Common Artist Misconceptions and Realities

Understanding the Art World Better

After kicking around the art world for four decades now, and during those years talking to countless thousands of artists, gallery owners, and other artland professionals, certain facts and fictions about how it all works gradually become clear. So reflecting back on those years of experience, here's a list of common misconceptions 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 so I can start selling immediately."

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, shows, sales and greatness will soon follow suit. 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, continually prove yourself over time, and gain a progressively respectable resume, profile and reputation as an artist. As for the right people, you don't find them; they find you.


* 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 make that art significant or worthy of notice. Having said that, unusual or unique techniques do count for something, especially if they're highly involved, require considerable skills, or are difficult to duplicate. In the end, though, it's all about the quality, significance, vision and impact of the art, not simply that it's different from all other art.


* Misconception: "My art will sell itself."

Reality: No art sells itself. If you're early in your career or just starting out, you're mainly the one who has to sell it. Hopefully as you advance in your career, others will recognize your talent and start start selling it for you. Selling it yourself doesn't mean hawking it on street corners BTW, but rather getting exposure for what you and your art are about however and wherever you can, both on social media and at physical locations. Welcome every opportunity to engage others in various forms of communication or dialogue around your work. Hopefully your dedication and commitment will convince others that your art worth considering from aesthetic as well as intellectual perspectives, and even more importantly, why they should make it a part of their 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 how or where they happen. If your art's got the chops, word will spread about what you're doing, both in-person and on social media, and offers to exhibit will eventually come your way from one metropolis or another. In terms of getting exposure at physical locations, get known in and around where you live 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-- and 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 at now. 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 compare my prices to their prices or maybe even charge as much for my art as they do for theirs."

Reality: If you're not widely known or already established, or are 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 and thrive over time by consistently creating quality art and getting recognized for it in terms successful shows, sales, reviews, awards and distinctions. 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 making 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 with many successful shows under their belts.


* 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, being able to interact with the artist is often as important as the art... and sometimes even more so. You're the personality behind the product, the star of the show. People who love contemporary art and who buy or collect it, particularly those who are serious, want to know who you are, what you're about, and pretty much everything else. You have to be personally accessible and involved in some way and to some extent with your artwork. This often includes appearing 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 engage with others about your art and show why it's worth owning and paying attention to. Holing up in the studio is not enough. You have to actively advocate for yourself and your work; ask any famous artist and you'll see.


* Misconception: "Anyone can accurately 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 sense 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 involved with the art business, often suggest prices based on how the art looks, on subjective opinions, on what they might know about art history, or on impressions, emotions, feelings or other intangibles that have LITTLE OR NOTHING to do with the realities of artland.

Art school teachers and professors who have minimal experience in the business are particularly at fault here, the main reason being that the prices they suggest to students or recent graduates are often too high, and sometimes way ridiculously too high. The upshot? Promising young artists find it difficult if not impossible to sell their art... and that's bad, especially when they have potential, and their work is worthy and deserves to hang in people's collections. The truth is that art prices are based far more on facts about the marketplace than they are on subjective considerations. Suggesting prices to students that have no foundation in fact does more harm than good. So get your art priced by people who know the business, who understand the market for your type of art, and who know how to price it sensibly for purposes of making sales.


* 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 this. They know what you're selling for now and they know what their clienteles are willing to spend. If they think your prices should be raised somewhat, they'll do the raising. You stay out of it. 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 (but only by a reasonable amount). Raising them before the show 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 an experienced 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 won't respect my art because I'm self-taught."

Reality: First off, plenty of self-taught artists are really successful. It's not about the number of degrees you have, who you studied under, where you went to art school, or anything else related to how you learned your craft. It's all about the art. True, a formal 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 academic antecedents in order for people to understand and appreciate it. In general though, advanced degrees are no guaranteed gateway to fame, fortune, higher selling prices or any other measures of artistic success. To repeat once again-- it's all about the art.

artist art

(sculptures by Miriam Böhm)

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