Ask #ArtistHotline: Debunking the notion of “Selling-Out”

Ask #ArtistHotline: Debunking the notion of “Selling-Out”

In preparation for #ArtistHotline tomorrow (September 16), we’re answering @amandaheidelart’s question:

Artists often find themselves fighting against two self-defeating labels. ‘Starving Artist’ and ‘Sell-Out’. Artist Robert Genn, once said the term ‘starving artist’ is “acceptable at age 20, suspect at age 40, and problematical at age 60.” After graduation, you may fall into the ‘starving artist’ category. Perhaps you’re learning how to pursue your art full-time. Most artists will find themselves taking creative risks and generating new ideas early in their practice. In addition, you start to develop your style and find your “tribe”. On occasion, you make major mistakes.

Throughout the whole process, you’re learning what is needed to establish your career. You quickly realize that fame isn’t instant and building a successful, sustainable art career will also require financial support. Whether in the form of selling commercial art, open market places, fellowships or grants, most full-time artists have various streams of revenue. Selling your art is natural part of your career. Which brings us to the next label, ‘sell-out’.

Selling-out refers to a popular expression used when artist compromise their values or authenticity in exchange for money or personal advancement. We’re here to tell you, don’t be paralyzed by the term ‘selling-out’. Wanting to sell you artwork commercially is NOT a bad thing. Nor is wanting The Museum of Modern Art to own your artwork. Or wanting a studio to buy your script. Define success for yourself and set your own personal milestones. It’s truly about maintaining your integrity throughout the process.

With every stage of your life, your expectations and needs will change. As you develop as a professional artist, economic security will increase in importance. Consider all the elements needed to succeed in the art world: artistic talent, self-promotion, financial know-how and perseverance. This sounds a lot more like entrepreneurship than “selling-out”. Betsi Graves, founder of Urbanity Dance, has a unique formula for artists: Arts + Entrepreneurship = (Creativity)²

“All entrepreneurs must be creative, and all artists must be creative. I believe Arts Entrepreneurs must be double creative threats just to beat the economic odds. The creative sword has to be adept, innovative, versatile, perceptive, resilient, and… let’s get real, pretty much beastly”, says Betsi. 

Unlike other professions, artists have the unique ability to control the trajectory of their careers. The starving artist and sell-out are self-defeating concepts that can limit your creative growth. @artslifecoach encourages artists to accept that the word ‘sell out’ is a “subjective term and only you can say what that means for you and  your work”. Whereas shifting your mindset and having a strong understanding of your values as an artist can change your whole life.


During #ArtistHotline, @BeSmartAboutArt provided insight on how to broaden perspective and remove the word ‘sell-out’ from your vocabulary. Founder Susan Mumford recommends “being at peace with assigning financial value to art.” It’s vital for artists to recognize that their individual art work is worth tremendous value and should be compensated.


Artist should be diligent and research galleries or venues before striking up a collaboration. Whether you’re working with a gallerist, art director, or editor, the partnership should be mutually beneficial.


According to Ali Banisadr (Fellow ’10), “it’s important to know galleries and their programs, because in the end the question should be, “Do I want to be a part of this specific dialogue?” However, I never thought about the resonance my work would get on the market. If the work is strong, it will find its way. I never thought about how I could break into the gallery world – this is actually nothing I want to think about when I am in the studio.”

Always focus on creating excellent work and align your core values with your artistic practice. Continue to develop new ideas and make strategic creative decisions. And most importantly, maintain your sense of integrity. Remember, ‘selling-out’ is just a label. With consistent effort, strategic planning and multiple rewarding experiences, you can be compensated fairly and build the career you deserve. Only you can determine your artistic aspirations.


Helpful Links

Inspired by the NYFA Source Hotline, #ArtistHotline is a new initiative dedicated to creating an ongoing online conversation around the professional side of artistic practice. #ArtistHotline occurs on the third Wednesday of each month on Twitter. Our goal is to help artists discover the resources needed, online and off, to develop sustainable careers. Please join us the #ArtistHotline discussion tomorrow, September 16th.

This initiative is supported by the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation.

Glory Edim, Program Associate, Online Resources

Amy Aronoff
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