Opportunity costs

How do you juggle a family, work and other responsibilities with painting?

Working Woman (with Earring), 1910, etching, Käthe Kollwitz, courtesy Brooklyn Museum

“I’m struggling with demands of a family and trying to carve out time for my work. Home schooling, constant interruptions, managing household stuff. I’m struggling to find a place in it all for myself,” wrote a poster on Facebook this week.

When I had my twins in 1989, there was a pernicious canard that women could ‘have it all.’ I was juggling infant twins and a job in an arts organization. A reporter called to do the requisite story on this new mode of working motherhood. She asked me how I was doing. “Not very well!” I snapped. That wasn’t the answer her editor wanted, so she didn’t write the story.

Kandinsky with the Art Dealer Goltz at Aimillerstrasse 36, Munich, 1912, by Gabriele Münter. She let her relationship with Kandinsky dominate her life. That hampered her career.

Three decades later, it’s even more difficult. Today’s young mothers are also hybrid-schooling their kids. This combines the rigidity of the classroom with the demands of the child’s actual presence. My daughter and son-in-law balance their obligations by getting up in the small hours of the morning to do their salaried work. Shades of my mother in the 70s, who went back to college after having six kids. She studied in the wee hours.

I don’t advocate that as a long-term strategy. Chronic sleep deprivation is terrible for your health.

There have been successful women artists through history. They tended to be childless or post-menopausal, as in the case of Anna Mary Robertson Moses. She was from a large family and hired out as a farm hand at age 12. She married and delivered ten children, five of whom lived to adulthood. She really didn’t have time to paint in earnest until she retired and moved in with a daughter. She was 78.

The Young Couple, 1904, etching, Käthe Kollwitz, courtesy Brooklyn Museum

The great exception to this was the German expressionist, Käthe Kollwitz. On her marriage in 1891, she insisted on household help so she could pursue her vocation. The result is some of the most stark and meaningful art of the 20thcentury.

Kollwitz realized that she had to treat her artwork as a real job or it would be swamped by household demands. That meant hiring out the cleaning and childcare. Too many women artists think they can sneak the artwork in around their domestic duties. That doesn’t respect the importance and demands of either homemaking or art.

But don’t think this is a dilemma limited to women. I have a friend who’s a well-known painter. He has four kids, so he works nights at a big-box store to cover expenses.

Sugaring Off, 1955, Grandma Moses. None of her earlier experiences were a ‘waste of time’ in terms of her art. They informed everything she painted.

The successful professional artist has much in common with the successful entrepreneur. He or she must be risk-tolerant, willing to work long hours, and able to strip the chaff away from daily life, creating periods of focus and isolation. As with all self-employed people, the artist’s job is a balance of creative work, business management, and—yes—interruptions.

That focus can be tough on the other members of your household. I have a friend whose boyfriend continually complained about her traveling to plein air events. As painting was essential and he wasn’t, he had to go.

COVID has, ironically, freed us from some of our great time wasters—travel, shopping, and entertainment. But we all still have habits, tasks or hobbies that use time. If you want to succeed as a professional artist, you must weigh their importance. There are some, like family, that are priceless, so choose wisely. Be patient with yourself and realize we’re all juggling the same things.

The Power of Ten

A strong work ethic is a good thing, but sometimes it gets in the way of our real work.

Soft September Morning, by Carol L. Douglas.

Everyone has bad weeks, including me, although I’m usually so annoyingly chipper that it’s hard to tell. This week was a challenge to my sang froid; nothing major (thank God) but a concatenation of little things.

I started the week feeling bloated and out of sorts from too much holiday. My studio is a mess. Then there are the usual stresses of the Christmas season. Like many of us, I suspect, I went back to work on Monday morning in a deflated mood.

On Monday night, I managed to drop my still life—a pie plate filled with water and warm wax—directly into my laptop’s keyboard. I turned it over and shook out the water. My students are smarter than me; they told me to stop our Zoom class and dry out my laptop. My long-suffering technical support department (my husband) disassembled and dried it for me. Other than the sound and mouse, it appears to be working. However, since both of these things are critical, I’ve got a new laptop in my near future.

Add five or six more tealights, then dump in your keyboard. It turned out to be a lousy idea in so many ways.

Of course, I wasted hours of our time. And that made me grumpy. It’s backed up, but shopping for a replacement and recreating a work environment is no simple matter. In the past, this might have thrown me for days.

The Power of Ten is a simple game I play with myself to overcome a bad mood, inertia or paralysis. If I’m facing a mountain of laundry, I tell myself I’ll fold ten items. If my dining room table is covered with papers, I tell myself to file ten of them.

Mess? What mess?

This is not a way to fool myself into doing more; I do stop at ten. It’s a method of staring down what gets in the way of my real work. Like everyone else, I’m the product (in part) of my childhood programming. A strong work ethic is a good thing, but sometimes it gets in our way. Mine tells me I have to finish my chores before I can paint. Doing just a little work gives me permission to ignore the bigger mess.

