When your career levels up, your costs do too — especially when you need to buy 100,000+ LEGO pieces
'As you start moving up in your career and dollars start coming in, you gotta know how to handle it'
Art, Death & Taxes unpacks the art world's greatest taboo: money. Nine acclaimed artists explore the economics of their practice, peeling back the curtain on all the work that goes into the work. Stream the full series now on CBC Gem.
Toronto LEGO artist Ekow Nimako has been a fixture on CBC Arts over the years, and our new series Art, Death & Taxes caught up with him as he was in the midst of working on a massive new project — both physically massive and a career milestone for the artist. The new series, streaming now on CBC Gem, meets the artist as he works on Kumbi Saleh 3020 CE, a piece he built as part of the Aga Khan Museum's Building Black: Civilizations. Nimako has been experiencing a surge in his career, with Building Black: Civilizations being his first show with a major institution — but with a levelling up comes new challenges.
"As you start moving up in your career and dollars start coming in, you gotta know how to handle it," he says. "You'll be shocked how quickly money can evaporate. There's tons of stories of people that were successful and talented and skilled and ended up broke. You think with success and wealth particularly that it doesn't require maintenance. 'Oh, I made it; oh, I cashed in a giant cheque, I'm good.' That's far from the truth."
"Your income goes up, your expenses go up."
As the scale of his work increases, Nimako finds himself facing challenging operational aspects that become more difficult with scale. "I have a business and I'm expanding a business, and to expand a business you need staff."
Alongside the need to work with others for help, Ekow's practice — like many artists — involves physical materials, in his case LEGO, and the scope of these LEGO works requires a business-like approach to managing his supply of materials and the money available to purchase them. Kumbi Saleh 3020 CE is the largest architectural artwork the artist has built: the work measures 30 square feet and Nimako estimates it will weight around 400lbs once complete.
"LEGO is not inexpensive," Nimako says. "Kumbri Saleh 3020 CE has over 100,000 LEGO elements — a lot of clicking."
"It's crucial that I always have an influx of parts and material. If the parts are coming in slow or I don't maintain enough income to purchase all the parts that I need, then my career is...is dead." Nimako laughs at this prognosis, but the seriousness of needing to think about these things in order to not get stuck in a difficult situation is real.
"I've had to turn large jobs down, jobs that could pay for half the year. People reach out to me and say, 'We have this event in two months and we want you to build this thing'...I would love to entertain the idea and talk to them about it and I would love to see their funds enter my bank account. But I just don't necessarily have the capacity. I have to think about what my costs are when approached by a client. You gotta make sure that ventures are profitable."
"I have a figure I toss around in my head as like, 'This is my hourly', but it rarely ever breaks down that way. If I was to do the calculations or say, 'Ok, the last time I built something like this is took me 700 hours' — that's just for the labour, that's not parts. It's not always easy to prepare and establish a system that will enable the business to flourish."
"All these things layer up and it's difficult for a guy who just wants to play with LEGO. You can be an artist, but you can't just be an artist."
Reflecting on his situation, Nimako sees a turning point as he decides what kind of artist he can be and what type of operation he wants to set up. "I'm at the point where I'm going to start really needing more support and more help. Do I increase production? Is that something that's really going to happen — that I'll be able to pump out more work?
"There are some artists that are just extremely prolific and they pump out art — I don't know where I fit in with that. I don't know if it's going to be, 'You get one Ekow sculpture a year, you know, that's it,'" Nimako laughs again, "and that's just what you're going to have to deal with, world."