The Business of Art

Treating your art business as a business

The business of being a traditional artist, meaning being someone who makes their entire living just off their art skills, is one of the toughest career paths anyone can choose. Let's look at art from a business point of view.

Suppose you were to want to manufacture a widget. You come up with the design of the widget yourself. You raise the funds to purchase the materials. You actually make the widgets one at a time, you store the widgets, then you find someone willing to take a widget or two and represent you and sell them for you, but you only get paid if the widget sells, and they are going to take 50% for their effort.

So now you will have to find a lot of widget sellers. Unfortunately, not a lot of people are buying your kind of widgets, so often times your unsold widgets are returned to you, so you have to store them until you can find more widget sellers, and you are suddenly on this hamster wheel of making and trying to market these widgets with no guarantee they will ever sell, especially when people can buy mass produced widgets much cheaper. 

That's kind of like being a traditional artist.

Green glasses in the space where art and business collide

Green glasses in the space where art and business collide

My Art Story

I had the notion at one time that I was the next great American artist. I am very skilled, and my work always wins awards and people praise it. Unfortunately, no one buys it because in order for me to put a living wage on my per hour efforts plus the cost of materials, double that for the gallery commission, it is then too expensive for most people to buy. 

And even if most people could afford my work, would they buy it then? Actually no. 

Think about it. If you go to the homes of your friends who aren't involved with the art world, and you do an assessment of what's on their walls, what do you think you will find? Do you think you will find that they have invested in a lot of original art? No. They have prints. Photographs of art printed on paper and probably cheaply framed.

Face it, we live in a very disposable world.

Does Your Art Match Your Couch?

Understanding Your Customer

This point was driven home to me many years ago when I was working at a cooperative gallery, one where all the artists had to put in so many hours per month in exchange for showing and gaining a better commission. Anyway, this woman came into the gallery with a sofa cushion under her arm, and asked me if I had anything that would go well with her couch. 

I tried my best to explain how all the gallery works were individual, one of a kind pieces, and how she should look for a piece of art that speaks to her and all that, but her only interest was in finding something cheap to go over the sofa. I finally sent her to the poster shop down the street where she found exactly what she wanted; a print in a cheap frame that can be put on the yard sale whenever she decides to change the theme of her decor.

Can You Adapt?

OK, this is our reality. This is the business of art. So how are you going to make this reality work for you, instead of you becoming burned out and depressed because the reality of what it meant to be an artist in times gone by is no longer anybody's reality? 

Changing My Approach to My Art Business

I think the first thing for me was to let go of the vision I had in my head of how my life as an artist was supposed to be. The mental part is tough. So what did I do?

I got rid of gallery representation. I am no longer adding to the pile of rejection letters. I no longer worry about making those packets to send off for someone to review in 6 months if they get around to it, while I wait and wonder if anyone even works there anymore. Getting rid of gallery representation means no more outlay of money for framing, too. Now I show at a small local gallery in a couple of group shows per year. It's fun, I get to dress up and go to the openings, and on odd occasions, I actually sell a piece, but that's like a bonus, not like a "will I get to eat this week" thing.

I also began to look at my art business as a business, and embrace the disposability of art. I do prints. I use a print on demand company, Zazzle, and I let them do it all. They make the sale, produce the print, deal with the money and the shipping and the damages and returns and the taxes. They pay me a commission, giving me more time to produce more work that I want, or to just sit with my feet up drinking sweet tea. Either way, I have jettisoned all those responsibilities and headaches.

I also diversified my products. Now, I no longer care if my art is on a mug or a t-shirt or a cocktail napkin. Now, the business of art for me means getting the product out there and putting it all on autopilot so I can have a quality of life. 

Further, I now have now started licensing images - both drawings and photographs - to various microstock companies. More sales = more sweet tea.

You could make an argument that I have sold out. I would accept that as a valid point of view; no judgments. But if you really want to take your art business to the next level, you should think about it in the context of the modern world. Consider this your sofa cushion moment.

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