Making Art During a Pandemic – How it Feels to be an Artist on Lockdown

I really don’t want to write about this, because it generally makes me uncomfortable to talk about my money. My father always told me “Never let other people know how much you make or how much you have.” Plus as a single guy, it’s a bad look to admit you’re broke. But I want people to understand, because as a freelancer I know my story isn’t unique.

Even before the pandemic cancelled everything, I was already at the end of my rope. I had about $300 to my name coming into March, and many times that in debt. I have invoices from as far back as last August that people have yet to pay me for, and look increasingly like I’ll never get paid for (cashflow is an issue for everyone right now, I get it). While this is nothing new for a freelancer (we ride the good times and the bad), it’s really the duration/intensity of the bad times that’s unusual.

In December 2019, I splurged a bit when my family came to visit for the holidays. Especially since they all have birthdays within a couple weeks of Christmas. I wanted to take care of them as best I could. I also wanted to celebrate a little for myself, so I went out a couple times to drink with friends (also as a single guy in New York, you might as well go out if you don’t want to be lonely).

But in January, I was doing about a third of the business I had in January 2019. My biggest client had dropped their biggest client. So immediately I started to cut back, and tried to focus on personal work. By February business had picked up a bit, and I was hoping that once the weather warmed up things would be back to business as usual. 

But by the last weekend of February, I had to call my dad to ask for some money to help pay off my credit cards. I’ve prided myself on not having asked my parents for financial help in years. So this was already one of the last things I wanted to do. I got a lecture about how I needed to save for an emergency fund, and questions about how I accrued so much debt. I felt ashamed and humiliated that I even had to ask. If I’m honest, his reaction in that moment made me want to go home that night and split my veins open. What I didn’t have the heart to explain to him, was that I had pretty much already burnt through my emergency fund. I burnt through it trying to make up for the utter lack of business in the latter half of December, and the whole of January.

But when I did get home, I rallied. I wrote an email to one of my closest friends, who reminded me that everyone needs help sometimes. That to ask for help is a sign of strength and not weakness, because you are strong enough to admit your faults. I remembered that I chose this path for myself, and that I would endure all the hardships and humiliation that came with it. As I told my mother when she questioned if I really wanted to go to art school “I don’t eat that much anyway.”

Because I believe in the power of art. I believe in it like how I imagine people believe in God (and I’m an Atheist). I believe that art is the most important thing that I do. Because if I do it right, it will out last me. It will outlast my family, my friends, and anyone else I’ve ever met in my lifetime. I try to pour all the experience I have into my work, because I believe that art represents the best of us.

Art is inherently about value, just the act of making it is stating that it is something worthy of our attention. Long after I die, I hope that other lost souls will still find solace in my work, and be able to feel a little less alone in the world. That they will see that we who came before, were just as flawed in life. That we felt the same as they feel. That is why I make the work I do.

That being said, I do need help. Even before the pandemic made it to our shores, I was writing letters to put together a patron program to expand my practice. Because Art is not created in a vacuum (to borrow a metaphor from Camilo Alverez of Samson Projects), it’s an ecosystem. The artists are like the flowers, the galleries and museums the stalks and the trees, and the collectors and patrons are like the soil, the rain, and the sunshine nurturing us all. 

In the best of times and the worst of times, I’ll still need help to create this work I do. So if you can donate anything here’s what I can do for you. While all levels of donation receive something (see details below), the highest level of patronage will get something truly unique and special. I call it Art Omakase – I will send you a hand bound book of images made possible from your contributions, curated to your specific tastes.

While a recurring monthly contribution would be the most preferred, even a one time donation of any amount is still highly appreciated. And if you donate now, I will double your investment in retail credit towards a future purchase.
Contributions can be made by check or by Venmo (@johnnytangphoto). Should you have any questions, please write me an email at info@johnnytangphoto.com, and I’d be happy to answer them.

See the full list of reward below:

$100/monthly (or a one-time contribution 1,200 or less)
Receive a monthly postcard with a new image from this year on it.

$250/monthly (or a one-time contribution of $3000 or less)
Select up to 2x exhibition size prints per year.

$500/monthly (or a one-time contribution of $6,000 or less) 
Select up to 4x exhibition size prints per year.

$1000/monthly (or a one-time contribution of $12,000 or more) 
Select up to 6x exhibition size prints per year and receive an Art Omakase book.


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