Painter’s Hardnosed Observations About Art, Multiple Income Streams, and Living Within One’s Means


Amy Wilson. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Artist Amy Wilson has built a successful life around art, which involves a thriving studio practice and an academic post at the School of Visual Arts. She’s the rare artist—born in Manhattan—who chooses to live and work in blue-collar Jersey City rather than New York. She’s known for her intimate works on paper, which feature an effusive band of girls in mod sundresses that are reminiscent of a sixties-era Twiggy. Amy’s universe is punctuated by incisive political commentary, utopian musings, and meditations on the transience of life. I’ve been following her career since 2006, and I’ve never been disappointed. What I find rewarding in Amy’s work is its ability to override my usual hasty reactions to dismiss it. Earlier this year, Chelsea’s BravinLee programs organized a solo exhibition of her work called “We Dream of Starfish and Geodesic Domes.” Currently, she is making small drawings (five inches by six inches) that contain one line of text. Our interview discusses how she keeps her studio costs low, combines multiple income streams, and lives within her means to sustain her art and life.

BC: What type of work do you create, and why? As you make the work, do you consider the cost involved in the project? How do you strike a balance between the cost of stuff and the work in the studio?

AW: I primarily make drawings on paper. As such, the cost per work that I make is really next to nothing as far as such things go – there’s only the price of the piece of paper, and then the paint or pencil used to create it. That’s about as cheap as you can get in terms of art production. For me, the bigger issue is displaying the work, because works on paper need to be framed. When the economy was really strong, I could expect that whatever place I was showing at would pick up the tab for framing. Now, that’s not an assumption I can make. For the time being, it isn’t a huge issue; but I’ve been playing with learning how to frame things myself, which saves quite a bit of money.

Amy Wilson. "A utopic vision (after Bosch)," 2011. Watercolor, pencil, collage on paper, 30 x 11 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

BC: How do you manage your money, and how do you earn income? I want to know how economics, and money-management, affects your decisions inside and outside the studio.

AW: I’m an extremely frugal person. EXTREMELY. My monthly bills are very, very low and I fight hard to keep it that way. Where we live is far off the beaten path (which equals cheap living expenses), I cook from scratch at home whenever I can, I mend, and I make do. I walk everywhere and have never owned a car. I’m a relentless saver. We’re always on a budget. But I should say that I like living this way regardless of what my income situation is like, because it fits my political/ethical worldview, which is a whole different story.

I teach at the School of Visual Arts as well as selling my artwork.  Neither makes me a ton of money, but by living very cheaply, it feels as if I earn much more in terms of the kinds of decisions that I make (meaning, if my expenses were higher, I’d have to teach more classes or sell more artwork, but because they’re so low, I don’t).

BC: I am interested in how you became mindful of income and saving. Have you always been this way, or did you come to way of life over time?

AW: My family is very frugal, so that has a lot to do with it. But also, I’ve been in many situations where I got to feel like the “poor kid” – growing up middle class in a wealthy town, going to an ivy league school, working at galleries and going to art events. What I came away from these experiences thinking and feeling was that I didn’t want to ever be a part of this “rich” world. I saw the way that possessions and status can really bring you down. So, I don’t want that.

To me, money buys freedom. That’s the only reason you pursue it. Freedom to do your own thing and to live in a way that is in tune with ideals. Once it starts buying you stuff, it starts chipping away at that freedom – you become responsible for that stuff. And who needs that?

Amy Wilson, (geodesic dome), installation view of "We dream of starfish and geodesic domes," 2012; at BravinLee programs in NYC.

BC: If you seek monetary compensation as an artist, do you see it as a possible compromise to the type of work you create, and your integrity as an artist?

AW: For me personally, no. I see artists getting paid for their work as being part of the equation when you live in a capitalist society. If we lived in a world where we all agreed that people have a right to housing, food, security, education, healthcare, etc., then I would be totally fine not getting money for my artwork, because I would be assured that I’d be getting what I need. But we don’t, so I need to take care of myself.

BC: Do you work to support your art, or does your art support you?

AW: Neither, really. I would make my art no matter what, whether it sold or didn’t. Not to sound cheesy, but making art is a necessity for me. It’s not really an option not to make it.

For me, having a job outside of my studio is a godsend. I’m extremely lucky to get to teach. I’m happy as can be, just holed up in my studio for days on end, not seeing anyone else… but that’s not healthy, and it’s not good for my art. Working forces me out into the world. Sometimes (often) I need that push.

