If you are lucky enough to create art that people are willing to pay for, I have a concept to share that had an enormous impact on me: Profit equals permission.
People in the artistic community sometimes see money as somehow dirty. The art should be its own reward, the thinking goes. Marketing, spreadsheets, cash flow statements, reconciling books — these are the artist’s equivalent of four-letter words.
But as a working artist, isn’t the following true?
1. You generate income from your work.
2. You have expenses.
3. If income is greater than expenses, that’s called profit. And having it puts you one step closer to quitting your day job or having your art be your day job for a while longer.
If you don’t make a profit from your art, that’s fine. You can still be an artist. But it will be a hobby, and if you’re not yet retired, you’ll be able to pursue it only when your 9-to-5 job ends. Is that how you want things to be?
If you’re like plenty of artists I know, that doesn’t sound good at all. For them, the goal is to have the financial freedom to give the art the attention it deserves. And there’s no better way to do that than to shift at least some attention away from making the work and toward making a profit. That approach isn’t dirty; it’s practical.
A few years ago, I began selling digital versions of my sketches. This started by accident, really. Someone asked me to buy a sketch to use in a presentation. It felt strange, given that I’d never considered selling them. But the interest was there, so I took the money. On Twitter and in my newsletter, I shared the story of how that person used the sketch, and more people asked to buy them. Feeling some tailwind, I decided to try to build a business around it.
I didn’t start sketching to make money. The drawings emerged when I was trying to find better ways to teach clients in my old financial planning practice about complicated concepts. Within a few years, to my great shock, the work ended up in actual art exhibitions. One of the sketches even ended up on the wall of the “money whisperer to the superrich N.B.A. elite,” Joe McLean.
Eventually, I realized that the profit from the digital sketches was a permission slip to do the next project — limited-edition letterpress prints for people to hang on their walls, where they serve as conversation pieces for financial advisers and their clients. I made some art in service of my own struggle, and now other people use it to reach more people than I ever could.
Seeing the profit from one project as the fuel for the next motivated me to understand the business side of my work. Meetings with my accountant and reconciling my books ceased to feel like dirty chores to be done by an unwashed heathen. Instead, they became part of the creative process. Managing my business became part of my art. It may sound boring, but it is no less important than the opening night of a show.
Profit makes it possible to do more art. And isn’t that what all artists want — permission to keep making it?