How to Be an Artist Without Being Poor as Hell
Melbourne sculptor Mathieu Briand on the secret to pulling in five figures a month.
Photos by the author
Being an artist looks fun, but the average painter, sculptor, and performance artist can barely afford to eat. A report by the Australian Council For The Arts found the average annual income for an Australian creative is $18,900. To put that in perspective, the poverty line in Australia is $22K.
But despite these depressingly low figures, the same paper points out that 12 percent of artists earn over $50,000 a year, which for lack of a better term is something approaching “successful.” So who are these 12 percent? In particular, who are the people at the top of the arts pyramid actually making bank? And how?
Mathieu Briand is one of these artists. Based in Paris and Melbourne, Mathieu’s sculpture and installation pieces get exhibited all over the world—which at times earns him a five-figure salary per month (he was a bit cagey on the specific number).
I met with Mathieu at his studio inside the Preston-based gallery Gertrude Contemporary to get the lowdown on how he become a financially successful artist.
“Do you like my shirt?” Mathieu asked as I arrived, pointing to his DIY Supreme shirt. “I thought I’d dress up.”
Rather than the smugness you’d expect from a rich artist, Mathieu offers a mix of candidness and humour. His studio reflects this, looking like more of a workshop than a studio. It’s filled with half-built robots and electronics, overshadowed by a giant collage of humanoid photos.
“The key to [artistic] success is to be independent—having the freedom to achieve what you want to achieve,” Mathieu began, highlighting the fact he doesn’t think that a big income constitutes success. “But you can’t be artistically independent unless you’re financially independent. So money has always been important.”
Despite the taboo of discussing income, money has always been a factor in who succeeds and fails. Throughout history, famous artists either came from wealthy families or were able to commercialise their art, like Jeff Koons or Rodin. Mathieu told me he’d been independent for the last 23 years; not from old or new money, but from pragmatism.
WORK HARD, BUT WORK SMART
Mathieu’s hometown of Marseille didn’t have a strong art scene, and he knew he’d have to work to get noticed. So at 23, after being expelled from the renowned art school École des Beaux-Arts, he directly contacted the biggest gallery in Marseille, as well as the curator of the local art museum, and hassled them to look at his work. They did, and he was invited to host an exhibition.
“It’s about being proactive,” he told me. “Even now, I’m still proactive. I’m [financially] okay, but in six months, it could be terrible. If you want to survive, you have to question your own practice and how you finance your practice. If your work doesn’t fit in any system, you have to invent [the] system.”
KNOW YOUR FEE
After getting his first large-scale exhibition, Mathieu started to turn heads. He was contacted by another well-renowned art institution to exhibit his work. It was an achievement, but according to Mathieu, it was customary in France for galleries to not pay artists.
“For me, I had no family money, so I understood very quickly that the story of ‘I will make money and when I’m rich I’ll do art’ didn’t exist. I also understood from a young age that I needed to charge a fee.”
Mathieu said that due to a combination of youthful arrogance and egocentricity, he demanded a fee. His logic was that if these people wanted to exhibit his work, he must be important. And if he was important, he was good enough to pay.
“They said to me, ‘We don’t pay artists to exhibit!’ so I asked, ‘Are you paid?’ Which no one was doing,” Mathieu recalled. Eventually they buckled, paying him 10,000 French Francs, around USD $2,000 at the time.
Mathieu got paid, but it wasn’t a guarantee for the future. As we spoke, Mathieu reiterated that despite his earnings, there was no financial certainty for an artist. So he developed some secondary sources of income, just in case.
“I had this moment where I decided to have finances outside of my work, so I started to collect robots from the 70s. They’re very valuable, and there’s an international market. When I’d run out of money and work was in a difficult moment, I started trading these robots. That lasted one year and it was how I got my income.”
This aptitude for investing ultimately allowed Mathieu to pursue his craft uninterrupted. Too often, artists find themselves locked into dead-end jobs in hospitality or retail, unable to find time or motivation. But as Mathieu continued, this approach to money became incredibly slanted towards investment, which was how he discovered the classic car market.
Mathieu’s first car was a Porsche 9-11 that he bought off ebay. The idea of an emerging artist buying a Porsche might sound absurd, but as Mathieu explained, it was about long-term gains rather than short-term needs.
“What I was thinking was that if I bought a new car for $10,000, in three years it’d be worth $3,000. I couldn’t lose money like that, so I bought a Porsche for $10,000, and when I sold it, it was worth $100,000. The car didn’t cost me anything and I had a lot of pleasure,” Mathieu said, gleaming. “It’s this idea of, 'How I can always make money on the side?' It’s having that hustle.”
CASHING IN ISN’T ALWAYS SELLING OUT
Creativity and commercialism are often seen by artists as mutually exclusive. But according to Mathieu, this thinking is wrong. Although he’s never taken on commercial work, he’s never been opposed to it and has only refused because propositions have been off-brand. He told me that selling out is fine, as long as you can maintain a sense of your artistic identity.
“The trick is to not change the meaning of your work” Mathieu explained. “There’s a wrong and to be commercial. Taking this work you're doing it just for a shop who’ll like it is wrong. It’s not doing art for you.”
“[It’s] like sex—You know when it’s love and when it’s not. An artist knows when there’s no integrity in their work. You have to resist [money], and know when you’re doing it for love.”
BE WHERE IT IS OR MAKE IT
After establishing his independence 23 years ago, Mathieu has been able to work freely, creating a name for himself and having exhibitions and shows all over the world before eventually moving to Paris, and then Melbourne. And he believes that where you live dictates the kind of money you’re able to make as an artist.
“If you’re ambitious and in Australia, you have to leave the country. It’s a country of 24 million people with a market of 100 people,” he said. “An artist by themselves in a city like Melbourne with no money today has no hope.”
But as Mathieu continued, he told me how relocating to an established community isn’t the only answer. For those stuck behind, it’s about making the community. If you’re unable to go where it's all happening, then work together to bring people to you.
“Look at New York. Before World War Two, it was nothing, but some people got together and now it’s the first art market today. They make billions! If you need to say, squat a warehouse, then do it, but you must organise yourself. Community is always an answer.”
As I shook his hand to leave, Mathieu finished with some simple, age-old advice. “Art is just about finding a solution to whatever problem you face,” he said. “That’s all.”
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