With its nationally ranked art school, world-class museum and many galleries, Richmond has a lot to offer art lovers. But what’s it like to have a career as a professional artist? From gallery and online sales to mural commissions and selling ’zines, there is no one path to success. It may sound more romantic and creative than the typical 9-to-5, but just like any job, making a living as a painter or sculptor takes hard work. Here’s how some Richmonders are keeping body and soul together.
The Evolving Entrepreneur
Artist Laura Loe worked as a bartender in the early years, but she has been earning a living as a full-time artist since 1996. (Photo by Jay Paul)
When Laura Loe was studying painting at Louisiana Tech University more than 20 years ago, she thought she’d graduate, get discovered by a gallery and be set for life. “That’s not how it works,” she says, laughing. “I don’t think I had an accurate vision of what a working artist is and does on a daily basis. I definitely thought somebody else was going to do the grunt work.”
She recalls the early days of “putting on her Sunday best” to make the rounds of art galleries with slides of her work in hand. She received many rejections — in retrospect she realizes her work was not ready to show — before the late Helen Levinson of the now defunct Cudahy’s Gallery in Shockoe Bottom agreed to represent her.
Loe worked as a bartender in the early years, but she has been earning a living as a full-time artist since 1996. For years, she also taught painting at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ Studio School, and she has been the director of the summer workshop program for artists at Nimrod Hall in Bath County since 1997. In 2013, she and her husband, Will Loving, purchased Nimrod Hall, an artists’ retreat that she says “is all about being able to live the dream a little bit. It’s where I can focus solely on painting.”
In 1996, Loe held her first open studio show in her Bon Air home. It was such a success that last November marked her 19th open house, during which she takes all of the art that is leftover at the galleries that represent her and tries to sell it herself. “They’ve had their chance — now it’s my turn,” she says.
Loe held a virtual art sale online this year rather than hosting a party in her home. “People will buy furniture off the Internet,” she had thought. “Why won’t they buy art ?” She realized that her open house events were successful because they allowed buyers to see what a painting might look like hanging over their own sofas or fireplaces. Before the online sale, she spent weeks staging her paintings in her home environment and photographing each work for the website. She also wrote a detailed description of each work. She promoted the sale via paper postcards and Google and Facebook ads.
In the first six minutes that the site was live, she had $6,000 in sales. By the end of the weekend, she had sold 60 paintings, from small sketches to large, $4,000 paintings. She offered free shipping, online credit payments and free local delivery. “I was blown away,” Loe says. “The selling of art evolves constantly.”
Artist Chase Beasley put his work on the map using social media sites like Instagram. (Photo by Rob Hendricks)
Using the Internet to sell art comes naturally to younger artists like Chase Beasley, 26, who first made his mark by selling stickers he created and posted on Instagram.
“I got really good feedback, so I went out and got sticker paper, did some more drawings and laminated them,” he says. He set up a website, crudcity.tictail.com, and added screen-printed T-shirts, hats and ‘zines with a subversive, punk, DIY, street-art ethos. Today, he also sells through local boutiques like Rumors, at events such as the Richmond Zine Fest and First Fridays, and has collaborated with local bands and other businesses on designs for album covers and logos. He also works as a sign painter at Ellwood Thompson’s Local Market.
“I think there’s a lot of energy here,” Beasley says of Richmond’s art scene. “I think it’s very open to art of all forms. The street art culture is just growing more and more every year. I think it’s a great place for artists to grow and learn and see other people’s work and connect.”
Streets and Classrooms
Muralist Hamilton Glass has painted in various spaces around the city, including Richmond Public Schools, the Richmond Juvenile Detention Center and Boaz and Ruth. (Photo by Chet Strange)
Hamilton Glass is known for his murals, but he doesn’t consider himself to be a typical street artist. Glass, a Philadelphia native, studied architecture at Hampton University and has only been painting for about four years. While he enjoys participating in street art festivals, where he has the freedom to paint anything he wants, Glass has focused his career on painting community murals in places such as Richmond Public Schools, the Richmond Juvenile Detention Center and Boaz and Ruth. While he is paid for this work, sometimes through donations, he says he doesn’t just do it for the money.
