When it comes to representing their work, artists are often their own worst enemy.
For example, when I ran an art gallery, I’d receive dozens of emails each day from artists I’d never met. The messages would arrive with a link to their website or a folder of images, “Here’s my work, will you represent me?”
I’m ashamed to admit that I used the delete button liberally. I didn’t have time to interact with people who didn’t understand how to submit work professionally.
And several times throughout the week, artists would arrive at my gallery, unannounced, dragging a portfolio, “Here’s my work with you represent me?”
And I’d gently explain that this isn’t how galleries make their decisions – as I led them to the door.
Running an art galleries or gallery is intense and high-pressure work, it’s not fair to expect a gallerist to stop what they’re doing to look at your work, no matter how brilliant you may be. There are one-thousand other artists out there who are just as brilliant but they understand how the business works and what makes a successful submission.
One day a man came into my gallery; I’ll never forget him. He was dragging a portfolio of works that were completely outside the milieu of what my art gallery showed. When I told him that this wasn’t how I chose my artists, he began to cry.
Tears of frustration fell down his face. He wanted to be an artist so badly, but he didn’t understand how to get his foot in the door. “Where can I go?” He asked, “Who can help me?”
I was haunted by his visit and began my own investigation into what artist career information was available. I went to the library and read every book I could find on the topic. I bought more on Amazon. I googled “artist career information” and combed through the countless articles online.
I was stunned by what I found.
The information was there, but it was mostly couched in thick language and small font. I’ve worked with artists throughout my career. I spent over a decade running a large collaborative studio. I understood that this wasn’t the best way to communicate with artists.
For the most part, the artist career information that I found wasn’t created by artists, but by people who don’t speak our language.
Don’t Stop Learning
This is why I created my program, The Working Artist Masterclass. I created it for that man who came into my gallery wanting to know where to turn for help.
Over the course of my career I’ve sold over ten million dollars of art to museums, galleries, and collectors. I wanted to share my knowledge and understanding of the art business with artists like that man. And I knew that I could create my class in an artist-friendly format, appealing to the creative part of the artist’s brain as well as the informative.
There’s suddenly been an explosion of people who offer artist career information online. It’s like anything; some of them are excellent, many are not. You’ve got see what resonates with you. It is about the information, yes, but it’s also about the message and the voice of the instructor. You want to learn from someone who is speaking your language.
I believe that it makes no difference where you are in your career, continuing your education to include fresh ideas about marketing, social media, and other career decisions will only help you continue to grow your own business.
And it is a business! Yes, art is a calling. It runs so deep that it is part of who you are, the very fabric of your being. But taking it seriously does not mean that you have sold out. Just the opposite! Willfully refusing to learn how to build your art career as a business, large or small, is a cop out.
Selling Art is Not Selling Out
Art is communication. Art needs to be seen to be art. Otherwise it’s just paint on canvas. So part of your job, as an artist, is to get your work seen, to get your work engaged in that conversation.
Whether you want to make a financial profit from your work or not is a personal choice. But if you are going to call yourself an artist, then you need to get eyes on your work. And when it comes to strategizing how to do this, planning works better than hoping.
Try using your own creativity to plot your career. But DO plot your career – don’t just keep sending the same feeble email to galleries and hoping for the best. If something didn’t work for you, use the energy that you might normally spend beating yourself up or cursing the art world to ask yourself why it didn’t work, and then do better the next time. Use every setback as an opportunity to learn and grow.
Refuse to feel shame, it will only hold you back. Shame and creativity make a lethal cocktail. Name a good idea that’s ever come from shame? You can’t. I always say that ideas are an artist’s currency. The same way that bankers deal in money, that’s how artists deal in ideas. So you cannot afford to feel shame. It will shut your imagination right down. So when you fall down, wipe your knees, figure out why you fell, and get right back up again.
Try to think outside the gallery/museum mindset. That is such a narrow road, and it’s very, very crowded. I’m not saying that isn’t available to you, but I am saying that there is a bigger world out there for your art if the old-fashioned way isn’t working. There are all kinds of ways to make a living from your creativity. There are all kinds of ways to engage your art with other people.
Look at your work and ask yourself, “Who is my ideal audience? Where will I find them? What do they read? What do they watch? What are their passions?” And brainstorm ways that you can market your work directly to them in a different way.
Maybe you can blog about collecting art, and draw potential collectors to you that way? Maybe you can work with a charity whose members share an interest in an issue that your work addresses? Maybe you can visit interior design studios and offer to bring the staff lunch, and feed them as you give a presentation of your art?
The point is that you don’t have to just listen to the experts, you can let your own imagination be the source of your art marketing plan. After all, you know your work better than anyone else.
A Community of Artists
I think the very best source of artist career information is going to come from other artists. Other artists are not your competition. Other artists are your very best friends. Other artists will know how to solve your technical challenges. Other artists will understand your frustrations and cheer your accomplishments. Other artists will fill the gallery when you have a show because they are the only ones who will really understand how much work has gone into each piece. Other artists are more likely to know people or situations that can help you. Other artists are going through the exact same career challenges that you are, or they have in the past, or they will in the future. Be as generous as your can with your colleagues, and you will reap the rewards tenfold.
To Go To Grad School Or Not To Go To Grad School
A lot of artists ask me about graduate school. They ask as if grad school is the ticket to success? It is not.
Graduate school is expensive and time-consuming. It may help you to develop your work faster than if you worked on your own. It will provide you with valuable connections and introduce your work to a broader audience. But very few art schools and very few graduate programs provide artist career information. They are much more focused on the work itself. So it is really a personal decision as to whether or not taking on the expense of additional education is worth it to you right now. It is important to clearly understand what you will be receiving and what you will not.
This is why my tagline for The Working Artist reads, “It’s everything they never taught in art school.” Because even if you went to grad school, you’re going to have to turn elsewhere for solid career information.
There Are Resources
A lot of good info can be found through your local arts councils and you should consider signing up for their newsletters and studying them seriously. There, you will find calls for submission for public arts projects, grants, and other opportunities. Your state may even have an artist registry, which is well worth looking into.
Another great resource for artist opportunities is the Foundation Center (foundationcenter.org). This is the leading online source of philanthropic information and they maintain lists of artist grants and fellowships. These are well worth your consideration, not only because of the apparent benefits of funding, but winning awards make fabulous lines on your resume and provide incredible networking opportunities
There is no end to opportunities for artists. We often use our imagination to create our work and then stop there. But let your marketing plan be creative too. Use your intuition and inner wisdom to guide you as you look for information and resources and encourage yourself to think outside the box and find new ways of using what you learn. After all, your creativity represents the very heart of who you are, why make it stop on the canvas? Invite it to guide your career as well.
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