Why investing in artists – not art product – makes more sense.

Investing in artists – not art – makes sense. This article argues that existing financial and funding models are broken. Mending them means resolving the hidden half of the equation.

The first half of the equation is the gap that almost every grant and software-as-a-service platform has attempted to plug: Existence and sales of product. The hidden half is not so simple. It’s about selling the process as a cultural investment.

The two aspects of what I’m going to call MIA ‘Money in Art’ are not irreconcilable. Far from it. One of them can in fact be an outcome of and for the other.

Now, I must point out that this piece is formational thinking. It’s not deeply researched. It’s simply me putting ideas into the world because the rest will follow on as what I’m being nudged towards emerges more fully. The points in this blog are taken entirely from my own views and experiences, so if it triggers you into angst, just go somewhere else.

Funding models for artists are profoundly broken.

Funding models for artists in Western countries like Australia tend to focus on two aspects. The first is a centralised, government-controlled source of grants. The second is sales of product. Similar to the first is a swathe of other, similar types of sources. Critically, they are nearly always of a grant-like nature. Grants do great things for artists and enable much brilliant work to see the light of day. But there are two things wrong with them.

The first issue with grants, particularly government-controlled grants, is that they shape the direction of artistic endeavour because they prioritise irrelevant factors. Those factors are race, sexual preference, your level of ability (physical, emotional, intellectual). While the quality of your application is still important, if you don’t meet any of the Current Thing requirements, your chances of even being given a shot at a grant are vastly reduced. It’s discrimination of the first order, and criticising it makes you a bigot.

Those grants that are not government-controlled are often controlled by philanthropists, either private or public. Into the category of ‘public’, I categorise organisational philanthropy: Trusts, for example. These grants will always follow the vision of the philanthropist behind the establishment, which really is the reason why they exist: They are not able to invest in any project that contradicts the vision and values of the Trust (or association, or charity, etc) or they’ll be in breach of their own constitutions. The key here is charity, however. The very word ‘philanthropy’ tells you the nature of this giving:

…love of humankind, especially as evinced in deeds of practical beneficence and work for the good of others…

Philanthropy at Etymology Online

Artists, as much as they are often deeply attached to the mythology that being an artist requires you to be completely broke and alone and living a disastrous life (which is why so many artists don’t practise their art), resent being seen as a charitable case.

The second issue with grants is that most of them (not all, but most) focus on the creation of product, or that otherwise have a visible outcome. For example: Creation of new work (= the new work); touring (= a tour); exhibitions (= enough product to hang on a wall); publishing (= books); experimentation (= shift in product)

There are some that are not product-based. For example, professional skills development, creative development. However, many of them have actual outcomes and attachments such as travel, shifts in format, or actual manufacturing of works.

Some are genuinely about artistic process. They are often limited to established artists, however, as if new and emerging artists – who may not have an ‘appropriate’ body of work – do not require this honour. They’re so few and far between – or require such huge commitment, such as living in another country without your children – that one could very easily construe them as being the ones reserved for ‘honourable’ artists: Those who already have a career, and whose career has demonstrated them as being worthy of money. (There’s that Poor Artist trope again.)

On the other side of the equation are the ‘sell direct to consumer’ models. These models are typically software-as-a-service (SAAS) platforms. You know the type: Substack, Patreon, Gumroad, Deviant.Art, Twitch, Flickr, Etsy, Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), RedBubble… They all attempt to do the same thing: Give artists the gift of ‘discoverability’ plus the ability to sell their work direct to the public, create paywalls, etc. The trouble is, selling direct to consumer is tiring. It’s a real grind. It requires a massive investment in time and learning in order to make it fly. And most of these platforms require artists to put their intellectual property into someone else’s real estate.

While there’s no issue with using someone else’s real estate in order to bring your work to the public, it does have its downside. If you’re not in line with the Current Thing, you can be cancelled and all your material pulled without so much as a by-your-leave. You have to maintain multiple websites.

And worst of all, most of the promises made to artists simply sell artists down the river. Like Substack and Medium, for example.

Some of them allow artists to gain control over their work, such as KDP. Then, if the artist is savvy enough to do all of the work of a commercial publisher (artwork, editing, commercial fit, launch and marketing plans and execution), they can actually make a fantastic living simply by selling product. But there’s a downside to this: You become a whore to the marketplace if you are going to make enough money by selling product. I know one author who, in order to retain her visibility to her chosen audience, is bound to release a certain number of books per year. Without visibility her sales will drop, and if her sales drop then she’s going to lose her lifestyle pretty fast. With enough back-catalogue you can mitigate that drop, but the visibility still matters.

