Helen Norton - Artists Talk on Making Money from Art



Artists Talk presented at Linton and Kay Fine Art Gallery Perth City – 2012

For over 20 years I have derived my primary income from the making and selling of art.  I have never been the recipient of arts welfare or grants.  As a result of this I am very exposed to the up close and personal  reality of how hard I have to work – as an artist, to try to stay in touch with my audience, or a good enough section of them, as my ability to successfully communicate to that audience will determine whether or not my family eats.   Being a financially  independent artist, is very much like playing on the stock market.  Depends on the mood, the panic in the market, the emotional excitement, on the day. None of which can be predicted from one month to the next on risky stocks.

I have chosen this path, because I wanted to be an artist who could stay engaged as an artist full time, instead of one who could only be engaged when the next grant came through.  I suffer at times as a result, because there is nothing more soul destroying and distracting for me than having to SELF PROMOTE constantly in order to remain active and earning, which is a reality of being a financially independent earning artist. 

On making money as an artist, i want to point out a few things, observations I see in how art seems to be unfolding in our brave new world as a relatively clear and traceable set of criteria.

  1. Grant funded art – no accountability other than to arts boards, who are not always representational of contemporary and broad issues as they are felt in the current society they are supposed to be reflecting in their guidance.
  2. Commercial art – and I don’t mean graphic art – I mean hard core SELLING art, which sells because it looks nice, with the couch, everyone’s getting one so I must too, and this seems like a good thing to buy because its trendy and I can make a buck on it when i resell it


The first category requires no brain, no particular talent, all the right connections in the boards, but mostly to have done a couple of UNITS in an arts degree that specialise on HOW TO GET GRANTS – in order to be an artist.  What’s wrong with this formula?  Of course it works, because the same people who give the grants – come out of the courses that teach the units, and have somehow ended up on arts admin boards – having not ended up as paid independent practicing artists, as a result of an art degree.  Fair enough, but the cycle in now endemic. Its anti prosperity, because its SPENDS, and does not contribute fairly in the broader public interest.  Narcissism unchecked by public scrutiny in the arts, results in public art of questionable value to the broader public.

For the average Joe Art buyer or viewer

He or She might feel they are not sophisticated enough to UNDERSTAND the arts (public arts and certain arts boards feeding and justifying their own existence through their exclusivity)


The second, is the tricky but more common PRACTICAL area for the artist to end up in.  Its the safe position. Work out WHAT THE audience LIKE, find the selling FORMULA and STICK TO IT !!!   Then PAINT the same thing over and over  and over, with a few tweaks.  Commercial galleries have to work with this formula mostly in order to stay open, and the vast majority of ‘successful artists’, today are following the formula in order to keep the dollars coming in.  Its all very well, but what have we lost in the process?  This is the MacDonald’s of the art world.  Commercial art – Trendy, popular, (I want one because she’s got one), that will look good with my carpet, that will blend in, can I make a buck on that later if I buy it now?

To remain prosperous – the artist has to come up with a tactic.

Mine is neither of the above. I have chosen to walk a line in between . Sometimes I curse myself for it, and other times I know I can’t compromise what drives me and must honour that nature of myself, as a narrative and storytelling painter.  The choice involves risk taking and mistake making as par for the course and the only real ‘formula’.  The avoidance of a sinking into a safe formula is the risk. What does the risk risk? By taking a line on something and running with it as your subject matter, you may find out later that you have wasted 6 or 12 months toiling away in a lonely studio, with little to no feedback  only to find out on the opening night of your 2 week showing to the public that  – it didn’t go down that well.  Oh well... back to the drawing board.  Shove the 20 or 30 paintings back in the storeroom and suck it up. Paint on!  It happens.  Often.  What I also find is that a  controversial body of work I might create is not appreciated until years later.  I have more than one major body of work that sold only a few pieces on opening – and has sold out over the subsequent 7 years.  This is common.  Not sure if I am ahead of the curve, but it happens.

