Money and the Starving Artist: The Zen of Conscious Cashflow


30 funders in the room with combined assets equal to the GNP of a third world country walked into a room.

Hmmm, sounds like the beginning of a bar joke.

OK, make that 30 New York Grantmakers in the Arts walked into a conference room at Philanthropy New York, way above the Times square bustle, buskers and the Naked Cowboy hustling tourist dollars in exchange for an only-in-New-Yawk cultural experience – to talk about money and starving artists.

And we listened to Amanda Clayman, a financial wellness expert, Esther Robinson of ArtHome and David Thomson, a multidisciplinary artist, talk about how to build a healthy financial ecosystem for artists.

As in, yes, starving artists, freelancers, and people with variable income.

Code for: financially fragile.

To be more precise, we are talking about artists who need to build assets and credit scores with confidence.

If this sounds like you, read on. If this sounds like someone you fund, this means you too.


Kay Takeda, David Thomson, Esther Robinson, Amanda Clayman

Some Big Challenges for Artists

DT: Artists don’t have a comfortable relationship with language around money. They don’t receive business training in art schools or how to engage in consistent financial management the way they engage in their own consistent artistic practice.

AC: Artists don’t know how to define or value stability, solvency and security for themselves. It is usually a point of financial stress that brings these issues to the door where they are treated and managed as a crisis “in the moment”. It is a discrete problem to be solved. In these situations artists need to be strategists, not victims. The challenge is they often have underlying attitudes and beliefs around money – anxiety, shame, uncertainty. They need to build a resource toolkit, flexibility and confidence.

ER: Most Americans are financially illiterate and believe in “the white knight” myth. Most artists are undercapitalized with $0 retirement. Millennials have high debt load and 30-40 year olds are facing skyrocketing costs in rent. Artists are most similar to activist and faith based practitioners in their relationship to money, purpose and passion. They are also most likely to be freelance, with 1099 incomes, no savings and low credit scores. How do you maintain your sense of purpose while building sustainability?

Some Big Questions for Arts Funders

  • Here are some questions we are asking each other as funders who care about making a true difference in the life of an artist.
  • Where does philanthropy impact an artist’s life?
  • How can we help artists build access and equity in their overall financial portfolios?
  • How can artists who have variable incomes structure a sustained financial life?
  • What else is out there in the ecosystem?
  • Can we create a large scale support ecosystem that is culturally equitable?
  • What does progress look like?

What Can Funders Do?
AC: Artists have bought into this bohemian myth that it is cool to be “a starving artist”. But that is just a defense mechanism that dignifies the poverty they have created for themselves and to minimize the guilt they have about caring about $. The other delusional myth they believe in is “the white knight”. That someone will come and save them.

OK, so what is my responsibility? What am I going to do? We all have to ask this question of ourselves.

Here’s what Amanda wants to do:  I want to teach artists a healthy process and to detach from the results. To tolerate financial stress, gain skills to create –

Confidence in negotiation

– and identify options or where they can go for additional resources, like being a referral system.

I want artists to:
Think “cashflow solvency, not credit”
Think long term
To become artist/strategists
To be present with your money
To speak money in a different way, as a system
To build confidence and flexibility in your financial practice
To change your underlying attitudes and beliefs of anxiety, shame and uncertainty
To have sustained interactions in monthly mastermind groups

ER: As funders, can we build an ecosystem or a constellation or resources?

“Hey, I’m just the chick with the pamphlets.” – Tweet that!

Can we bring about a systemic change?
Can we have more compassion? I believe grant panelists have to be generous people. They have to be because they will suffer from the “tyranny of volume” reading hundreds of applications.
Can we make it easier for grantees? Let us validate No for unsuccessful grantees. Perhaps we can build a community of grantee cohorts.

Can we support the gaps collaboratively?

Here’s what Esther wants to do:  I want to work with artists in building assets and improving their FICO scores. Artists are part of the gig economy so it is important and also inevitable that you have to diversify in order to survive and to build your financial base.

DT: Longevity is something I like to talk about using the metaphor of giving a person a fish or teaching a person how to fish. In this case, the artist doesn’t need to learn how to fish – the artist has to learn how to fish. Accumulate, stock, add value, commoditize the fish.  Isn’t that a great image?

Here’s a quote I think we would look great on a checkbook cover:

“Teach me how to monetize the fish” – Tweet that!

What is One Thing Everyone in the Big Room Can Do Right Now?
Some of us are doing things that work. Most of what we are doing are modest in scale compared to the actual reality artists live with. Our data sets are small, our workshops, gatherings and number of success stories scarcely make a dent in achieving financial solvency for artists.

Could we all go back to our boards and get approval to support the financial sustainability of artists?
I wonder.

Could we all go back to our process and make one or two small changes?
More likely.

Here are two suggestions that I like:
What if we asked for artist fee – separate from production costs? All of us.
The artist is invisible in a project budget. Setting a priority on the artist fee would start to change the behavior of artists so they think about their value in a capitalist market. Artists are in financial trouble because they have a validation crisis.

What if we supported community of artist grantees?
People benefit from workshops, studies prove this to be true. Over time, sustained interaction of mentorship of enlightened peers is the most effective way to bring about a change in attitude and confidence.

What Can You Do?

OK, now that you know being a starving artist is really not an admirable career goal, you can begin to think about changing your personal relationship with money so you can be control of creating a more confident financial position.


Here are 3 takeaways from today’s session to start you off:

  1. Learn to speak the language of money.  Language is power.  It will name things and give you control over your money in a system that you will become more comfortable and confident in.


  1. Think cashflow solvency, not credit.  Build assets with the same focus as you build your artistic practice.


  1. Ask for help. Change your underlying attitudes and beliefs of anxiety, shame and uncertainty.  Start by contacting experienced financial professionals like Amanda and committed practitioners like Esther.  And definitely follow David.


There is no silver bullet in doing this work as an artist or as a funder.

There are, however, silver linings and more specifically, people who have brought a great wealth of knowledge and compassion to share and are slowly building a solid base of resources for all of us.

Big thanks to Philanthropy New York for hosting us and to Kay Takeda, Director of Grants & Services for Lower Manhattan Cultural Council for bringing us together around this big challenge which cannot afford to remain invisible.

Or a punchline.

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Hoong Yee


About the Author: Hoong Yee Lee Krakauer helps artists & creative people grow their careers with great grant writing strategies & mindsets she has developed over 15 years as an veteran grant panelist, grant maker & grant writer. Get her FREE Master Grant Strategy Worksheet and a weekly dose of insights from a grant reviewer’s point of view.




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