How to Make a Living as an Artist

How to Make a Living as an Artist

An artist and retired art professor shares his method.

Curtis Benzle, Vieques

Curtis Benzle, Vieques, porcelain, 5 x 15 x 6 in., $3,200

Curtis Benzle

Recently, a reader took exception to a passage in the February/March issue of American Craft. “Making a good, consistent living as an artist is extraordinarily difficult,” I’d written. “There’s no formula for success.” Well, ceramist Curtis Benzle of Huntsville, Alabama, begged to differ. He has a formula for success, and “it’s been in use for over 20 years and has worked consistently for countless artists up and down the talent spectrum,” he says.

Benzle developed his approach at the Columbus College of Art & Design in Ohio, where he taught in two stints totaling about 25 years, retiring in 2009. His formula has three prongs – artmaking, making products to sell, and teaching in community settings. All three are critical to making a middle-class living, he argues, conceding that “middle-class” might mean $20,000 one year and $100,000 the next. But it’s a sustainable living, and it’s income that tends to grow as the artist’s network grows.

Benzle has taught his approach to many artists who've gone on to success, he says. And, even today, he follows it himself. He makes porcelain sculpture and ceramic products for the broader market and periodically teaches workshops around the country. In the next year or two, he might take his teaching online. I hopped on the phone with Benzle to find out more.

I understand you took a break from teaching in the 1990s and that helped convince you to teach artists differently.
Yes, I took a 10-year sabbatical from teaching to run my business. And when I went back to full-time teaching, it struck me that a lot of the kids that I was teaching were going to have a very hard time making a living. Having been out on my own earning a living, I felt like I had some insight as to how they could accomplish that feat.

What really hit home was that, in the CCAD teaching program, we were really focused on the top 10 percent – or, more realistically, the top 1 percent. And those students were fine – we enjoyed teaching them, they were fun, they were easy, they were self-starters. They were going to be successful, just because that’s who they were. They had all the pieces and parts to rise to the top.

But I still had 90 to 99 percent of the rest of the students who didn’t have that exceptional skill set, and they were paying the same fees and doing the same assignments; they weren’t going to be as naturally successful as the others. For them, it was going to be a hard row to hoe. So that was the impetus for starting to develop programming that would enable the rest of my students to be successful. I started looking at what they had that was transferable to monetary success. And it turned out they had pretty much everything they needed to be successful, just not successful primarily as fine artists.

You were influenced by the work of developmental psychologist Howard Gardner and his concept of multiple intelligences, including the big one in our world: spatial intelligence.
Yes. My contention was that these artists, these art students, have a specific kind of intelligence that enables them to do what most of the general population can’t do, to see what nobody else can see. I would see them demonstrate this intelligence on a daily basis. I would give them a lump of clay; they would turn it into an object that didn’t exist before. They’d be confronted with a blank canvas and, voilà, within days or weeks, it would turn into a beautiful painting. They had a kind of intelligence that was valuable in the culture but not monetized very well in the culture. So the challenge became, how do we monetize that creative intelligence?

There are opportunities in the marketplace for people with spatial intelligence, but art schools aren’t necessarily pointing people to those opportunities. Is that right?
That’s a good summation, yes. Now, in defense of art schools, I can understand how that happens. It’s easier to focus on the specific art-making skills that a few people are blessed with. To focus on the broader spatial intelligence, you have to dig a little deeper.

Can you give an example of somebody who had a capability that could be monetized but maybe wouldn’t be recognized in a traditional art school?
I can give you a great one. There’s a guy, Steve Bush, who actually was not one of my students at CCAD but basically followed the same program I developed. And he did pretty much everything I prescribed. He taught at the community level, teaching some evening classes for us at the college and also teaching a little bit out of his studio. He developed a product line, some large-scale metal flowers. And he did sculpture, large-scale, site-specific sculpture.

His career is the perfect model. It has fluctuated between those three components – pretty wildly. During the recession, he almost exclusively made those large metal flowers, because the market for his sculpture dried up. And then, subsequently, I don’t know if he’s even making the large flowers anymore, because his sculpture market has really exploded. The one thing that’s consistent throughout his career is that he’s always been teaching, because he knows that the longer he teaches, the larger his support network gets. And you never know how that network is going to financially support you, but one thing is pretty clear: It always does. If you do a good job teaching, everybody that you teach will eventually become part of your support network. And whether it’s just talking about you at the grocery store, saying how incredible you are, or supporting you in a public sculpture competition – it’s impossible to say how that network will support you. But it will.

