Making Business Decisions in Art

Making Business Decisions in Art...

Making business decisions in art
Or.. 25 ways not to do it...

Each week I write a brand new article for members of our three wonderful art groups on Facebook, The Artists Exchange, The Artists Directory, and The Artist Hangout. This week we take a look at whether or not the business advice articles we see so often provide us with a benefit when it comes to selling our art.

We will be taking a look at whether those articles we see across the internet that usually have a similar title to, here are the twenty-five things you MUST do to be successful, because one word is always written in capitals, are worth taking any notice of at all. 

On most of those lists we read that you have to do this or have to do that to get on and do well in business and every single one of those lists I have read over the past few years has always said similar things. The problem is that we do the things they suggest and then we don’t see the promised return. It’s at that point we can become despondent and think that we will never make our business work. The problem though isn’t necessarily the advice that is in the lists, it’s the advice that’s not in the list. So today we will focus on just one example tool that appears all of the time and that is the one that says, every business needs a big email list for marketing.

The email list…

Last weekend I did something I had been wanting to get around to doing for years, I opened up my special inbox and unsubscribed to about a hundred things I’m not entirely sure I ever signed up to in the first place. You know, the email communications that send you an offer every hour and where one of them opened with: “here’s a gentle reminder… you have a 25% off discount code waiting for you as long as you use it by midnight.”

A gentle reminder, what happens next if I don’t use the code? Do they send a not so gentle reminder and a mafia hit squad around? Call me paranoid but I have just finished binge watching seven seasons of Burn Notice on Prime Video and those kinds of gentle reminders are what happens just before they call in a hitman and as Michael the super-spy says, a hit man is like a plumber, a dentist, or a mechanic. Everybody's always looking for a good one. I’m taking no chances so I clicked on unsubscribe.

My special inbox is the place where things I definitely don’t want to ever receive again come to die. It’s a bit like Facebook Messenger, that’s a special place where chain messages go to die as well.  My special inbox is an inbox that only ever gets checked when confirming my special email address, and I have rules set so that everything that’s six-month’s old gets automatically deleted or even sooner if the email contains certain words like Viagra, or claim your voucher, or online dating or Russian babes or Roy Bins sunglasses. Everybody has a special inbox like this and if they don’t, then they really should have one.

Whenever gurus in whatever subject write anything online they will often use what they like to call evergreen content. That essentially means that it’s content that can be reused. Evergreen content for writers and gurus can save a heap of time and if it is done well, it can continue adding great value to the consumer. All you need to do is take an old article, dress it up with some new keywords and randomly reassign each paragraph and maybe include a couple of new stock photos and maybe change things like dates and broken links.

One of the most reused pieces of content from marketing gurus is the one that says that you absolutely need to have an email list and twenty-four other amazing can’t live without marketing tools that promise to make you a pro by tomorrow. Talk about setting expectations.

To be fair, most of what they are saying is reasonably good advice. It’s usually worth a read because they cover topics such as conversion rates, and anything that has the potential to convert a casual browser into a paying client has to be worth giving a go. They give advice on the best tools to use in business, but these tools are simply that, and if you don’t know when or how to use them the reality is that they will do more damage than good to your business model. You also have to remember that not every tool is useful for every job, would you really use a hammer to tighten a leaky pipe?

A badly crafted email campaign that’s spammy will kill off any trust people once had in you, as will asking a million totally irrelevant questions just so that you can send them a free e-book. If you are giving something away for free there is no need to ask for credit and debit card information or for the name of the signer-uppers first pet, an email address maybe, but the rest of it is usually just fluff being harvested for some other obscure need.

A badly crafted email sign up process can also give you a headache that you definitely don’t want. In May 2018 a new law came into effect that covered everyone residing in the European Union, The General Data Protection Regulations 2018 (GDPR.) In short, GDPR puts in certain protections so that anyone signing up for emails and who lives in the European Union has to provide what is known as affirmative action.

Affirmative action and explicit consent mean no more pre-checked tick-boxes saying I agree to receive future communications. People have to explicitly agree to receive emails and to be put on a list, and there are rules around how the data you keep on people is protected. If your list is hefty then keeping it stored on the family iPad isn’t going to cut it. If that iPad gets hacked and the list is sold on, you could land yourself in a heap of bother that you don’t really need.

Most of the professional email marketing list builders have GDPR and other compliance built in, but if you are collecting emails from a blog or from your shows and events, then you have to make sure that you are compliant in the way that you ask for this consent and in how you protect any email addresses and other personal data you are given.

