Survival Skills for Artists: Chris Tyrell Interview

Okay, visual artists, this one’s for you…. (but those of you who aren’t painters, sculptors or photographers, you can benefit from this one, too)

This month I interview Chris Tyrell, author of Artist’s Survival Skills, subtitled How to Make a Living as a Canadian Visual Artist.

No stranger to the Vancouver arts scene, Chris began as a drama teacher at West Vancouver Secondary and Capilano College. He designed, built and managed Presentation House Theatre and established the Presentation House Gallery of photography. As well, he co-founded the BC Touring Council and the Alliance for Arts and Culture. He’s probably best known, however, for being the editor of The Opus Visual Arts Newsletter for, oh, like, forever.
I asked him some questions about how to survive and thrive as a visual artist.

AotB: If I’m a visual artist who is interested in selling more of my work, and possibly even making a living from my artistic practice, how can your book help me?

CT: I have never heard an artist say, “I wish I earned less money from my art.” However, after every one of my workshops for artists on ways to increase income, I see expressions of despair on some faces. “I don’t like thinking about my art like a business,” says one. “Oh my god, I couldn’t possibly take all that on,” says another, “I’m going to get a gallery to do all that for me.”

“Then make art for enjoyment, keep your job, and stop thinking about making more money from your art,” I say. My book is for artists who want to make a career of their creative skills. It addresses art-making in the context of self-employment; it uses business language and subscribes to principles of small business development applicable to any small manufacturing business.

My book reveals how much work it takes to develop an artistic career. Starting a small business (and this is what we do when we set out to be self-employed artists who sell our work) is a serious challenge regardless of the nature of the business. And while there are many worthwhile books for Canadian entrepreneurs on starting and growing a small business, my book looks at key components of small business theory and discusses them in the context of a creative, skills-based small business—the self-employed Canadian visual artist.

There are many associations that support professional artists in Canada. The writers have the Writers Union of Canada, actors, stage managers, and dancers have the Canadian Actors Equity Association and ACRTA; musicians have the Musicians Union. Directors, choreographers, and composers—all artistic professions in Canada have a trade association or union to which they belong. These professional organizations provide support to their members in areas such as health, taxation, and copyrights, and they negotiate collective agreements with employer associations that cover salaries and benefits. Visual artists, however, do not have sufficient professional guidance and support. My book seeks to provide a comprehensive overview of professional development issues for the committed Canadian visual artist.

AotB:
Why shouldn’t I just hire an agent/accountant/publicist? Won’t that leave me more time for my artistic practice?

CT: You can do all that if you can afford it. Often, artists who get represented by a gallery get a lot of management services, but unless the artists takes responsibility for his or herself and his or her career, it will never be as successful as it might be. An artist may well take advantage of the professional services of others, but still, the drive and direction of one’s career is best self-managed. It all depends on what the artist wants, and that is why my book begins with a chapter on planning.

A lot of artists want success but are not prepared to work hard for it. Those who have genuine genius need not worry, their career will unfold for them (Brian Jungen, for example), but those with admirable, even great talent, require HARD WORK to establish an enduring successful career, and no one works better for an artist than the artist his- or her self. Gallery owners have many artists to represent and cannot do for an artist what the artist can do for themselves.

AotB: What are some of the most important things I can do to help my artistic business along in the areas of marketing and finances?

CT:Read my book.
Set realistic, achievable, measurable and incremental annual sales goals.
Study small business management, take marketing courses.
Have a fabulous, selected and diverse product line visible in your portfolio.
Study the best practices of other visual artists.
Provide interesting insight into your work—people do not buy what they do not understand.
DO NOT RELY ON OTHERS TO SELL YOUR WORK. (Chris’ caps!)
Join a co-op, work with other artists to achieve goals.

AotB: Thanks, Chris. Really great stuff.

Artist’s Survival Skills is available for purchase at Opus Visual Art Supplies.

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Rebecca Coleman

Social Media Marketing Strategist, Blogger, Author, Teacher, Trainer. Passionate foodie, mom to Michael, fueled by Americanos. I love my bike. Soon-to-be cookbook author. Localvore with a wanderlust.

Comments 2

  1. Great stuff indeed! Right on Chris, this is an essential topic, consider one more book sold.

    Here’s what gets my goat. It’s not even the neophyte artists that are unsure how to present themselves as a business, my wife has a BFA from UBC – not a cheap piece of paper, by any means – and not once, ever, in her entire degree term, did someone from that school take her or her classmates aside and say “oh yeah, by the way, you’re also going to have to find a way to make a living off of your art, too”, never mind offer any business courses as part of the program.

    The starving artist myth must die!

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