Portrait of the Artist in Red Ink

Things change. Eleven years ago I created a body of work called Portrait of the Artist in Red Ink. Each of 16 digital paintings showed a financial portrait of the income and expense trajectory for an individual artist based on his or her goals and dreams. The results at that time were not encouraging.

Artist A by Jennifer Hartnett-Henderson ©2014
Artist A by Jennifer Hartnett-Henderson ©2014


However, since then, there have been a number of business model innovations that have both reduced the cost structure of being an artist and changed the channels by which artists reach potential buyers.

On the cost structure side of the business model canvas some examples of change include:

  • Captured Global curates and shows artists digitally removing the cost of maintaining a physical space called a “gallery”
  • Daniel Berman has removed the cost of having a fixed gallery space by having a traveling show for Mobile Photo Awards crème de la crème.
  • Digital submissions including those for MPA cut the cost for the artist to submit work. However, there is often a fee.
  • Digital display of images in galleries has removed the cost of printing and framing for both the artist and the gallery.

On the revenue side:BMC

  • Artist Kelly Rae Roberts has established direct relationships with customers through her blog, Instagram and classes thereby removing the need for a curator and galleries. She offers her work on Amazon.
  • Sites like Etsy allow artists to set up direct relationships with customers as well.
  • Sites like SmugMug and RedBubble allow artists to productize your images and get a greater revenue stream from each image.

In terms of the organizing center or value proposition, there’s also change. There’s a new group. While some consider owning art as an indicator of class, artists like Kelly Rae Roberts are offering it as everyday encouragement, something everyone could use.

Will these innovations lead to structural change?

Hans Abbing wrote a book called Why are Artists Poor: the Exceptional Economy of the Why are Artists Poor Book CoverArts (2002). In it he posits that as long as art is considered “sacred” it has to keep up a denial of economy. Exchanges are instead modeled on a gift economy. (Remind you of Open Source, Creative Commons?)

The Gift Book Cover
The Gift Book Cover

Lewis Hyde in The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World (1979) says that “Any exchange, be it of ideas or of goats, will tend toward gift if it is intended to recognize, establish, and maintain community.” p. 101. When the arts are for establishing community, they will be given away.

This notion of artist skill as gift reminds me of Bezalel, gifted by God in the Old Testament to create the tabernacle in Exodus 31: The Lord said to Moses:

“See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills— to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze,to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts.”

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, Eat Pray LoveIndia and Indonesia (2007) might agree. She gave a TED talk called “Your Elusive Creative Genius” (2009 – 19 mins) where she recounted several traditions that believe that the creative spirit is not something inside us but more like a spirit that has been appointed to us. We have a part to play but we need the other part too and we rejoice when it shows up to transform our best efforts into something more.


While many things have changed, as long as we believe that creativity is a gift, I don’t know that business model advances will help artists not need a second job. Regardless, for each gift, gratitude seems like the right joyous response.



  1. I liked this because it made me think (a favorite hobby). Your statments about art are true, I think, regardless of medium. I know a lot of musicians, and we all grow up hearing that anyone interested in pursuing a musical career should have a “fall back plan.” As with gallery art, though, many new means of product delivery now exist for musicians. I also think that much of your argument works for other versions of human service (I consider the arts to be human-centered). Priests take a vow of poverty – so I guess they just make it work by planning to be poor. Many ministers, though, have second jobs or are supported through “charitable” donations. Grade school teachers have yet to crack the code that professors did with supplemented earnings through publication. However, people who want to produce products “ethically,” or who are in human-centered professions are finding new ways (or morphing old ways) to make things work with hybridized contribution/marketplace models (plenary indulgence, anyone? How about a Kickstarter where you get a portion of your sins absolved by donating to the absolution of mine?). Is there a name yet for using the tools of commerce in new ways to reach more people with human-centered ideas and products? Just don’t call it neuvo-Socialism. Americans would hate that!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Amy,
      Thanks for contributing to the conversation! Musicians definitely have the same conundrum. And applying the logic to human centered professions like teaching seems a natural extension. I’ve been looking to Business Model Innovation a la Alex Osterwalder for answers using his Business Model Canvas. What I’ve found is that there may be additional underlying causes that are rooted elsewhere. Teaching and ministering that you suggest are great examples. The question seems to be how to deal with the situation. Marci Alboher wrote a book called One Person/Multiple Careers: A New Model for Work/Life Success showing how multiple professions and multiple identities can converge into a unified and better life. She advocates this portfolio approach for anyone who has more than one interest that they’d like to pursue avidly if not “professionally”. She gives some pointers on how to manage a multi-career approach in the face of concrete thinking. It’s possibly a half-empty half-full dilemma as well. Thankful for “the gift” and for the opportunity to pursue multiple careers at one time vs. upset over unmet expectations that one can solely be an artist or a teacher. I’m still finding the handle on it myself. Glad you liked the thinking behind the post.


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