This post was originally published May 30, 2004, on a now-defunct blog-hosting site. This slightly edited version is dedicated to Rhonda K. Hageman, who read it when it first appeared on DurableGoods/Radio Userland. Thank you, Rhonda!!
Still timely. So enjoy!
A topic came up this week on a small private e-mail list I host. The list started as a way for artists to learn how to get their work in front of a larger audience than friends and family, by exploring ways to sell, publish and exhibit their artwork.
Some have found the process daunting. Perhaps they had difficulties selling their work as it was, then started producing work they thought would sell better. Or well-meaning people made discouraging remarks or suggestions that just didn’t feel right.
I’ve never advocated making anything just because you think it will sell. I realized from the get-go that this process will whisk you away from your core vision (making the work that is in you and pleases you) and sends you scuttling down the path of trying to please others. No can do, says this girl.
The thing is, so many times, when I hear artists have decided not to explore ways to sell their work, it’s for all the wrong reasons. They don’t get enough money, they find the quality of the work degenerates, the sales are disappointing, and the whole process doesn’t make them feel very good, nor creative, nor successful.
Part of the reason this happens is we misunderstand what selling our art can really mean. In fact, many people associate “selling art” as “selling out”.
I have found the complete opposite is true when I sell my work.
I make the most beautiful work I can envision. Someone else appreciates the work I have made. I tell them the story behind the work. A connection is made. An exchange is made—usually their money for my work (or, if you prefer, the fruit of their labor for the fruit of my labor.) Hopefully, both parties are pleased with the transaction.
That’s all. That’s it. That’s what selling my art means to me. No value judgments, no demeaning transactions, no loss of my artistic vision, no selling out.
Lately, though, I’ve come to see another dimension, just as rich (no pun intended) to this transaction. ..
And that is the power my art has on others even after the sales transaction.
The last few weeks I’ve received half a dozen e-mails, postcards and letters from people who have bought my work, or seen it in a magazine, or read what I wrote on 9/11.
Apparently, the impact of my work on their lives has continued long after I sold them the piece.
One woman wrote to tell me how much she enjoys looking at her wall hanging every day when she works at her computer. Another wrote to say how much she loved hers—and that it even inspired her to revisit her own interest in fiber art. She is now creating her own unique pieces, revitalized by our discussion on art and life and my passion for my work. She now appreciates my handwork even more, if that is possible, she wrote. (You can see this incredible letter from Kathleen Faraone here.) (N.B. I had forgotten all about this, until I found it just now–April 20, 2018! Kathleen, wherever you are now, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for your powerful words!)
And that is the magic of selling/exhibiting/publishing your work. Not just the excitement of being able to generate some cash flow, perhaps even a livable income (which is pretty darned exciting!) But seeing how what you create working from your heart, seeing it start its own journey of inspiring hope, creativity, and passion in others.
That is something I did not expect when I started my journey of making my art accessible to a larger audience. It is something I could not predict nor control. It’s just another affirmation that I am doing the right thing and on my true path.
So before you sell yourself—and your art—short (or decide not to sell at all), consider this: Selling your art can be a good thing. A very good thing.
It is a process, and sometimes a long process. As the saying goes, “It took me twenty years to become an overnight success!” Most small business consultants say it takes at least five years for a business to get established. Most people only plan for a year or two at most. Many artists give up after one bad show or one dismal gallery experience.
The secret to success with your art?
Stay with it.
Keep on making the work you are passionate about. Then look for its market.
Ask for help, but don’t assume what someone else says about your work is automatically true. Experiment. Adjust. Tweak. Sometimes small changes in format, size or presentation can make huge differences. But these need not be fundamental changes in what your art is. You should still be able to work with total commitment to your inner voice.
In fact, most of the time, when I see an artist or craftsperson who is not having much success, it’s because they’ve “dumbed down” their work, made it more cheaply, made it more mundane. They doubt their ability to astonish, so they set their sights lower. They end up aiming too low.
Make your best work. Make sure as many people as possible see it.
Then you will never have to worry about “selling out.”
Because your heart and soul are not for sale.
They can only be given, with love and joy.