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Aug 12, 2017
Many painters that I know hover around having a career in painting, like moths hovering around a glowing lamp. Everyone wants the bright light, but no one is sure how to get close to the flame. Over the years, I have watched friends dart in, wings flapping with a flurry of effort, expecting a big show or expo to transport them to the fiery next level. Most come away a little singed by rejection and debt.
One problem is that painters are typically artists, not business people. Often, I have wondered exactly what the word "business" means. When I think of business, I imagine, as many people do, a man or woman in a blue wool suit, sitting at a boardroom table. This person is selling a commodity, like oil and steel. Fundamentally, the definition of business is the opposite of how I perceive my paintings. A businessperson thinks they are selling a product, but an artist thinks they are selling a piece of their soul.
Like many artists, I have struggled to understand that I am indeed in business. In my mind, I imagined that if I painted a masterpiece, naturally, everyone would know immediately. My painting would beam its glory out of the studio in psychic waves, and crowds would gather. A mysterious "patron" would appear, like a white knight, to buy my painting for a million dollars and, at an appropriate time, gift it to the MOMA.
Over time, I have learned that paintings don't have telepathic powers. A painter needs something else besides talent to help them achieve a career in art. Something invisible, that the typical artist doesn't even find in their home or studio.
What is this mysterious thing?
When I say marketing, I don't mean a show postcard once a year. I don't mean a collection of random photos on tumbler. I mean relentless, cold-blooded marketing of the one's "product" and the harsh acceptance that one is painting to make money. This means, before starting a painting, considering its salability. It means cultivating collectors and gallery owners, and bending, if necessary, to their point of view.
In short, for an artist, accepting the business of art is similar to what happens when a wild stallion is captured and thrown in a corral. However much you buck and stamp, you cannot avoid marketing. If you want money for your art, you have to put on a saddle and bridle and ride into town.
Naturally, knowing all this, I am still a terrible marketer. Marketing is something that I look forward to as much as a root canal or a mammogram. I would much rather get my teeth drilled or have my boob smashed in a machine than write a press release. After nearly 30 years in the art business, I still send out my show notices late every time.
Why is this?
Whenever I have to make a marketing piece, like an email or a bio, I have to answer the terrible question "what is your art about?"
Because, whenever I have to make a marketing piece, like an email or a bio, I have to answer the terrible question "what is your art about?" When faced with this question, I find myself suddenly needing to do anything else but answer it. Re-read The Lord of the Rings. Walk the dog. Do TurboTax in November. Anything, please!
I know I am not the only artist who doesn't easily verbalize what they're doing. I paint because some internal non-verbal force drives me to. At its essence, my art is about something my brain is doing by itself, to please itself.
Like the wild stallion running on the plain, I don't want to wear the bridle of marketing language. I don't want to have an "elevator pitch." I just want to dash around looking magnificent, and be admired from afar. Though I have tried this strategy for many years, it doesn't sell paintings.
Any marketing piece you make forces you to answer the question "why should I buy your art?" Some artists can successfully separate themselves from their work and answer that question easily. These people understand that the gallery owner and the collector want a coherent story to work with as they consider your art.
So you're probably wondering, why is this so hard for many artists? In short, because art is an emotional business. Emotions don't ride elevators and don't have elevator pitches. Emotions are massive, messy megalomaniacs who malign marketing.
Once at an artist's support group, I listened to an artist tell this story:
"I got a show in a gallery/shop, where they have home accessories and paintings. The shop owner had a reception for me. While I was there, kibitzing with the crowd, I saw a couple that I didn't like looking at my work. At the end of the evening, they bought my favorite painting and the shop owner gave them a 10% discount! I never told her she could give any discounts and I want the painting back rather than have it go to those people."
This story split the artist's group. Half the artists were outraged at the cheek of the gallery owner and felt she should eat the 10% or even revoke the transaction. The other half were outraged that the artist wasn't grateful for the sale.
To me, this story sums up everything problematic about the art business. First of all, the artist hadn't let go of her emotional attachment to the paintings. For her, they were not products, but expressions of her inner being. The thought of having her handmade object carried away by unpleasant people traumatized her. Second of all, the gallery owner probably assumed she had the prerogative to give a discount. In sales, a small discount is the equivalent of breathing—you do it to stay alive. The artist, however, perceived the discount as an insult on the injury of the undesirable sale.
This kind of agony seldom happens over a pack of gum or a can of beans. Non-artistic objects like a barrel of oil are perceived to be things that you buy for a good price or a bad price. That's just business, which everyone understands. In the realm of art, however, the artist has to learn two different skills: 1) making emotionally desirable art and 2) dispassionately marketing that same art. Many artists, myself included, can only master one of these two things, at best.
As I age, I have accepted that marketing is necessary. I have set aside time and even a little money to do so. Still, I fail to make a chink in the wall of obscurity.
Why is that?
Personally, as a part-time, late night painter, I struggle with marketing for two reasons: 1) because marketing is a galactic-level time suck and 2) because good marketing costs money. Usually, if I have time to do good marketing, it is because I'm not working, and thus, I am broke. When I'm flush, working a full-time corporate gig, I have no time to market my art. In the words of Homer Simpson, "D'oh!"
Something that happens to me frequently is marketing paralysis. This immobility happens when I know there are 25 important things I need to do for a show, but I can only have time or money to do three. My brain spasms in frustration, irritated with the clock and the wallet paradox.
