Tag Archives: Artist Stereotype

Starving Artists vs Millionaire Artists

The concept of “the starving artist” is a belief popularized by the 19th century Romantic Art Movement. They made it fashionable to be poor.

These were the artists that rejected the classic teachings of the academies as well as traditional patronage. They intentionally alienated themselves from formal training, worldly success, and family support so they could create “what came from their soul and their own impulses”. Martyrdom was the hash-tag of the day.

Adelheid M. Gealt in her book, Looking At Art, A Visitor’s Guide to Museum Collections examines the artist’s self induced alienation from society:

“The early masters-Titian, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Guercino-became the stuff of biography and legend that emphasized their talent, inspiration, and romantic attachments. Gradually, the eighteenth-century ideal of the artist—that urbane, witty, poised, and cultivated member of society gave way to a new model. Rough, uncultivated, isolated, misunderstood, and tortured by greatness, the nineteenth-century artist was a creature of genius and superior sensibilities who fulfilled his destiny best by dying young.”

Gealt goes on to say that because the Romantic artist relied primarily on inspiration and the internal voice of genius, failure was accepted as a natural outcome of any artistic endeavor and that without an occasional disaster, no artist was considered authentic.

Film and books love recreating these romantic scenarios about artists because they are dramatic and drama sells. Unfortunately, continually recreating these martyr-for-entertainment moments has society and many artists trapped in a samsaric loop.

Artists in the 21st Century do not have the luxury to separate themselves from society. Technology is doing that for them in the same way it is causing a huge divide in society. We are told that to succeed we must constantly post our personal evolution as an artist on social media when in professional reality, it strips the emotion out of our images, makes it feel commonplace as well as unnecessary to purchase. (For more on this phenomenon I highly recommend Jaron Lanier’s best selling book, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now).

Millionaire artists are not interacting on social media but immersing their non studio time in genuine human interaction with communities, corporations, and collectors.

The art world has devolved in America over the last decade, into two separate realities. There are the 1% financially elite, and then the working poor. Its middle class is disappearing. This should concern all of us because the arts are the unseen fabric of every thing you use or purchase in life.

As in the rest of the business world, the art world has its own 1%. They are painters, sculptors, and photographers that have become self-made multi millionaires or billionaires off their art.

We need to stop perpetuating the 19th century stereotype of artists being self absorbed martyrs too delicate to make a living. Until we do, we will continue to lose the backbone of every innovation America has to offer. One of my goals years ago as an Arts Ambassador for the US State Department, was to get artists to believe a living income was possible and what they did was of value. To that end I would like to share some of our millionaire success stories.

Many artists will not disclose their net worth (for obvious reasons). One only has to wonder what Kitsch painter Odd Nerdrum’s net worth must be to owe 2.6 million in taxes? I’ve chosen only the most glaring examples based on auction or highly publicized sales.

Here are a few living painters and their net worth in US dollars. I’ve included female as well as male artists. 

Millionaire Artists - John Curran

John Currin (American, b.1962) Net worth 1.43 Billion. Currin paints figurative art with provocative sexual and social scenes.

Damien Hirst (British. b.1965). Net worth 1 Billion. Conceptual Artist.

Ed Ruscha (American, b.1937). Net worth 1.2 Billion. Long associated with the Pop Art Movement, over 50 of Ruscha’s paintings have sold for over a million dollars at auction and another for slightly under 7 million at Christies, NY.  His paintings and photographs depict iconographic Southern California.

Jeff Koons (American, b.1954) Net worth 500 Million. He sold one of his balloon dogs for $58.4 million in 2013

Jasper Johns (American, b.1930) Net worth 300 Million (technically he’s a sculptor).

David Choe (Chinese America, b.1955) Net worth 200 Million.

Andrew Vicari (Welsh, b.1932) Net worth 142 Million. Official painter to the king of Saudi Arabia. Known as the Rembrandt of Riyadh.

Anthony Gormley (London, UK, b.1950) Net worth 100 Million (sculptor). Many of his works he has used his own body for the moulds.

Takashi Murakami (Japanese, b.1962) Net worth 100 Million. This Tokyo based artist has created painted sculpture for fashion, advertising and animation. As an artist, he achieved celebrity status via Louis Vuitton and later from an album cover created for Kanye West. He sold one piece of sculpture at Art Basel for over 2 million dollars.

