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What a difference an arts organization makes in the life of an artist or the Tragedy of Van Gogh!

Recently, I attended a slide projection exhibit of Van Gogh's works at the Dali Museum in St. Pete, FL. The most interesting thing about it to me, was the snippets of text from his letters to his bother that gave an insight into how challenging it is to make a living as an artist. Keep in mind that Van Gogh holds an auction record of $82.5 million for "Portrait of Dr. Gauchet" yet his brother only sold one of his paintings while the artist was alive.

Many of you dear people are friends of mine and know my history-my story is not much different from other culture workers across disciplines. When I was young I held odd jobs waiting tables to pay the rent and painted in my spare time. Art was never a hobby to me, it was an all-consuming passion which dictated where I lived, what I did with my time, and who I was close to.

My twenties were spent waiting tables in NYC at night and painting a few hours in the morning before work. My thirties and forties were spent raising a son and a nonprofit art school in the Hudson Valley of NY so that other artists, and myself, would have a place to offer classes and sell art.

Arts organizations are crucial to quality of life in a community and an artist's ability to make a living. I feel strongly enough about this to offer the 20 most productive years of my life to make one work, and at the same time, made a living for myself in the process. During Van Gogh's life, there weren't arts organizations, and the only solace and help he received were from his brother (an art dealer) and his best friend and fellow artist Paul Gauguin.

Artists rarely make a living from the sale of their work alone. As a matter of fact, 1.4 % of Americans consider themselves professional artists. 3/4ths of that number made less than $10,000 last year, 1/2 of that number made less than $5000. The statistics are grim, but no product in our country hits the market without employing at least one artist in the process. Most of these are designers, or technicians. Financially-successful fine artists are few and far between.

When I was an arts administrator, I rarely made more than $20K per year from my job. Most of my income came from teaching classes. In fact, most people who identify themselves as professional fine artists usually have another income stream or are supported by a family, spouse or inheritance. I am a statistically rare and blessed bird in that painting and teaching are my sole income and have been for many years.

Part of the reason for my success is a diversified income. I don't depend soley on one source for my annual income. I am a member and supporter of 5 nonprofit art centers, where I offer classes and workshops, and am president of a pastel society, and member of two other arts clubs, and on the board of two arts institutions. My works is currently available in 6 galleries, two are online. I also have a secret income source that I rarely advertise because it pays the bills but doesn't build my "brand" as an artist; I supply arts programming for libraries and senior centers.

I am very grateful to earn a living doing what I love, but don't think for a second its an easy life. I work between 40-60 hours a week, and have to schedule my painting time. The work I do is mostly 60% advertising and bookkeeping (very glamorous!) and 40% teaching and/or painting. The actual time I get to do my own painting every week is around 5 hours. That's not including demos.

I wouldn't be able to do any of this without arts organizations or cultural institutions. These places make it possible for me (any many, many other professional artists) to show our work, develop our brand (yes we have to be savvy marketers) and offer our classes. These organizations and institutions also provide a sense of community for us, so that we have colleagues and coworkers, fellow artists who influence us, and inspire us.

For the community, these organizations and institutions offer a chance to build the other half of your brain, try your hand at a new skill, flex creative muscles, and a fun activity that doesn't usually involve technology. Also, these organizations give children hope. Many kids are square pegs being forced into round holes by the school system. Art programming gives the square peg kids a way to express themselves and feel connected.

I was once a square peg kid (like Van Gogh) who failed math classes, but excelled in astronomy, physics, and art. Go figure. Aptitude test results for me were (in order) 1. Parking Lot Attendant 2. Fortune Teller 3. Professional Artist-scenic backdrop painter. Needless to say, most creative folks don't really fit into a cookie cutter society. It's the cultural institutions that round out our society and give creative folks room to exist.

We are reaching the end of 2020 (Thank GOD!) but for many cultural institutions it has been a deadly year. The virus did not just kill people, it killed many small mom & pop businesses, and cultural institutions that always operate on a shoestring budget. My nonprofit once existed on a yearly budget of less than $150K which is smaller than most households, yet we served 200 free children's programs, free senior day, apprenticeships, and scholarships to veterans and teens in our community.

Morean Art Center, in St Pete, FL, where I also teach, offers summer programs to more than 2000 children every year. Can you imagine? When you scale up yearly budgets of cultural institutions you also scale up their ability to serve the public. Most of the organizations I work with have budgets under $200K, but Morean, and Dunedin Fine Arts Center are two of the oldest, most established, and community building arts orgs in the universe. Both are also supported by line items on the budgets of their municipality. Most arts orgs are not.

This year, there are many very compelling places to donate charitable contributions. Please earmark 10% of your holiday donations to arts orgs. Even that much will help. Many arts orgs are offering a really cool perk in exchange for your contributions. Here are a few that I am donating to and hope you will join me:

  1. Wallkill River School (the nonprofit I worked to build more than 20 years ago) offers a basic membership for $30 which gives you the opportunity to show your work and a discount on classes including online classes that I offer. Click here to donate

  2. Beverly Street Studio School in Staunton Virginia has a unique holiday fundraiser for $30 called 30 artists x 30 days, where beginning January 2, subscribers will receive a daily email featuring one of the 30 participating artists. Each email will include an image of a particular artwork that inspired the artist of the day, a personal narrative about the painting, and an example of the artist’s own work. I am one of the artists featured, and have subscribed as well. Click here to subscribe

  3. Beach Art Center in Indian Rocks Beach FL has a great fundraiser called $20 for 2020 where from now until the end of 2020, each donation of $20 enters you into a raffle for some exciting prizes to include (some of my) artwork, classes, and more! So if you donate $100, your name will be entered 5 times!) Click here to donate

  4. Dunedin Fine Art Center in Dunedin Fl, is the largest, and best-funded arts organization that I have ever had the pleasure of working with. Most of the funding comes from individuals, not the city or state. All orgs depend on memberships and for $60 you can get an individual membership with discounts for classes, opportunities to exhibit and special incentives. click here for more info

  5. Morean Art Center in St. Pete Fl, is the oldest and most established arts org in this part of Florida. Make a Gift Card Purchase and your name will be entered to win a beautiful piece of glass art from our Morean Glass Studio. You can pay for destitute artists to become actively engaged in our art community by underwriting the annual cost of an Artist Membership at the Morean. For just $75, you are keeping a local artist connected to great opportunities to share and sell their work, participate in Morean member shows, and to update their social marketing and other skills with 15% discounts on classes. More info click here

Van Gogh killed himself as he felt a life without love is not a life at all. Imagine if he had the love and support of an arts community like we have today? How might his life have been impacted differently? What about children on the Autism Spectrum going through public schools today? How can we find a place for these creative folks in the making? Please join me in supporting the arts with year-end giving and invest in our community.

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1 Comment

WOW! So inspiring, informative and eye 👁 opening! I’m ready to donate...thanks again for sharing the many challenges of upcoming artists! You are always down to 🌍 very humble and so modest! I’m so thankful to have found you and cherish the way you give of yourself...such a famous artist willing to come to a trailer park to teach her skills in a very accommodating and encouraging way to newbies! I will forever be grateful and I hope we can continue to do so again in the future! You’re just one of a kind, Shawn, a lady with a heart of gold! 💛

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