This lack of surety regards to income from art - shows you WHY, the 2 categories I have mentioned for artists to work within – end up being chosen, over the more risky one of creating a body of work untested, and running a narrative, of brand new unique compositions and ideas, with no life jacket (public or welfare funding from boards).  Allot is invested, and I can tell you that keeping faith in keeping on going each year is the hardest part of my job – Sometimes I just feel I should get a ‘real job’.

Hats off to Linton and Kay, and those few galleries who are very much commercial strong houses for art, but who also take the risk with a few of us rebellious risk takers.

In those two categories, I worry, about what has happened to artists. 

The first one relies on an institution to VALIDATE his chosen direction.  A public institution – validating an artist’s directive?  Please give me a break!  How can that be ART? 

The second one – relies on the artist BEHAVING HIMSELF, and containing herself to paint pretty much what is expected, and please do not rock that boat. HOW CAN THIS BE CREATIVITY?

Forgive me for asking, but what happened to artists being DANGEROUS EDGY SEEKERS OF TRUTH AND DECEPTION OF THE SOUL, and THE COMMUNITY, who were feared by incoming oppressive governments enough to have sent them, to the gallows along with the scholars and writers of the times? Where have we gone? What has happened to us? 

Where is the space here for truth or even a question about it? Where is investigation, of the destruction of human values?  What about just looking at human values, through political spin hypnosis?  Or are the above ‘values’, what we have become? 

Playing it safe is completely understandable, but it worries me in these times, where REAL freedom of speech is actually under threat through a strange and hypnotic sleeping sickness of intelligence and consciousness in those who can really do spin well... ARTISTS

Creativity relies on the creation of something new, something that was not there before.  How can you make that out of category 1 and 2? Both have presets, or conditions.

Having the gumption and the lunacy to have a crack at REAL INVENTION is impossible without RISK.  So now we come to what’s going on in the works.  And my thoughts on the slow but sure decline in Democracy, which we are witnessing and contributing to right now.  

I mentioned that painting was like being a farmer, but it may even be more like the weather!  It gets pretty weird at times.  There is NO GUARANTEE that things will be perfect.  I consider the weather more reliable than the attempts by human nature to defy it! The cycle of democracy is very predictable, as its based on well meaning ideologies that are all about REMOVING RISK, levelling out concerns, creating comfort zones for as many as one can.  At its heart it is a great big mother.  Welfare is a nurturing mother, but don’t fool yourself that without masculine aspects (I am not talking about a woman and a man here,) applied, its all going to work out swimmingly.  Mums usually do want everyone to share.  And nurturing men wish the same.  Cave men, had to face the facts, that outside elements will buggar that up occasionally.  They knew that if someone wasn’t in charge of keeping an eye on being responsible in that regard, things could go very wrong, IF NO ONE WAS STILL OUT THERE HUNTING FOR THE PROTEIN!   All very well to all get cosy in the cave but berries wouldn’t do it alone!   The Protein, in my analogy and our modern world is fiscal responsibility.  Its all very well for Gillard to scream misogyny across the room, but what on earth was she thinking!  There are greater issues at stake here! 

Democracy grows, and blossoms in times of prosperity, and the natural goodwill of kindly people get their way.  Everyone gets pie.  For a while, until the pie runs out, and no one has filled up the larder.  Its as simple as that.   Logic and creative vision needs to be at the helm with the feminine ideologies of democracy by its side.  There still needs to be leaders, who understand the balance of improving society for the present and future generations, and making sure the source of that provision is sustainable. 

Currently our democratically elected Western governments are riddled with politicians who have discovered the popularity formula.  That is to GIVE EM WHAT THEY WANT, and they will keep getting paid.  Well that’s all very well, but eventually its going to all fall apart.  Look to Greece.  It does not happen gently, it happens slowly and painfully and in tears, tears for those who have to deal with the indulgences of those in the present – in order they remain in the seats of power.

That’s what this show is about.  And how I came to be in this area of art.

Helen Norton 2012.

Copyright Helen Norton 2012.