Struggling Artist Syndrome

Struggling Artist Syndrome: the pattern of symptoms that characterize or indicate the particular social condition of spending all your time and money on an artistic ideal in the hopes of someday "making it."

There are millions of people in the United States struggling to make it in the arts -- holding onto their dream. Mechanic by day, garage band drummer by night. Journalist by day, novelist by night. Administrative assistant by day, painter by night. Waiter a few days a week, actor between shifts. Computer programmer weekdays, film maker weekends. Quite a few people consider themselves hobbyists, but who hasn't dreamed of making a living doing what they love?

Like many people, I graduated from college with idealistic dreams to change the world for the better. Creating public art pieces that sparked inspiration and attention on important social issues was going to be my contribution to society. Change people's thinking and you change the world!

Three years out of college I had produced four well received public art installations, generated quite a bit of positive national media publicity and received a few grants. I was also broke and headed for towards bankruptcy. It was going to be more difficult holding down a day job while producing art on the side then I thought.

Every dime I made (and supplemented with credit card debt) went towards sculpture supplies. I was tired of bill collectors and eating ramen noodles. Being a "struggling artist" was not much fun so I decided to get financially stable before I went back to my art.

Ten years later, after building a successful keynote speakers bureau business, I'm back at it again. But now, I'm 39 years old and stoking the dream with a new plan. Last year, I spent a big chunk of my savings on the Dialogue public art installation, a national tour, producing a documentary about the tour and publishing a companion book.

I'm hoping that this time, I can make it into that rarified two percent group of artists who actually make a modest return from their art. Or, at least not be driven into debt again! Artist self-sufficiency is not an easy task in a culture that doesn't have much interest in arts funding and participation. Though not the best financial odds for the businessman I've become over the last 10 years, I'm going to apply everything I've learned about entrepreneurship, marketing and sales to try and make it work.

The paltry funded National Endowment for the Arts no longer gives individual artist grants any longer. There are almost no funding sources for individual artists and most local government, education and private arts organizations have little money available for arts programs. The arts are simply not valued much. And, many people think talking about money, especially in the arts, is crass. The "starving artist" (to suffer from extreme poverty and need) is in fact a legislated and cultural phenomenon, not just a time honored tradition. Helping artists eat, pay rent and have health care is a much more civilized way to honor artists. Given their aesthetic, quality of life and cultural benefits, the arts must be financially valued too.

So, what's an individual artist to do? Take a big risk and, of course, get creative!

So now there are 5,000 copies of my self-published book stored at a friend's house, a self-produced documentary in post-production (ready for release in 2008) and a public art installation in my garage. Everything is ready for a second national public art installation and documentary film tour in 2008 and if all the elements come together perfectly, then possibly this struggling artist will make it to self-sufficient independence.

Someday maybe the arts will take a more prominent position in popular culture. But in the meantime, we'll do what we can. One thing I know is giving up will mean never "making it."