Nearly any artist would envy my friend’s art business. His large kinetic sculptures, inspired by his first encounters with Alexander Calder, are in private collections and corporate offices all over the world. Those pieces often sell for well into the five-figure range. His network of relationships with art consultants keeps him busy for most of the year.
In addition to his original pieces, my friend has a growing retail business. Small versions of his originals, manufactured in his shop, sell in museum shops all over the USA and France. They don’t do any business with art galleries.
This business supports his wife and children. They live a quiet, unassuming life in a large downtown apartment in a mid-size city. You would never guess that he is so successful. In fact, someone once tried to donate children’s shoes to his family because his daughter insisted on wearing her old, beat up shoes to church.
But their family is doing quite well. They own their large apartment and take vacations a few times per year. Their children are in a great charter school.
Many artists probably couldn’t even imagine having that level of success. Even if they could imagine it, they can’t figure out what to do or where to start. These two issues are the core problems that keep most artists distracted and off the path to where they want to be.
The real challenge of being a professional artist is not that it’s impossible to make it as an artist. It’s possible, and it’s even more probable than most of fine art world makes it out to be. Bitter college professors, ignorant (but loving) parents, and skeptical art business folks like to push the idea that making a living as an artist is too hard, or that it doesn’t pay.
Meanwhile, over the last six years, I’ve had extended conversations with dozens of artists who are doing what everyone says they can’t do. They’re making a living making art. Some of them are making a really great living.
The reason that The Abundant Artist exists is that there are thousands of would-be professional artists who are trying to figure out how to make it work. They hope it’s possible, but they don’t know what to do.
The challenge is filtering out the noise. Between the negative talk, the thousands of art-world hangers-on with an agenda, and the plain poseurs, it’s hard to hear the words of those who have actually been there.
Of course, part of the reason it’s so hard to hear the words of those who’ve been there is that many of the artists who are making a living doing what they do are not speaking all that loudly, if at all. The artists who have “made it” are busy working in their studios, talking with collectors, and living their lives. Most of them don’t have any interest in teaching up and coming artists, which is a real shame.
The few that do teach younger artists usually only take on an apprentice or two, or perhaps teach the occasional master class. Many of the artists who teach art-making regularly make their living that way, so they don’t have the depth of experience in the making and selling trenches.
And art schools aren’t doing anyone any favors in this regard. The few art schools that have entrepreneurship or business training treat it like the ugly stepchild of the school. The programs are underfunded, and stigmatized by faculty and other students.
It’s tough out there for an artist who wants to learn how to make a living. But it doesn’t have to be.
A few weeks ago I sat down to try to write up a comprehensive overview of how it all works together.
One of the things that I discovered is that even I can’t fully illuminate the path. I can show you some common trail markers, but every artist must navigate the path by themselves.
Over the next few blog posts, I am going to outline the structure that I use when I’m coaching artists. I call it Seeking the Hidden Path for Art Business Success.
This structure includes:
Finding the Hidden Path – this includes getting the training that you need to be a competent artist, and showing your work to people outside your immediate social circles. It also includes figuring out which of the 5 Artist Business Models is right for you.
Avoiding False Paths – there are a lot of people who want your money, time, and attention as an artist. Some of them, like family, friends and artist organizations, mean well. Others, like predatory galleries, juried shows, and contests, just want your money and don’t care about whether or not you do well.
Walking the Path – what got you started on the path won’t necessarily get you where you want to be. You must learn enough business skills to sell your work and to avoid being taken advantage of by unscrupulous art world predators.
Finding Friends to Walk With – the path gets lonely and hard. This is a joyous time in an artist’s career because your fan base begins to support you and propel you along. Smart artists learn to surf this momentum down the path. In addition to fans, there are companies that you can partner with to help you keep that momentum going. You might even take on some employees.
Blazing Your Own Trail – because each artist’s career is slightly different, at some point you have to learn to pull away from all of the advice and imagine your world as you want it to be – then blaze your own trail to get there. This is where your art business goes from good enough to absolutely amazing.
I’m looking forward to sharing these with you and hearing your feedback on this process. What questions do you have or what does this make you think?