Art - How Hard Can It Be!


The business of art - How hard can it be?

the business of art, practical advice for artists, beechhouse media, Mark Taylor,
The Business of Art - Nothing Is Ever Easy


Each week I write a brand new article for members of our four wonderful art groups on Facebook, The Artists Lounge, The Artists Directory, The Artists Exchange, and The Artist Hangout. This week we take a look at just how difficult it can be to do any business in the art world and we also take a look at some of the most vital skills that you need to be a successful artist in the 21st Century. How hard can it be?!

Art is easy…

Some artists seem to have this uncanny ability to make things look easy. Last week I watched a tutorial on YouTube demonstrating a swirling pouring technique. It looked easy enough so armed with a new tub of pouring medium and lots of new paint, I gave it a try. Turns out it’s not as easy as it looks. Thankfully I had tried it on cheap supports first because there was no way I was going to use a hundred buck canvas on an experiment. I have done that in the past and spent weeks of my life with pots and pots of gesso which I can never ever get the lid off.

Even when it comes to selling work, there are artists who seem to be able to just create something and then they sit back, and watch as the money rolls in. Ease though is just an illusion. We see what we are shown and unless you are in the business of creating then it is easy to see why people think that making art is easy. To an outsider, the pond of the art world might look calm but just beneath the surface multiple legs are running around frantically creating that sense of calmness and all of them adding to a wonderful illusion.

I often think back to my very first show many years ago and can categorically say that it was one of the most stressful times of my life. For six months, before the opening, I was working every minute I could to produce new works, meeting with organisers and potential clients, trying desperately to come up with gimmicks that might just entice the passer-by to stop and take a look, it turned out that gimmicks didn’t work but I had to learn that lesson.

It took me three days to set up my space and every time another artist came along they would do something better and I would reconsider my options again. All of that work before the event was for six-hours of show time and I think I sold about three paintings which just about meant I broke even and I managed to at least cover the cost of exhibiting. If you take into account the art supplies and time, then I was out of pocket big time. But what it did was put me in a place that eventually gave me some new business later on and it taught me some valuable lessons.

The process of making art itself can require Olympian levels of strength and endurance, and emotionally, creating art can be draining. When we are drained emotionally we can find it increasingly difficult to get into the zone we need to be in to produce great art and the entire process of doing anything becomes even harder. So if it is this difficult then why do we artists do what we do? The answer is simple, it’s not about how easy or difficult things are, it is a way of life.

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Fantasy and Reality Often Overlap

The new artist…

I receive a lot of emails from new artists who become inspired to join the creative sector and produce art but very few seem to go on to work in the sector beyond the first year or so and it’s not just younger new artists, in fact, they are the ones who often stand a better chance of making it. Some new and even not so new artists often have a picture in their mind not of what they want to create, but of how they want to live their lives. Seriously you could create a hundred seasons of the TV show Myth-Busters if it were based on the art world.

Some people want to become artists because they have this vision that being an artist is all about spending evenings at arty events or meeting really big art world names and discussing the latest auction house results and maybe doing some nice paintings in between. Those same people are then shocked to find out that in fact the art world and being an artist is a lot more difficult than this romantic vision that they have has made it out to be.

Getting from the place of a new artist to super-star is frequently a long and difficult road. There is often an expectation that there are just a couple of stages in between the new artist and superstar and there probably are, but the distance between each stage is huge and vast and totally unsuitable for the kind of person who isn’t a four by four off-roader. That's the kind of person an artist needs to be, always ready to take on the tough terrain and the even tougher clients.

It can take years of practice and dedication to move six inches further on in your career and throughout you have to constantly be motivated and determined, and for the most part, getting from step one means that you have to navigate your own way to step two, three, and maybe even four. Even when an artist is represented, there is often the pre-conceived idea that suddenly it all becomes a bit easier, it can be but not always, who am I kidding, it gets harder still and finding that representation is often a task that can take years of working out in the wild.

If artists were to succeed through talent alone then there would be many times more commercially successful artists than there currently are. Talent is an acceptable currency to enter the art world at some level but it isn’t the only currency accepted and you need a little more than talent. There are hugely commercially successful artists who are significantly short on some of the technical skills that other not so successful artists have, but the ones who are the most successful are the ones who also realise that behind the art there has to also be a business and that means learning about as an artist, being both the business and the product.