Got another example of an artist successfully using your approach?
Sure. I had Lea Gray as a student at CCAD, and she was the classic undergraduate student, confused and crazy. And I’ve watched her grow over the years. She’s a painter, primarily, in her art form, but she started doing origami. Then she started teaching origami classes. Then she started making origami lighting fixtures. And now she’s hit on doing origami wedding bouquets, and her business has just taken off like a rocket.

When you began implementing what you’ve called your “tripod” approach at Columbus College of Art & Design, what, if anything, was controversial about it?
I think the largest single issue was that it did not focus primarily on art-making – because it’s what we do. It’s our passion. I don’t really have to encourage anybody to make art, because it’s what all artists like to do.

And so that was the pushback that I got, because everybody involved in the art school environment, whether faculty or students, wanted to talk about making art. To me, it just seemed like a mistake to spend four years talking about making art with people who were going to make art no matter what, when what they really needed to know was how to make a living.

I consider my own educational experience. I don’t think I wanted to learn to read; I’m pretty sure I didn’t want to learn to do math. I didn’t want to learn to do a lot of things. But I toughed it out, and it benefited me. So – same with making a living.

What kind of pushback would you get from students?
The students would say that’s not what they came to college for. Their pushback would be that I didn’t support them, that I didn’t believe in them, because they felt they were going to be successful visual artists. And I knew, from experience and doing a lot of research, that the odds were way, way, way against them. It’s not as easy as it looks.

In your approach, designing a product, like Steve Bush making the big flowers, is key to making a living. And products, if not mass-produced, are made in batches. Was that a difficult concept for Columbus students to accept?
Only at first. My program was a two-course, semester-long program. One of the courses was product development, and quite frankly, once the students got involved in that process, they enjoyed it, because it was very much like making art; they just had different criteria to satisfy. When you’re making a product, you have to satisfy your own criteria but also the criteria of your audience. And it’s pretty critical that the audience is satisfied, or else it’s not a very successful product.

We had some great products come out, and it was nice, because the product critiques were easy; people either liked them or didn’t like them. We started a student sale where kids could set up a booth and sell stuff, and that provided an immediate critique, because they were confronted with the general public.

What was most difficult for the students?
The hardest thing for the students was the teaching, because they had little or no previous experience with community-level teaching. In both college teaching and K-through-12 teaching, the students are there because they’ve either paid to be there or they’re mandated to be there by the government. Those teachers have a captive audience and can teach things students didn’t necessarily want to hear. With community-level teaching, students are there by choice, so the mandate to ensure student success is much higher. You have to deliver. And so that required a way of teaching they were not familiar with.

The second course in that two-course program was community art education. And we went through that step by step by step. It was pretty arduous. There was a four-week practicum where the students would have to go out and teach at a nearby art center. That was harder for them, because they weren’t using that part of their brain that they used when they made art. They had to think creatively, and they had to figure out how to communicate effectively; it pushed them further outside their comfort zone.

I would think learning to teach would have a host of benefits.
Yes, actually, which leads me to another idea. Almost every artist I know about complains about the marketplace, about how the customers, their buyers, are not knowledgeable enough. And quite frankly, when I, say, go to the ACC craft show and walk those aisles, I’m dazzled by the quality of the work. But my takeaway is: If there were 400 artists there, and all 400 taught 20 people a week, forever, just from that little subset of the population, imagine the change that would take place in the knowledge base of the customers.

Good point. And, over time, you might not only help change the marketplace, you could help change our culture.
It would change the culture dramatically, because when the community wants to build an art center, you’ve got advocates for it, because they know how important it is.

So what about you? How has your formula worked in your own career?
When I left Columbus, I moved to Huntsville, Alabama, because my wife lived here. And I was thrown into the exact situation that I had been teaching about for a long time. The first thing I did when I got here was to start teaching art classes at the local art museum. I’ve watched my support network grow, and then, as that grows, the awareness of me as an artist grows, and my income from both artmaking and product development has grown in tandem. When I arrived, I thought, “OK, smartie. Does it work or not?” And it has worked just the way it’s supposed to work.

What message do you have for other educators of art or craft?
The one thing I think that universities and colleges are missing is fully embracing the concept that art students have a type of intelligence that empowers them to do things beyond making art. If you address their innate intelligence as their strength – their primary strength – and focus on that, it really opens up avenues to career success that are far, far afield from making fine art. I’m not trying to pull anybody away from making art; I’m trying to enable and empower them to make art. Over the course of my career, I have watched far, far too many great artists fall away from the field. And the only thing that pushed them out was poverty. Smart people have a tendency to tire of poverty.