Strategies to Advance Your Art Career... Maybe
Most artists I speak with want to become rich and famous as soon as possible. They want to make art full time in peace and quiet in their studios while other people sell it. In their quests for lives of pure creative harmony, they come to people like me for guidance, searching for tips and techniques on how to hasten the inevitable. In response to these requests, here's a little grease for your art world ascendancies.
The number one question artists ask is how to get representation. This is a bit of a catch-22 because you have to sell art in order to attract galleries or agents or whatever, while on the other hand, you can hardly make sales without them. Or can you? The answer is that you can, and if you can't, you'll have to learn how. Once you learn how to make sales (translation: persuade people that your art has merit to the point where they have to have it in their lives) you'll be ready for representation.
In a sense, learning to sell your art means understanding what gives your art "value," dollar value as well as intangible value. That's one of the pivotal lessons of any artist's career. I've never met a successful artist who is not aware of the impact that his or her art has on others. Galleries and representatives or agents take this impact to a higher level, of course, in the ways that they present art to the public, but the initial responsibility lies with you.
Comprehending how your art communicates your will to create, and becoming increasingly confident your art is impacting somebody somewhere on some level is what opens the door to representation. When people get the "it" of your art, whatever that "it" is, things start happening. By the way, your art officially attains significance and your career really gets going when the "it" people get is identical to the "it" you intend.
I realize I'm being abstract here, but you must somehow convince others that they're better off owning than not owning your art. How this happens will be unique to you and your art; until this happens, few people of any consequence will pay attention to you. Hearing someone say they love your art is all well and good, especially when it's your mother, but you can't make a living off of lip service. Those who open their wallets, or who know people who have wallets that are amenable to being opened-- those are the people you should pay the most attention to. Watch them respond, listen to what they say, consider with their suggestions. They are the audience you want to attract, the ones who will make your art career.
So to repeat all the usual-- make art, show it wherever you can, pay attention to how people react, especially those who either buy or come close to buying, and gain insight into that mysterious time interval between the moment you complete a work of art and the moment someone pays you to own it. Having said that, all kinds of artists have all kinds of strategies for how to play this time interval to the max, how to attract buyers, sidle up to the power brokers, and tilt their prognoses for success. So let's take a look at some of these strategies, and see whether or not they'll work for you.
Artists often wonder whether they should introduce themselves to curators, critics, major dealers, or other art world players (or whether they should put themselves in positions to increase this likelihood, such as get jobs at museums or galleries). The answer is "yes" if you have a reason and "no" if you don't. "Hi. My name is Bill, and I'm an artist" is not a reason. Reasons are that you have valid (not contrived) questions or comments, you share a common interest, you know a common person, you have useful information, and so on. In general, an opportune moment to approach any such individual is when you are relatively sure that they'll benefit in some way from the interaction... or at least break even on it. When it's more about you and less about them, forget it.
Assuming you have a reason to meet someone influential, being introduced by an intermediary who knows that person is always preferable to introducing yourself. Whenever possible, get introduced. That's way better than saying "Mr. So-and-So told me I should talk to you." The person who introduces you is like an instant character reference, a tangible indication that the encounter has the potential to be productive or worthwhile in some way.
The next best thing to a personal introduction is to have the intermediary mention your name to the curator, gallery, dealer, or critic in advance. The overwhelming majority of art world relationships are initiated through networking between people who already know each other. This is pretty much the same in any business. Very few people are willing to take chances on total strangers, and this is why cold calling (or cold emailing) rarely works unless, of course, you're a killer sales talent or you have something unbelievably astonishing to cold call about.
No matter who you meet, and whatever art circumstances you find yourself in, never expect anything. If something good happens, that's great. If nothing happens, wait until next time. Let the experience be the reward in and of itself. The worst thing you can do is to leave the other party feeling that they have somehow not lived up to your expectations, that they've fallen short, that you don't appreciate having had the opportunity to meet them.
A corollary to the above is to keep the selling to a minimum. All artists want to sell themselves and their art; everybody knows that. Never sell though, unless you sense that whomever you're speaking with wants to be sold to. You don't see car salesmen walking out of their dealerships onto the street, stopping passersby and trying to sell them cars, do you? They wait for potential buyers to come in, walk around, check out the cars, and show interest. Then, when that interest appears serious, that's when the selling starts. Furthermore, you don't want to get a reputation for always trying to sell. That's little more than an elevated form of panhandling. People will see you coming and walk the other way.
Don't get hyper-analytical about every little thing that happens to you. For example, a gallery might offer you a show one day and rescind that offer the next. Somebody might commit to buying a painting today and change their mind tomorrow. The art business has no rules when it comes to how people react to art or what they're required to do once they react (assuming, of course, no contracts have been signed). Pretty much anything can happen at any time, and you have to learn to take it in stride.
Artists sometimes wonder how to act. "Should I act a certain way to get what I want?" You can act however you feel like acting, from completely genuine to totally disingenuous... from premeditating, calculating, and deliberate to totally non-invested in the outcome. It's up to you. Know going in, though, that in response to the way you act, you will attract people and find yourself immersed in circumstances where everyone's acting exactly the same way you are. So exercise discretion in how you go about getting what you want.
While you're on the rise, don't worry about what happens at the extreme high end of the market, who does what to who, who said this about that, or how much this or that sells for, like it has some bearing on your career. This is a complete waste of time. When you're just starting out, high-end antics are noteworthy for their entertainment value only. You'll have ample opportunities to take them seriously once you get there.
Ultimately, the passage of time is far more important than strategizing for success. Make art, get it out there, do what you have to do so that as many people see your art as possible, prove that you're a going concern, that you're in this for the duration, you're committed, you're not going to give up, and that nothing will stop you. Sooner or later, others will begin believing in you just like you believe in yourself, and that's when good things start happening.
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