Very few artists get discovered by accident. Those who do have usually put themselves in positions where they have been able to strategically place themselves and their art in the right place, at the right time and even Banksy followed this methodology when he hung his work in the Tate. Stories like the one of Banksy and the Tate are rare, do that today and you would probably be found and arrested, and it has been done so there is no point, the point is that for the most part, artists have to make their own luck and do something that peaks the interests of the right people be that curators or buyers but preferably not the police.

Becoming successful isn’t a quick process. Success needs thoughtful and deliberate planning and it requires a knowledge of the art market as a whole and the many art markets that sit within it. Start to learn about these and your art will take a step forward in a positive direction, fail to learn about the business of art and the nuances of the art market and it becomes slow and painful and the chances of making it dwindle a little more every day.

Commercially successful artists know that they have to respond to the markets on a whim and the art world is one full of instances where things are decided based on whims. It all comes down to how quickly you can react and the way that you react. Those very same artists will understand the importance of making sure that they have peer networking in place and they will know exactly who to ask or where to get the best training and development and they never stop doing this. 

The problem for a minority of new artists is that it all seems a little bit too much effort, or they haven’t quite got the time to do the bits that need doing to move forward from A to B because they are too busy painting. Painting is important, that goes without saying but painting as a professional artist is a fruit on the tree, there are lots of other things you need to do to make sure that the tree bears that fruit in the first place.

If we just look around and view the ease in which other artists seem to be able to make successful careers, it isn’t going to give you the entire picture. If there is one thing you do have to do with art it is to set and define your own goals and determine whether or not something really does have a fit for both you and your art. That includes things like determining if a gallery or representation is right for you because as I have said many times before, it’s not for every artist.

The other must do is that you do have to take action and have some willingness and commitment to delivering on your intentions. Sometimes as an artist, you can almost have a gut instinct that something is absolutely the right thing to do with your art, other times you might sit and ponder for days. If I could speak to this person, try my luck with that gallery or make my work available in this market at that price, there really is something in having an instinct for knowing what is right and what isn't, especially when that instinct is emerging and evolving from your growing experience in the industry.

You also have to be bold at times although being bold can also carry some level of risk. Catching the eye of the gallery assistant doesn’t at all mean that you will catch the eye of the gallery curator or owner, but you do have to think about becoming bold enough to make connections with the people who matter. There is a fine art in doing this well, some curators will never want you to darken their door ever again because you were bold enough to walk right in and shove a portfolio right under the noses of the key decision-makers, but sometimes that is exactly what it takes. It becomes about knowing who likes what and when and being bold enough to make a move when the time is right. This kind of instinct will come eventually if and when you start to understand the business side of the art business.

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Resilience At Its Finest

Easy isn’t easy…

I often ponder whether the word ‘easy’ should be banned completely from the art world. Easy sets expectations of artists and buyers and observers and clouds the water, but there are certain things that you can learn that will make life generally a little easier. With this in mind, I came up with what I think are some of the most essential skills that artists need to have at least an awareness of if they want to pursue a successful career in the arts. 

Wherever I have written an article on the subject, I have also included the link within the text so you can start expanding your knowledge and skills base from today!

Set Your Own Goals and Objectives – Only you can have a clear idea of where you want to take your work and only you are able to answer how willing you are to make it happen. There will be plenty of other things beyond art that will compete for time, but you do have to become regimented in your approach to creativity and also in your approach to running a business.

The super-power of a thick skin – I can’t even begin to tell you how many times you will either need to don a superhero cape or grow thick skin as an artist. There will be critics who have never once visited an art gallery or studied the arts in any way, (I call those kinds of critics the weekend art critics, the kind where you say FYVM for your non-helpful non-advice), they have an opinion but it is frequently negative and troll-like, and there will be the real art critics who are the rainmakers of art careers. There are only three critics who matter, you, your buyers, and occasionally the real art critics but remember that latter as they don’t always get it right.

Beyond that you will find that some people will love whatever you do, others who don’t like what you do at all, and they might or might not have an opinion. You will come across trolls (weekend art critics) who carry a scattergun, and honestly, the best defence on the internet for these is the block button, a healthy dose of silence, and a raised middle finger with a smile as you press it. The important thing is you and your work.

Ask for advice – I can’t stress this enough if you need to receive any advice you need to ask for it. There will be plenty of offers of free advice, and yes, some might even charge you for it, some will offer it without any prompt whether you want it or not, but either way, it doesn’t always make it the right advice. No advice can ever be guaranteed to be the right advice for you because we are all so very different. 