BC: As an artist, how do you monetize your time, and how do you assign a monetary value to your studio practice?

AW: I don’t have a good answer to that. My gallery sets my prices and they’re based on previous sales, etc.

BC: What percentage of your income is derived from outside sources associated with your art? Teaching, lecturing, visiting artist?

AW: I can really only talk about one year at a time because things change, but this year, I’d guess 60%?

Amy Wilson. "A utopic vision after Bosch (Seasteading)," 2011. Watercolor, pencil, collage on paper, 22 x 30 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

BC: The recent economic collapse laid waste to philanthropic giving, government subsidies, and slashed market prices for most artists. As an artist, there are no guarantees. How did you manage the current fiscal crisis, and how did it affect your work inside and outside the studio?

AW: I managed it just by living very simply, as I described before. There’s not much more I want out of my life than to be able to just have a place to live, food to eat, and some time to make my work. In that respect, I’m very lucky – I don’t have any desire to have more than that.

Amy Wilson. "How we came to know we were ready (We felt excluded by high culture)," 2012. Watercolor and pencil on paper, 7 x 5 inches. Courtesy the artist and BravinLee programs.

BC: In addition to commercial gallery representation, you have also exhibited your work in numerous nonprofit venues. According to the 2010 W.A.G.E. Survey (Working Artists for the Greater Economy), nearly 60% of artists that exhibited their work in cultural institutions did not receive any form of payment, compensation or reimbursement.  It’s as if the art world expects artists to work for free. What other profession expects this of its workers, to give services away for free? Despite lack of remuneration, many artists agreed to the offer. Why?

AW: I have to say that I’ve been lucky to show at a few non-profit places that actually pay their artists something – it’s never very much, but it’s a gesture, and I really appreciate it. It’s interesting to note that one of the smaller non-profit spaces I’ve shown at (The Center for Book Arts) pays its artists, while PS1/MOMA didn’t pay us for the Greater New York show (it bears mentioning that both group shows I was in at the CBA and PS1 had a ton of people in them; I don’t know what their policy is on solo exhibitions). And PS1 charges admission to their shows, whereas CBA does not.

In general, just so we know what sort of sum of money we’re talking about, in my experience a non-profit will pay an artist something in the ballpark of $100-$200 for inclusion in a group show, if there’s in fact any policy they follow that says they pay their artists at all. Again, it’s not a large sum of money, it often doesn’t even pay for framing or travel or that sort of thing, but it’s a gesture – one that artists really appreciate. It just says, “We couldn’t do this show without you – thank you.”

What other profession expects its workers to work for free? I’m not sure. But at the same time, there’s an article in the NY Times today about how all the middle class jobs that were eliminated when the economy slumped have been replaced… by low wage earning jobs. Maybe McDonalds (or whomever) doesn’t expect its workers to work for free, but it’s as if they do – when you offer jobs at wages that aren’t liveable, you may as well be paying nothing. I totally support what WAGE is doing and I think they’re fantastic, but I also think that artists need to remind themselves that they’re not the only ones getting screwed right now. At least we get to do what we love… the person who flips burgers at McDonalds hates their job and also just barely scrapes by. That doesn’t mean that we’re being treated fairly or it’s ok for us not to be paid – it just means that there’s an awful lot of us getting screwed, not just artists.

Why do artists participate in shows without remuneration? It’s that elusive, longing sense that we all have, that if only we participate in one more show, if only we work a little harder to “get our work out there,” everything will be ok.

You know, I could go on and on about the mindfuck that is capitalism, and I’m sure you don’t want all of that. But basically, in our culture, if someone is poor, we blame the person for not working hard enough, or smart enough, or trying as much as they possibly can. You never, ever say, “Hey, something’s wrong with this system.” Even if there’s millions and millions of smart, hard-working people falling behind, it’s still all their fault. And so, not wanting things to be our fault, we push ourselves to work harder, and to work in situations that no rational person would work in. Because at the end of the day, you don’t want to look back on your life and think that you didn’t try enough.

Amy Wilson. "How we came to know we were ready (There came a time...)," 2012. 7"x 5". Watercolor and pencil on paper. Courtesy the artist and BravinLee programs.

BC: Have you purchased the artwork of another artist? How did your financial investment in another artist’s artwork influence or inform your practice? (For example, as a result of buying another artist’s work, did you, in turn, begin to value your own work and practice more?) 

AW: I have purchased the work of other artists, but I don’t think it ever changed the way I think about pricing my work.