002: From Starving Artists to Culture Producers

Sharon Louden, a full-time artist based in Minneapolis and New York, says it’s high time to shed the “starving artist” cliche. Louden makes the compelling case that we need to embrace more productive identities and actively reshape what it means to be a contemporary, working artists –  not just for ourselves but for our fans as well. Louden is the editor of the bestselling Living and Sustaining a Creative Life: Essays by 40 Working Artists and informs and inspires in this rousing conversation. Learn more at sharonlouden.com.

Sharon Louden, sharonlouden.com
Sharon Louden, sharonlouden.com
Get the book at Amazon.
Get the book at Amazon.


00:00 Speaker 1: Culture Department.


00:05 Speaker 2: Culture Department, where we help creatives become entrepreneurs, and make a living making art. With your host, Daedalus Howell.

00:14 Daedalus Howell: When I was younger, I got some really bad advice that basically went, “If you have something to fall back on, you will.” Now that seemed like a really solid way to fortify my artistic commitment, until I had to fall back on something. Now obviously, I’m not the only one, there’s whole books and movies about this phenomena, like the movie version of Orwell’s novel, “Keep the Aspidistra Flying.” A copywriter at an ad agency believes he’s a genius poet, because of course, they all do. But he doesn’t wanna sell out, so he quits his ad agency job, and moves on to a garret, where he writes crap, and starves. Cautionary tale or an outmoded cliche? 

00:52 DH: Sharon Louden has the answer. She’s a full time practising professional artist who lives and works in Minneapolis and New York. Her work is held in major public and private collections, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the National Gallery of Art. Sharon knows a lot of artists who are making a living with their art, and she knows this because she asks them as the editor of, “Living and Sustaining a Creative Life: Essays by 40 Working Artists.” The book is currently in its fifth printing, it’s an Amazon best-seller, and it’s required reading for those of us making art make money. We had a rousing conversation that started with the question, “Who are we as artists today?”

01:30 Sharon Louden: We are a generous cabal of people that believe through pushing creativity out into the public realm, that it is going to be beneficial back to us, but also create joy, happiness, immeasurable outcome, monetizing assets.

01:45 DH: And the audience, the public, who do they think we are? 

01:48 SL: The public wants to know more, they want to know the intricacies of how an artist can sustain their life. But I do also believe that the public doesn’t have an understanding of who an artist is today, how they create a culture, how they produce culture. And also, how it contributes to the general economy, and fills in the cracks of society today in many, many ways. So the first book, I think, was revealing in the sense that I tried to give other artists who are reading this, but also, the public a sense of giving an identity of a contemporary artist today. And I think they did a good job of it.

02:31 DH: Yeah, in as much as that there is a lot of revelation and a lot of sharing on the part of artists in the first collection of essays, it does sometimes seem like we’re coming up against pre-conceived notions of what an artist is. And it has changed, it’s no longer that romantic notion of somebody locked in a garret and starving to death, it’s in a different place in our society. And I love that term you’ve got, culture producers, the idea that they’re actively producing real culture for consumption. Does that make any sense? 

02:55 SL: Absolutely, absolutely. I think that what I learned from… We did an extensive 62 stop book tour over the course of a year and a half, all over the country. And I met thousands of people on that book tour, including the public and then artists themselves. Part of that community and the wide cabal, if you will again, of artist community. And what I found on that book tour was, like I said, they wanna know more information, but I do think the public thinks we look, I always say this, we look a certain way, like perhaps we haven’t taken a shower in days, we have paint all over our hair. And the second, they also think we’re lazy individuals, which is incorrect, and then we don’t give to the economy. All three are incorrect, in fact, creative economies generate more money for the general economy than tourism in this country.

03:50 DH: Are there super powers we have, as artists? 

03:52 SL: Artists are problem solvers. There are many cases in which artists, I can give you through examples, just practically, at the New York Academy of Art where I teach, I’m very proud to teach there. They have courses there where they actually train artists to then go and work on forensic teams, whether it be in criminal labs or in science, to utilize their skills to be able to assist other people in identifying people with criminal situations, or let’s say somebody in the future where they’re trying to estimate how someone may look. And giving ideas towards science and in criminology. And that’s been happening for years, but it’s never really emphasized.