Be open and honest in what you are asking and remember that the only stupid questions are the ones you never ask. Look towards the well-known names in the art community and on social media, I can categorically say that on my friend's list I have at least thirty-people on whose advice I would live and die, so go ahead and ask other artists, and read everything you can. People want to help because that’s what humans are programmed to do, but learning to ask for help is one of the hardest lessons you need to master.

Create a portfolio – You not only have to create a portfolio but you constantly have to manage it too. That means updating it regularly, changing what is within it to better suit the audience and making sure that you have your work documented. You can read more about building a portfolio right here

Learning about documenting your art and then actually doing it sounds like something that isn’t so dissimilar to sticking hot pins in your eyes, but it is absolutely vital that you do. You can read more about that right here

Learn business skills – and by learning business skills I mean learn everything you can about running a business. From filling in forms and handling payments and tax, right the way through to looking at market demographics and making business projections. You might want to learn what makes a bid for an art grant more likely to be a success but equally, you might need to know things like how you export your work and what paperwork might need to be done. There are restrictions on certain items of packaging for example in some countries.

Learn how to fail – and do it fast. Never see failure as a negative. Failure is an ongoing lesson in art, but the more you do it the easier it becomes to spot the trends that got you to make the mistake in the first place so you can avoid them. It sounds like a clichĂ© but failing is how you build experience, it helps you to navigate around challenges and anyone who says they have never failed has probably been doing it wrong.

Learn about managing time – this is especially important when you start taking on art commissions or when you need to meet other deadlines. The problem is that if we are all honest, not many of us are as great at managing time as we like to think we are. As artists we frequently overcommit, we often over-deliver but that’s never really a bad thing. But if you know a piece of work will take you three days, then there really is little point in attempting to do it in three hours. You might be able to maintain that kind of performance in the short-term but art isn’t a sprint, it is way beyond even a marathon. Save some of that energy because you will need it.

Learn about taking time out – Mental health hasn’t got the stigma that it once had and we are at least in many parts of the civilised world, at the point of being more accepting of others and even our own mental health. It is such an important area but the creative industry is particularly prone to artists burning out and suffering often in silence.  

Look at the great artists throughout art history and it isn’t difficult at all to find narratives that demonstrate that even some of the most prolific and well-regarded great artists have experienced debilitating mental health issues. The single most important person in the art world always has to be you, you are more important than even the art. Your mental health isn’t something that you can just ignore, yet it is the one health issue that many people go through and feel as if they need to go through it alone. The reality is that no one should ever have to go through these kinds of issues alone.

There is a great paper that came from a collaboration between Inspire Well Being and Ulster University which you can read here, and I was particularly taken with a statement appearing early on in the paper where it stated; "Specific characteristics of the creative sector work environment were reported as contributing to the likelihood of developing mental health problems. Examples included pressure to reach high standards (both externally and internally), irregular work (including contracts, financial security, irregular hours, and working outside the sector), the perceived lack of value placed on their work and the inadequate financial rewards for the work." I was struck by this as it summed up exactly some of the pressures that any creative can and does consistently face.

This is exactly the reason why I have believed for many years that anyone attending any formal art education should be taught about dealing with mental health issues as a core part of the curriculum. Whilst some artists and those external to the arts might see the creative sector almost as a therapy in itself, the reality is that it can at times be an industry that is just as brutal as any other industry and sometimes even more so. The entire creative industry should take much more notice of mental health issues than it currently does. In short, if you need to take time out then you really do have to take time out.

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Be Good To Yourself


Be prepared for everything – by this, I really do mean everything. Last year I was asked to step in as a judge for a prestigious UK heat of an international art competition but this left me with very little time to prepare. I only met the other judges on the day where usually I would have had a few conversations and maybe even had a meeting to get to know them over the weeks before. There are things like this that just occasionally you might get asked to do but if you can prepare in advance for anything that you might be asked to do or participate in then you will feel better equipped to deal with those things when you do get asked.

Have things like elevator speeches pre-prepared, you never ever know who you will bump into in the art world. It could be a buyer, a future client, or the curator of a major museum or gallery. Having something to say usually avoids those embarrassing periods of time when you can hear a pin drop. The elevator speech was how I managed to pick up one of my biggest ever art commissions after a chance meeting with a key decision-maker in of all things, a literal elevator that got stuck for thirty-minutes between floors. Best timing ever and I couldn’t have planned it better if I had cut the power myself.

