MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
The phrase starving artist may be a cliche, but while most artists aren't literally starving, very few actually make a decent living creating only the work they love. Today, we begin a series called How Artists Make Money with the stories of three visual artists in New York City. Jon Kalish reports on how they stay afloat.
JON KALISH: Nancy Smith has worn many hats in the 25 years she's been part of what she refers to as New York City's underground art scene.
Ms. NANCY SMITH (Artist): I embroider. I photograph my family. I make collages. I paint. I draw.
KALISH: Smith, who is 57, is also something of a wheeler-dealer who cobbles together a living as a journalist and art dealer. She runs an ad-supported Web site called artloversnewyork.com, which features pictures and a blog about the city's art scene. Smith barters with artists, trading coverage of their shows for a piece of their work that she later sells to help pay her bills.
Several of Smith's own watercolors and banners are currently being exhibited at Other Music, an independent record store in Manhattan's East Village. The works are hung high on the wall. The bottoms are seven or eight feet up from the floor. It's the first time Smith has ever shown in a store.
Ms. SMITH: I think it's really fun to see framework about packaged work. People come in, and they're more able to see my art as art than in an art gallery because you can understand that here's music, here's graphics, and this is art.
KALISH: Smith's watercolors are pleasant depictions of birds, flowers and vases. Her banners are made with embroidery and cutouts, and so far, two of them have been sold at the record store.
Sixty-five-year-old Phillip Levine wasn't so lucky when he exhibited in restaurants. For the last 16 years, Levine has made his living arranging painting workshops abroad, mostly in France. His own painting doesn't pay the rent.
Mr. PHILLIP LEVINE (Artist): I'm not making a living, and I'm not sure I'd ever want to do that. I think I always want to have part of my living coming from sources related to art, like my business. What is a goal is to get my work out more. I want more people to see it.
KALISH: Levine creates brightly colored figurative paintings: boxers, street scenes. He shows them at Pleiades Gallery, a co-operative in Manhattan's Chelsea art district.
Co-op members pay monthly dues and have to volunteer around the building: installing shows, advertising exhibits, and updating the gallery's Web site. Every month, two different co-op members get to mount their own solo shows.
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KALISH: The artists have to cover the cost of their openings themselves, which can run a couple hundred dollars between wine and cheese and mailing invitations. That's fine with Phillip Levine because, unlike commercial galleries, the co-op doesn't take a cut and offers a measure of independence that commercial galleries don't.
Mr. LEVINE: I'm the one who decides what to show without anybody else standing over me and telling me what I can and can't do, without somebody telling me how much to price the paintings at. If a gallery picked me up, they would probably ask me to double the price of the painting so at 50 percent, they can get the price that I was getting. But because the co-op gallery doesn't take a percentage, you don't have to do that.
KALISH: At his last co-op show, Levine sold a painting for more than $2,000, modest by art world standards, but the most he's ever made on one work. It depicts a guard leaning against the wall as a couple stands before a Renoir at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
That's where 29-year-old Matthew Cumbie works, making brass mounts for jewelry and sculpture. Cumbie says he loves his job and would never quit, even though he sells a lot of paintings, more than 1,000 of them over the last 10 years, on eBay.
Cumbie started when he was a student at the Rhode Island School of Design and soon found out that eBay has its own demands and restrictions.
Mr. MATTHEW CUMBIE (Artist): EBay does not allow you to spend a whole lot of time working on one piece for too long just because of the low prices that things sell for. I generally spend maybe two to four hours on a painting just because it's more of a volume situation where you have to get as many items out the door as you can in order to make a profit.
KALISH: Initially, Cumbie did folk art knockoffs under a brush name, which never sold for more than $50. When he began doing abstract and graffiti-style paintings under his own name, he started making more money, up to $300 a work.
For close to a year, he listed an average of a painting a day. Now, with his job at the Met, Cumbie can slow down a little.
Mr. CUMBIE: I'm hoping that my other work, my non-eBay work, will pick up and that I will be able to be a gallery artist eventually. But who knows? I mean, I always have eBay.
KALISH: That may be true, but Matthew Cumbie says it's getting harder to attract eyeballs to his paintings online. When he started selling in 1998, he estimates there were 10,000 paintings listed on eBay, but now he says that there are five times as many.
For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish in New York.