Common Artist Misconceptions and Realities
Understanding the Art World Better
After kicking around the art world for three decades now, and during those years talking to countless thousands of artists, gallery owners, and other artland professionals, certain facts and fictions about how everything works gradually become clear. So reflecting back on all that, here's a list of common misconceptions that many artists have, and their corresponding realities...
* Misconception: "I've got the art. Now all I need are some names and numbers of galleries and collectors who'll be interested in my work and I'll never have any problems selling again."
Reality: There is no instant path to success. Way too many artists believe the only obstacle standing between them and greatness is that they've yet to be discovered and that once the "right people" see their work, the world will grasp the gravity of their talent. The truth is that the process of getting known and ultimately recognized is a long game. Only a consistent track record of accomplishments and successes ultimately leads to fame. Just like in any other profession, you start at the beginning, prove yourself over time, and gain a progressively respectable reputation as an artist.
* Misconception: "My art is unique. Nothing like this has ever been done before."
Reality: All art is unique (assuming you're not working in limited editions). The fact that a work of art is unique, or the process used to create a work of art is unique is not enough in and of itself to render that art significant or worthy of notice. Having said that, unusual or unique techniques do count for something, especially if they're highly involved or difficult to duplicate. In the end, though, it's all about the quality, significance and import of the art, not simply that it's different from all other art.
* Misconception: "My art will sell itself."
Reality: No art sells itself. You have to sell it. This doesn't mean hawking it on street corners, but rather engaging in various forms of communication or dialogue around it and demonstrating in various ways that it's worth considering from either aesthetic or intellectual perspectives and even more importantly, worth becoming a part of people's lives.
* Misconception: "If I can get a show in New York (or Los Angeles, London, Berlin, or name the major international art center of your choice) or at a high profile art fair, then all my problems will be solved."
Reality: Where you show your art does not determine success. Your accomplishments as an artist are what determine success, no matter where they happen. If your art's got the chops, word of mouth (social networking included) will spread about what you're doing, and your work will eventually make its way to one metropolis or another. Best to get known in your hometown or home region first, gradually expand out, and then once your career gets cooking, take the show on the road. One huge caution here-- please watch out for pay-to-play offers to show your art in major cities or at significant art fairs; the people making these offers cater especially to artists who believe in the above misconception.
* Misconception: "All I need to get known in the art world is to get my art into an important gallery."
Reality: The analogy to this misconception in the business world might be that with little or no experience, you can start out as CEO of a corporation-- which we all know you can't. The truth is that you can only get your art into a major gallery if it's major enough to warrant being there in the first place. Important galleries show artists who are already important; they don't show work by artists who are unknown or little known and make them important. As in any other profession, you have to show at galleries that regularly exhibit artists at similar stages in their careers to the stage you're currently at. As you become increasingly successful, better and better galleries will express interest in representing you or exhibiting your art.
* Misconception: "My art is just as good as (name the famous artist of your choice) so therefore, I can base my prices on their prices or maybe even charge as much for my art as they do for theirs."
Reality: If you're not widely known, or are relatively early in your career or just starting out, you're basically unproven, so you can't charge "proven artist" or "major gallery" or "famous artist" prices for your art, even if it's every bit as good as the proven art you're pricing it against. The difference between you and proven artists is that they've already demonstrated their abilities to survive, consistently create quality art, and succeed and prosper over time. No matter how precocious or promising you might be when you're young or fresh out of art school, you have to demonstrate that you're capable of producing great art over the long haul before you can charge "great art" prices. Even if you get off to a rip roaring start, one or two successful shows are not adequate justification for charging prices comparable to those of well established artists.
* Misconception: "Once I find a gallery or agent, I'll be able to spend all my time in the studio making art."
