Monthly Archives: August 2009

TEN MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS #4: Artists Are Not Business People

Myth: Artists are not business people.
Reality: Successful artists have good business skills, or they marry*/partner with/hire people who do.

(This marriage tip courtesy of Wendy Rosen of The Rosen Group in Baltimore MD.)

A common myth about artists is that they are not good at the business end of making and selling art. The reality is, the better you are at the business skills necessary to promote and market your art, the better chance you have at being a successful artist.

I have a theory about artists and their lack of business skills. I think we tend to not like skills like math (balancing checkbooks, statistics, recording expenses). When it came to math, I liked story problems–if Bill and Jane decide to buy a house, and their options for borrowing money are a loan with an interest rate of 9.8% and no points, or a loan with an interest rate of 7.2% and 3 points, which is better? Because I liked to think, “Well, how much money does Bill make, and what if Jane has gone back to school to get a teaching certificate? And what if Bill gets a better job offer–is there a chance they might have to move in two years, and sell their house in a buyer’s market? Do they also like expensive cars, or do they shop at Salvation Army? Do they fight about how much to tip the waitress at a posh restaurant? Are these two even compatible enough to make a marriage work??” (You see the story potential here?)

Artists think they won’t need to take typing classes because they’re not going to be a secretary when they grow up. (We could not foresee the Internet and the importance of keyboard skills in 1968.) Talking about net profit and gross profit seemed, well, gross.

So we decided we would be artists. Famous artists. Successful artists! So successful that galleries would take care of all that bookkeeping stuff and marketing stuff for us. We would simply show up at the opening receptions in our cool black clothing, sip white wine and schmooze with our collectors.

That worked well enough for a fortunate few, for a few good decades. And then times changed. We grew up and realized we needed to pay mortgages, have health insurance, put kids through college. The artists who stuck it out had to learn how to sell, how to market, how to maintain positive cash flow.

And many of us found that these weren’t such awful skills to learn, and acquire, after all.

The same way artists are made, not born, business skills can be LEARNED and the incentive is huge. The more you understand the consequences of your business decisions, the better your decisions get.

Days of galleries “handling” all your business matters are gone, and as the Bernie Madoffs of the world should have taught us, good riddance. We’ve learned the hard way that galleries can go out of business (taking your art with them). We’ve learned that locking totally into wholesale strategies can also lock down your artistic aspirations, when galleries only want the work that sells. Even if we did embrace the business side of our art, strategies that worked beautifully in the 80′s and 90′s don’t work so well in the post 9/11 economy.

It’s always good to to know your bottom line. We need to know how to sell work, if only to understand why people buy it in the first place, and what they need to know in order to buy it. (More about that in Myth #5)

Marketing, promotion, sales, research and product development, teaching, writing–these are all business of art/craft skills that are good tools for a successful artist to keep in her toolbox.

Why was Picasso famous? Most people assume it’s because he was such a great artist. Well, yes, he was. But there were other artists of his time who were better at drawing. Other artists who were more skilled with color. Other artists who were better at all kinds of artistic things.

But Picasso was a master business person. Because he was a master at self-promotion and publicity, he was able to translate his name into the name everyone comes up with when asked to name an artist.

I read a story years ago about Picasso owing his tailor a large sum of money. He wrote the man a check. Then suggested the tailor not cash it because someday his (Picasso’s) signature would be worth more than the check was written for.

Not all of us will end up that famous (or with that much chutzpah. But learning appropriate business skills to get your art out into the world goes a long way to ensuring your efforts will come to fruition.

In fact, I’ve found I enjoy many of the business aspects of my art biz more than I thought. Because they are a labor of love. I choose, knowing the consequences, good and bad, of each informed decision. Gambling on formerly “sure thing” avenues is no longer part of my marketing strategy. I constantly forced to think hard about who my target audience is, and why they buy my art.

And I think I’m a better artist for it.

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Filed under art, business, career, choices, craft, marketing, mental attitude, myths about artists, self promotion, selling

TEN MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS #3: Artists Starve in Garrets

MYTH: “There’s no money in art, you’ll starve!”
Fact: There are ways to supplement your income or even support a family making art.