Taken into the studio, that means I pick up and put away ten things. My suitcase on the floor that still has stuff from my Tallahassee workshop? That counts as six items, once I’ve put them back where they belong. The pile of frames that Colin Pagegave me? That will be eight of today’s items.

Over a week, of course, I’ve managed to put away fifty items. Imperceptibly, order is being restored. More importantly, I’ve not stopped and spent a day cleaning my studio; instead, I’ve painted.

My ten brush strokes took the form of branches on this canvas, which I keep around just for fun.

My problem Tuesday was not just disorder, but worry and distraction about my laptop. That can completely derail me. So, I applied a variation of the Power of Ten to my palette. First, I laid out fresh paints; that always helps. Then I told myself I could make just ten brushstrokes. Voila! I’d eased the transition to real work.

Ten brushstrokes is a great limit when you’re having trouble concentrating. It’s also helpful when you’re confused about how to finish a painting. It makes you stop and think intentionally about each mark you make. That stops you from noodling, which has been the death of many fine paintings. Limit yourself, and see how quickly your mind zeroes in on the real issues.

The working artist survives through cooperation

Perhaps a little less plumage and a little more truth might build more cooperation in the workplace. You first.
Parrsboro marshes, by Carol L. Douglas
I wish I could get the timing right on Parrsboro International Plein Air Festival. Last year, I was a day late because I was teaching watercolor aboard American Eagle. This year I’m not quite so behind, but my husband has a medical procedure this morning. I’ll miss the opening reception where they stamp our boards.
I asked painter Stephan Giannini if he’d bring my boards up to Nova Scotia with him. He’ll hand them off to Poppy Balser, who’ll take them to the cottage we’re staying in. Neither Poppy nor Stephan hesitated when asked. “I’m going right by your house anyway,” said Stephan. I left my studio open so he could collect them while I was teaching elsewhere.
Parrsboro low tide, by Carol L. Douglas
I find myself asking for or offering help all the time. Bobbi Heath and I have shared driving, and I’ll be staying with her at Cape Elizabeth’s Paint for Preservation next week. Poppy will stay at my house while I’m at my residency in July. Meanwhile, she finished a birch panel for me to use this week. Then there was the memorable and fun night Chrissy Pahuckiand I headed out into the mountains to rescue Crista Pisano, and then ended up with an almost-flat tire ourselves.
Cooperation among artists is born of necessity. Most circuit-riding plein air painters operate on very slim margins. The amenities found in other industries—hotels, travel upgrades, couriers, etc.—would eat away at our profitability. We’ve learned to travel austerely and rely on each other when we can.
Parrsboro below Ottawa House, by Carol L. Douglas
I’m always impressed that the same artists who are in direct competition with each other for prizes and sales can remain so collegial. Kvetching about the judging is a time-honored sport, but the artists who win prizes are usually people you know and like.
I see cooperation in my classes, too. Yesterday, I had my students paint lupines, which range from white to pink to blue-violet. I’d decided against bringing dioxazine purple to amp up their mixes. As I walked from easel to easel, I noticed that pigment appearing on more and more palettes. Those who had it were sharing it around, just as they shared different insect repellants in a vain attempt to keep the mosquitoes at bay.
Yesterday’s painting class on Beauchamp Point.
Long-term cooperation is not possible without trust. Trust is fragile, and to be “trusting” and “trustworthy” are not the same thing at all. As most parents eventually figure out, the best way to get others to be trustworthy is to trust them in the first place. We have a deeply-engrained need to reciprocate good for good and bad for bad—in short, to act like friends.
But we live in a society that is—frankly—wealthy enough to dispense with trust. We’re socialized into being great liars, hiding behind images of beauty, affluence, success, and invincibility. We have been told that this is what sells our product and, indeed, our very selves.
The working artist doesn’t have that luxury, at least not on the road. We’ve all seen each other in our old, paint-spattered cars, wearing our paint-spattered jeans. (“We’re taking up a collection to buy you some new clothes,” Captain John Foss told me last week.)
Perhaps a little less plumage and a little more truth might build more cooperation in the workplace. You first.

A tax break for artists?

Working artists are among the winners in this year’s tax season.
Don’t mind me; I’m just using details from old paintings to talk about how I feel about preparing taxes.

The 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act may have been intended to simplify the tax code, but simple it is not. Still, it has a provision that affects you, if you declare income as an artist.

Self-employed artists fork over a payroll tax of 15.3 percent, which cover both sides of our Social Security and Medicare obligation. Corporate employees pay half that, with their employers covering the remaining half. The change was designed, on paper, to redress that.
More importantly, it preserved the historic tax advantage that sole proprietors had over C corporations. Prior to the passage of the bill, the top effective tax rates for C corporations was 50.47%; for sole proprietors, it was 40.8%. When the rate on C corporations dropped, it had to drop for sole proprietors too.

