfinished paintings beckoning me in my studio. When my first child was born, I had taken only two weeks off from work. I had divided child care with my husband, and he had learned how to look after an infant. I pared down my hours at the gallery and brought home work to do in the evenings and early mornings. But now with two children, these dynamics would be more complicated. Just imagining coordinating their different schedules made my head spin; we would have to hire additional child care. I knew deep in my heart that these new demands on my time would make it impossible to continue any serious studio work. No matter how carefully I managed my time, there simply weren’t enough hours in the day. A deepening despair came over me, and I felt trapped between the needs of my job and my desire to care for my children and build my art career. I feared that I was destined to go the way of other friends whose artistic practice had slowly disappeared, squeezed out by increasingly complicated personal lives. Were the necessary choices I made in my life going to eliminate my artistic career? I realized this moment was an important turning point in my life.
Eight years earlier, I had founded the Rotunda Gallery, a nonprofit exhibition space in Brooklyn, New York. At the beginning, I thrived on the excitement of developing and managing all the aspects of the gallery program. Interacting with the art community as gallery director and curator was thrilling. I had access to any artist’s studio in the New York metropolitan area simply by making an appointment. I discovered new talent as I scoured the slide registries at leading nonprofits like Artists Space, White Columns, and the Drawing Center. By curating exhibitions that placed well-known artists alongside emerging artists, I was ushered into the back rooms of Soho and 57th Street galleries to select works of art that were worth ten times my salary. My job allowed me to take an idea percolating in two or three artists’ work and create a new dialogue between them within the gallery’s walls. These experiences were deeply rewarding. I had something to offer other artists and the art community. Running the gallery allowed me to overcome my normally shy personality, as I continually sought financial support for the program and ways to connect with new audiences. In spite of all this public activity, I was able to quietly continue my own painting practice.
Driving the Rotunda Gallery to success required a steep learning curve, since I had come into it without any background in arts administration. During my first three months on the job, I visited over two hundred artists’ studios, curated half of the first season’s exhibitions, and set up an artist registry. I even met my future husband on one of those studio visits. Suddenly, my phone was ringing with artist inquiries, and packages of slides began piling up on my desk. As a result, I had to change from being a private person to being a public one. By then, I had run through the initial $5,000 seed money from a New York State Arts Council grant. One of the gallery’s board members gently suggested that I had better start looking for more. Through trial and error, I rapidly acquired skills in fundraising and management. I found that colleagues were generous with their advice. I’ll never forget writing the gallery’s first grant application to the National Endowment for the Arts. Susan Wyatt, the director of Artists Space, sat me down next to her desk. While her busy staff swirled in and out of her office, she walked me through it step-by-step, answered my three hundred questions, and handed me tissues when I broke out in tears of frustration over the looming deadline.
Year by year the Rotunda Gallery grew, added staff, expanded its programming, and attracted new audiences. With that growth, I found myself turning over more of the “fun” tasks—studio visits and curating shows—to focus on supervising staff, fundraising, and promotion. I was proud of my accomplishments at the gallery, but as it grew in stature and I became known in the art community, I felt more and more out of place and removed from the artist within. The title “gallery director” never fit my core identity. I felt torn between two lives.
My professional life involved visiting studios, finding new artists, writing exhibition and grant proposals, hiring guest curators, and promoting the gallery. My other life was that of a “secret artist,” always searching for precious chunks of time to paint. It felt awkward managing these two identities, and the artist was getting short shrift. I didn’t feel comfortable promoting my own work among my colleagues. The few times I invited them over to my studio, I wondered if they only came out of professional courtesy. No matter how enthusiastic or stimulating the conversation, I was still riddled with doubt. Any time I had an opportunity to meet other art professionals, I felt compelled to talk up the gallery’s program and not my own artwork. After all, that was why I was being paid. It seemed that with each passing year I was building a brick wall higher and higher, separating the two parts of my life. It now towered between my art and my job, with my family balanced precariously on top. I also realized that in order for the Rotunda Gallery to continue to grow, it needed an infusion of new energy and ideas. I had nothing more to give as an administrator and wanted to rearrange my life so that my art career took center stage. I was proud of what I had accomplished at the gallery and knew it was time to turn it over to a new director.
In January 1989, as I sat at my gallery desk and thought about the baby due in March, I was filled with an overwhelming desire to go home and never come back. I wanted to toss out all my administrative clothes, pull on my paint-smeared jeans and T-shirts, and work on my unfinished painting. I wanted to savor every moment of a new baby. I didn’t want to hire full-time child care. Just the thought of the added expense made me weary. My older son was growing up so quickly, and he was about to start school. I wanted to be the person walking him home every day.
How could I leave the gallery, stay home with my kids, and paint? My husband was working hard on building his career. Raising a family had interrupted his studio practice as well. How could I live without the security of my steady salary? My mind churned incessantly, turning the problem over and over. What could I do? It wasn’t as if I had been stashing all my paintings in a dark closet for eight years. A year before I started the Rotunda Gallery, I had attracted the attention of a private art dealer on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. To my good fortune, she was enthusiastic about my work and started to make regular sales. This relationship was enough incentive to keep me pushing my work in the studio. There was an audience for my paintings, and there were collectors who wanted to own them. I made sure to save a little money out of each sale to build up a nest egg for emergencies.
