Art careers are very exciting early on. Everything is new and shiny. Everything is emotional and fun. Encouragement from anyone sends you soaring into the clouds.
If I could talk to every new artist and tell them what to watch out for in their art careers, this blog post is what I would tell them.
The Danger of Being “Discovered”
Art galleries and dealers frequent BFA and MFA showcases from the top art schools and pick a few artists to represent. In a lucky few instances, they’ll offer some financial support while that artist develops. Sometimes that works out amazingly well and a new star is born.
Often, however, that artist’s work gets sold to the dealer’s contacts as the latest Next Big Thing. The artist is often sold as part of a trend in the wealthy circles of the elite, which might be the result of the work of a single brilliant artist, but is often the result of a wealthy dealer picking a new trend, having nothing to do with believing in the artist or the artist’s message.
Being discovered in today’s art gallery climate often means having a huge influx of cash for a few years, then getting dropped when your art falls out of favor, or when the market inevitably corrects because collectors realize that there are other artists doing interesting things.
Being discovered is the biggest reason that the artist’s career path is so obscured. The noise around it is deafening. Despite the fact that, in the USA, more than 20,000 artists graduate with art degrees every year, and there are only 6,000 art galleries in the USA. Those 6,000 galleries are picking through not just those new artists but the hundreds of thousands of other artists who are trying to get in the door.
Being discovered isn’t actually being on the path at all. You don’t learn anything about how to grow your own audience or how to connect with collectors directly.
And once those who discovered you are done with you, you’re on your own. Hopefully you saved some of that cash.
The problem with being discovered is that the stories from the New York Times and the art press make it seem like this is the only way to make a living.
Artists who are selling pieces for $10,000, directly to collectors, with no gallery intervention, don’t make the Times. These artists exist. I’ve spoken to many of them, and it kills me to see young artists who are eking out a living on scraps while they try to get into a gallery. The middle-aged artist, once very promising, who has given up on their art career because they think their shot at being discovered is gone, is equally sad.
So don’t depend on being discovered. Learn to connect with collectors directly and grow your own fan base.
False Paths: Juried Shows and Awards
There are many organizations that will take your money and promise you a chance at winning an award. A few of them may lead to a legitimate opportunities – cash prizes big enough to make a difference, retreats, solo shows with major galleries or a formal mentorship. But most of them are just a way for that organization to make a few dollars.
While it’s nice to have the recognition and it’s nice to be able to put those awards on your website, in the end these awards don’t mean you’ve sold anything. The average art collector doesn’t care if you won prize x or prize y. In most cases an award will help a skeptical collector feel reassured that they’re not the only one who likes your art.
For the most part, juried shows are a distraction from building a long-lasting art business. They look like a branch of the path, but really they’re a dead end. Go too far down that path and you’ll end up lost, wondering where the path disappeared – and why you spent so much money to get where you are.
If you’re just getting started and you are looking for feedback on your work, participating in a few juried shows can get you some interesting feedback on your technique and ideas, but it won’t tell you if collectors like your work enough to buy it. Only talking to collectors will do that.
False Paths: Thinking You’ve Made It
It’s usually around the time that you’ve done your first solo show and had a few sales that the galleries start approaching you. You might be asked to join an artist co-op. It starts to feel like you’ve finally arrived.
The false path here is thinking that you’ve made it. You take your foot off of the gas and stop working so hard. After all, these gallery owners and other artists will start to sell your work for you, right? You can just make art and hand it off to the sales professionals.
As mentioned above, some of these galleries can be quite lucrative. Some of them will be “vanity galleries” that will ask you to pay a fee to show your work. They don’t actually have any foot traffic and they don’t have paid staffers who know how to talk to art collectors.
Some of those co-ops sound pretty great until you realize that most of the artists in the co-op are amateurs who won’t sell your work even when a collector walks in the door. You might notice that the only time you sell anything from the co-op gallery is when you’re taking your scheduled turn manning the front desk.
If you’ve shown your work a few times, you’ve seen how people react to your work. You know who is likely to react well to your work and who is likely to buy. Trust your instincts. Be skeptical of those who want your money. Ask questions about what they’ll specifically do for you and how they’ll help your art business. Ask them about their clients and audiences. Talk to other artists and get the behind the scenes chatter. Get contracts with galleries.
Bottom line: if a gallery hasn’t sold any work for you in 6 months, it’s time to make a change.
Finding Your Way Back
Getting over the hurdle of showing your work is probably the most difficult mindset and emotional shift in an emerging artist’s career.
Avoiding the twisting path of the small gallery world, when you’re just starting to build a following, is probably the most intellectually challenging part of building a business. Everyone wants you to go their way.
Look for the path you want to walk and don’t veer from it.
If you find yourself thinking, “I’m doing everything right, why isn’t it working?” then you’re probably on one of those false paths. Back track for a bit. What could you be doing that you’re not doing? Where are you leaving your business to chance or to other people’s actions?
What’s your experience with false paths? Are there other false paths you would identify?