Both types of money-generation are necessary, in some respects. But they’re both broken.

Underlying that break is the fact that artists very often hold negative views about money.

pen on yellow and red board
Photo by Steve Johnson on Pexels.com

Artists’ financial and business literacy matters.

If you’ve got a business mind, then you’ve already calculated the requirements of managing the business side of being an artist. If you’re a writer who self-publishes, you want to be savvy to the movements of the market, understand trends, be capable of tracking all of your numbers and be able to understand patterns in that data in order to utilise them. If you’re not strong on this kind of business intelligence, good luck to you.

If you’re going to manage the business side of selling your product yourself, you also have to be savvy to the nature of running a business. This means knowing how to reduce your tax, knowing what and how to claim components of your work (from where you work to what that work consumes), the impact of selling internationally, the nature of royalties, how licensing works, and much much more. In Australia, even copywriters (who often don’t consider themselves artists) don’t understand how to leverage licensing, for example. There is so much money that creatives leave on the table that it will blow your mind.

Many of those artists who are not savvy about the money or the numbers will just get a job for the cash and spend the rest of their time working on their art. That’s most artists, by the way. The rest will freelance, while propping up a dream to work on their art… before quickly realising that freelancing is a more-than-fulltime gig, and the dream of working on art firmly stays a dream.

A few will live from grant to grant. If you’ve had a grant before, you know the process far better than everyone else, so you’re already more likely to succeed.

Regardless of the way in which an artist manages his or her business, financial and business literacy really does matter. It matters because that capability can genuinely inform a freedom to create. When money is a problem, or you’re always focused on it (grants), or you’re always chasing the market, you’re in survival mode. You can create in survival mode, but it’s pushing boulders uphill by yourself.

Regardless. The issue with both grants and selling product to consumers is that both funding models miss the point of funding Art.

The point of funding art is to fund the process, because that’s what art is. The by-product is a thing, an object, a visible something. That’s not art. Once that exists, the artist has already moved on to whatever is the next process.

woman lying on floor while painting
Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

Art is a process artists engage in, not a thing artists create.

When you think about ‘art’, there’s a good chance that you immediately think of:

  • books
  • movies
  • performances
  • paintings
  • sculpture
  • photography
  • music
  • … etc.

But these things are not art. These things are the by-products of art. They are what comes out of the other end of Art. Unless you’re an artist yourself, you will struggle with the notion that Art is a process. So if you’re struggling with this idea, I want you to at least grasp that art is a soular act:

Art is an act of the soul, not the intellect. When we are dealing with people’s dreams – their visions, really – we are in the realm of the sacred. We are involved with forces and energies larger than our own. We are engaged in a sacred transaction of which we know only a little: the shadow, not the shape.

Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way

In a society that champions science over heart, atheism over religion, the material over the supernal, being an artist is just not the done thing. This is the case despite the fact that what people consume when they’re mainlining Netflix is art; that they relax with music playing; that their own idols are artists. The quote-unquote ‘lucky few’; enmeshed in a mythology of luck.

The truth is much simpler. It’s that artists are closer to god (source, universe) than you are, and know how to let all the other shit go.

Art is about listening to whatever comes.

Art is akin to listening. When you unlock your natural creativity, you do so by a process of learning to listen to what’s coming to you. It’s a nudge, an image, a whispering. An idea. A feeling to write this line, paint that colour, pinch that clay, move in a particular way. It’s not an act of the intellect, but a driving force that comes to you from somewhere else.

Artists are considered always to be ‘working’ because they’re always listening.

They understand that when a nudge asks them to look at a book title, and then someone makes a similar comment, and then they find a resource on the same topic, that this is not coincidence. This is really the voice of god saying, ‘Hey, look at this. This is important to you.’

The manifesty people call it ‘synchrony’. I prefer ‘serendipity’, because ‘synchrony’ suggests machinery whereas ‘serendipity’ suggests magic.

That unexplainable magic is at the heart of Art.

When you are in flow with something that is asking you to create it, you create it in the way that it wants to exist. A fantastic example is the decision to make a box. When you decide to make a box, you’ll ponder it, think about it, attempt it. You’ll screw things up, maybe start over a few times. The box that you eventually make will be the box that wanted to be made: You rationalise that you wanted to make it this way, but the process says otherwise.

Art is the same. Your creation already exists. It’s just coming through your hands, asking you to be the person to breathe life into it, to make it visible to others.