Here’s the third myth from my series called, “TEN MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS (That Will Keep You From Being A SUCCESSFUL Artist”. “Artists Starve in Garrets.” (What IS a garret??) Corollary: “Real artists don’t care about money” and “You have to sell out in order to sell your art”.

Yes, real artists DO care about money. They have to eat and pay taxes and live somewhere just like us. They may even want to eat out or see a movie from time to time, or go on a vacation. Or have nice clothes. They may even (horrors!) want to send their kids to college, or go to France. And see the works of artists there who may or may not have starved in garrets.

There is nothing wrong with wanting compensation for your skill and hard work, whether your work is laying bricks, raising potatoes, putting together a corporate merger, or creating a beautiful pot or painting. We do many things out of love and skill, but we don’t tell our dentist, “I know how much you love your work, so you don’t expect to be PAID for removing that impacted molar, do you?”

There’s also nothing wrong with people wanting to pay you for your art. Just as we long to have a nice lawn, pretty flowers in our garden, matching towels in our bathrooms and a really really big flat screen TV, many of us long to have attractive and/or meaningful things in our homes.

Hence, many people who cannot make the art you make, will want to pay you so they can own some of yours.

It’s a thrill when someone else loves your work so much, they are willing to part with their own hard-earned money for it. It is the ultimate compliment. Don’t let anyone tell you different.

You can make a living with art. You can make a living selling the art you want to make—IF you take the time to find your audience. It helps to recognize that the business of art is just that–a business. You are creating a product just as if you were in the business of writing a white paper for a venture capital company, or raising corn, or making and selling food at a restaurant. We’ll look again at ways to look at art-making as a business, but for now, try to lose the idea that making art to sell is somehow WRONG.

And re: “selling out”…making modifications (temporary or otherwise) in order to make your art more marketable is good business sense. NOT selling out.

There is no right or wrong way to approach the business of selling your art. There are CONSEQUENCES that result from your choices, however. Be aware and prepared for those consequences.

For example, some people want to make something that sells easily and quickly. They study the market to see what’s hot or trendy and what’s selling. That gives them a good shot to get their business up and running fast.

There are consequences for choosing this business model. First, fads come and go seemingly overnight. They are bell-curved in nature—a very few people buy the idea at first, followed by a small but growing swell of followers. Then the boom hits and EVERYBODY wants one. Soon, though, the boom ebbs, and you are left with stock that’s out of date. By the time you get through a season, it’s time to completely redesign your work.

Also, do you think you’re the only person who noticed what was selling? Your competition is right at your heels, sometimes in the booth next to you. It’s hard to create a look that’s significantly different from hundreds of other artists working in the same fad.

Plus you are not really creating something that comes from your heart, from where YOU stand in the world. You are constantly looking out into the world and following someone else’s lead.

On the other hand, some people are determined to only create work that totally pleases them. They are the people who are determined to crochet granny square vests in neon acrylic yarn. Since this look is actually coming back, I’ll just go on to say this proves my next point: You CAN sell crocheted vests made of granny squares in synthetic neon-colored yarn if you can wait long enough to grow an audience for it.

The advantage is you will be working very close to your “greatest vision” for your art. It will be highly individual in nature and a unique expression of your vision. It will be difficult for anyone else to copy or follow in your footsteps.

The consequence here is it can take time, a long, long time, to develop a following for something. If you don’t care about getting cash flow going, or are extremely patient and unconcerned with the opinion of others, then you can afford to work this way.

But as in real life, you don’t have just two choices. Just like most decisions in life, you can construct something that lies somewhere in the middle.

Somewhere in the middle could look like this: You spend the time developing a highly personal body of work, work that has your distinctive and individual mark in it.

You invest the necessary time developing that style. At the same time, you find ways to connect it to a larger audience than your current audience of one (you.) You either offer less-involved versions that appeal to more people. Or you find ways to tweak it in small ways that don’t dilute the artwork’s vision itself, that makes it more marketable.

