Strategies to Advance Your Art Career... Maybe
A healthy percentage of artists would love to become rich and famous as soon as possible. They'd also love to make art fulltime in peace and quiet in their studios while others do all the dirty work of marketing, promoting and selling. In their quests for lives of pure creative bliss, many of them come to people like me for guidance in search of tips and techniques on how to hasten their inevitable eminence. In response to these requests, here's a little grease for your art world ascendency.
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 representatives or whatever, while on the other hand, if you're like most artists, it's not easy to make sales without them. Or is it? The answer is that any artist can sell their art without the help of galleries-- especially online-- and if you can't, you'll have to learn how. Once you start selling consistently (translation: communicate to people that your art is worth owning), galleries and related professionals will start taking notice.
In a sense, learning to sell your art means being able to understand and convey what gives it "value," not so much dollar value, but rather intangible value. We're not talking used car type selling, but rather being able to dialogue on what your art is about. Developing the ability to communicate the significance of your work is an important step forward in your or any artist's career. I've never met a successful artist who was not aware of the impact that their art has on others, and who was not able to talk about it in ways that engage interest and help people appreciate and connect with it on deeper levels. Galleries and dealers take this to a higher level, of course, in how they market and promote their art, but the initial responsibility lies with you. In fact, galleries often incorporate much of what artists say about their art into how they present and promote it at their galleries, art fairs, online, etc.
Developing an awareness of what your art expresses and signifies, and becoming increasingly confident that the work is reaching someone somewhere on a meaningful level is what opens the door to exposure or representation of any kind, gallery, online or otherwise. When people begin to get the "it" of your art, things start happening. Yes, everyone interprets art in their own unique ways, but the more that the "it" people get matches the "it" you intend, the more you'll advance in your career. When people not only appreciate what your art looks like, but also come to understand and respect what you have to say about it-- to the point where sales start happening-- that's when bigger and better opportunities start coming your way.
I realize I'm being abstract here, but you have to somehow convince others that they're better off owning your art than not. Until sales start happening, few people of any consequence will pay attention. Hearing someone say they love your art is wonderful, but you can't make a living off of love. You need buyers. Those who not only understand and appreciate art, but who are also willing to put up the money, or who know people who will-- these are the people who count. So whenever you find yourself in any situation where bona fide buyers have opportunities to see your work, whether online or at physical locations, watch how they respond, listen to what they say, answer their questions, and consider any suggestions they might make. They are the audience you want to attract, the ones who want to own your art and have the wherewithal to jumpstart your art career.
The recipe is simple-- make art, show it wherever you can (galleries, art fairs, alternative or non-gallery venues, and especially online). Constantly pay attention to how people react, particularly those who either buy or come close to buying, and gain insight into that mysterious time interval between the moment you first debut a work of art and the moment someone pays you to own it. Over time, all kinds of artists develop and perfect all kinds of strategies for how to play this time interval to the max, how to attract buyers, get to know people with profiles in the art world, and tilt the odds in their favor. So let's take a look at some of the advancement strategies involved, and see whether or not they'll work for you.
Artists often wonder whether they should introduce themselves to curators, critics, significant dealers, gallery owners, or other art world players (or whether they should put themselves in positions to increase this likelihood, such as working at museums or galleries). The answer is "yes" if you have a good reason to make contact and "no" if you don't. "Hi. My name is Bill, and I'm an artist" is not a good reason. Good 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, your art is relevant in some way to what they are doing, and so on. In general, an opportune moment to approach any such individual is when you are relatively sure 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, maybe save the intro for later.
Assuming you have a reason to meet someone influential, being introduced by an intermediary who knows that person is always preferable to introducing yourself. So get introduced whenever possible, preferably by someone who already knows and can vouch for both of you. That's way better than saying "So-and-So told me I should talk to you or call you or email you." The person who introduces you is like an instant character reference, a tangible indication that the encounter has the potential to be mutually beneficial in some way. Hopefully you are capable of fulfilling that potential.
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 or to CC an email or message to the two of you. The large 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 work unless, of course, you're really good at selling or have something unbelievably astonishing to cold call or email about. By the way, never ask people who don't already know you to make introductions on your behalf. Not only is this rude and unrealistic, but it also puts them in very uncomfortable positions and does not reflect favorably on you as a artist.
No matter who you meet or whatever art circumstances you meet them under, your best approach going in is to expect nothing. If something good happens, that's great. If nothing happens, wait until next time. Let the experience and the meeting be the reward in and of itself. The worst thing you can do is leave the other party feeling like they have somehow not lived up to your expectations, have fallen short, or that you didn't appreciate meeting them. The take-away should always be positive. No matter how things go, part on good terms.
A corollary to the above is to keep any selling or promoting yourself to a minimum, and preferably not at all. Artists are intensely ted in advancing themselves and their art; everybody knows that. Never apply pressure though, unless you sense that whomever you're speaking with wants more. You don't see car salesmen trying to sell to strangers on the street, do you? They wait for customers to come in, walk around, check out the cars, start talking, and show interest-- and you should do the same with your art. When someone's interest appears serious, that's when the selling begins. Furthermore, you don't want to get a reputation as someone who's always trying to sell. That's little more than an elevated form of panhandling. Word will get out, people will see you coming and walk the other way.
Go with the flow, as they say. Don't get all bent out of shape 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 are involved). Pretty much anything can happen at any time, and you have to learn to take it all in stride.
Artists sometimes wonder how to act in various situations. "Should I act a certain way to get what I want?" You can act however you feel like acting, from being 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 however you act, you will attract people and find yourself in situations where everyone's acting exactly the same way you are. So really think through how you go about getting what you want.
While you're on the rise, don't be concerned about what happens at the extreme high end of the business, who does what to who, who said this about that, who's hot, who's not or how much this or that sells for, like it has some bearing on you as an artist. Paying any more than passing attention to high-end shenanigans is a complete waste of time. When you're just starting out or early in your career and things start going well, tales from the top should be for entertainment purposes only, if that. You'll have ample opportunities to take them more seriously once you approach those levels.
Ultimately, the passage of time is far more important than strategizing for success. Make art, get it out there wherever and whenever you can, do what you have to do so that as many people see the work as possible, prove that you're a going concern, that you're in this for the duration, you're committed, you're never 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 the good stuff starts happening.
(photography by J John Priola)
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