And in the process, it changes you.

This is why many artists – especially recording artists – explain that they never look at, read, listen to their work. The work is past. The work is gone.

It’s because the work is the process, and the outcome is a by-product of a magical process. The magic moves on. And so do they.

This is why funding the process, investing in the process, is more important than investing in the product!

So if you are investing in the process, what does it mean?

Investing financially in the process of art means that you are investing financially in the artist rather than the product that the artist produces.

It’s the artist who engages in the process. It’s the artist who listens for what to create. It’s the artist who commits time, takes risks, and works continuously through the process in order to create.

The investment becomes an investment in the future, in the potential, for artefacts to be created and enjoyed by others. The artist is the asset: Without artists, there is no entertainment, no commentary, no fresh eyes on the world. Artists don’t see the world the same way as everyone else. There is something else driving them, something that bubbles through them. This is a genuine asset to any culture, any community, any society, even if what bubbles through them is sitting at a stark ninety degrees from what is acceptable, usual, or mainstream. ‘Culture’ may well be the domain of the intellect, but it is only this once it has been touched by (enriched by) the heart of an artist.

confident senior businessman holding money in hands while sitting at table near laptop
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

What does it mean to invest in artists?

Investing in an artist means seeing the person as the asset, and their process as the point of the investment. It is understanding that the process generates by-products, and that those by-products may be, or become, financially valuable also.

The financial valuation of a person becomes a very sensitive issue. It raises notions of ‘ownership’, concerns about exploitation, bothersome ideas about someone with deep pockets directing a person to act in particular ways or create particular things (commonly known as ‘selling out’). These are valid concerns, but they only exist if one sees the investment in artists as a heartless transaction.

Because the process of art is genuinely heart-led, so must the investment in an artist.

Because the investment is in the process, the investment is not about what that process creates.

The investment is about enabling process to occur, enabling it to continue.

Before you react with a simple, ‘oh that’s just someone providing a living allowance for someone else’, really consider what this means. Any investor will understand whatever asset they’re investing in. If they play the stock market, they understand that what they spend today may disappear – poof! – at the whim of the market, never to be recovered. If they invest in real estate, agriculture, companies and startups, products or commodities, investors will do their due diligence. They work to understand the team behind a company; the likelihood of ‘success’ (however the that is defined based on the investment opportunity); the history; the potential; the context and the numbers. Investors in real estate will invest in what is today financially valueless empty land, in order to get a long run-up into a highly valuable future allotment. Investors in startups will take a punt on a piece of technology after assessing sociocultural trajectory, customer need, and the capabilities of the team. Investors in commodities will understand the history of the commodity and the movements of the market over a very long period of time, before deciding where to put their cash. So why would investing in an artist be any different?

The difference in investing in an artist is that the investor must know the artist, and the artist must enable investors to know them.

If an artist has an existing body of work, the investor must immerse him- or herself in that body of work in order to understand the types of material in which the artist engages.

If an artist has any marketing channels, the investor must immerse him- or herself in those channels (blogs, newsletters, social media) in order to come to some understanding of who this person is.

An investor must engage with an artist to understand the artist’s process.

But at no point in the process must an investor confuse the artist with the by-product, because they’re not the same thing. Here’s an apt (shortened) quote from Ricky Gervais about that:

How subjective it is. How one person, some people can find them hilarious, some find them the least funny person in the world. When someone says to me about another comedian, they say, “Oh, they’re not funny,” even if I agree with them, I stand up… I say, “You can’t say that. You gotta say you don’t find them funny.” I hate it when people say, “That joke was offensive.” I say, “No, you gotta say you found it offensive.” It’s about feelings, and feelings are personal. And there’s loads of types of comedy, and comedy evolves. [ … ] But if you’re the type of person to revel in someone getting canceled for summat they said ten years ago, you’re just ensuring that one day you’ll be canceled for summat you said today. You can’t predict what’ll be offensive in the future. You don’t know who the dominant mob will be. [ … ] Some people can’t separate the art form from the artist’s personal life.

Ricky Gervais, Super Nature

Let’s consider boundaries and expectations in an artist-as-asset investment.

Given the artist is not the art, and given the by-product is not the art, then investing in an artist is investing in a person. Investing in a person requires the establishment of boundaries and expectations, so that there is no undue influence on the artist. Those boundaries and expectations also prevent exploitation, derogatory treatment, and so on.

As an investor, you would do your legwork to understand the person with whom you’re dealing. This means knowing who they are, what drives them, what their values are, how they interact with the world (or not). You want to be in their inner circle, in some sense, or at least on the way there.