Then, I had an epiphany: managing a nonprofit gallery was just like running a small business. Maybe it was even harder. Each year, the gallery started out with an ever growing budget for the salaries of staff and programming, but very little in the bank. New funding had to be found, and old grants had to be renewed, in order to make the numbers balance. No one had handed me my salary; I had raised it. My pay-checks were directly related to my activities. I also realized that I had learned a lot about the art business. For eight years, I had been working with artists who were at all stages of their careers. I had been on the receiving end of thousands of slide packets, served on exhibition juries, visited hundreds of studios, and written press releases and grant proposals. I had watched some artists skillfully navigate the rapids of their professional lives and seen others sadly crash and burn. I had encountered artists who were quietly and consistently earning a good living from their art and others whose work appeared regularly in art magazines but were still as poor as church mice. I asked myself: What if I took all this knowledge and insight and applied it to my career? I was sure I could figure out how to make a living from my studio. I had six months of living expenses stashed away, and I could teach one or two studio classes to stretch it out. That realization gave me the courage to send my resignation to the gallery’s board of directors. My accountant groaned and said, “You can’t quit. I do your taxes; I know you can’t quit.” “Don’t worry,” I replied. “I’ve got a plan.”
Of all the skills I learned while developing the Rotunda Gallery, the most important and valuable was planning. Everything I did for the gallery had to be considered from a long-term point of view. So why not apply the same principles to my own art career? I imagined how I wanted my life to look. That image was clear as a bell; I pictured being at home caring for my kids and painting in my studio. The next hurdle I had to tackle was how to make that happen. The answer to that was more challenging and truly scary. I needed to earn a living from my studio. As I had done many times for the Rotunda Gallery, I steadied myself by setting a specific long-range goal. My new goal was that in five years I would be making enough money to support my half of family expenses and my studio practice from regular sales of my work. I wrote down a figure that represented my family living a comfortable lifestyle. I then determined short-term financial objectives and career goals for each year leading to the fifth. I confess that when I wrote down this plan, it scared me half to death. I tried to shake off the fear by laughing and saying, “Jackie, you are insane. You don’t even know anyone who makes this kind of money. Who do you think you are?” My inner critic was having a field day, ridiculing my audacity. It took a while to quiet that nagging voice. I reminded myself that I had started the Rotunda Gallery on a shoestring and had made it grow far beyond anything I could have imagined. What I had done for the gallery I could do for myself. Even though I was full of doubt, I trusted that this first plan would provide a structure to help me take action, and that this action would lead me to a new place.
My next focus was determining how I was going to find dealers and agents to represent my work. I lived in a studio loft in lower Manhattan, near Soho, which at that time was the hottest gallery district in the world. It was 1989, and the ’80s booming art market was over. The galleries were deathly quiet, and many were destined to close. Like the stock market in 1987, the art market had also contracted. Even so, I found that all the artists I knew were still seeking the few meager opportunities Soho had to offer. This route didn’t seem promising to me, especially since my paintings didn’t fit the conceptual aesthetics of the moment. The collectors who were purchasing my work weren’t following that part of the art market. I knew that there must be other collectors and galleries out there; I just needed to find them. I unrolled a map of the United States and noticed Soho wasn’t even large enough to be a tiny pinprick. There were so many other cities and areas to be explored. It was at that moment that I decided to let go of prospects in Soho. I was going to look for representation in the rest of the United States. Suddenly, my world seemed full of opportunities, and I was eager to find them.
Shortly after our baby was born, I took my first step. I was scheduled to attend a board meeting for the National Association of Artists’ Organizations (NAAO) in Washington, D.C. I decided that this would be my starting point. I researched galleries and dealers in Art in America: Annual Guide to Museums, Galleries, Artists and interviewed an artist friend from college who lived in the D.C. area. She gave me names of more venues and provided background information. From my research I made a list of possibilities, sent out letters of introduction, and requested an appointment to show my portfolio. To my dismay, not a single dealer responded to make an appointment. So I followed up my letters with phone calls to introduce myself and schedule a time to meet. A few weeks later, I boarded the train to Washington, D.C., with a list of five meetings, a three-month-old baby in a Snugli, a backpack full of diapers, and my portfolio, and carrying a small painting under each arm. While my older son stayed home with his dad, the baby went with me to the appointments. There I introduced my work and began nurturing a relationship with three of the five dealers. When I returned to New York, I sent any information they had requested and thank-you notes. Within three months, one of the private dealers offered me a $10,000 painting commission. That figure had been my first year’s financial goal. To my astonishment, I had accomplished it in only six months. I continued to follow up with all the contacts I had made. Eighteen months later, Addison/Ripley, one of the galleries I had met with on that first trip, began to show my work. They continue to represent me to this day.
I started to look for representation in other parts of the country and began reading the financial section of the newspaper. Was the economy doing poorly everywhere? Not quite. It was still strong the further west I looked. Nine months later, I flew to Los Angeles to explore its opportunities. Again, I did my homework, contacted dealers, and made appointments. Thrilled to have just learned to walk, the baby spent nearly the entire flight toddling up and down the aisle with me in tow. I felt as if I were walking across America in search of my goals, even if it were from thirty thousand feet up in the air. In LA, my childhood friend Felice gave me a place to stay, buckled up her two kids and mine in car seats, and dropped me off at my appointments. She then drove in circles around the block until I came out, because if she stopped driving, the kids started crying. Again, several new relationships were initiated, and a year later I was offered representation and a show. Unfortunately the gallery closed two months before my show opened. I learned that even my best-laid plans would always be subject to forces out of my control.
