25 years ago I made one of the best decisions of my life.
It was the decision to have a one-hour chat with an art career coach.
The purpose of the meeting was to learn how a glorified student could get his paintings into the world with no previous exhibitions under his belt.
More than an amazing value at $30, it was a beginning. I thanked this man by phone several years later. He thanked me for thanking him.
I learned that the art business is like any other. When you’re new you get your feet wet, forgetting sales or spotlight. As your resume grows, so do the opportunities.
It’s a little like dating. You need to court before the relationship begins.
Artists should work on their career skills early on because they will take time to develop, and update them continually.
If you’re serious about showing your work then don’t wait until you feel your training is over. Start small and get into the game as soon as you can.
Over time, the right people get to know your work as you position yourself to approach small galleries and apply for fellowships. But you need to lay the groundwork first. Here’s how to do it:
1. Get out of town.
Enter competitions in major cities and diverse locations.
You’re creating your history, so avoid looking like a local artist.
The most obscure show in Miami, New York or Boston will stand out on your resume. I see too many artists exhibiting in their own backyards. The expense of shipping cross country will pay big dividends by giving you the appearance of a national artist.
Tons of competitions can be found online, and most artists over 18 can enter for a modest fee.
2. Hire the best photographer you can afford.
The biggest complaint I hear from galleries about artist submissions is poor image quality.
Fine art photography is a specialty, and it’s tricky, so no DIY unless you’re a pro. The quality of your images speaks volumes about your level of commitment and how much you value your own work.
3. Show your very best work. Hide the rest.
As the actor Steve Martin said, “Be so good that they can’t ignore you.”
There’s nothing to gain by showing a weak piece. Astounding work has staying power; average work will be forgotten.
4. Be ready, and be prompt.
If someone reaches out with an inquiry or opportunity, get right back to them with the info requested, as requested.
Give them what they ask for, to the tee and early; they’ll love you for it. I often promise delivery of something within seven days, knowing it will get there in three, remembering the saying, “Under-promise, and over deliver.”
5. Create a killer body of work…
…before committing to a solo show.
You never know when you’ll do a great piece or a not-so-great one.
To promise twenty gallery-ready works in advance is a lot of pressure for an emerging artist.
Some veterans thrive on the adrenaline of a show date, but you shouldn’t take chances with your career, or your sanity, at this stage.
6. Know Thy Art.
Always be ready with brief meaningful answers to questions about your work.
The questions may seem silly (“Is that oil?”) but they also present a perfect opening to share a bit about your process and yourself.
You’re the best rep you’ll ever have, so give your message some thought and practice and avoid wisecracks, no matter what.
7. Make their job easy.
People in the business are juggling a bunch of artists and tasks.
So without being a pushover, be accommodating and pleasant to deal with. Answer your own questions if you can; be the consummate professional.
The logic is simple; the easier you are to work with, the greater your chances of being invited back.
8. Buy a great frame. Or don’t.
Go all out with a gorgeous, museum-quality frame, or leave it off completely.
Not having a frame at all on your work is better than having a cheap one, and there is a beauty and modernity to clean painted edges on unframed canvases, especially the larger ones.
9. Play Nice.
Don’t ever, ever, spread negative gossip about your fellow artists or art professionals.
It’s human nature to complain, we all do it, and in a strange way it connects us.
But inappropriate in business and it makes you sound whiny and unprofessional.
Unflattering comments actually to stick more to the person making them. If you must, share grievances with your spouse or significant other; that’s what they’re for.
10. Don’t paint in the 11th hour.
The moment your work is accepted for an exhibition, consider it done…for now.
Trying to “finish” or improve a piece too close to showtime can cause stress and backfire, leaving you with something weaker than you had in the first place.
If your art finds a home during the run of a show, great!
If not, you’ve gained valuable perspective seeing it on the wall and can attack it later, so it’s a win-win.
A delicate and complicated issue that could be the subject of an entire post, but here are two rules of thumb:
See if you can find out what artists of similar experience, age and exhibition histories (your competition) are receiving, not just asking, for their work and price yours accordingly.
Imagine that midpoint between what you would like to get and what a collector would like to pay; both sides should be willing to give a little.
Don’t hold out for the grand slam or settle for the sure thing; let your prices be, well, a little boring.
Every challenge an artist faces, with inspiration, with relationships, with money, can be thought of as a painting challenge.
The more skillful we are at dealing with these things the better it is for our art. And so it is with career.
If you ever hear the words, “you don’t seem like an artist”; celebrate! It means you look, sound and behave like a pro.