Starting with the taxes you’re doing for 2018, pass-through taxpayers (those who aren’t a corporation) are entitled to a deduction equal to 20% of the taxpayer’s qualified business income, pr profit. For some people, its calculation is going to be very complicated. Once the broad plan was in place, more and more widgets had to be added to make it fair.
Most of the limitations on the deductions won’t apply to the working artists who read this blog. Singles making less than $157,500 or joint filers making less than $315,000 in total taxable income can stop reading here; they get to take the full 20% deduction. (If you’re between those levels and the ones in the next paragraph, you get the deduction in a trimmed form.)
Singles making more than $207,500 or couples making more than $415,000 are subject to different rules. They get no deduction if their business is a personal service firm.
A personal service firm (SSTB) is “any trade or business involving the performance of services in the fields of health, law, accounting, actuarial science, performing arts, consulting, athletics, financial services, brokerage services, or any trade or business where the principal asset of such trade or business is the reputation or skill of one or more of its employees or owners.
To me, that sounded like the very definition of a working artist, whose livelihood relies on his skill. And apparently, others were concerned that this was unduly broad, since it would apply equally to the machinist, riverboat captain, software designer and many other self-employed people. Fortunately, the IRS decided to define that catch-all phrase at the end very narrowly. You’re out of luck if you:
  • Endorse products or services;
  • Allow your name, likeness, etc. to be licensed to sell products like brushes, paints, or a teaching set of pastels;
  • Get paid to appear at events.

But even then, the only part of your income that’s excluded is the part you earned doing those endorsements.

    As Forbes wrote, “If you ain’t famous, as long as you don’t provide services in one of the specific disqualified fields, you are not in an SSTB, even if your skill or reputation is the only thing you have to sell.”
    Of course, it’s just a law, and it’s up to the courts to determine what it actually means. But until then, I’m going to feel fairly confident taking the deduction. A caveat—I’m an artist, not an accountant, so this advice is worth exactly what you’re paying for it.

    The Met raises its rates for out-of-state visitors

    The trouble with high admission fees to museums is that artists can’t afford them.

    The Fortune Teller, 1630, Georges de La Tour, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

    The most loosely-held secret in the city of New York was that the admission fee of $25 to the Metropolitan Museum of Art was “suggested.” Visitors could, in fact, pay whatever they wanted. That policy will end on March 1, when out-of-state visitors will be required to fork over the full amount. (Schoolkids from neighboring Connecticut and New Jersey will be exempt.)

    There won’t be separate lines for visiting and local residents—at least for now. “We can always make the rules more strict,” Daniel Weiss, the Met’s CEO, told the New York Times, “but I’m hoping we don’t have to.”
    The Met sees an average of seven million visitors a year. Of these, only 17% pay the full fee. That’s down from 2004, when 63% paid the whole thing. A highly-publicized lawsuit, brought by two Czech tourists and a disgruntled tourist, brought the museum’s admission policy into the public eye in 2016. They claimed the museum was bamboozling patrons into thinking the admission was mandatory. The people at the desk were—I think—trained to scowl bitterly whenever someone’s ‘suggested’ donation was less than the full amount.

    Heart of the Andes, 1859, Frederic Edwin Church, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

    If you’re old enough, you remember when the Met was free (before 1971).

    Currently the Met takes in about $43 million a year. That’s expected to increase to $49 million, or by $6 million per year. In other words, in ten years or so, the new policy will bring in a little less than the $65 million David Koch spent to build the new fountains at the building’s façade.
    Of course, those numbers are a guess, since nobody currently counts who’s from New York and who’s from Maine.

    Boaters, 1874, Édouard Manet, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

    The Met is in financial trouble right now. The City of New York owns its building and provides $26 million a year in funding support. That amount has been static or falling in recent years. To close the gap, the Met is considering selling its executive co-op at 993 Fifth Avenue. That’s currently occupied by the former director, Thomas Campbell, who resigned eleven months ago and hasn’t yet been replaced. Nobody can say for sure how much that sale would net, but it’s likely to be in the tens of millions.

    Then there’s the Met Breuer, a satellite museum of contemporary art, in the former Whitney Museum. That opened in 2016 as part of the Met’s $600 million renovation plan. The lease costs the Met $17 million a year.

    Garden at Sainte-Adresse, 1867, Claude Monet, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

    Protecting the cultural resources of western civilization adds up, especially when it’s done in a white-glove manner. I love the Met; it’s one of the world’s cultural jewels. I’ll go see the Michelangelo drawings before they close, and I’ll pony up their $25 fee to do so. But I’ll no longer be stopping by to draw on a rainy day, and I’ll visit less often.

    Most working artists are not wealthy, but they need access to great art to learn about their craft. For us, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) has a far friendlier scheme. There you can pay $35 a year for a membership, if you can prove (with a postcard or other literature) that you’re a currently working artist.