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  • I Wanna Be a Famous Artist and Make Lots of Money

    Q: Could you please look at my art and tell me what you think? Also, what do you think of my website? I'm looking for national and international representation and shows. Do you have a list of agents or artist reps? Can you represent my art?

    A: Artists send out tons of these random requests to galleries and other art business professionals like myself, messages in bottles tossed onto the sea, believing that someone somewhere will ultimately respond-- perhaps the Good Fairy, perhaps the White Knight, perhaps me-- and rescue them, and whoosh them away to fame, fortune and scrillions of dollars. I suppose this is possible, but don't count on it. While you're waiting for lightning to strike, let's see what does and doesn't work when it comes to geting your art out there into the world where it can be seen, appreciated and hopefully sold.

    For starters, emailing people you don't know and asking them to do a bunch of stuff for you for free does not help. How much time do you think gallery owners or other art people have to critique your art, critique your website, make suggestions about where to go with your career, send you a list of agents or reps, and for good measure, throw in some contact information for national and/or international galleries? Not only is there nothing in it for them and they probably don't have the time, but even if they did, they've never met you. They have no idea who you are, what you're like, what you're capable of producing, how easy you are to work with, how you handle deadlines, what your reputation is, and on and on and on. Regardless of what they think of your art, they're not about to jeopardize their existing business relationships by referring you to complete strangers or risk potentially unpleasant exchanges by volunteering their opinions of your work.

    You have no idea who they are either. What if they're not qualified to critique your art? What if they know nothing about your local art scene? What if they sell sculptures and you paint? What if they have a reputation for not paying artists after they sell their art? You might as well throw darts at a dartboard blindfolded and hope you hit the bull's eye.

    The belief that you can randomly hawk your art, without qualification or recommendation, to galleries, consultants or representatives all over the face of the earth until someone falls in love with it to the point where they take on all of your business affairs and give you the freedom to create happily away in the studio is a complete unadulterated fantasy. If you had any idea how much art is out there, how much of it is good, and how much more of it there is than all the dealers in the universe could ever hope to sell in a hundred lifetimes, you'd agree that learning how to effectively present and hopefully sell your art is way more important than appearing out of the clear blue and simply asking people to look at it over and over and over again, hoping for some kind of miracle.

    As for the galleries and agents you're asking, they only show art they think they can sell. If they don't think they can sell it, they don't show it because if they can't sell it, they go out of business. They're not in business to figure out how to sell your art. You have to figure that out yourself, and once you do, convince them that if they take you on, the two of you can sell more art and generate more profits than either of you can generate on your own. But even that's tough because dealers already have mechanisms in place for finding art and artists they can represent and sell. So (a) selling art is really hard and (b) making a living as an artist is even harder and (c) if you're going to make a living as an artist, you have to convince people to take interest in your art (hopefully to the point of buying it) at least as well as you can make it.

    I often wonder how so many artists know so little about how the art business works and what they have to do to sell art, and I often seem to end up at the same place-- art school and arts education in general. But keep reading whether or not you went to art school. Every last bit of this has to do with your survival as an artist.

    The main reason you go to art school is to learn to make quality art that's good enough to sell, or at least that's why you think you're going, right? The schools might identify or define themselves with loftier lingo, but show me an art student who doesn't expect to make a living as an artist once they graduate with a degree and I'll show you a five-eared elephant. You believe that with a quality art education, you can make a living as an artist, like med students believe about med school and law students believe about law school. We all know how much money doctors and attorneys make, but we're less clear on how much money artists make, not to mention what they have to do in order to make it.

    These days, a decent art education runs around $100,000. Art schools need lots of $100,000's in order to stay in business. If prospective students had any idea how tough making a living as an artist is, how good they have to be to make those livings, and how hard art is to sell, art schools would get fewer $100,000's than they get now. So art schools don't talk about the survival aspects of being an artist, they offer precious little instruction in how to make enough money to survive and worst of all, they appear to discourage their graduates from venturing outside academically oriented realms to learn the practical kinds of survival techniques that work in the real world. Sure, they expose students to the formal gallery system and maybe show their art to local dealers and collectors, but that's not nearly enough ammo for confronting the realities of the marketplace.

    Some art schools dismiss the art business altogether by intimating that making art is pure while making money is not, making art is a "calling" while other professions are not (oh really?), that selling art is not only irrelevant, but it debases the experience of being an artist. One fact the schools conveniently seem to overlook, however, is that if you can't make money making art, you have to either slow down and take a day job or stop making it altogether. That's not something the art schools have to worry about, though. They already have your money.

    Until art schools offer courses and ongoing assistance in how to sell art, taught by qualified art business professionals, you're going to have to get that education on your own. The good news for those of you who have trouble selling your art is that you can learn how to sell it and find qualified art business people to teach you. Plus you can now find all kinds of helpful articles online, like right here on for example. Most importantly, the sooner you understand that learning how to sell art does not diminish your credibility as an artist, but rather enhances it, the better. Incidentally, if you have to pay a few bucks for an experienced professional to help you along with your art business education, it'll likely be a drop in the bucket compared to what you paid for art school.

    In the meantime, your day-by-day accomplishments are what advance you in your art career, not flogging your website or portfolio all over God's Creation and asking for free advice or names, numbers and contact information. Focus your art-making and art-selling efforts right where you live (the national and international shows can wait). Make art, get it out there in every way possible, listen to what people say, get a sense of who likes what and why, figure out how to price it so it sells, and show it whenever and wherever you get the chance, both online and at physical locations. Along the way, you'll meet plenty of people, make connections, and those individuals you impress the most will eventually introduce you to others who can do more for you. That's how you get galleries, reps, sales, and all kinds of other good stuff. It's how the art business works.

    Here's more of what you have to learn in order to become successful as an artist:

    ► How to talk and write about your art in ways people understand, regardless of how little or how much they know about art.

    ► How to price your art sensibly and answer questions about your prices in ways people can appreciate and understand.

    ► How to help people connect with your art and give them a sense of why it's worth owning.

    ► How to respond when people criticize your art.

    ► How to know when you have enough art and enough of a selection to start showing and selling.

    ► How to show your art in ways that make it appealing to potential buyers.

    ► How to document your art in ways that increase its appeal to potential buyers.

    ► How to make sure anyone who's interested in your art is able to buy something, regardless of how little or how much they have to spend.

    ► How to sell your art outside of the gallery system.

    ► How to sell your art if it's not the kind of art that galleries are able to sell.

    ► How to find markets for your art outside of the gallery system.

    ► How to barter or trade your art for goods or services.

    ► How to present yourself and your art in ways that don't sabotage your chances of making sales.

    There are as many ways to sell art and become successful as an artist as there are artists. And each and every one of those ways is OK. Never forget this.


    Need help organizing, presenting and getting exposure for your art? Want to make sure you're doing it right? I have helped thousands of artists with these issues over the years, I know what I'm doing, and I can help you too. If you'd like to make an appointment or have any questions, call 415.931.7875 or email

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    (art by Ben Peterson)

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