04:35 SL: Also design thinking, hiring an artist to come in to a corporation who can give ideas on product design, and looking at things on an outside point of view. Artists have a way, because of that community and the cabal, to replicate skills in order to bring people together to be able to create measurable outcome for whatever their mission is. The artist today is mostly disciplinary in what they do in their life, it’s really about how they think, and actions by which that they express their truth, and just their expression of who they are, and being a part of society.

05:14 DH: It didn’t occur to me to think of artists in a corporate context where they’re actually contributing actively to how products are designed, or how the user interface is enacted and that kind of thing. It’s interesting to think that artists have marketable skill sets, outside of what they could produce in terms of their own cultural production.

05:32 SL: It’s been there for years, it’s there and it’s extremely valuable. I mean, look at all the CEOs who think out of the box, I mean the obvious is Steve Jobs, and other people who have been incredibly forthright in their entrepreneurialism, but at the same time, they have the same skills as an artist does to think out of the box. So it’s actually applicable, it’s just a matter of connecting artists to the public and vice versa, to make those things happen. And quite frankly, when that happens more money is generated, happiness is generated, people feel good, and they progress forward.

06:14 DH: Yeah, and the world changes. I mean Steve Jobs is a really great example of that, of course. Should artists reposition themselves maybe not as “artists” but as creatives? 

06:23 SL: Right, as cultural producers. I mean I think it’s a great point, and it’s very smart of you, what you’re saying. I love the term artist, because it has this… First of all, it’s one word, and it has history to it. But because of what I have mentioned, how the public at large feels, sees an artists as still, Vincent Van Gogh, I actually don’t know anybody who is like that at all. You have to be a small business person, you have to have your head on straight, you have to be able to wait, you have to be able to talk, you have to be able to communicate, you have to be sophisticated, and you have to be sound in who you are, and what you’re bringing forward. That is not someone who’s coddled, or dependent on another person.

07:05 SL: I’ll give you an example, so Bravo TV, which I’m a big fan of, had a pilot called… I think it’s the, “Girlfriend’s guide to divorce,” or something like that. And in that, they had a character who was an artist, a fine artist, and he was a man, and he just seemed to stumble on his words, very intimidated, looked like he needed to be cared for, couldn’t stomach things, wasn’t very strong, didn’t manage his business, his own business. And I couldn’t believe it, I wrote a letter to Andy Cohen at Bravo and I said, “This is not contemporary in the way that artists run today. How dare you. This is just shameful.” And that we can contemporize Beyonce and all of these other artists who are out there in world, but when it comes to visual artists, somehow the public loves to coddle this romantic notion.

08:00 SL: I think what makes it interesting to understand the depth of and range of who an artist is today, and what they actually do, it’s sort of hidden. And if only the public knew, which is what I’m trying to do especially in the second and the third book, is to get it out even more, they would be so interested in following what happens for a visual artist today. It takes a lot of bravery, I think, for anyone to be creative, to be a cultural producer in this world. And so, I do think if artists frame themselves more as cultural producers, but also as the public understand more about who that is, those two things coming together would create magic.

08:42 DH: Just broadly, and I know the path for every artist towards success is different, what would you recommend somebody just coming out of an MFA program, or a BFA, or anything, in terms of starting their career in this new climate? 

08:56 SL: Oh, it’s a great question, and I teach this all the time. First of all, before you leave school, if you can, ’cause try to use as much as you can in the school in gaining a lot of tools before you leave. So if there isn’t any professional development offered, try to maximize your time with your professors by asking them examples of when they got out of school, what did they do? Or let’s say, actually asking them more professional questions about their resume or tools that they may need to get out into the world, just like anybody else looking for a job, if you will.

