Caroll Michels headshot

Caroll Michels is an artist-advocate and the author of the book How to Survive and Prosper as an Artist: Selling Yourself without Selling Your Soul.

The New York Times says of your book: “Michels explodes the romantic notion of the starving artist.” This ideal has been around for ages—why is dismissing it so important?

“Starving artist” is a demeaning and frequently-used phrase that contributes to the stereotypical image of how artists are perceived, and how they see themselves. It creates a dangerous mindset, because it validates the false notion that artists should have low expectations—that they shouldn’t expect to derive a healthy full-time or part-time living through creative endeavors.

Your book aims to challenge the status quo. How does participating in the art market challenge the status quo?

Part of the “status quo” are the unspoken and unofficial rules that govern artists’ relationships with galleries. This involves artists acquiescing to unfair and shady business practices. For example, many artists who work with art dealers do not require use of a written agreement, or they accept dealer-friendly agreements that are way out of line. The status quo includes going along with the exorbitant sales commissions of 50%+ that art dealers receive when artwork is sold. It includes artists who agree without question to splitting discounts awarded to gallery clients. Another aspect of the status quo is when artists, also without question, continue to believe many myths associated with being an artist that have been handed down for many years. The list of status quo challenges can go on and on.

How to Survive is in its seventh edition. One new section is about new business models for artists that you describe as “going to the extreme.” Can you elaborate on these models—what’s extreme about them?

When I first started coaching artists, and invented a new occupation, I crossed the sacred line of discussing money, marketing, and self-promotion, and challenged some very basic perceptions about the art world. I would go so far as to say that to some people I was considered a “witch.” To a large extent, these career development topics remained controversial throughout the 1970s, and well into the 1980s and 1990s. Things began to change when the century changed.

On the other hand, career development tools for artists have gone to the extreme. For example:

  • They mirror a prevalent political philosophy that corporations are people, and people are brands. This has happened by well-intentioned individuals who know little about the art world or the special challenges fine artists face.
  • The new business model has also embraced the commercial vocabulary of advertising agencies. Artists are addressed as if they were a new energy bar about to go on the market and need a “brand” to be successful. For those who understand the inner workings of the art world and the mysterious and varied reasons why art sells, the simplistic and gimmicky emphasis on “branding” is insulting and crass.
  • Some misguided business advisors, arts administrators, and even some artist career coaches lump together all art market audiences without an understanding of the various distinctions between the consumer market and the fine art market.
  • Fine artists are now encouraged to write a business plan. Unfortunately, the plans that I have read borrow templates that were designed for professions other than fine artist. Many of my clients who have taken business development workshops sponsored by federal and state agencies found it excruciatingly painful to try to make a business plan work that was used in workshop curricula. I have also tried without success to help the leaders of these business development workshops understand that business plans for people who are planning to open a shoe store do not work for fine artists!

Bottom line: I always tell artists that if they find a business plan that is easy to relate to, and asks questions that are totally relevant to your career, by all means give it a try. But if a business plan makes your stomach turn, abandon it with great haste.   

One reader praises your book as “covering all the little things people are too ‘polite’ to fill you in on.” How does transparency contribute to artist empowerment?  

Challenging the status quo and transparency are closely aligned. When artists demand transparency, it is a signal that they feel empowered and powerful, but all too often artists do not recognize their power. They either forget or have never considered the reality that artists, by the fact they are artists, have power. They forget or have never considered the fact that artists provide thousands of non-artists with jobs!  Examples of non-artists who depend on artists for jobs include art dealers, gallery staffs, curators, museum staffs, and arts administrators; grants administrators; art school staff, and critics and journalists; corporate art consultants and advisors; federal, state, and municipal arts agency employees, and accountants; lawyers; framers; printers; and art material suppliers. And yet more non-artists than artists make a living from art, and non-artists make more money from art than artists! This inequity exists, as do many others, because artists, the “employers,” individually and collectively have not yet recognized their power.

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Jennifer Orbom
With a background in health sciences, Jennifer Orbom has done operations work for political and health organizations, and conducted research in Nicaragua and Hawaii. Returning to academia in 2011, she earned her Master's degree in social and cultural anthropology from the University of Leuven in Belgium. An avid photographer, she grew up in an artists' community and enjoys learning about the business side of the art industry through her work with CHF. She now splits her time between Belgium and the United States.

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