Worpswede / DPA
When a child first announces they want to be an artist, the parents are often aghast – “Why don’t you learn a profession first?” they say.
And their scepticism is justified. The vast majority of artists cannot earn a living income from art and most need a more prosaic second job.
Even in Germany, where modest government subsidies are paid to 130,000 registered artists, most are also masters of the art of scrimping and living off nearly nothing.
The awakening for the country’s many aspiring artists is all the ruder perhaps because the dream appears a tangible one – four of the world’s top ten artists are German, according to Kunstkompass, a yearly ranking of the world’s most in-demand artists. Their paintings sell for millions of dollars. Each.
And the country also produces possibly the most academically trained artists in the world, with 17,000 students graduating every year with degrees in art or art history.
“Only a small minority of artists can live from the sale of their work or from commissions,” says Eckhard Priller of the Berlin-based Maecenata Institute. The economist and sociologist recently evaluated a survey – the sixth since 1994 by the German Association of Artists (BKK) – on the economic and social state of artists.
Priller was surprised by the results. Over the past 20 years “very little has changed,” he says. “I had expected stronger, more positive developments.”
So what’s going wrong for artists? “The competition is huge,” says Gabi Tausendpfund, a painter in the arty little town of Osterholz-Scharmbeck.
“Many artists are very careful about revealing what they’re doing,” she adds, for fear of having their ideas stolen. “Too many artists are being trained,” adds her colleague Manfred Fischer from the nearby city of Braunschweig. “The market is flooded.” Many artists have to earn their living in other ways, says BKK director Werner Schaub.
“I don’t just have one extra job, I’ve got at least three or four,” says artist and mother-of-two Franziska Hofmann from Worpswede, an artists’ colony that is a tourist attraction in its own right. “Otherwise it wouldn’t work.”
And, perhaps surprisingly, the internet hasn’t really helped artists reach new markets. “Almost everyone has a website but they don’t get much business that way,” says Schaub.
“Individual artists can find it hard to enter the market on their own,” says Fischer. “They can’t get around exhibiting through dealer galleries.”
Hofmann says the self-marketing aspect of an art career is often ignored at many universities. “You’re just thrown into the art market,” she says.
Having their own workshop remains a dream for many artists. “Rents are really high everywhere,” says Fischer.
Hofmann, who lived in Berlin until 2015, says ateliers were in short supply in the German capital. “In Worpswede it’s even worse, there’s are no affordable workspaces for artists.
“Everyone works at home. It’s a shame that’s nothing done about it.”
Few Germans are wealthy enough to buy original art for their homes. German governments have been the main patrons of the arts for hundreds of years, but in the view of the BKK, the public purse doesn’t really spend so much on art.
“Only a very small number of artists benefit from the purchase of art by public institutions,” says Priller.
“Work is most often bought by local authorities,” he says. Germany’s federal and state governments by contrast buy very little. Banks, insurance companies and foundations have become reluctant to buy art more recently, partly because there is such an outcry if they try to resell it later.
The KSK is an institution which has a government budget line to provide subsidized health insurance and social security to artists, who are means-tested to qualify. The average yearly income its male clients report is just 18,121 euros, while female artists earn even less at 13,268 euros.
Artists need to prove a minimum of 3,900 euros a year in actual earnings from their work to qualify for insurance with the provider. The KSK doesn’t rate the merits of the sold work, but it has to be art.
Many artists exhibit their work for free and get nothing for making it, according to Hofmann. In Worpswede there is lots of art for tourists to browse, but the artists are often the ones who “make nothing at all from it” if no one actually buys a piece as hoped.