Artist or Entrepreneur?

Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, the online shoe (and-more-all-the-time) giant, said that if you’re really an entrepreneur, it’s something you know pretty much before you’re 12. You’re out there with the neighborhood lemonade stand, starting up your own dog-walking service, baby sitting, publishing your own newspaper–you know: figuring out ways to make money on your own.

I don’t know if this is true for everyone. I’m kind of the opposite of an entrepreneur, though, and this was the case even when I was a kid–I don’t think I ever earned any money. I didn’t baby sit, I never had a lemonade stand, I didn’t spend my time trying to figure out how to get rich. I spent my time writing stories and poems and trying to figure out how to make stuff out of empty paper towel rolls and pipe cleaners. So, in terms of being a budding entrepreneur, I wasn’t. I was a child slacker, if you look at it like that, way at the opposite end of the spectrum, if you’d like to join me in thinking here of this–artists and entrepreneurs–as one of those: a spectrum with art-makers at one end and business-starters at the other. Nothing is ever all one-or-the-other of course, but let’s entertain the idea for a while.

A pure artist would make art for the sake of making art, and a pure entrepreneur would start a business (or, likely, more than one over the course of a career) purely for the sake of starting and running a successful business. While some people may have the luxury of thinking only about their art, economic reality means that most artists have to slide at least a little toward the other end. How far do you slide? And, more important, why?

Most of the artists I’ve talked to have to think about earning money at what they do. Even the ones who are supported by a partner or by other income want to feel as if their art is successful, and the most common measure of success in our culture is the ability of something to support itself. While there are some people who make art purely for the sake of making art–often people who have a day job and make art in the hours they’re not at that day job–most fall somewhere else on the spectrum. And then there are those who came to art-making purely as a business and have been very successful at what they do. Their very public success has both inspired and intimidated legions of other artists, and that’s what I want to think about here.

If you’re an artist, and if making art is what you do, how important is it to you to also be an entrepreneur? We’re not talking here about being able to sell your work, although that can be a part of it. We’re talking translating your art-making into a career that may include teaching, lecturing, writing, creating online courses, coaching, tutoring and product development (I’d say “developing products,” to keep the structure parallel, but it’s just not the same, is it?). You know, branding yourself. Turning you and your art into a business entity. In our mixed media community, there are people doing all these things, sometimes simultaneously, and often doing them quite well. What does this mean for those of us who don’t? If all we want to do is make what we make and have no interest in writing about what we make or teaching what we make or doing public speaking about what we make–then what? Are we slackers? Are we less successful than those who do all these other things, who have created a business based on what they make?How are we measuring “success” here? We can all think of people who have turned what they do into a business–when you think of what they’ve accomplished, how do you feel about yourself and what you do? Do you feel comfortable in what you’re doing, or do you compare your work with theirs and feel like a failure, at least in part?

What’s important here is not in comparing yourself to anyone else or beating yourself up because you haven’t made a successful career out of what you do. What’s important is to sit down and think about why you do what you do. Do you paint or sculpt or sew or cast because you want to, or do you do it because it seems like a way you could make a living? Both ways are valid. Neither way is better or more valuable or more pure. What matters is getting clear in your own thinking: why do you do what you do? If it’s a combination of things–if you’re somewhere in the middle of that spectrum–that’s fine, too. It’s knowing why you do what you do that lets you figure out what’s important to you and what’s not. That’s the key, and that’s what will allow you to do whatever it is you do and without second-guessing yourself about what you think you *should* be doing.


RicΓ« also blogs at The Voodoo Cafe.


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3 Responses to Artist or Entrepreneur?

  1. Caatje says:

    What a coincidence I’m reading this right after I had to explain myself to someone who thought I should be making money with my art (she was paying me a compliment by the way).

    I’m a non-entrepeneur too, in fact I have always hated it when people try to sell me something. I prefer the stores where the sales person doesn’t breathe down your neck asking if they can help you and the minute someone wants to sell me something, no matter how wonderful, I start to look for the hidden agenda.

    For the longest time I thought I should be making money with my art, but every time I even went close to that direction I got so grumpy and miserable I gave up. It sucked the joy right out of it! I’ve come to realise art to me is about the practice and the expression and I love sharing it with others through my blog or otherwise.

    My personal idea of succes is the opportunity to make the things I want to make. My dream is not an artsy business, my dream is simply making art. I like to be praised, but I don’t need it. I would love to be paid, but I don’t go looking for it. So I have a day job to pay the bills and yes it sometimes frustrates me to no end, but I’m thinking if art was my business that would be more frustrating, because it would turn the thing I love into something burdened with all sorts of expectations and requirements. I would no longer feel free to make what I want to. I would have to consider the buyer, the student, the reader etc. I would have to market myself and my stuff. Yuck!

    So I told the person who was trying to be nice to me by saying I deserved to be payed for what I make that if she could find me someone who was willing to pay me to sit in my studio and just make stuff and never bother me again I would be more than interested. πŸ˜‰

    Until then I’ll just keep things the way they are, thank you very much.

  2. Rice Freeman-Zachery says:

    Caatje, you do a wonderful job of sharing your work and inspiring other people, and this comment is so thoughtful and useful that I think you should use it to write a post on your blog–it’s important that people realize there’s another way to look at it. I think almost everyone who makes anything and is good at it is expected to market it and try to Be Successful at it, when, often, being successful doesn’t mean selling the work but–like you said–just being fortunate enough to get to *make* the work. Thanks so much for this comment–so very, very thoughtful.

    • Caatje says:

      Thanks for your kind words.

      I have actually written about this some time last august. You can find it here:
      I am thinking about doing another post with a similar theme sometime soon that will be more about the difference between living an interesting/succesful life (in the eyes of others) or living an interested life (meaning being too interested in things to care whether you are interesting yourself or not). I’m not sure exactly yet how that’s gonna work out (so many ideas, so little time). I love thinking and writing about stuff like this though.

      PS, just listened to your podcast with the woman who makes mice and I am just smitten πŸ˜‰ If I were to ever do something like that I would make a raccoon world. How cool that would be!