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“I’m not definitively rich” (or: The strange economics of the creative life)

Earlier today, I received the proofs for a 2,000 word article I have coming out in the next issue of Emory Magazine, the alumni magazine of Emory University, one of my alma maters.

The subject of the article is visual artist Brendan McConnell, also an Emory grad. Earlier this year, McConnell rocketed out of relative obscurity and straight into the pages of The New Yorker in a lengthy profile piece written by Susan Orlean. The publication of that article was followed by a nearly six-minute segment on “The Colbert Report,” a spot on the front page of The Boston Globe, and a post on NPR’s popular food blog, “The Salt.”

Despite all this coverage, I actually hadn’t heard of O’Connell when I was assigned the article. I read all the press, watched “The Colbert Report” segment, and spent a lot of time on O’Connell’s website before we met for our interview at a restaurant in Manhattan. Without intending to denigrate the other writers and folks who had covered O’Connell, I was struck by how each piece was essentially a rehash of Orlean’s article. Everyone focused on the part of O’Connell’s oeuvre that Orlean had written about: his series of paintings about Walmart.

Yes, Walmart.

I had to write about that, too–it was a significant element of the specs I’d been given by the magazine editor. But I also hoped I’d be able to angle into some other aspects of O’Connell’s life and career that no one else had addressed in their pieces about him.

One of the things I was most interested in was what impact O’Connell’s seemingly sudden success had had on him so far. He could now sell a painting for $40,000. $40,000! How did that feel? Was it life-changing? Did he view all this media coverage as a total game changer?

I’ll admit, the interest was as personal as it was professional. Since the publication of the Pope book this spring, I’ve had a number of friends and acquaintances assume that I’d suddenly hit the big time, the jackpot. Now don’t get me wrong: the book was a game changer in many ways. And financially, it came at a time when I really (no, really needed the money). I’m incredibly grateful for the financial and professional gains it granted me. But because the economics of the creative life are so strange, the book has not (at least not yet) been a windfall because what happens when a writer or artist comes into a chunk of change is that he or she can finally pay off bills that have been sitting around for a while. He or she might be able to invest in a little professional development or get a haircut or buy filet mignon for dinner instead of beef tips or make half a year’s deposit on their kid’s tuition. Maybe they can sock away a month or two worth of rent. Maybe they can purchase a health insurance plan. And these are not insignificant purchases or investments.

“I’m not definitively rich,” O’Connell said. “I can pay my phone bill now, and that’s nice. But definitively rich? No, not that.”

One of the things that happens when writers and artists suddenly start making money is that it tends to come, like O’Connell’s and mine has, in a couple of large deposits. Those are what people focus on. “O’Connell can make $40,000 on a painting?! He’s hit the big time!” What they don’t consider is how many paintings O’Connell needs to sell or how many books need to move off shelves for an artist or writer to approach the kind of “salary” that someone with a “regular” job makes in a year. If O’Connell only sells one painting at $40,000 this year, it’s not really a windfall at all. It’s $10,000 below the median household income in the United States. O’Connell, like me, has two kids. $40,000 can go surprisingly fast.

But don’t get me wrong. O’Connell and I are both grateful for the opportunities we’ve been given, opportunities that have given us more freedom and flexibility and, yes, liquidity, than many of our peers. He talks about that, and about many other themes, in the piece, which will be accessible in print and online in the fall issue of Emory Magazine. No more spoilers here- I hope you’ll read the piece when it’s available.

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