Undaunted, I continued to look for other opportunities. That same year, I was awarded a Pollock-Krasner grant, which was perfectly timed support to continue my plan. Each year, I brought new art dealers into my sphere and met my financial and artistic goals. By the third year I had far surpassed my original goals. Things were moving faster than I had ever thought possible. I was juggling studio time with child care, and although the schedule was tight, I was enjoying every minute of it. My painting had expanded to include collage and printmaking. As I continued to look for other opportunities, I experienced defeats as well as triumphs. Many nights I tossed and turned, too anxious to settle down and sleep. Every little victory—a positive response to my work or a check in the mail—helped me manage my fears and fortified my goals.
A studio practice is a lonely endeavor. To combat that isolation, I’ve always sought to interact and maintain relationships with a larger community of artists. It was one of the reasons why I had started the gallery. Before that I had connected with other artists by teaching at the Rhode Island School of Design and Syracuse University. During the early days of my plan, I supplemented my painting income with adjunct teaching at LaGuardia Community College and Empire State College. This work kept me in contact with other artists and introduced me to faculty members and students. In 1992, I was invited to teach the business of art seminars in the Artist in the Marketplace (AIM) program at the Bronx Museum of the Arts. This job prospect was immediately appealing and offered the perfect balance to the solitude of my studio practice.
Organizing and teaching the AIM seminars was a dream come true. I could take all the information, experience, and skills I had developed for my own work and share it with a larger community of artists. AIM sessions became my favorite night of the week. Through the AIM program I have had the privilege to mentor over five hundred artists.
As the AIM program became better known, I was offered other opportunities. In 2002, as head of a team at the New York Foundation for the Arts, I helped draft a semester-long curriculum, Full-Time Artist, for the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation. As a result, I now teach this class in the Master of Fine Arts program at Columbia University’s School of the Arts. I have helped design and deliver professional development workshops for the Creative Capital Foundation, which awards grants for innovative project-based work in all disciplines and provides grantees with professional development assistance such as fundraising, promotion, and strategic planning. As part of a team of art professionals, I teach skill-building workshops to artists all over the country. Since 2003, we have led intensive weekend retreats for over two thousand artists in California, Florida, Oklahoma, North Carolina, South Dakota, Maryland, New York, Arizona, New Mexico, and the United Kingdom. I have worked with artists from all over the world, at all stages of their careers, and in all media. I have seen how they struggle to fit making art into their lives. Helping artists solve their professional dilemmas has been as deeply rewarding as my studio practice.
While writing this book, I have interviewed dozens of gallerists, curators, art administrators, critics, intellectual property attorneys, public art administrators, and artists. We discussed their role in the art world and their relationship to others in the field. As our conversations explored issues relevant to the profession, the interviewees provided valuable tips to artists for improving their practice and their relationships with art professionals. These interviews are quoted throughout the book and highlight essential advice. Transcripts of these “reality check” interviews can be read on the book’s website:
I have found that basic business skills are difficult to incorporate in an artist’s daily practice, since, more often than not, one acquires them haphazardly through mistakes, missed opportunities, bad planning, or financial and emotional crises. The administrative responsibilities of an active career can be overwhelming. It is important to know what tools and systems to have in place when exciting opportunities start appearing. If your career unexpectedly slows down, you need to know how to revise and revitalize it. My teaching has offered practical insights into the art world as well as information and exercises on organization, management, and promotion. I want to help you transform your uncertainty into productive activity and define and evaluate your accomplishments and needs in order to develop an ever evolving plan to move ahead.
I’ve witnessed the art world change, and I’ve experienced its cycles of prosperity and decline. Suddenly installation art is hot, and painting is not, while the following season the reverse is true. The art market devours new talent and anoints its selected superstars only to become infatuated with others soon after. I have watched artists continue to fill thousands of exhibition spaces with new work, usually at great expense to themselves. I have had to learn how to stay focused on my creative vision to keep steady in a market that is constantly swaying. I have kept abreast of new technology, expanded my studio practice, and researched new venues. You too will need to find your own ways to navigate the ups and downs and the shifting currents of the art world.
This book asks you to confront issues you have avoided until now. You may not want to face them; you might not even know why you should be confronting them in the first place, or you might wish someone else could do this work for you. You might think that once you “make it,” you’ll never have to do these tasks anyway, so why bother learning them in the first place? I have heard all these excuses from artists, and I sympathize with your desire to avoid these issues, as I’ve felt the same way. But taking responsibility for those parts of your practice that don’t readily correlate to your creative process—documenting the work, writing a compelling artist statement, making professional contacts, managing time and finances—will have a huge impact on your success and satisfaction as an artist.
I offer this book because, like me, you are committed to living a personally satisfying life making art and want fresh insights into the difficulties artists face. No matter where you are—currently in art school and beginning to wonder about life after graduation, a couple of years out of school and pondering what your next move is, or mid- to late-career and resuscitating a stalled or dormant practice—this book will present tools and techniques you can begin applying immediately.
This book is a compendium of advice and answers to the questions that have come up in my own practice and in the classes and workshops I have taught. It is my chance to share with you the ways I have achieved career satisfaction and how you can do the same. It represents the accumulated wisdom and experience of all the artists with whom I have worked and shares with you insights from many art professionals. It addresses the doubts and fears you and other creative people face, and provides information to help you overcome those crippling feelings. It dares you to challenge the myth of the starving, disorganized artist and surmount any self-defeating habits that are holding you back. Each chapter illustrates a different aspect of an artistic practice that you can begin to work with on a daily basis to build a supportive environment to create your finest work.