You still have the strength and power of a unique body of work, sacrificing more time and effort to develop your ultimate audience. But you also have something that’s somewhat marketable in the meantime, and bringing in cash flow so you can continue to grow.

Another approach could be to start smaller. You make something that IS trendy, or simple, or just fun to make. It’s not super-special, you just like doing it.

You sell some here, you sell some there, and over time, your audience grows. The fad goes away, but your work has evolved past that. As you go, you constantly tweak it here and there, adding touches that are unique to YOU.

Your interest pulls you to explore farther and farther. Your work becomes even more an extension of you. Your audience comes along gradually, growing larger and more appreciative.

One day, you realize your work has slowly evolved into something that is still recognizable but so distinctively YOU that anyone could look at it and say, “That’s a Joanna Smith!” On your journey, along the way, you made a million little choices by following your heart, resulting in a body of work only YOU could have made.

The point is you don’t have to choose between selling out and not selling at all. Life is rarely about black-and-white choices. It’s about finding the way BETWEEN you can live with. Sometimes through compromise and negotiation. Sometimes through small, unconscious changes. But always in balance.

P.S. A garret comes from an old French word, refers to the space inside/under the roof a building, and is simply a very classy way of saying “attic”….

Caveat: A friend who’s a lot of research about “successful” artists found that many don’t really make a living from their work. Some of the names would surprise you. Some are supported by spouses or trust funds. Some rely on academic careers for their bread-and-butter. On the other hand, I DO know people who support families while making work they love. Yet some people wouldn’t call them “artists”.

The moral of the story here: Don’t let anyone else define “success” for you! It will be different for each of us. And there is room in the world for all of our versions.

For a pithier (and funnier) version of this philosophy, see this post at the IttyBiz blog.

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TEN MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS: A Story Behind the Myths

Let me share a story, one of the stories that got me thinking about these “artist myths”–myths like “Artists are born, not made” and “Only the best artists succeed.”

A few years after I finally started my own art journey, I was invited to do a series of artist presentations in a nearby school system. I was to visit three elementary schools in one day, sharing my artwork with students and telling them about the Ice Age cave art that inspired me.

I met the woman who set up the presentations, Nancy Brown, and she drove me from school to school. She was very pleasant, and we chatted animatedly between “sets” about family and life.

At the first school, I introduced myself at the main office but was met with blank stares. They’d never heard of me. But when I explained, the office person exclaimed, “Oh, you’re going to talk about CAVE ART. We were expecting an artist named ‘Kay Vart’!” She pointed to the chalk board behind her, and sure enough, “Thursday 10:00–Guest Artist Kay Vart” was carefully written there.

At the second school, we arrived a little early. “Oh, goody!” exclaimed Nancy, “We can play in the gym!”

Baffled, I followed her into the school cafeteria/gymnasium to a piano in the far corner. “This room has the most amazing acoustics!” Nancy said happily. She plopped herself on the piano stool, broke into a few chords on the keys, and began to sing.

To this day, I cannot describe that moment adequately.

Her voice was…..incredible. Astonishing. Powerful. Rich. Her voice filled the room with a moving variation on a Shawn Colvin piece.

I kid you not–a thrill ran down my spine.

I stood, entranced, as this perfectly ordinary little woman revealed a talent as big as the ocean. I will never forget it. It moved me to tears.

When she finished, I broke into applause. I told her she had an amazing voice.

“Actually, my voice is quite ordinary,” she said frankly. “I don’t have a natural ‘voice’. But I am passionate about singing, and I have studied and trained my voice to the nth degree.”

I was dumbfounded. Not being knowledgeable about things music, I had assumed only people born with a naturally beautiful voice could sing like that.

I had no concept of training an ordinary voice to be beautiful.

It was an epiphany.

I had seen–I had heard–the power that comes, not from natural talent, not from luck, but from dedication and determination. The power that comes from passion and training, and indomitable spirit.

And love.

I’ve lost track of Nancy. She moved in and out of professional music over the years and eventually left the area.

