Developing a sustainable creative practice

Fundraising is important, but it can become a hamster wheel of consistently running crowdfunding campaigns, applying for grants, reaching out to previous donors to become sustaining donors of your work. When you think about fundraising, you should think about it as part of building a sustainable creative practice.

What do we mean when we say a “sustainable creative practice”? We mean a creative practice that you can keep up for as long as you want to, whether that’s a series of months, years, or a whole lifetime. An unsustainable creative practice is one that burns you out before you are able to do what you want to do and one that leaves you feeling more bad than good afterwards.

The mechanics will look different for everybody. But here are some examples:

For some people, a sustainable creative practice will be one where you have enough recurring funding either through a grant or through smaller donations that you don’t have to go through a fundraising campaign more than once or twice a year. It might mean balancing your creative life with your day job such that your day job can fund your creative practice and you don’t have to fundraise at all. You might follow a career path where you can work for half of the year and spend the other half devoted to your art. As you think about your career and your life as an artist, consider what relationship between art, career, money, and fundraising is optimal for you. 

One way that artists can build sustainable creative practices is by aiming to earn money through your art in addition to securing donations.

You could earn money through ticket sales, commissions, merch sales, or by consulting others in your field.

 

Finding Time to Make Art

In order to have a sustainable creative practice, you need to find time to actually work on your art. But it's hard! It doesn’t make you a bad artist or less of an artist if you struggle to find the time to make your work. There are valid reasons why artists often struggle to carve out time to make work.

Most artists need to work either full time or part time, which takes up a huge amount of time and energy. If you work full time, you spend at least 40 hours working, plus additional time to commute if your job requires you to be there physically.

You might also be expected to work even when you are off the clock. Does your boss expect you to respond to emails or calls during the evening or weekends? Networking events, travel, conferences, or sales calls also add to the time that working artists might be away from their studio.

Many artists work in the service industry. These kinds of jobs can offer flexible schedules and theoretically give you the mental space needed to create once you clock out. But, this doesn’t take into account how physically draining service industry jobs are, let alone the emotional labor of being friendly and accommodating in order to keep your job and earn tips.

No matter what kind of job you have, it’s likely that it takes up more time and more mental energy than is conducive to your creative practice.

Reproductive labor can also limit the amount of time you have to work on your art. Reproductive labor isn’t just the labor of having and raising children, although it does include those things. Coming from a tradition of Marxist feminist criticism, reproductive labor is the labor that’s required to sustain life but isn’t always recognized as such.

These include cooking, cleaning, caregiving for elderly parents or ill family members and friends, keeping track of grocery lists, and other chores. If something is called a “labor of love” and has been traditionally done by women, there’s a good chance that it’s reproductive labor.

Of course, who does the brunt of reproductive labor tends to fall across gender and race lines, which can make it more challenging for women and non-binary artists as well as Black and POC artists to find time to create. Reproductive labor demands also vary across relationship status, living situation, size of household, and more.

And, of course, we can deal with feelings of guilt for spending time on our creative work.

But there are ways to still find time to create.

  1. Take your work more seriously: Sometimes we stand in our own way by delegitimizing ourselves and our creative pursuits. Whether you are in your studio preparing for a local festival, to let off steam, or to find some time to exercise a different part of your mind, your artwork is valid. And we hope that you take it seriously. For instance, if you take photographs, then start calling yourself a photographer. It doesn't matter if you sell your photographs or work in the field professionally. Taking photographs is what you do, which makes you a photographer. 

  2. Schedule time to work on your art: You already schedule errands, exercise, time to catch up with loved ones, and more. You're more likely to do these things because you've already set aside the time and made a note in your calendar or planner. Once you start working on your art on this schedule, it'll become a habit and become easier to take the time for your art. Keeping a regular schedule is even more important if you are collaborating with other artists. As time passes, the important people in your life will become used to you taking this time for your art. It will become a regular pattern that they can anticipate.

  3. Create your own specific creative space: Having a dedicated studio space can make it easier to concentrate on your work because there are fewer distractions. Artists who don’t require or don’t have access to a studio face the challenge of making work in the same place that they live the rest of their life. Choose a part of your home to designate as your studio space. Keep only art-related things there, and commit to doing your work in that space. It’ll be easier to get in the creative zone when you feel like you’re in the right physical space for it, even if it’s just a nook in your apartment. Plus, it’ll be easier for family and/or roommates to see that you’re in art-mode when you’re there. 

  4. Communicate boundaries: Let your community know that when you’re working, you’ll need to give your art your full concentration. This might mean that and miss a phone call or a text, or can’t stay late at work. Assure them that you are trying to find time to realize your vision, and not trying to avoid them or blow them off.

  5. Find your creative community: It's beneficial for an artist to spend time with other artists who share similar interests and challenges. From community figure drawing classes to writers’ groups, there are likely plenty of opportunities to connect with other artists to work together or to discuss your work, whether virtually or in-person. Whether the meetings are weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly, you can stay on track more easily since you're carving out time for your art with the meetings. Connecting regularly with other artists will help energize you and inspire you. 

 

Artist Co-ops

Another important part of building a sustainable creative practice is to work collectively with your peers. Artists often find themselves ground down by endless freelancing, underpayment, and generally fighting for scraps in this world. One way to prevent that is to build solidarity and power together through artist co-ops. 

A co-op is a group of people who have come together to pool resources, share in decision-making and governance, and spread out financial risk. Co-ops operate from the knowledge that collectivity lets you accomplish more, and that the people who create value for an institution should also be able to make decisions about how it operates.

Co-ops can help mitigate some of the financial burdens through the sharing of equipment. They can help artists cross-promote one another to boost sales and create a vessel to share knowledge and skills. But, most importantly, there is security in collectivity. By sharing ownership cooperatively, you share both risk and reward. You become less isolated, and better equipped to weather the whims of contractors, buyers, and the market more generally.

Lots of work can be done cooperatively. There are business co-ops, gallery co-ops, platform co-ops, and more! We’ve got a list of many different kinds of worker-owned co-ops to inspire you.

There are plenty of ways for artists to arrange your creative life to be sustainable, joyous, creative, and generative. We want you to find the ways that work for you.

 

The Solidarity Economy for Artists

One way to frame a sustainable creative economy is through what is called the Solidarity Economy. According to Caroline Woolard and Nati Linares, creators of the “Solidarity Not Charity - Arts & Culture Grantmaking in the Solidarity Economy: A Rapid Report”, the Solidarity Economy is "a term used to describe sustainable and equitable community-control of work, food, housing, and culture using a variety of organizational forms."

It is "now recognized internationally as a way to value people and the planet over profits and to unite grassroots practices like lending circles, credit unions, worker cooperatives, and community land trusts to form a base of political power and transform our economy and world. Most people are aware of the discrete practices and models that comprise the Solidarity Economy, but do not know that there is a term that holds these concepts together or that these practices are supported holistically in other countries around the world."

Systems-level change can be fueled by creative ideas, which artists are uniquely situated to generate. At Fractured Atlas, we are excited by the work of artists, collectives, and cultural producers who are dreaming up alternative means of supporting artists whether that is building a worker-owned cooperative or direct aid to the people. Artists and creatives have been at the forefront of building better economies and workings in the arts and beyond.

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