Monday, August 20The Voice of London

Are All Artists Really Destined To Be Poor?

The ‘starving artist’ is a term thrown around often when we speak of art, creativity and money. But is the stereotype prevalent in 2015?

Words: Tenelle Ottley-Matthew, Subeditors: Desta Theodros, Keziah Leary

For London-based visual artist Mathew Viera, working a full-time day job to survive has become the norm. The fine art graduate, best known for his vivid abstract style portraits, feels that any time found to create at all is a blessing; currently, he only has the early hours of the morning available to do this.

He says, “The young artists coming through will find it hard because it’s always been difficult for an artist to establish himself or herself, it takes time. As long as you have passion, determination and are happy to put the hours in to make your work, promote it and everything else which comes into running your business, then you will achieve your dream.”

Mathew feels some new artists strongly underestimate the amount of work required to make it. “I do think that some artists need to understand that it’s not going to be handed to them on a plate, there is a lot of work to be done, keeping on the lookout for events and opportunities.”

Source: Mathew Viera
“The King” (Thierry Henry) by Mathew Viera. Source:

Many of us have our own ideas about what a starving or struggling artist actually is. We tend to picture them locked away in their rooms, pouring every fibre of their being into their work for several hours a day. They’re thought to show little to no interest in being paid for their talents and are usually willing to give up material desires for the sake of their art.

Today, the creative industries are an extremely popular career destination for many people, especially the young, as it can be exciting and hugely rewarding. However creative careers are also notorious for being financially unpredictable and unstable. The starving artist trope has been around for centuries, dating back to the late 1800s where it was a typical figure of Romanticism.

Among the new generation of artists and practising creatives a new mindset seems to have developed. Money may not be the first thing on their minds when they create but many are embracing opportunities that could lead to financial gain from their talents. Do people still buy into the starving artist trope today, or have we moved passed it?

According to Kenyan-born artist Dickson Kaloki, the starving artist will always exist. For him, the inherent assumption that artists are always struggling is due to art careers being seen as second-class and valued lower than other professions like law or medicine.

He goes on to say, “With the new generation of artists coming up, they have a different mindset where most of them think they can be successful over night, if they play the game right, this is because of the rapid increase of successful artists across the world. The earlier generation did art for the passion or because that’s all they knew.”

Dickson is now able to make a good living from his work though getting to that stage was a tough ride. Like many other artists, he had to hold down a job to fund his education. In the first two years of his career he sold three paintings and galleries weren’t interested in exhibiting his work. He went against his parents’ wishes by pursuing a career in art; they had hoped he would pursue engineering. He says that even though more people see art as part of their lifestyle and buy art more than before, it’s still difficult if an artist doesn’t have connections or representation from the gallery.

Painting by Dickson Kaloki. Source:

The advice that is given to new and aspiring artists is often similar. Work hard, give it your all, be persistent, don’t make money your top priority and everything will fall into place. Eventually. Hopefully.

Nevertheless, It’s difficult to ignore the need for money, particularly for artists who are based in London. The arts have suffered and continue to suffer major cuts. Recently, plans were made to close much-loved cultural centres such as East London’s Rich Mix and the Harrow Arts Centre, but thankfully they are still open today, and several of the capital’s studio spaces (London is home to almost two-thirds of the UK’s artist studios) have sadly been closed and/or are being redeveloped into housing. But there’s hope. Projects like somewhereto_ offer 16 to 25 year-olds across the country free spaces in their communities to pursue creative and enterprising endeavours.

So it seems that artists don’t have to be doomed to a life of poverty. Some artists naturally won’t want to make any money from their craft and that’s fine. But it’s also reasonable for artists to want to earn a living from their work (times are hard, guys!). Perhaps the stereotype of the starving artist will fade when arts careers are thought and spoken of differently.