“I find high value in doing stuff for the community,” he says. “That’s the stuff that lasts the longest and means the most. Community work makes up about 60 percent of my work.”
Glass, who has worked as a program leader with Art 180 in Boys and Girls Clubs around town, says that when he paints a mural inside a school and kids get involved, “that ties them to the murals that are going up downtown.”
Glass also does some graphic design. “People don’t really know me for that stuff, but that’s what pays the bills,” he says. “I’m pretty new at this, but I’ve been really busy. I hope this is just the beginning.”
A graduate of VCU and a professional artist for 23 years, Matt Lively recently began painting murals. (Photo by Jay Paul)
Matt Lively has worked full-time as a professional artist for 23 years, but he just recently started painting murals, including a commission at Regency Square Mall this fall in collaboration with Glass and students at Douglas Freeman High School. “I wish I had done [murals] a long time ago,” Lively says. “They are more accessible, and people will talk to me about the work.”
Lively, who has shown his work in galleries since graduating from VCU in 1993, believes that galleries can be intimidating. If people feel more comfortable around art, Lively says, they’re more likely to buy it.
When he was starting out, he would carry a binder of slides of his work around, showing them to anyone he came across, including people in line at the grocery store. It paid off, eventually leading to jobs as an illustrator that helped to pay the bills between gallery shows.
Galleries have been instrumental in his success. “It’s way more effective to have someone else [promoting your work],” he says. Locally, he’s represented by Glavé Kocen Gallery. When creating a body of work for a show, he says he considers the price of the work and always tries to offer something even art students can afford. His small “Beecycle” paintings are always big sellers.
Lively creates work at the other end of the economic spectrum as well. Once an artist establishes a price for their work, he says, “You can never go down, no matter what the economy is like. You have to remember all of the people who have ever bought your stuff. They don’t want to feel like their collection is devalued.”
Painting from the Heart
“In 1986, if someone local was going to buy art, maybe they would go to New York,” Andras Bality recalls. “But now, people want to buy local art." (Photo by Jay Paul)
Until about eight years ago, painter Andras Bality worked a series of jobs to supplement his artistic income, doing everything from delivering Chinese food and driving art up and down the East Coast for galleries, to running a maintenance business that serviced condos in the Fan. Today, with the exception of teaching painting for one week during the summer at Nimrod Hall, “This is how I pay the bills,” he says, while gesturing around his Fan art studio.
A 1986 VCU graduate, Bality says he’s witnessed a big change in the local art scene over the years. “In 1986, if someone local was going to buy art, maybe they would go to New York,” he recalls. “But now, people want to buy local art. Corporate collections want local. I feel like as [Richmond] artists, we have gained validity and are considered serious artists.”
Bality has shown with a number of galleries in town. “I have to sell a certain amount to pay the bills,” he says, “and try to keep as much work as possible out there.” He also counts on the support of interior designers to reach another type of buyer.
“Interior designers have really become very important for me and for other artists,” he says. “They place a lot of art in people’s homes. Galleries can be intimidating to go in and buy a piece of art. Interior designers have the ear and trust of their clients.”
Selling outside of Richmond also is crucial, he says. He’s built a national clientele by selling through the Warm Springs Gallery near The Homestead, a western Virginia resort.
“I know lots of people who are better painters than me who are not as successful,” he says. “There is business involved, making contacts, cultivating a reputation, keeping up with Facebook and your website.” He carries business cards with him at all times, giving them to people who express interest when they see him out with his easel, painting near the James River.
Even so, Bality says he never thinks about marketability as he is creating a painting. “I have to paint from my heart,” he says. “As Van Gogh is quoted as saying, ‘What is done in love is well done.’ If I feel passionately about something, that’s going to be my best work.”