Reality: In the contemporary art world, the artist is an essential part of the mix. In fact, the artist is often at least as important as the art... and sometimes even more so, especially in conceptual realms. You're the personality behind the product, the star of the show as it were. People who love contemporary art and who buy or collect it, particularly the serious ones, want to know who you are, what you're about, and pretty much everything else. You have to be involved in some way and to some extent with your artwork-- this might include showing up at your openings, regularly dialoguing with galleries who represent you, participating on panels, doing magazine or online interviews, allowing yourself to be photographed or videoed, giving lectures and so on. In a sense, you're the best and most qualified person on the planet to enlighten people about your art, and convince them that it's worthy and deserves to be paid attention to. You have to actively advocate for yourself and your work.
* Misconception: "Anyone can price art as long as they know something about it, including art teachers, professors, curators, critics and fellow artists."
Reality: Anyone can put dollar values on art; whether those dollar values make any sense or not in the real world is another story altogether. The only people typically qualified to price art are those who have experience either buying, selling or appraising it on a regular basis, or in certain cases, collectors who seriously and actively collect. These people understand how the art market works and base any selling price recommendations they make on FACTS about the art and about current marketplace conditions as they relate to that art. People whose understandings of art are mainly intellectual, scholarly or artistic, but who are NOT actively in or involved with the art business often suggest prices based on visual impact, opinions, art history, impressions, feelings or other intangibles that have LITTLE OR NOTHING to do with the realities of artland.
Art school teachers and professors are particularly at fault here in that they often suggest prices to students based solely on the quality or visual appeal of the work rather than on the qualifications, exhibition histories or resumes of those artists, not to overall mention market factors. To make matters worse, those prices are often too high, and sometimes way ridiculously too high. The upshot? These young artists find it difficult if not impossible to sell their art... and that's bad, especially when they have promise, and their work is worthy and deserves to hang in people's collections. The truth is that art prices are based far more on experience, exhibition history and accomplishments in combination with facts about the marketplace than they are on visual or cognitive components alone. Get your art priced by people who are experienced around the business and who understand the market for your type of art.
* Misconception: "If I get a show at a gallery that's better than any gallery I've exhibited at so far, I should raise my prices."
Reality: Raising your prices all of a sudden for no reason other than that you have an upcoming show at a new location is never a good idea. Any gallery owner will tell you that. If they think your prices should be raised somewhat, they'll do the raising. You stay out of it. They know what their clienteles are willing to spend. Now if your show at the new gallery sells out or sells well, that's an excellent reason to raise prices-- and the gallery owner will likely raise them for your next show. Raising them before the fact, though, will not only make selling the art more difficult, but at worst, could completely put the kibosh on what might have otherwise been an excellent opportunity to advance your career.
* Misconception: "If I price my art too low, people won't take me seriously as an artist."
Reality: Nothing could be further from the truth. People take you seriously as an artist if you make good art, no matter how high or low you price it. In fact, good art that's reasonably priced tends to sell faster than good art that's priced at or above reasonable gallery retail. Savvy collectors are constantly on the lookout for good deals, and one thing you will NEVER hear a collector say is that they refused to buy a quality piece of art because it was priced too low.
* Misconception: "People won't think my art is any good if I price it too low."
Reality: See answer to above misconception.
* Misconception: "People will always look down on my art because I'm self-taught."
Reality: It's not about the number of degrees you have, who you studied under, where you went to school, or anything else related to how you learned your craft. It's all about the art. True, education sometimes has advantages at the outset and it might give you a bit of a head start in certain circles, but in the long run, the last thing people who buy your art care about is where you went to art school or who your teachers were. To repeat-- it's all about the art.
* Misconception: "If I get an MFA, then I'll be able to show at better galleries and sell more art."
Reality: An MFA might make sense in certain specialized sectors of the art world, particularly if your art has a considerable cognitive or conceptual component and requires a scholarly foundation in order to render it maximally effective. In general though, advanced degrees are certainly no instant fix to fame, fortune, higher selling prices or any other measures of artistic success. To repeat-- it's all about the art.
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