Common Artist Questions Answered, Episode III
Q: Can you offer any pointers on how to sell my art successfully? These days, I'm not having much luck.
A: Well, two of the major keys to success in the art world are perseverance and determination. No matter how difficult things get, make it clear to everyone involved that you're here to stay and they'd better get used to it. Early in my career, I had a little saying-- "One hundred no's for every yes." And every time I experienced a setback, or someone told me to stop screwing around and get a real job, I redoubled my efforts to prove them wrong. And you know something? I did. That's one thing I love about the current economic situation-- the proverbial silver lining, as it were-- it challenges artists to prove themselves, to demonstrate the value of their art regardless of the circumstances, to go beyond, and to substitute complacency with resourcefulness, ingenuity and innovation. And here's the kicker-- America is still the greatest place on this planet to live if you're into creativity and freedom of expression. Use that privilege wisely and profit.
Q: I plan to go on the Internet, get the names of a couple hundred galleries in major cities around the world and then mail them postcards about my art. Any suggestions?
A: Yes. Forget it. Establish yourself locally and regionally before you go international. To begin with, no matter whom you approach, you have to have a reason, and "Hi, I'm an artist and here's a sample of my art" is not a reason. Target any prospective gallery individually and-- here's the important part-- explain how and why your art fits in with their agenda. Hint: It's not that they have walls and you want a show. In other words, your approach has to be about them, not about you. If you demonstrate a good solid understanding of a gallery, their artists, the types of art they show, and their history, and make a case about why and where you belong in all of this, then you at least stand a chance of getting noticed.
Q: I'm thinking about taking a course that teaches artists how to become better business people. Is this a good idea?
A: If there's one profession that does not lend itself to a cookie-cutter how-to-do-business approach it's that of "artist." You better hope that whomever's teaching this course is credentialed, respected and experienced in the art world, and not some MBA flunky who spent a couple of years at Three Star AAA Corporation and thinks it's all the same no matter what the product.
Q: When I contact a gallery, do I show them all of my art?
A: No. You show them what you're doing now. And if necessary, based on their responses or questions about your work, maybe show them what led up to what you're doing now. Also make sure you have your art organized into groups or series or themes-- two or maybe three or four distinct categories at the most-- and that you can explain each one clearly and effectively. Showing too much or showing it in random order only confuses people-- even galleries, even you. Your purpose when interviewing at a gallery is twofold-- to demonstrate your talent as an artist, but even more so, to convince the gallery of the voracity of your mission, your intentions, and what you are trying to communicate and accomplish. That's at least as important as the quality of your art. Galleries respect a good story line, and they like artists who know where they're going.
Q: I recently heard about an international art competition offering lots of prize money. They invite artists at all career levels to enter and participate. I'm just starting out and don't have much of a resume. Should I enter?
A: With any competition, you need facts. These include the number of years the competition has been in existence, the names of past prizewinners (especially ones with resumes similar to yours), attendance figures, sales figures, names of jurors, names of sponsors, names of museums or galleries that have been affiliated with past competitions, articles and news coverage about the competition in recognized art world publications and-- here's the biggie-- email addresses, phone numbers, street addresses, and other concrete contact information which will allow you to follow up and verify all claims made by the competition's producers. Once you have those, get on the phone and send out the emails. Your job is to make sure that this competition is recognized and respected by people who count in the art world. If all you get from the producers are generalities, a runaround, unverifiable claims, and promises to get back to you later with the information you want, then maybe pass on this one and wait until the next. Never enter a competition without fully researching and understanding it first-- unless you don't mind wasting time and money on dead-end flimflam.
While I'm on the subject (and for all of you math hounds in the audience), there seems to be an inverse proportion between the significance of a competition and the amount of money you have to put up to enter or participate in it. In other words, the more it costs, the less it's worth entering.
Q: Should I hire an artist coach?
A: I've always wondered... what exactly is an artist coach? Is this someone who tells you to direct your mind to a creative space? To look inward and harvest the bounty of the true you? To feng your shui? What you need to be successful as an artist are specific directives on how to effectively approach, create or present your art, and practical instructions that you can implement and apply immediately to your career-- not vague vacant airy-fairy motivational platitudes. For example, take an art class to learn how to paint better, attend a seminar or panel discussion that addresses specific aspects of the art business or of being an artist. Whatever you do or whomever you hire, make sure they teach a quantifiable skill, approach, method, or technique-- and that they have the art world credentials and qualifications to do so.
Q: An artist consultant tells me he can help me get accepted into prestigious competitions and maybe even get museum shows. He says he'll teach me how to write letters and give me other insider tips and pointers on how to get my art in front of curators who count. How does this sound to you?
A: Well, if you think that getting museum shows is a function of your letter writing ability or knowing "insider tips," think again. Last time I checked, the way you get museum shows is by producing museum quality art. Period. You work your way up the art world ladder just like anyone else by establishing a consistent track record of notable exhibitions, sales, reviews, and exposure. And at some point, assuming you've got the chops, museums begin to notice. There is no shortcutting this procedure.
Q: What's the best way to make a name for myself as an artist?
A: Get your art out there before the public in as many ways and in as many places as possible. The more people who see your art, and the more often they see it, the quicker you establish a "name" for yourself. Showing your art regularly and consistently is no different than any other form of advertising; the greater the number of times someone is exposed to a product (aka your art), the more familiar they become with it, the more likely they are to want to know more about it, and the best part? The more likely they are to buy it.
Q: How can I network better in the art world? I'm not good in social situations.
A: This is almost a corollary to the above question about making a name as an artist. Basically, you get out there in public as often as possible. Go to openings, seminars, lectures, classes, join local museums, and spend time at places or events where art people congregate-- where you feel a connection or affinity or share similar interests. Don't worry about feeling awkward or uncomfortable; you don't have to talk to anybody or do anything. Relax, enjoy yourself and have a good time; all you have to do is show up. You see, the more events you attend, the more acclimated you get to the social protocol of the art world, and-- here's the payoff-- sooner or later people come up to you and introduce themselves, start conversations, ask you questions, comment on the art or on what somebody said, etc. And believe it or not, sooner or later you'll start doing those things too. That's how art world relationships, business and otherwise, begin.
Q: How do I describe my art to people who've never seen it before? I'm not good at talking about my art.
A: Keep it simple; keep it clear. Let whomever you're speaking with lead the conversation. Pay careful attention to their agendas and questions, not to yours. Answer as directly and informatively as possible. Don't ramble on; don't answer questions people don't ask. And as tempting as it may be to overwhelm someone with your knowledge of art or art history, bite your tongue. As soon as you go over someone's head, that's pretty much the end of the conversation. Your goal is to keep people in the game, to incite interest in your art, and you do that by speaking their language, and giving them just enough to want to know more. By the way, if you get self-conscious talking about your art, practice at home or in your studio, either with friends or alone. Talk to a wall if you have to. The more you practice, the better you get, and the more at ease you become.
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