The Starving Artist Syndrome & How to Cure It

Posted by Lisa Phillips, Jan 13, 2017 1 comment

Now that I have your attention … I’d like to share my viewpoint on the “Starving Artist” Syndrome.

I’ve had the unique experience in my career to work directly in the arts AND in marketing/business, and what I’ve noticed is a big disconnect between the desire for artists to become successful and earn a living with their art form, and how they think about their craft as a business.

A few years ago I used to run a workshop called Overcoming the Starving Artist Syndrome, which was a 3-hour workshop targeted at artists who were looking to learn marketing skills. Many of the artists I worked with didn’t realize that they were an entrepreneur just as much as a dancer, actor, musician, or artist. It was a perspective they hadn’t thought of before.

They were very “schooled” in their craft, whether it be performing or visual arts, but they had very little reality that it was actually their responsibility to market themselves, book jobs, handle their finances, ensure they were financially viable, create PR, correct issues in their business, and find new opportunities to demonstrate their talents. Much of the “business” side of their career was almost entirely missed.

They of course knew those things needed to get done somehow, but what they were missing was the reality-check that their success was largely dependent on how successful those areas were doing and not so much their abilities as an artist.

I understand that some post-secondary institutions do offer courses on the business side of the arts, but one or two courses is not going to provide the foundation professional artists need to truly find success. So inevitably, by not learning and applying all there is to know about the business side of the arts, you are limiting your success to what you DON’T know.

When you combine the lack of business training with negative self-talk like “Earning a living in the arts is hard,” you are going down a dangerous path—especially when you listen to family and friends around you who say things like, “Why don’t you get a real job?” What you are left with are very opposing ideas that push against each other (I want to succeed in the arts BUT I can’t succeed in the arts).

Unfortunately, when you have two thoughts that oppose one another it creates such a force that it can stop progress dead in its tracks. It almost becomes impossible to push through. So you sit and wonder why your career isn’t moving in the direction that you would like … well, these opposing thoughts are one aspect to the problem.

How you think about things is extremely powerful. It almost is as if every thought is painting the picture of what your career will become. It may sound strange, but I can assure you it is true. Given that, it is very important to put out positive thoughts and ignore the tendency to dwell on anything negative.

What you put your attention on grows, so if you are constantly worrying about your career, frustrated that your income isn’t increasing, and panicking about where your next paycheck is coming from, then you will “pull in” more of the same. It can be a hard concept to accept, but I am speaking from firsthand experience. I have lived it.

When you do adjust your thinking and take responsibility for ALL the aspects of your career, you will see an improvement—I promise it will come. The trick is not to do it for a week or a month and expect a major change. It is an ongoing process that takes time and a level of dedication that has to be more than what you are putting out right now. If you want a different outcome, you have to take different actions.

You need to think of yourself as a professional athlete training for your first Olympics. You need to learn from the best coaches, demand more from yourself, and have the viewpoint that it is a goal that is 100% attainable.

I hope the concepts that I have shared have shown you that there is a way to shift things in the direction you want—that artists can have any level of success they desire if they do the actions to create it.

I do love hearing from the arts community, so if you would like to write to me, please send me an email to For more information about my work, you can visit

1 responses for The Starving Artist Syndrome & How to Cure It


Mr. Carter Gillies says
January 15, 2017 at 10:51 am

When you describe something as needing a cure you have already accepted that there is a problem. I understand the sense in which you are claiming it, that IF a person is attempting to make a living there are things which can obstruct this. The problem, what I am accepting as a problem, is that for many people making a living from art is not a simple issue, and that some aspects of it are conflicting. It is not simply the case that being an artist is like other jobs. For some it obviously is. But for many others we make art specifically to bring certain things forward in the world, and getting paid to do so is not always easily reconciled with fidelity to one's artistic vision. There is an inherent contradiction between doing what you want to do and doing something that others want from you. Not that they can't sometimes align, merely that they are not the same thing necessarily and following one path can lead us farther away from the other. Its the difference between being intrinsically motivated and extrinsically motivated. When we do something because its the right thing to do in itself, as making art is for many of us, then its a different proposition from doing something for the sake of an audience. Expressing one's self is NOT the same as communicating.

If its a problem reconciling these two points of view, then assuming it gets solved through marketing and business sense is both naive and misleading. It assumes, for one, that the problem is solved on the side of the extrinsic connection to the audience. The people for whom the disconnect between making art and selling art is most evident often care much less about the selling part and are more focused on making what they believe to be the intrinsic mission of their creative lives. And when you say, "success was largely dependent on how successful those (business & marketing) areas were doing and not so much their abilities as an artist" you have spelled out precisely why the extrinsic factors are so repugnant. Some people would rather be artists than 'successful'.

To the extent that we actually care about being the best we can be as artists, and knowing that 'success' may have nothing to do with that, is it any wonder that many artists would prefer to be 'starving' than sell themselves out for the occasional crusts of bread? The less time spent perfecting your artistic craft the more you indicate a conflicting priority, and the less entitled you are to even claim your art as a priority. You can't magically do both well at once. You can't necessarily have your cake and eat it too. Extrinsic and intrinsic motivations are fundamentally at odds. And as such, to the extent this conflict is seen as a problem it is a psychological problem. We feel the tension. We are pulled in two opposing ways, a sort of schizophrenia of ideals. And if this is a problem, perhaps we need to understand that the 'cure' may just be worse than the disease.

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