It’s hard to take control of your professional life when you aren’t sure where you’re headed and are responding to opportunities with inadequate tools. In this section you will be led through a series of exercises to uncover and develop a vision of your life that fits perfectly with your needs and values. You are challenged to create your own definition of success and map out a path. Planning is the foundation for you to start shaping your world as you want it to be.
Next you will be shown how to develop the essential tools and techniques to support your work. You will learn how to develop and effectively use images of your work and your artist statement to enhance nearly every aspect of your professional life. It’s not easy to put into words the subtle and elusive ideas of your art or show its nuanced details in a digital image, but these tools are your links to the rest of the art world and need your careful attention.
Embracing a vision for your career and using the essential tools will allow you to begin moving in a positive direction. Addressing these issues will get you up and running and lay the framework for the rest of the book.

chapter one
How to Assess, Plan, and Take Action
This chapter asks you to stop and reflect on what you wish to accomplish in your career. The fact is that no one is coming to “save” you, but you can save yourself, if you know which way you are headed. You seldom get into a car, hop on a train, or board an airplane without a destination in mind. The same should apply to your professional life, whether you are just beginning a career or are somewhere in the middle. This chapter introduces long- and short-range planning as a means to organize, structure, and sustain your artistic and personal life. Even if you are doubtful that a process like this will work for you, the information covered in this section lays the groundwork for the rest of the book. Don’t skip this chapter.
An art career comes in all shapes and sizes.
Almost everything you do as an artist is self-generated. There is no boss impatiently stamping his or her foot, demanding overtime to get a job done. There are no classroom assignments or end-of-semester critiques to pace you. It is a challenge to continue pushing yourself creatively as an artist year after year. Unfortunately, many of us tumble into the dark vortex of less and less art making as time goes by. Even if you do manage to remain resolute and self-motivated, your day job and personal life compete for meaningful time with your art practice. When life gets complicated and squeezing in more hours at the studio feels impossible, having an overall vision and a plan for the immediate future will help steady the chaos and sustain you in a more productive manner. You have already beaten incredible odds by committing to a life as an artist. You have developed your own process to generate ideas and have made the works of art that surround you in your studio. You have a vision of what you wish to create; now you need to pair it with an equally powerful vision of how you will proceed with your professional life.


  • "A readable, realistic, and practical field guide to professional success in the visual arts...A wealth of reproduced art and profiles of artists complete this inspiring, useful, and, given the rise in do-it-yourself careers, timely resource."—Booklist

On Sale
Jun 9, 2009
Page Count
400 pages

Jackie Battenfield

About the Author

Jackie Battenfield‘s work is represented in over a thousand collections worldwide. She teaches a course in professional development in the visual arts at Columbia University.

Learn more about this author