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How Do You Make a Living, Mid-Career Artist?

Noah Davis talks to Hank Willis Thomas about the value of an MFA, the problems and advantages of living in New York as an artist, and what banking and art have in common.
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Hank Willis Thomas is midway through the long, slow climb to success as an artist. It's the type of career that's seen interest and frequent popular works but doesn't feel solidly sustainable. He talked about the value of an MFA, the problems and advantages of living in New York as an artist, and what banking and art have in common.

There's the romance of the poor, starving artist, but how long did it take you to build what you felt like was a sustainable career?

Hank Willis Thomas. (Photo: Andrea Blanch)

Hank Willis Thomas. (Photo: Andrea Blanch)

I don't know what a sustainable art career is. You never really know. You might get to the point where you feel like your work will be relevant for a few years. You might make a work that you think will have long-term impact or be lasting as far as art history, but you don't know if that's ever going to benefit you. Sometimes there's work that I made 10 years ago that people highlight or talk about as much as stuff that I made five years ago or this year. There's no such thing as sustainable until you get to your late 50s and you've had a few decades of sustained interest.

From an economic perspective, artists are never really taught how to think about money in art school. Fine art is one of the few careers where most people would gladly pay to do their jobs. Most of us do. Even when you do get paid to do it, it takes a long time to realize that you're getting paid. A lot of us wind up spending the money that does come in on new projects. It doesn't translate that this is going to be a long-term, consistent opportunity until much later.

OK, but what about you specifically? Have you gotten to a sustainable place or are you still putting money back into projects?

I think you get a little bit smarter each year. Many people invest in different markets and industries, but as artists, our primary responsibility is to invest in ourselves. It's not just about money; it's about time. From my experience, very few of us really do a great job of that. When you see an artist who seems like they are doing well from a external perspective, you talk to them and they are like, "I don't know." They are still learning the hard lessons because we didn't go to business school. We're learning the hard way each step.

Now that there seems to be a broader appreciation for the necessity for artists and fine art, I'm really excited. Maybe there will be more educational opportunities to help artists think long term. I don't know if thinking long term is good for art, but it might be good for artists.

Do art schools have a responsibility to teach students about the financial side?

The chances that you'll make any money making art are so few and far between that it is like, "Why give everyone false hope?" The main thing I try to encourage is that if you want to be an artist, don't be realistic. There are programs that try to talk about professional development and how to get grants and opportunity, and I think they tend to be pretty good. But no one really knows how to tell you what to do once you get the grant or the opportunity because if you have a lot of experience in that, you probably aren't teaching a class. And if you had success with it, it was likely pretty idiosyncratic, so you can't really teach someone how to follow your method.

But I do think that basic education about finance, investment, and value when it comes to art could be really beneficial. Some people do know it. They just tend not to be the artists.

New York is an expensive city to live in, and there's talk of the creative class getting pushed out. What are your thoughts on the benefits of living here versus the costs?

New York is a great place to make a lot of money. It's an even better place to spend a lot of money. I think it works for those of us who like that kind of gamble. But in that environment, it's very difficult to be creative. I think you can be an artist here, but it's not like previous moments when you could afford to be creative. There was a time when an artist in New York could make work that in hindsight might have been terrible, but brilliant moments came through some of these terrible experiments. With the high cost of space and time in New York, who can afford to spend all day doing something that will likely bring no return? A lot of the brilliant moments in art come from that. That's one of the luxuries of being able to go to an MFA program: You're afforded time to think about whatever you want to think about and spend time exploring that.

What were some of your keys to success?


It has to be more than luck.

My father once told me something when he was talking about his personal successes and personal failures. He said that he'd always had an irrational idea of what he was capable of. I think this irrational idea of what you're capable of is possibly a key to quote unquote success. When you face certain failure, you cannot be dissuaded.

Was there a time when you were struggling and thought about giving up on art and doing something else that could be more financially stable?

Such as?

I don't know. There are hundreds of jobs that are not being an artist.

Such as?

You could be a banker. Be a lawyer. Be....

Oh, I think I might need some skills for that one. When I say that, I mean that I don't believe there's any security in life. There's only false security. Have I wished that I kind of had a job and had certain skills to [do something else]? Yeah. I think everyone has that moment where they are like, "You know what? I should go live on an island and take it easy. Live off the land. Or maybe I can get a good teaching job." But you know what? Frequently, we get to those other places, and we realize that there's something that we really miss from whatever we were doing. If I were to become a banker, I would still view it as part of my art practice. It is awfully creative. There's a lot about questionable and speculative ideas and properties.

Fair enough.

I just don't know. There are people who have had long careers and spent a long time investing in an industry and then that industry just evaporates before our eyes. Remember camera stores and film processing stores? Remember photographers? Now everyone is a photographer. It's that much harder to distinguish yourself as a photographer than it was even just 10 years ago. Or a staff writer for a newspaper. That job is gone. I don't know where the job security is anymore. The only security is believing in yourself really.

You have more than 72,000 followers on Instagram and a strong presence on other social media outlets as well. Does that help financially? Have you ever met a collector via Instagram?

I know people who do meet collectors through it. I am not one of those lucky people. I know people who have gotten dates. You'd think with 72,000 followers somebody would be interested, but it hasn't been my experience. It does give me a greater opportunity to exhibit my work. Following in the social media context is such a passive activity that it's allowed me to be subconsciously in the minds of people who might not be going out of their way to look at what I'm doing. The benefit has been more in these passive things. I'll be somewhere, and someone will mention that they saw something I did. There's a longer-term benefit for me more than there is an immediate quantifiable benefit.

Have you actively focused on building out your social media platforms?

There are moments when I'm actively thinking about it, and then there are moments when I'm not. I used to love taking pictures and I still do, but there's not the same necessity or uniqueness of when it was more of a manual medium. I like to learn from other people, and I like to share what I learn with other people, so for the most part, it's pretty organic.

You're represented by Jack Shainman Gallery in New York City and Goodman Gallery in South Africa. How does the economics of the gallery system work?

Literally every situation with every artist and gallery is different. That's the most important thing. Typically, when I have a show, the gallery has helped me [financially] make the work. I hope. Not always. If they sell the work, there's a percentage that they get and that I get. But it's always dangerous to say what it is because you never know when it's going to change.

Is that part of the learning curve?

Yeah, but I've also worked with my main New York gallery for 11 years. I don't know how it's really supposed to be done. I trust my gallery, and I like them. To me that feels more important.


How Do You Make a Living? is an ongoing Q&A series.