For example, here are some typical marketing needs just for a simple show:
Every time I do a show, I look at this list wistfully, like the budget of the United States, and start cutting. I always fund the department of email blast. That's only $30. Once a year I do a postcard, which is $250 to print and $200 to mail. A Facebook ad is $100. Everything else gets pushed off to "another time."
In my mind, I have a fantasy of that time in the future, when I have a $10,000 marketing budget for a show. In this imaginary world, my publicist will write my press release and send it to the top 100 publications in the country. Then I'll go to a custom picture frame shop and drop $3K on exquisite frames. Next my designer will send me specs for my suite of ads. A local TV station will interview me. I'll post this interview to my YouTube channel and then get into my limo to go to the show.
Ah, if only.
What is it really like to do art business? Do I sit at my silver MacBook, looking over my infinity pool, putting the MOMA on hold while petting my Chihuahua?
I get up in the morning and look at my email in the IKEA chair, hoping to find a message from a famous critic offering a solo show in New York.
Instead, I find the following:
The time suck begins. I get a reminder from the group show postcard designer that she needs my image. I hem and haw. Should I just send the Instagram image or should I book an appointment with the art photographer. I decide on the photographer. There go four hours and $30.
In my email, I notice that two people at in studio are trying to organize a reception the next month. There's a thread about whether to have the reception in the afternoon or at night. The older artists want the reception at 2 PM. The younger artists want the reception at 10 PM with a metal band, a disco ball, and a keg. Bitter emails sail back and forth. Should I stick my foot into this? There goes another hour.
Sometimes I get an email from a gallery owner who saw my work at my studio. In this case, I want to make a good impression, so I spend two hours crafting the perfect response. When I'm ready to send, I accidentally click the delete button instead. Now it's time to have dinner and I don't get the email out today. In fact, I agonize about it so much that I wait another month to send it. The gallery doesn't reply.
Get the picture?
When you see a well-done artist's website, you don't see the sausage making that went on behind the scenes. This applies to all marketing materials. A beautiful postcard = a trip to the photographer with a large painting attached to the roof of the car. A nice business card = several hours fidgeting with online forms. A nice banner for a group show = collecting photographs from several people who check email once a month. Why do they check email only once a month? They hide from Gmail because their inbox is filled to the brim with sales at Blick and Bob Ross parody videos.
Once in a while, I meet an artist who is good at marketing. What's different about these people? Well, all their artwork is labeled neatly and priced well. Their space is neat. Their frames all match. Their paintings are themed and easy to comprehend. They answer your emails immediately. They text. You can actually buy art from their websites, which are cleanly designed and updated yesterday.
If you meet such a person, you may not at first notice his or her iron will. You may mistake nice labels for something facile. You may think it is easy to coordinate a website, business card, postcard, and video. But if you are an artist, and it is a typical afternoon, and you know you need to do some marketing, you may find that there is a deep gulf between what you desire to do and what you can actually accomplish in two hours. That's when it begins to dawn on you that the person who can do marketing well is actually the person who is willing to put in hours and hours, and after that more hours, of self-driven, lonely, and un-lauded promotion time.
When you hear someone is a painter, you might think, "Lucky them! How fun!" While it is true that painting is itself fun, making a living, as a painter is actual work—and the hardest part of it is figuring out what to do. In many professions, when you show up for a job, someone will tell you what to do. "Sit there. Open this file. Enter data in this spreadsheet thingie. Get it done by 5 PM." Even doctors and lawyers show up to work and are immediately presented with a task. "Save this guy with the bullet in his chest!" "File this brief!" When your patient's dying on the table, you don't have time to wonder whether this is the task you should do first. You save the patient. When you're done, you have the thrill of having accomplished something. You go home happy, ready to rise up the next day and face the world again.
As a painter, you get no assignments. Having no assignment leaves open the possibility that you could fail to come up with a task for yourself and piss away the day doing nothing. In fact, you will piss away a lot of days doing nothing. How many days have you thought "In an hour, I'll sit down and work on my website." Right after I get coffee, I'll go down to the studio. Well, maybe after coffee and lunch. Okay, really, tomorrow I'll work on my website."
What happens to a person who constantly fails to do what they need to get done? Defeat is not good for the soul. Not a few painters have quit their day jobs, set up a studio, and discovered that they couldn't actually accomplish anything. Hours of free time can be a curse. Many of us have the great American novel or painting in our head. Probably the only difference between Rembrandt and me is that he actually got to the studio every day and advertised heavily in the local paper.
Here's a closing story about marketing.
Currently I'm part of a studio-gallery, where the each artist takes a turn staffing the gallery once a month. One day several of us were sitting around, discussing whether being in the studio was worth the cost. After all, we lamented, few of us sold enough paintings to cover our rent.
"Do you think real business people consider us crazy to be here, losing money?" I asked.
The other artists considered this. Finally one said, "It's a lifestyle thing, Sherrod, not a business decision."
"Do you think if we did a lot more marketing, we could make money?" I asked.
"Do you have time to do more marketing?"
"Does having a studio make you happy?"
"Then just be happy."
My studio is full of late night painters. We're fitting in our art careers on the edges. Each of us does exactly as much marketing as we can fit into two hours a week and $50 a month. Alas, this road does not lead to New York, but it does lead to some unexpected rewards, like when a friend says "I've had your postcard on my refrigerator for 20 years. Keep me on your list!" For such sweet moments, the saddle and bridle of marketing seem worth wearing.
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