There’s a bunch of other stuff too and even if you are an American artist, the minute you have any dealings with people who live within the EU, you also have to comply with GDPR. Outside of the EU, other countries have similar laws in place too. In the US the CAN-SPAM Act means that every email that violates its law can be subject to penalties and fines of up to $41,484. That’s per email, and that’s a lot of money, and fines under GDPR are just as eye-wateringly heavy too.

But it’s not just the law that gets in the way, it’s that collecting a bazillion email addresses and sending out updates every hour is a complete waste of time unless a sizable chunk of people respond to each and every email you send out. This is time that could be better spent using a tool or a strategy that will work or time that could be spent working out how to effectively use these tools in the first place. It’s the same when gurus say that you have to be present on this social platform or another, yes you do mostly, but only if it is the right tool for the job and you might do better if you know how to use the tool in the first place.

The real question of course is how you get the email addresses from the off. Adding in the immortal line of sign up here to receive a daily dose of whatever I have to say… is pretty pointless, because unless you have really awesome content that provides some value and you can sustain creating this in return for the email address, your sign up rate will be hovering around zero to not many more.

Case in point, my friend signed up for an email management tool and immediately purchased the add-ons that made it useful. $99 later he was all set to go and take over the world of online marketing but then he realised that having the tool and the add-ons alone didn’t mean that he had any email addresses to put into it. I gave him my special email address just so he didn’t lose the faith completely.

So the tool was embedded in his website and a week later, nothing, nada, zilch. No one had signed up other than me, and just as well really because he had nothing to say to anyone who did. He hadn’t planned an email campaign and if 20,000 people had signed up he didn’t have a clue what he would have done with them.

Why did he sign up for this in the first place? Because he had been told that having an email list from the off was critical. Three-months later he had a subscription list of two people, which had cost him $48.50 each, he makes around ten dollars on each sale so the math was really easy and he had made a loss. Twelve-months later he finally broke fifty sign ups. Another year later, he completely gave up on marketing emails altogether. By this time the exercise had cost him almost $300 just on subscriptions to an email service, or $6 per person, he had essentially bought everyone a coffee who signed up and it might have been more fruitful if he did.

For some people an email list will work and it can be an effective tool to use but it is only one tool. With art it would be really nice to see 10,000 subscribers sign up to a marketing email but in reality how many of those 10,000 people would ever be buyers or collectors? My guess is that most of those sign-ups will come from people interested in seeing your work but not necessarily in buying it. At best this strategy on its own is fishing for a couple of fish in a really big pond, but it would be nice to know at the start whether or not those fish are really swimming in that pond at all.

A smaller list of engaged people who look forward to receiving your latest email might be your best approach. If there is one thing I have learned over the years it is that selling art can be challenging, no matter how great it is. Art is usually a considered purchase, it doesn’t solve the same kinds of problems that a widget will, and selling art can be a slow burning candle. Art needs patience by the bucket, selling art, even more.

Out of all the tools that appear on every single one of these must have tool lists, none of them when used on their own will take you from zero to hero overnight. Those tools promise much and deliver little unless you know how, and importantly, when to use the tools and strategies effectively. Besides knowing how to use them, they all need something else to be in place first and that’s the bit that tells you who you are targeting. If you have no idea who will be buying your work or you don’t as yet have their email addresses then an email list is just expended effort or a best, a fishing trip.

You need to figure out who your people are, what they want from you, and you want them to not have your email campaign or sales pitch redirected into their special inbox before they have had the opportunity to see it first. Then you need to know what you want to say and then you have to sustain it. An email list is a job, that’s why big corporations have entire marketing and outreach departments, and whilst it’s a great thing to have it isn’t going to be much use unless you have a strategy.

sometimes you just have to ask for help
Sometimes we just have to ask!

Ask the “why” question…

But the question to ask before you go ahead and create your email marketing or any other business strategy is “why am I doing this in the first place?” If you’re not sure or you have any doubt what the expected benefits will be then it’s probably not the time to choose that particular tool.

In the case of setting up email lists, use them too soon and annoy everyone because you’re not doing it right and subscribers will run for the hills and click unsubscribe very quickly. When people click on unsubscribe it’s really hard to bring them back which is something you might have to try really hard to do when you finally figure out exactly how you should have done it in the first place. Some of these tools are more about timing and having your ducks at least in the same pond, even if they’re not exactly lined up.

I know, figuring out the bits that those articles fail to convey can really suck because it takes more time that we don’t always have and we’re an impatient bunch. What really amazes me all the time is when people say that they don’t have time to learn something new for the next five or ten minutes, but then they go on Facebook and spend the best part of twenty minutes completing a test to find out what kind of potato they are. Here’s another question: Is knowing what kind of potato you are more important than selling your work?

