Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Triangle artists face lean times after recession

Poor economy brought fewer patrons, less income

- STAFF WRITER - Raleigh News and Observer

One month ago, Micah Mullen walked away from a comfortable corporate marketing job in the midst of a still-sputtering economy to work full time as a painter.

It's a 70 percent pay cut, though the hours are better. He and his wife have reined in food expenses, and with Mullen home, the couple can save on day care for their elementary-age children.

Still, Mullen knows it won't be easy. But he's determined to try.

"I don't plan on turning back," Mullen said. "I want to make this work, and I think I can."

Mullen is jumping in at an odd time for the Raleigh art scene. With more galleries than ever, the city's commitment to public art and the opening of the new Contemporary Art Museum downtown, the area is in the midst of what Raleigh Art Commission Executive Director June Guralnick calls a cultural renaissance.

However, individual artists are grappling with an extended period of fewer patrons and lighter wallets as the area struggles to bounce back from the recession. Local artists say they have had to work harder and smarter than ever before to make ends meet.

Mullen's geometric North Carolina landscapes are striking enough to stop patrons in their tracks, said gallery owner Nicole Kennedy, who sells Mullen's work in Nicole's Art Studio and Gallery on Person Street downtown.

"People look at his stuff and they're mesmerized," Kennedy said. "The more you look at it, the more you like it."

At the same time, Mullen has picked a tricky time for his career change.

"Leaving your day job - that's not necessarily a good thing to do right now," Kennedy said.

Even in the best of times, there aren't many who have the combination of talent and boldness required to take on the life of a professional artist. Only about 23,600 people held jobs as fine artists like Mullen and Garrison in 2008, the most recent numbers available from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. About 60 percent of those were self-employed.

Most work on a freelance basis and may find it difficult to make a living solely by selling their artwork, according to the bureau report. Those with a steady salary earn a median annual income of about $42,000, which is Mullen's goal in the next five years.

Most local artists have been riding out the recession through a combination of newly acquired business savvy and a focus on honing their craft, Kennedy said.

"Most artists have had to take their career in their own hands," Kennedy said. "To expect galleries to make a living for you, unless you're a huge name, is not realistic."

Even established artists have had a hard time. Raleigh painter Richard Garrison quit his job as a public school art teacher to paint full time 16 years ago. He and his wife, an English teacher, were able to live comfortably off their joint incomes for more than a decade in a large four-bedroom house in Cary.

Then the recession hit. During the past few years, Garrison has been selling half the number of paintings he used to. He and his wife have had to dip into their savings, and recently downgraded to a one-bedroom condo in downtown Raleigh.

Last year, Garrison decided on a new strategy. His new focus on portrait painting won him two commissions last year that "probably saved me, financially," Garrison said.

Even those who kept their day jobs say times have been tight. Local artist Joe DiGiulio works full time in commercial and educational sales with Jerry's Artarama, as well as teaching workshops and creating instructional art DVDs. He and his wife call their backyard studio their retirement plan, a place to continue teaching art classes as the income supplement they will need to retire.

"I was surprised that (Micah) was going to go full time," DiGiulio said. "Three years ago, it was a completely different story."

Mullen has done his research. He knows the career change could mean a difficult adjustment period. He's been painting for years, and sold $20,000 worth of his work last year while working full time. With so much more time free to invest in it, he is confident he can double that number within five years.

His wife Eileen, a personal injury lawyer, supports his decision completely - because of his obvious talent, and the positive change she has seen in her husband since he found work he loves: He's calmer, more social and has more time to spend with their two sons.

"It is amazing to see the change in a person when they figure out what they want to be doing and what they're good at," Eileen Mullen said. "It really does make a difference to have fulfillment in your work life."

Mullen is treating his new career the same way he did his full-time corporate job. He starts at 8 a.m. every morning in his upstairs studio in North Raleigh, creating new paintings or on business calls, working to get his canvaases in more galleries across the state. On a whiteboard on one wall, he meticulously tracks how he spends every hour of the work day. To supplement income from paintings, he has instructional DVDs, which he sells from his professional website. He also has his own show in the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences' Nature Art Gallery through May 1.

Kennedy notes that North Carolina landscapes are selling better in the down economy as patrons seek the comfort of the familiar. That Mullen's work is a fresh, striking take on those scenes may be exactly the thing that will allow his bold career move to pay off as the economy picks back up, DiGiulio and Kennedy agree.

"I've seen enough lighthouses and ... barns and rolls of hay in the field from painters all over this area," DiGiulio said. "Micah's work is totally unique from anything you've seen before, so he can really carve out a niche for himself."

An artist's life has never been easy, but for those like Mullen, it's worth it to try, Garrison said.

"Why do anything other than what you love?" Garrison said. "If you love it enough, and you follow your heart, I think things will fall into line and you can make a living of it." or 919-829-4802


  1. how exciting! best of luck Micah! I am happy for you, Jana

  2. Fantastic article and this is so true of many of us throughout the country. Love that they featured you!!!


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