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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6 Comments

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

6 responses to “TEN MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS #4: Artists Are Not Business People

  1. I’m so glad you brought this up. While taking continuing education evening classes at a local art school, one night as I walked the hallway toward the classroom I passed a group of young students and overheard part of their conversation. One was saying “I’ll never need to know about business or handling it, that’s why I became an ARTIST” and the other agreed that business knowledge was totally not a part of being in Art. I agree so completely with you that nothing is as important as knowing how to run your creativity as a business to be successful, and I wish more educational institutions would do it, too.

  2. 100% agree with this. Long live the “Warhol gene” I say.

  3. mariabrophy

    My husband is a very successful artist, and he was always fairly good at business from the beginning, at least when it came to contracts and earning a profit.

    After we met, I took over most of the business and marketing duties so that he could focus entirely on painting. It’s been about 10 years now, and I don’t think he misses doing the business part at all!

  4. Thanks for sharing that overheard comment, Lynn–too funny!

    Steve, you’re right, Andy has probably surpassed Pablo in business skills–at least in the self-promotion category. :^)

    Maria, you are a trooper! Just hoping you ENJOY those business and marketing duties, okay? :^D

  5. I enjoyed this post and thoroughly agree that artists need good business skills, but disagree that “we tend to not like skills like math”. Personally speaking, I do like symmetry, repeat pattern, scaling up a drawing, estimating, proportion, working in series, positives and negatives…. all mathematical concepts. I think there’s a strong correlation between maths and art, but sadly there’s also a social belief that maths is difficult and we shouldn’t like it. At the very least artists need to learn the basics, otherwise we’ll really struggle with measuring a mount/matt, costing our work, understanding gallery mark ups, writing a budget to apply for funding etc. Anyone choosing art as a career because they think they won’t need maths or business skills is in for a very big shock. And probably bankruptcy too.

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