But I have never forgotten that beautiful moment, when time was suspended for a few precious moments. An empty school gymnasium, a grand old piano and passionate woman with a bold and beautiful voice.

An extraordinarily beautiful….a beautifully ordinary….voice.

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TEN MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS #2: You’re Not Good Enough

Myth #2: You not only have to be good, you have to be the best.

Fact: You just have to be “good enough.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. Mostly because the single biggest block owned by many artists–visual, musical, performance–is they feel if they don’t “make it”, it’s because they aren’t “good enough.”

I love to quote my friend Lori W. Simons on this one. Lori is not only a talented artist, she is also a writer. I was curious if the 2-D art world sorts itself out so neatly. Do the best artists become the most successful artists? She hesitated and then said quietly, “Being good HELPS.”

What does that mean? It means that you can be successful at whatever you throw your heart into, and it isn’t directly related to how good you are. Or whether you’re “the best”. Or even whether you’re one of the top 10.

It’s about how badly you want it, and how hard you’re willing to work at it. How smart you are about maximizing your opportunities, and how savvy you are with managing the business side of your art.

No one ran harder or farther from their art than I did. But it just wouldn’t go away. I finally gave up. My turning point was when I realized that if I did not pay attention to this, I would be destroying a part of myself that was too important to my very life. I had hit bottom, too. My exact words to my husband were these:

“I have to be an artist, or I’m going to die. I don’t even care anymore if I’m a GOOD artist. I just have to do it.”

Period. Nuff said. I had to swallow my pride, give up making judgments about how good I would/could or wouldn’t/couldn’t be, and just do it.

And you know what? Once I gave up basing my entire act on caring what others thought, that’s when my art began to hit its stride. Once I was making art I cared about, deeply, and once it came straight from my heart, that’s when I began to achieve some success with it.

That, and a lot of hard work, too. Ya gotta wanna, but ya also just gotta DO it.

This doesn’t mean the road was easy after that. There were still a lot of twists and turns. There were adjustments, suggestions, modifications along the way. But the core vision was always there. I had a story to tell, and a story to get out into the world.

Which brings us to this corollary to our #2 myth about artists. “Only the best artists are successful artists.”

NOT.

Once more, with feeling. It helps if you’re good. You’ll get a little further a little faster. But just being good won’t ensure your success. And conversely, you can be highly successful even if you’re not the BEST.

Need proof? Look at Olympic-quality athletes. Sometimes they lose by 1/100 of a second, or 1/100 of a point. When we get into subjective judgment about who is “the best”, and that is determined by what the temperature was that day, or whether those new athletic shoes were rubbing the wrong way, or whether a competitor turned an inch too far back, we are talking about, “Who was the best, in the minds of those particular jurors, at that particular moment on that specific day.” Are we saying those other competitors were not sucessful, too? Nah… It may not have been their day, but they are still amazing athletes.

Now…would you rather run a 24-mile marathon, or get started on a new piece today?

Get in that studio! Don’t worry about how good you are. Just do it good.

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TEN MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS #1: Artists Are Born, Not Made

(Reprinted from 2003)

I’ve been invited to do an artist presentation to various schools in my area, including a whole day at a high school in Vermont. I’ll be speaking with six art classes, not only talking about my art but also sharing my process of how I finally became a full-time artist.

I want to share with these students the beliefs that interfered with me taking my own art seriously. Some of these beliefs I held onto tightly well into middle age. A few are still with me even today, but I slowly chip away at them daily.

Let’s look at some of these myths closely. Today’s myth is one of my favorites!

Myth #1: Artists are born, not made.

Fact: A passion for art has to be there, but all other skills are acquired. No one is born knowing how to play the piano.

The first step to becoming an artist is to want to be an artist. Sounds too simple, doesn’t it? After all, artists are born, not made….right? You either have talent or you don’t.

Wrong! No one is born knowing how to draw, or how to paint, or how to sculpt or throw a pot, anymore than anyone is born knowing how to play the piano or drive a car. These are all skills. They can be taught, they can be learned. Some people may find the process of acquiring those skills to be exhilarating, others may find the process boring. The people who find the process exhilarating may pick up the skill quickly and easily. Or they may not.