You also want to have a very clear understanding about your own motivations. If you’re only interested in the by-product, then your investment’s boundaries and expectations must be focused on the by-product, which means you’re effectively commissioning work. If you’re interested in the artist, then your legwork will show you whereabouts in the process the artist could use the most help. Knowing this, you can then shape your investment offer on the basis of that need.

Let’s be honest, this is just a sales process. The challenge is that artists have to learn how to sell themselves and their process as an investment. I’ll let you think about that for a moment before we move on.

Investing in an artist therefore asks you to be very clear about how and why you’re investing and what you expect in return.

For example, investing in the process may require you to have visibility over the process. That may be personal discussions, an expectation of being written private letters, or even fun monthly catchups in which an artist shares his or her doodling over coffee. Whatever you agree.

The boundaries and expectations that you establish between you will in some way depend on the nature of the artist. Are they new, emerging or established? If they’re new or emerging, then they’ll need more help or time or access to professional development, mentors or marketing perhaps. But regardless of their stage of work, the key thing to invest in is time to for them to create.

Whatever you choose to invest in, you will have to understand why it exists and how it furthers the artist’s artistic practice and process.

Once you establish the nature of the investment (time, professional development, mentorship, marketing or publicity, etc) then you can agree with the artist the ways in which you’ll see your investment put to good use.

You can take a lead from SAAS platforms like Patreon, which asked artists to create a ‘thing’ as a ‘reward’ for an investment. Often, those ‘things’ were by-products. But sometimes they were private letters, access to journals and thinking, or dinner once a quarter. You’re investing in a person’s capacity to engage in a process, so discussing together how you can see that process is critical to whatever the boundaries of that investment look like.

In other words, you want to know your money is being used for what you intend. An artist isn’t going to produce a monthly board report. But they could. It might just look a bit different.

Some ways that you can benefit, as an investor

Aside from the very obvious benefit of feeling good that you’re investing heart-wise in an artist whose potential, trajectory and work you believe in, there are some other ways you can benefit.

The first is that coming to know an artist has the very strong potential to unlock your own inner artist, your own creativity. This relationship can very quickly become an intellectual melting pot, in which you become privy to new ways of thinking about the world. That river runs deep, and it will affect you meaningfully in many ways.

Financially, however, there may be other benefits. For example, if the artist is savvy about business and finance, you may benefit from sharing in the profits, proceeds or royalties of by-product sales. You may gain access to intellectual property you wouldn’t otherwise access, and you may agree that you can use it in some way (like, framed early sketches; use of music for commercial purposes; free copies of books for your nieces; etc). When sales of by-product rise, so do your financial returns: Therefore, investing in marketing and publicity skills or services for an artist become meaningfully financial.

You also benefit on a social and cultural level, over the long-term. Any investment in an artist and his or her process enables art to continue. Enabling art to continue enriches our lives: It enables by-products that entertain us, shape us, reflect us. They give us new things to thing about. They support us emotionally, help us through dark times, show us that we’re not alone.

These intangible and often long-term benefits are the greatest benefits of investing in artists.

That’s the true value of investing in artists instead of by-products described as art.

Sold! Now how do I find artists in whom to invest?

Finding an artist in whom to invest is a challenge, not least because artists don’t sell themselves or their process as an asset. So here is what I recommend:

  • Ask your friends if they know any artists in any field you most enjoy
  • Look through your LinkedIn network
  • Pay attention to the books and blogs you read, the music you listen to, the visual art you enjoy, the performances you go to. Instead of looking at the companies, look at the artists in front of you. You’re not investing in Australian Dance Theatre or the State Theatre Company, you’re investing in a dancer or a playwright or an actor. You’re not investing in a recording studio, you’re investing in a recording artist. You’re not investing in a publishing house, website or blog, you’re investing in an author.

Once you find someone (or someones), your work begins. Buy and consume their by-products. Follow them to see if you can gain insights into who they are. Subscribe to their newsletters and channels.

If they light you up, open a conversation.

From there, the future is up to you.

You can invest in me, if you choose to.

I’ve opened the doors to this experiment by allowing investment in my artistic process.

Investors receive:

  • A monthly board report
  • A seat at a quarterly board meeting
  • The Quarterly Correspondence, gratis
  • 15% off all services, and any products that I sell 1:1

If you’d like to join this experiment with me, go and invest now. We will pen something collaboratively at end of Financial Year 24 about what it’s been like (and whether it’s worthwhile).

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