Art of Survival: Minnesota artists must get creative to make a living

From left to right, Michael Torres, Lindsey Halleckson, Mary Ellen Child's and Tamara Ober // Photo by Madalyn Rowell

From left to right, Michael Torres, Lindsey Halleckson, Mary Ellen Child’s and Tamara Ober // Photo by Madalyn Rowell

Creativity has always been a part of life for writer Michael Torres. Growing up in Pomona, California, his older siblings would take him to museums and make him read everything from Disney Magazine to “Beowulf.” As a teenager, his creative outlet was graffiti; when he turned 18, he turned his focus to poetry.

Torres earned a Master’s of Fine Arts in creative writing from Minnesota State University, Mankato, and now teaches as an adjunct creative writing instructor there and at the Minnesota Prison Writers Workshop. He regularly publishes work in literary journals, has earned a CantoMundo fellowship for Latinx poets and a Minnesota State Arts Board grant, and was selected as a 2019 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow. Even with these successes, Torres knows it would be impossible to pursue his art so intently without the financial support of his wife, Elizabeth Horneber, an essayist and professor at Bethany Lutheran College.

For Minnesota artists, earning enough money to make art and make a living is a balancing act that requires multiple income sources, often including a full-time job and grants. But it also requires balancing one’s time—the grant application process can seriously cut into work hours, thereby detracting from an artist’s output.

The costs of making art

To the average consumer, what goes into determining the price of artwork—whether a poetry collection, performance, or painting—can be unclear. It’s easy to assume the price tag reflects the artist’s feelings about that particular work, but the truth is more complicated. Expenses for materials, workspace, general business costs: all must be factored in, with an end goal of ensuring the artist makes some net profit.

The top expenses for painter Lindsy Halleckson are paint supplies and renting her studio space in the Northrup King Building in Northeast Minneapolis, which costs roughly $400 a month plus renter’s insurance. Another expense that takes a toll on Halleckson’s bottom line: shipping costs. 

To get her paintings to galleries interested in displaying her work, Halleckson must foot the cost of shipping materials and postage. This averages $200 for paintings up to 4-by-4-feet and requires boxes specifically designed for artwork (an additional expense). While the galleries pay to ultimately transport the artwork to buyers, they recoup that cost in sales commissions, which can reach 50 percent and also go toward paying for the exhibition space and marketing efforts. 

Halleckson’s paintings are inspired by travels in northern Minnesota, the American West, southern Africa, and the Arctic circle, among other locations, and focus on the atmosphere. “I use a lot of gradients and color washes to mimic the way the sky might look. I want it to be enveloping and touch on different senses,” she says. Fine-tuning her aesthetic is the result of countless hours of painting. “Generally artists don’t count their time as one of their expenses, but if they did, it would be one of the biggest,” she says.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in studio art and art history from St. Olaf College, Halleckson found it difficult to make ends meet by painting full time. So, 10 years ago she took a job in grant management, and for the last three years has worked as a grant coordinator for the University of Minnesota Department of Biomedical Engineering. Halleckson also increases her art-related income through grants, commissions, and fellowships, all of which help her break even after subtracting all of her expenses—all except for time.

Funding the project

Commissions, fellowships, and grants also play a crucial role in funding the work of composer Mary Ellen Childs. While scoring new musical compositions is often a solitary endeavor, producing them requires paid musicians. Not only that, but Childs’ work often involves artists in media other than music. “My work, though it’s musical at the core, may also include movement for the performers or visual material of some kind or multi-image video or special lighting design,” she explains. Recently, she’s been exploring combining music and fragrance.

Commissions ensure that Childs receives at least some payment for her compositions and she views them as an important part of her work. And while she’s happy to take them, Childs says she’s found it increasingly difficult to find commissions over the last 20 years. Even when she does, she says the rates haven’t kept up with living costs.

To support her personal projects, Childs relies on grants and fellowships—applications for which take several hours apiece. Each project often requires applying for multiple grants, especially complex ones like “Sight of Hand,” a piece performed at two St. Paul Saints games last summer that involved the percussion group CRASH, a costume designer, a production manager, and videographers.

Childs averages one grant application per month and is judicious about which ones she pursues. During her 35-year career, the amounts Childs has been awarded have varied from room and board at retreats to a $50,000 U.S. Artist Fellowship. But the process eats up her time—something she doesn’t have a lot of considering her side jobs of coordinating the McKnight Artist Fellowship for dancers and choreographers, occasionally teaching college-level musical composition classes, and completing personal work and commissions.

In addition to competitive national grants like National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, there are many state, regional, and private grants available in Minnesota from such organizations as the McKnight Foundation, the Bush Foundation, and the Jerome Foundation. There’s also the Minnesota State Arts Board, which in 2018 awarded $24.8 million to 443 artists and organizations to spend in the 2019 fiscal year—a slight increase from previous years.

Like Childs, Halleckson and Torres both consider writing grants as just another, albeit less exciting, part of an artist’s job. But dancer and choreographer Tamara Ober wholly disagrees.

Ober worked as a full-time member of Zenon Dance Company from 2002 to 2017. During that time, she pursued her own dance and choreography projects on the side, but writing grants for those projects distracted from her art—and rarely paid off. “My own collection of statistics shows that it isn’t a fit for me,” she says. “I’ve probably spent equal or more time writing grants in the past 20 years than I have spent making my own art.”

When income sources run low

While there are positions that allow dancers to practice their art full time, Ober learned the hard way that it only takes one thing to completely upset that balance: about a year ago, an injury required her to leave Zenon. Since leaving, she has worked as an independent videographer and video editor, picking up odd jobs—painting, hosting on Airbnb, house sitting, administrative work—to supplement her income enough to make ends meet. 

Ober says she’s currently reassessing her goals as an artist, including how she can serve a wider audience once she has time to think about anything other than just getting by. Her ultimate goal: to become financially stable enough to start an independent artistic practice again.

Because living costs are lower in Minnesota than in other cities with vibrant arts scenes, life as a full-time artist is relatively more attainable, says Ober. “Over the years, numerous New York choreographers who have worked with Zenon when I was a dancer said how lucky we were, as our yearly salary was semi-livable,” she says. However, that’s little consolation for artists like Ober who struggle to dedicate adequate time to their art while finding ways to pay for living expenses.

Reflecting on the constantly changing income sources she’s dealt with during her career, Childs has concluded that making a living solely by creating art is a dream for many and a reality for very few. Ultimately, though, it should be the work, not the money, that drives artists. “Hopefully, that’s why people go into anything—not just the arts—because there’s something that really calls you about it,” she says.

Some artists, including Halleckson, don’t view having a day job as all bad; it allows her to experiment more, she says, even if she has less time to do so. “In order to make work that is challenging and new and could possibly fail, I feel like I need to work another job,” Halleckson explains. “Even if I didn’t need the health benefits and to pay off student loans and all that stuff, I think I’d still be working in order to take the pressure off of needing to sell art.”

When the hard work that this balancing act requires doesn’t seem to pay off, it can lead to added stress and frustration. That’s what happened when Torres’ poetry manuscript, “Homeboys with Slipped Halos,” fell just short of winning multiple publication contests. “It can sometimes get me down,” he says. “But I wake up some mornings and I’m really happy that I can go look at a poem that I’ve been working on and grappling with. […] That’s the core of it. I do it because I love it, whether I get all this money or I don’t.”