Most of these generic articles just don’t and can’t go into all of the detail that you need. So they’re written in ways that steer you towards what you need to do but don’t tell you exactly how or why you have to do it. They’re often a little too generic or focussed on businesses that don’t really have a fit with how the art world works, and we all know that selling art isn’t quite the same as selling a widget.

That’s no blight of the original writers, it’s all about the time it takes to write something (this article took me an entire 5-evenings), and as a writer you have rely on the willingness of the reader to actually read and digest the information. Mostly, those 25 things you have to do before you die posts are really just tools themselves.

Many of those lists will say that the bigger the email pool is the more chance you have of getting a bite. That’s not rocket science or business vision, that’s just simple probability. Cast the net far and wide enough and maybe you will get lucky.

In art, and in my experience, bigger lists don’t always equate to buyers. With a big list the email has to be all things to all people and the hope is that there’s enough in the email to make someone want to reach into their pocket and pull out the money. We also have to deal with things like subjectivity, every buyer I have ever come across has their own preferences and tastes.

The reality I expect is that most people are just like me and they eventually become desensitized to constant nag-mails and just delete them without ever reading them. I get over a thousand emails each week so if it’s not something I’m invested in, or it’s not from a sender on my trusted list, I’m really not going to see it.

Big lists are usually created from generating an initial buzz and getting people to sign up. It’s a discount firework, the packaging promises a boom and then you light the touch paper and pfft. The problem is that the minute the emails start to not offer any value, subscribers stop subscribing and your list shrinks. What tends to happen then is that those numbers become the focus and ultimately what we do is chase new subscribers to replace the ones we have lost. What you really want in an email list that isn’t necessarily just about big numbers, but a list of people who want to be on that list, which comes back to knowing who your people are in the first place.

If someone wants to be on that list it takes one more reason away from them to not redirect your emails to their special inbox or unsubscribe. Over the past couple of years I have been writing about using Facebook as a tool and how it performs better if the engagement and likes are built up organically, four or five hundred engaged people are always better than thousands of non-engaged people in just the same way that a hundred art collectors are always going to be better than two hundred one-off art buyers. It’s the same with email lists too, build an organic list of people who want to be on it, and then offer them a value that makes them want to stay.

The email list can absolutely be a great tool for artists but it has to be relevant and just like social media, it doesn’t always have to be an ad for your latest work. It can offer an insight into your process or a tour of your studio, calendar dates for your next show or it could offer another value entirely. Sometimes an email campaign is more powerful when its goal is only to build up an awareness of you and your work and it’s another place where you can continue to tell your story.

The other thing you want that email list to be able to do is to give you some ownership and an overview of who is buying your work. Email lists when described in many of the advice articles are driven solely towards sales. In art, email lists can be a way to encourage patrons to deal directly with you. Emails don’t just have to be about the selling, it can be the best method to communicate and build engagement and ultimately bring in sales without you ever really mentioning sales at all.

As artists we aren’t all experts in SEO or marketing or the other hundred skills we have to use on a daily basis. Big brands have huge teams and a budget, they also have the luxury of being able to offload their weaknesses and devolve it for others to do, artists not so much.  Just because we see this must do on some list doesn’t mean that we have to do it. We do however have to work out what the best tools are, and it’s not easy when what these lists are saying is pretty spot-on. What we need to be able to do is work out how those pieces of advice fit into what we do and what else is needed to make it work.

We need to filter advice…

Working out what’s good advice and bad advice is something that only you can really do. What might be bad advice for one business is perfectly acceptable and maybe even great advice for another business. But looking at the, who is writing it, and why they’re writing it is usually a step towards being able to pick out the good from the bad.

Some of these list articles also have hidden agendas which we have to be mindful of. If an advice article is steering you towards buying a subscription to a single option then it’s fair to assume that the advice has been written with the aim of convincing you to go with that option.  In short, don’t take anything at face value and if it is good advice, take each piece and break it down to work out what else you would need to do for that piece of advice to work but always question the motivation behind it.

 Are the tools and the advice relevant to my business?

Not every piece of advice will work for your business. Today I think most businesses would benefit by having a web presence, and as an artist I think it’s a must have, but there is advice that appears in many of these lists that doesn’t always have a fit with how artist’s work.  

