The Creative Hustle: How artists make it pay
Updated: Aug 13
Thanks to support from Creative Scotland's Stay, See, Share fund, I'm delighted to be able to get cracking with a project that's been in development for the past year or so.
The Creative Hustle will collate and share frank information on the realities of how artists and creative practitioners build a financially sustainable living. Through a series of interviews and (anonymous) profiles, it will build a picture of how creative freelancers combine a range of jobs and income sources to make a living. By sharing those stories, my aim is to help more people to understand the options, opportunities, challenges and reality of making a living in the arts.
As a freelancer, you spend years (decades) learning and honing your craft. You study, attend training courses, learn from others more experienced than yourself. When it comes to the mechanics of how to make a freelance career financially sustainable, however, you're largely left to figure it out. Sure, there are training courses on individual tasks such as filing a tax return or on applying for grants. For most freelancers, however, there is a steep learning curve about what I call The Creative Hustle - the skill of stitching together a sustainable financial patchwork from sales, grants, teaching or speaking or leading workshops, government support, working on other people's projects, second jobs (both in and out of the arts) and so on.
I began a freelance career in April 2020 - almost to the day at the beginning of lockdown. Over the past year I've built up a pretty mixed economy for my practice - combining project management for others with my own creative practice (typically enabled by small grants), and fees from speaking and leading workshops in my areas of specialism. I've got things right in working out this creative hustle, but am also conscious of many areas of potential that remain unexplored (and I've certainly built up a bank of 'what not to dos' along the way, too). If I'm making it up as I go along, others must be too.
I want to be clear that this research is not a substitute for, or an avoidance of, the (justified) calls for a fundamental re-thinking of arts funding, and of challenging the employment structures that create the precarious nature of much freelance work. That work is necessary and important. Meanwhile, though, I see this research as a step toward working within the system as it exists, whilst championing longer term change. As Otegha Uwagba puts it in her (brilliant) new book We Need To Talk About Money:
"The difficulty of trying to reconcile feminism - the logical endpoint of which has to be anti-capitalism - with more prosaic economic concerns is as complicated as it ever was. For me, and I imagine for many other women, that challenge is further complicated by my desire to thrive under the prevailing economic system even as I recognise its many flaws".
As the sector starts to look to a post-Covid future, gathering and sharing this kind of information feels vital to help more kinds of people build and sustain careers in the arts - not just those who are most financially secure already. There isn't one 'right' answer to making it work - but there is strength and power in the (varied, complicated, messy) answers that we each work out for ourselves. In sharing those experiences publicly, I hope we can start to create space for more creative freelancers to find the Hustle that works for them. Equally, I hope it'll help those new to the industry, or considering freelancing, to make a genuine and realistic judgement on the risks and opportunities they might face.
Long term, I imagine this as a series of case studies or stories - frank, forthright interviews exploring how artists and creative practitioners make their money. I'd like to cover a range of career stages, artforms, and income levels, as well as a range of individual backgrounds in terms of gender, disability, ethnicity, caring responsibilities and so on. To start with, I'm working with six initial interiewees to create an initial short series, published in autumn 2021. Watch this space!