David Hockney (British, b.1937) Net worth 40 Million. Hockney began his career with the pop art movement of the 1960’s. Hockney is as famous as a stage designer as he is as a painter. Appointed by the Queen to the Order of Merit and is a Royal Academian.

Gerhard Richter (German, b.1932) Net worth 40 Million sold a painting for 37.1 million in 2013 and 44.52 million in 2015 setting world records for paintings sold by a living artist.

Anish Kapoor (British Indian, b.1954) Net worth 62.7 Million. Large public sculptures. Former Turner Prize Winner.

Andreas Gursky (Germany, b.1955) Net worth 30 Million. A photographer who sold one print for nearly 4.5 million. He creates the illusion of wide spaces.

Cindy Sherman (b.1954) Net worth 35 Million (a photographer but a woman so worth mentioning). Queen of the selfies, photographed herself 69 times in every female cliché.

Richard Prince (b.1949 in the Panama Canal Zone). Net worth 30 Million. Not a man liked by other artists. He is known for appropriated imagery. He re-photographs, copies, scans, and manipulates the work of others; in other words he has crafted a technique of appropriation and provocation.

Christopher Wool (American, b.1955) sold a painting for 26.5 million in 2013.

Georg Basellitz (German, b.1938) Net worth 20 Million. Neo-expressionist post modern painter known for bright colors and upside down figures.

Chuck Close (American, b.1940) Net worth 25 Million. Photorealistic images. Recognized by his massive, room size portraits.

Brice Marden (American, b.1939) Net Worth 500 Million. Minimalist . Although classically trained at Yale he developed an interest in Abstract Expressionism. I love how the universe really wanted this man to create art. Marden was going to go to school in Florida to learn to be a hotel manager when a teacher gave him a MOMA membership card to go see an exhibit by Jackson Pollack who had just died. He decided to transfer to Boston University for his BFA. This in turn led him to a summer program at Yale’s Summer School of Music. He became classmates with soon to be famous artists like Chuck Close. He also married Joan Baez’s sister, Pauline. He was exposed to Jasper Johns when working part time as a guard at the Jewish Museum.

Here are some women artists and what their paintings demand:

Cady Noland (American, b.1956) 6.6 Million (one painting), 9.8 million one painting “The broken illusion of the American Dream”, Silkscreen ink on aluminum plate.

Yayoi Kusama (Japanese, b.1929) 5.8 Million (one painting). Works primarily in sculpture and installation.

Bridget Riley (British, b. 1931) 5.1 Million (one painting), British Op Art.

Julie Mehretu (Ethiopian/American b.1970) 4.6 Million (one painting).

Jenny Saville (British, b.1970) 3.5 Million (one painting). Known for large scale painted depictions of nude women.

Viji Celmins (Latvian, b. 1938) 2.4 Million (one painting) 3.4 million Sotheby’s (2014 painting). Photo realistic paintings of natural environmental elements.

Beatriz Milhazes (Brazilian, b.1960) 2.1 Million (one painting). Brazilian modern cultural imagery.

Lee Bontecou (American, b.1931) 1.9 Million (one painting). Excellent sculptor and printmaker.

Marlene Dumas (South African, b.1953) 6.3 Million (one painting).

Rosemarie Trockel (German, b. 1952) 4.9 million  (one painting). Creates a number of pieces in knitted wool.

Tracy Emin (British, b.1963) 4.3 million. Installation art.

Cindy Sherman (American, b. 1954). 35 million (photographer) sold one print for 4 million, another 2.7 million.

Hugh Honour, Romanticism (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), p.16

Featured Image: Jasper Johns, Two Flags 1973


Looking At Art, A Visitor’s Guide to Museum Collections by Adelheid M.Gealt R.R. Bowker Company, New York & London, 1983. P.366-367

Artists and Money: Ending the Martyred Stereotype • Uriél Dana Fine Art

Women In the Arts: Drawing New Boundaries • Uriél Dana Fine Art

Making Money As An Artist: To Have Talent Once Meant You Were Wealthy • Uriél Dana Fine Art

Artists and Money: Ending the Martyred Stereotype

© Uriél Dana 2015.

Did you know that it only became “fashionable” for artists to be poor during the time of the Romantics? The term “suffering for one’s art” was actually coined by an unsuccessful artist in his best-selling book to justify his lack of sales. Ironically, as an author (a different art form) he was quite successful. You know him as John Ruskin.