There are some truly brilliant art marketing experts who can provide you with exceptional advice and they will provide that advice based on their experiences in the art world. That’s always going to be better than trying to squeeze a gallon into a quart pot. Someone who works with artists and art buyers is always going to be a better first call than reading something that might be more suited to say investment banking or selling groceries.

Having said that, there are times when you do need to seek advice and get a completely new perspective with a fresh pair of eyes, which is where one of the other pieces of advice these lists give comes in handy. That new perspective might come from networking in your local business community and seeing how other types of businesses are dealing with their own challenges, but mostly, you need advice of those who have at some point held the brush or sold the painting. 

 Don’t always look for validation…

Whenever we look for advice we either look for advice with an open mind or we look for validation of what we are already thinking. Bias can really cloud our own judgement and I couldn’t begin to count up the number of times that I have said I prefer to go with this option over that one, before I have fully thought everything through. That preference stems from past experience and the biases towards doing something one way over another that I have developed over the years.

It’s not always a bad thing and if you recognise why you arrived at one decision it usually makes it easier to strip away any inbuilt biases that you have so that you can start to see how other options work.

Don’t go with just one opinion…

A friend will tell you what you want to hear, a great friend will tell you what you need to hear and bring your ass back to reality. That’s why it’s vital that whenever you are seeking advice and especially when it comes to running a business, that you get a wide spread of opinions and input. I have some really smart friends but that doesn’t mean that I would always take their advice because they mostly work in other kinds of businesses.

But when I do take advice I also make a decision to own it. If someone advises me to start selling on Etsy or to go with a gallery and it goes south, that’s down to me. You do have to own any business decisions you take, and it helps if you start to trust your instincts. Instinct is way more powerful than you would think. There’s a great book on this subject called Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions written by Gary A. Klein which you can purchase through Amazon or any other good bookseller. 


One of the things that most people just don’t do anywhere near enough is to simply ask for advice. Instead they head to Google and find an article with the headline, here are the twenty-five things you MUST do to be successful, and then base all of their business critical decisions on whatever they have read.

It’s not a weakness to ask for advice, it’s a strength. No one person can know everything, and Google only knows wherever its algorithms get pointed to. Of all the things on these lists, asking for help and advice is probably the only one that you will find that doesn’t need anything else to be considered.

 Ask the important question of “why”

Asking yourself why, is one of the most important questions you can ever ask. Kids do it all of the time, why do I need to tidy up my room, why is the sky green, why is the grass blue, because kids aren’t afraid to ask questions even if they sound dumb.

Asking why you should have an email list is a good first step, then ask yourself what do I want to get out of it is the next step that will help you to define your strategy. Most of the time I have found that just asking why, often gives me the answer I am looking for.

Set your own core values…

Values are a part of us, they highlight what we stand for and they are what others see. As a business it is just as important to set values for that side of your life too, and when it comes to finding your people, they’re more likely to come forward when they share the same or similar values.

25 things that might or might not work
25 things that might or might not work!

Summing up…

The take-away from today is that gaining any advice on how to run a business is fraught with caveats. Either you aren’t always going to get the full picture or you will experience delays in doing what you set out to do because there will be unexpected plot twists on the way. At worst, there’s also plenty of really bad advice out there too, online and offline.

The advice is given with good intentions for the most part but the important thing that you have to do with any advice regardless of its source is to figure out how to apply it in your own circumstances. My own business model most likely wouldn’t work at all for other artists or elements of it might, but my experience of getting things wrong on the way is probably where the most benefit sits.

We know that networking at art events is one of the best things that any artist can do for their career but we also know that networking can also be an artist’s worst nightmare. It can be intimidating and you can feel awkward, and very few if any of these advice articles go into how you get over the intimidation you can feel when you walk in a room full of CEO's who are having a, who’s got the biggest lightsabre squabble.

Sometimes we know exactly how to become financially successful artists, we already know what the advice is to get there, but sometimes it’s not that we can’t be bothered to do it or that we would rather be figuring out what potato we are, it’s really because we just can’t.

About Mark…

I am an artist and blogger and live in Staffordshire, England. You can purchase my art through my Fine Art America store or my Pixels site here.   
Any art sold through Fine Art America and Pixels contributes towards to the ongoing costs of running and developing this website. You can also view my portfolio website here where the link will open in a new window.
You can also follow me on Facebook at: where you will also find regular free reference photos of interesting subjects and places I visit. You can also follow me on Twitter @beechhouseart and on Pinterest here
If you would like to support the upkeep of this site or maybe just buy me a coffee, you can do so right here


  1. Mark Taylor, I am just a regular potato but intelligent one :) Thank you again for your work!


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