09:34 SL: The second thing I would say is, set yourself some goals, specific professional goals, not making money, ’cause that’s a given, we all have to make money. But finding what the context would be for your work, and who you are as an artist. Thirdly, if you have to find a job, find a job that’s gonna cultivate a network of people and community. So what I mean by that is, instead of just saying, “Oh, I gotta get a job, I’m just gonna work at Wendy’s.” For example. But nothing against them at all, but I would say that be able to have more of intention in your mind, work in an environment that you can cultivate opportunities from and start to build your audience. I believe a good database and an audience is your currency, and so that can be circulated around you, that you can have a generic opportunities with and for.

10:24 SL: The other thing I would do is reach out to other artists, start to create community in that way, exchange, get yourself settled with a very good low, low, low expense situation. I think the key to making a living, and sustain a creative life is to lower your expenses, so they’re bottom rock. And that you can then have the freedom to make your work have a flexible schedule, and then get your work out there. And then finally, what I would do is be mindful of always thinking of the other person. I think so many artists are, “Me, me, me, me.” Artists have to also work on themselves to think less isolated because most creative economies that do work well, work in collaborative situations.

11:10 SL: And so I think, at the end of the day, it is a collaboration, it is a conversation, even if you put your work up in a museum and let’s say someone’s looking at somebody’s work in a museum, let’s say it’s your work and you’re observing that person looking at your work in a museum. That person in a museum is probably not gonna talk to the artwork, they’re gonna be feeling it and thinking it, but they’re gonna be receiving what you’ve done in that artwork to the viewer, therefore it is an intangible conversation. So I think it always is, it’s always collaborative to get you work shown, you’re working with somebody else. To work with somebody to be able to get paid, you’re working with somebody else, for somebody else, with somebody else, it’s always collaborative. So to be able to get around that isolation is going to be helpful. But those are just some little tips to get going.

12:00 DH: Sharon, I gotta thank you, these are wonderful insights, and so generous of you to just put them out there for us like that, that’s great. Very much loving Living and Sustaining a Creative Life, and very much looking forward to the subsequent books in the series, ’cause it’s kind of a series now, isn’t it? [laughter]

12:14 SL: Yes. My publisher likes to say that it’ll be so far a trilogy. I don’t know what I’m gonna do after that, but I do know that Living and Sustaining a Creative Life is a brand, for sure. And that each book is going from one to the next, and even the first book, there’s two people from the first book who are in the second one, because their situations have broadened and changed. And so, it’s about following these paths, too. Also open accessibility and creating exchange, a lot of these artists in these books are so generous, that people can contact them directly, and they’re open to that conversation opening up that artist cabal.

12:54 DH: Speaking of which, where can we find you online? 

12:58 SL: Sharonlouden.com S-H-A-R-O-N-L-O-U-D-E-N.com. And there is a part of my website that has information on the book, thank you for asking. But we, this summer, we’re in the process right now of developing a new website for all of my books, which will come out this summer and pre-sales for my second book start in August.

13:22 DH: Oh, good to know. In fact, maybe we should talk again? 

13:25 SL: Oh, I would love that, thank you. You are very kind to have an interest, and I look forward too to following your path, and staying in touch, and also buying your books, pretty impressive.

13:33 DH: Oh, thank you. [chuckle] Well, I appreciate that. So at the end of keep the Keep the Aspidistra Flying, the copywriter uses poetry in his ad campaigns. I have no idea what that’s supposed to mean thematically, but I do know that copywriting will keep his chops up, and his rent paid as he poetizes. And like some other bad advice I got as a kid, you don’t have to suffer for your art, that’s what audiences are for.


14:03 DH: Thanks again for listening. If you dig Culture Department, please review it on iTunes, where you can also subscribe to it, ditto on Stitcher, and wherever quality podcasts live. Music by Shannon Ferguson, of Fergusound. And special thanks to Karen Hess for editorial help.

14:20 S2: Visit culturedept.com to sign up for your free ebook, The Teacup Whale: How to Find Your Creative Niche. For more tips on making a living making art, follow us on instagram and LinkedIn. Culture Department is a project of FMRL, the Future Media Research Lab at fmrl.com.

14:40 S1: To learn more about Daedalus Howell, visit dhowell.com.