Artists are almost always portrayed in movies and books as slightly crazed or suffering martyrs. In art classes it was common to see students adopt this persona to get attention. Although creativity cannot help but reflect itself in its creator, the truly mad in our profession were often suffering from lead or mercury poisoning from art materials. It is unfortunate this misguided stereotype has worked its way into the mass consciousness.

Being an artist is not synonymous with being poor. All professions embody people who rise to the top of their field; as well a few that will do a bit better than average. There will also be the inevitable lump of those who do only what they must just to just get by.

The median income for an artist in the USA that consistently works at his craft is about $54,000 ($123,000 if you live in Delaware). About 20% will earn $100,000 to $200,000 per year. A tiny percent make over a million dollars a year.

To succeed in the arts requires knowing that it is a business. This includes doing all of the things for your business that would be done in any other.

Money is not the death of your art. Usually it just means we’ll have better materials, better studio, and “better weed” (if that’s what inspires you). You’ll pay more taxes, but trust me, you will sleep better.

In my article, Roll Your Own Dharma, I write about working with foreign art communities as an Arts Ambassador for the US State Department with the late Gage Taylor. We met and worked with hundreds of artists.

Over and over we observed impeccably painted work collect dust on walls and paintings rendered with unbelievably poor skill that sold like crazy.

Without fail, when we met the non-selling artists, they were angry at the world and felt the world owed them a living.

When we met the artist who’s work sold, we would encounter a joyful, spirit-filled human who loved what he was doing, loved people, and was filled with gratitude. They also had a sense of service to something larger than themselves.

The energy you are channeling as you create stays in that piece of art forever. You can paint a nice picture, but people will feel the anger subconsciously and not want to be around it, much less buy the painting.

For years I’ve been reading and studying about artists that have combined their talent, purpose, and business in equal manner.

For example, Raphael lived more like a prince than a painter. When he died he not only provided for his mistress and his friends, but many of his disciples. He provided for the restoration of one of the ancient tabernacles in the Pantheon. He also left money to commission a marble statue of “Our Lady” for an altar that was also located in the Pantheon.

According to Giorgio Vasari in his Lives of the Artists, Leonardo DaVinci was also very generous. He fed and sheltered all of his friends, rich or poor. He sold the Mona Lisa for today’s equivalent of a million dollars and made his client pay in silver bars.

Vasari was a frustrated 16th century artist. Frustrated because he became better known for his architecture and artist biographies than his own huge body of work (again, a different art form). Through his writings we have learned that Giotto was very wealthy and managed his own business affairs. Not only was he a landowner but he also loaned money at interest like any other prosperous Florentine.

In the book 50 Great Artists we are told that paintings by Jan Van Eyck brought their actual weight in gold. This would have been a substantial amount as they were painted on heavy wooden panels.

We also learn that Rubens was a wealthy artist, diplomat, man of letters, and a collector of art.

In Late Gothic to Renaissance Painters other successful artists that put equal energy into their business affairs as they did their art are discussed. “It was said that Titian was not only a born prince among painters, but a self made prince in a commercial society. He knew his work was a form of luxury merchandise over which he had a monopoly so he naturally intended to be well paid. He had an office that he honored as much as his studio.”

This is only a handful of artists (from the 15th and 16th century) that have succeeded financially because of their talent, kindness, and love towards others. (In another article I will cover later centuries and include women artists).

I love how the Victorian painters actually worked in suits and kept office hours. Although dressing up does not seem practical for the modern working artist, perhaps it is time to embody a new image? Surgeons do not operate for a great yelp review; nor would a supermarket offer you free groceries for the experience. This doesn’t mean it won’t be hard financially at times. All businesses have difficulty in the beginning and sometimes they go through rough patches, but with persistence, they thrive.

On a more modern note, a New York based activist group called W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy) has been focused on regulating the payment of artist’s fees by nonprofit art institutions. They have a manifesto that will help establish a sustainable model for best practices between cultural producers and institutions that contract their labor. There is also a W.A.G.E. group in London. Artists can join and help pave the future for fellow creatives. Nonprofits can become W.A.G.E. certified. I’ve included a link below.


Featured Image: from the Immortal series by Toby de Silva