I happen to be a slow learner at some artistic processes. For example, I don’t like to draw. When I put my mind to it, I can draw passably well. But I don’t like sitting quietly and observing something, then using a tool to recreate that image on a two-dimensional surface, such as a piece of paper. So I was called an artist in elementary school because I could draw reasonably well, but secretly thought I was an imposter because I didn’t like drawing. And never progressed very far with it.

Later in life, I discovered I did like modeling clay into pleasing forms. And that I enjoyed a collage-like approach to most of the artwork I made. If you look at my artwork, you’ll almost always see a combination of media, and some sort of shaping and manipulation of form going on. But you’ll hardly ever see a 2-D work. (I do carve my own rubber stamps and make 2-D art from them. But it’s the process of carving the stamp, and then embellishing the surface that fascinates me.)

DO WHAT YOU LOVE, LOVE WHAT YOU DO

So we can fall into two traps by believing the myth that “artists are born, not made”.

One, we can be very good at something we don’t really enjoy, and believe that is our calling. Part of the reason for that is sometimes we learn how to do the things we don’t like, really, really well, so we can get them done and out of the way. But if you don’t enjoy doing something, no matter how good you get at doing it, it will always drain energy from you. So be careful about putting the focus of your energy into doing things you don’t enjoy, if you don’t have to.

And two, we can love doing something we aren’t very skilled at….yet! And that’s actually okay. Being willing to pursue something just because we love it can be very rewarding, if only because we’ll spend more time doing it–and hopefully, get better at it someday. Doing something we love feeds us. It gives us more energy.

So what are we born with? If not an innate ability to draw, then perhaps an attentive eye. We notice that there’s more than one shade of green in that leafy tree, or that the light just before sunset makes everything glow more richly. Perhaps we enjoy observing something closely and like the process of drawing.

Or maybe an attentive ear. Maybe we can remember tunes easily, and enjoy riffing off them every chance we get. Music affects almost all of us, but some people feel it is more than just enjoyable–it is necessary to have it, compose it, play it.

Maybe it’s our hands that have to be busy. Maybe picking up unusual rocks and pieces of driftwood and shells is as much fun for us as shoe-shopping is for our sister. We always have to be touching, hefting an object, enjoying its odd texture or beautiful grain. Maybe having the right mix of color and texture in our living room furniture is more important to us than the brand name.

All of these tendencies and yearnings may be the signs of a budding artist. But unless you follow them, nurture them and feed them, they won’t bloom. (Oh, no…a gardening metaphor!!)

So if you’ve always wanted to be an artist, but felt you didn’t have what it takes, you know better now.

Go sign up for that drawing class, or ceramics class. Learn how to carve a rubber stamp, or how to paint with watercolor. Jump in, and simply enjoy the process of learning a new skill.

Keep at it, and eventually you may find one that gladdens your heart enough to do it every day.

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TEN MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS (That Will Keep You From Becoming a SUCCESSFUL Artist): Introduction

Our beliefs, right or wrong, shape our own reality. Change the belief, change the reality.

Years ago, I created a handout for a presentation. I called it, “TEN MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS (That Will Keep You From Becoming a Successful Artist)”.

I started to publish them in my first blog in 2003. An observant reader contacted me last month, noting that I’d only published a few of the myths. Where are the rest?? she asked.

Well, she’s right–my bad. I never finished publishing the series. So today I’d like to reintroduce my series. Rather than have you skip back and forth, I’m republishing the first few here.

Have fun breaking some myths!

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SO HOW’S THE SHOW GOIN’?

In a word, great!!

A lot of customers have said a lot of wonderful things about my work. One of the coolest was a young woman who gazed at everything in my booth, and then exclaimed, “Your work is astonishing!

The funniest/sweetest thing a customer said: “Has anyone ever told you how much you resemble the governor of Alaska?!” I may not agree with Sarah Palin’s politics, but I do think she’s cute. Plus that means I also look kinda like Tina Fey.

There will be more stories from the front, but had to share those two with you today.

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