Creating Income as an Artist or Designer

by Atim Annette Oton

I woke up early this morning reflecting on how many artists and designers I had worked with over the last five years who came to me with just two or three income streams and they had never really looked beyond the two jobs or three opportunities in the years since they left school. It’s nothing new, but this means they keep the myth of the starving artist. I was born an artist and chose to become a designer and entrepreneur. Business was always around me when I grew up as my parents ran a company in Calabar in Nigeria where I was born. So, my frame is defined – to see opportunities and income streams in several arenas.


To be able to do this process, I tell artists and designers that you must move out of the tunnel vision of just developing as an artist or designer and shift to the creative entrepreneurial mode. This requires multi-level thinking and strategies to produce multiple pools or sources of income. I believe after 20 years in design and entrepreneurship, I have identified 15 work opportunities that must be developed to create income in the creative sector (earlier this morning, I had 13). Most artists and designers limit themselves to just three and wonder why they do not have income or enough income to produce their art or design work. These 15 ways will make you think creatively about your career and illustrate missing income sources:  

  1. Art and Design Work: This is the everyday work that most artists and designers are doing. This work is a job or independent paying work. When I begun as a designer, I worked in architecture. It was the place that defined the beginning of my career and helped me navigate my future in design. This way of working is the first way to experience your career.
  2. Exhibitions or Projects: After a year of work, I participated in exhibitions (a tradition I had begun in college), in this realm, I sold some art work based in design ideas at a gallery group show. For artists, exhibitions are a way to expose your work to the world, build a following, define a price-point for your work and begin to sell periodically. As a business who sold work of artists via exhibitions, I also ask artists to get prints and cards done to sell as part of the original work. Simply, you may not sell your originals but you may sell some prints. I sold some artwork early in my career and garnered about $2000.
  3. Freelance work: I urge artists and designers to seek freelance work – from doing logos to selling your images, drawings, paintings or design work. Here are some places to look or find some freelance work at this site My freelance work provided an extra $3000 – 5000 a year.
  4. Teaching in Academia, Online and/or your neighborhood: It is important to update your portfolio, website and resume (CV) periodically with the work and projects you are doing. Your blog or website should show that you’re interested in teaching as an artist or a designer. You could teach classes or give individual lessons to people who live in your area in your studio at a price. After graduate school, I began looking for adjunct positions to teach design and ended up teaching interior design in New Jersey for about a year and a half before ending up at Parsons teaching Product Design. This process took sometime, I even got offered positions in Long Island that I turned down. It provided an extra income of $4000 to 10,000 a year. I will also ask artists and designers to consider teaching online.user_friendly
  5. Workshops/Seminars for Organizations, Groups and Corporations: As I taught as an adjunct, I began marketing myself as a workshop or seminar instructor and began approaching organizations. This income gave me about $250 – $500 per workshop and since I had experience as an adjunct, it placed me on several speaking lists for several design topics including diversity in design, attending graduate school overseas and art and design options in New York City.
  6. Collaborations with Others: As a strong believer in collaboration, I was and am always invited by others to work on an idea or project. These opportunities take me into new arenas and income streams that I would not imagine. One of my best was in 2000 when I helped with Paula Griffith build the team that first won the competition for th African Burial Ground’s Interpretive Center – the team was led by IDI Construction who had the contract for it.( IDI ended up closing but that project defined my career and was one of the reasons I was hired at Parsons. It was a project I worked on after my day work.
  7. Research and Consulting: The next place I have found work is in research. The African Burial Ground project paved way for the Underground Railroad Experience where I was the Co-Executive Producer, Design Project Developer in Multi-media, Design and Content/Curator doing research and consulting. The project came to Professor William-Myers who I was working with on the burial ground and along with Deirdre Scott, we sat and crafted the project, built the team and had the last website up via City University of New York’s website, a site which is no longer up today. That project was about $40,000 of income over a period of 2 years through my company, A2EO Media, Inc.
  8. Company – Develop with services: I created my first company A2EO Media Inc., design firm and I specialized in idea, content development, conceptual design and strategic planning using multimedia technologies. Artists and designers need to create companies and not just get work as themselves – using their name. In competition with other companies, an organization actually prefers sometimes to deal with another company and not an individual, particularly an incorporated one. It is also good for your taxes as you pay more as with a Schedule C.Strategy-300x225
  9. Writing for Pay: As a child of a writer and journalist, I knew I had some skills, so I begun writing after graduate school. One of the first places was Oculus, an architecture industry publication (which no longer exists) – but it gave me a place to create a writing portfolio – I continued to write periodically and have earned about $3000-5000 a year when I am busy, that is why I keep this blog and have developed it. Some work is not about pay but about creating an audience and developing an idea or project. My work at Huffington Post Black Voices is about Africa.
  10. Not Profit Work: I have volunteered with several non-profits that have ended up hiring me for freelance work or for a nominal income. This opportunity is one that some artists and designers miss in their search for work or income. A not profit brings you in contact with a group of believers, but one caution I would say is that this process takes time and is about relationship building. Expect income of about $1000.
  11. Lectures: Like workshops, I also began approaching organizations and institutions to do lectures. The first one was free and set me off to speak at 3 other places where I earned a speaking fees. doing lectures builds your career, shares your ideas and work and provides a nominal income. I typically tell artists and designers to do at least one every season, so 4 times a year for an income of about $1000-$2000 a year.
  12. Making Products for Sale: My first product was a t-shirt, then a journal and I moved on to earrings and dresses. As a designer, I have earned income periodically with some of these products and lots of websites like can be used to create products. I typically expect an income of about $1000 a year.
  13. Traveling Opportunities: In the beginning of my career, I looked for travel opportunities to build my work and freelance experience, outlook and network. I got paid to travel to explore design schools, art and design curriculum and projects. This was a very specific income stream that I got occasionally. It earned me about 1000-$2000 only.
  14. Competitions: When I left college, I believed like most that you had to do competitions to make a name in architecture so I did several, won a few but realized it was more about my creative energy of exploring ideas and not an income stream. These days, I have moved away from design competitions to work on competitions in developing apps like the one I worked on with Nokia.
  15. Grants: Artists and designers have always used this as a source of income but it is not a reliable as it can be like the lottery. In the years I have gone after grants, I have received no more than 3 in 20 years.

Each of these 15 ways has produced income, taken time to identify people and organizations. I have used my Rolodex, and contacts to produce results. I believe after 20 years in design and entrepreneurship that these 15 work opportunities can be developed to create income in the creative sector for artists and designers. My final comments are that if you earn $20k as an artist imagine what you will earn if you added 14 income streams: I estimate that you double your income with a strategic organized plan of action.


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