You can read about elevator speeches in my previous article right here

Be effective on social media – I have never met anyone who wouldn’t want to be more effective on social media if they are using it to market their art. Even so-called social media experts would love to really know the secrets of the algorithms and the best time to craft a post. That latter one is answered across the internet with the timings that stretch over the entire 24-hours of the day depending on where you live. The problem with social media is that the rules change almost every day as do the algorithms that surface or don’t surface your posts. As for timing, the internet is global, someone is always awake.

Throughout this website, you will see many articles about using the tools that social media provides more effectively and this is about all you can really do short of taking one of the official social media marketing courses that are operated by the likes of Facebook and their partner organisations. Facebook does have support tools in the way of official groups where the admins of the groups are Facebook employees and they are a great resource, and they also have websites such as Facebook BluePrint. You can find out more about Blue Print right here, and if you want my latest Facebook-related article, you can find that right here

Learn all you can about being a great communicator – Being a good communicator won’t do your art career any harm at all but being a great communicator will take it beyond a step or two further. As artists, we visualise stories and communicate through our work all of the time but it suddenly becomes difficult to do the same thing when we have to talk to someone using words. If you thought having an art career would be useful if you are not a people-person, then think again, they are everywhere.

Public speaking is another essential skill but there are forms of communication that are not quite so direct but which are equally as useful like the use of non-verbal communication and body language.

The art of engaging an audience and keeping them engaged is a difficult one to master but it pays to pay some attention to how engagement works. One of the best ways I find to keep the audience engaged particularly when I am speaking in public is to do the unexpected. I no longer use PowerPoint or if I do I will only ever use it to show artwork or a specific number, there is never anything that the audience can read ahead of me because I know that I need to bring them along with me and not allow them to run ahead and form conclusions that might not be where I need to take them.

I have also been known to introduce props, sometimes even props that have no relevance at all to the core conversation, these are things that become memorable and whether the audience remembers me as being a speaker who is completely eccentric or maybe a little bit crazy I will guarantee that the audience will remember me. You are not delivering some blue-chip FTSE, stock exchange data or whatever else it is that sends a normal audience to sleep, you are talking about art, so be artistic and grab that OMG he or she’s definitely an artist stereotype and use it. Always leave the audience with no doubt that’s who you are.

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Be a Fruit Loop!


Listen to what is said and what isn’t said. – In any world but I find even more so in the art world, you have to listen more than you talk. You need to listen to what your clients or audience are telling you and you have to listen more intently to what they are not telling you. When they are not telling you something you have to take the lead and ask them, and I would say that 90% of the decisions I make are made as a result of asking questions such as “why?”

A lot of what is and isn’t said will be what you base many of your key decisions on within your business which is something I wrote about a while ago and you can read it right here

Build a network – I’m not suggesting you build your own social media network and go up against Facebook, others have tried many times and most of them have failed, even Google. But what you should do is to build a network around you. This is how you build your tribe because you are going to need one. The thing is, you probably already have one on social media but haven't joined those dots quite yet!

Having a network who is able to support you or offer advice and direction is one of the best things you can have in place. It can be a group of friends but you will find that when you have networks in place which represent local businesses, there is more of a focus on the business side of things and they are less likely to tell you exactly what you want to hear. You need an honest network in which the foundations are built on experience, trust, and skills.

Ideally, wherever you can join a business network in your own community it can take your business in an entirely new local direction, and as I have said many times before, the local market is often the toughest nut to crack. It’s important to remember that community can play a huge role in the success of an artist and you can read about the benefits of a community working together in one of my previous articles right here

Where to go next…

Many of the skills you need in business today aren’t necessarily the kind of skills that are taught through formal art education. Some of these skills are relatively easy to learn but others can be more challenging and you can only refine them with experience. As I have said many times, what works for one artist might not work for another but knowing what does and doesn’t work between different people can widen your perspective and deepen the knowledge base that you have. That is why things like building a network are so vital.

My advice to anyone thinking of going to spend three years of their life in art school is to also consider taking business as a side subject because that will be what you need to underpin about 70% of what you do as an artist when you finally earn that qualification or when you finally decide to go out there and start to market whatever you have produced.

For those who are self-taught or have been out of formal education for a while, taking a business course is still a great idea. I have always said that formal art education gives anyone a fantastic grounding in the arts and you can pick up some decent colour theory and all the rest of it, but it is only a start. It matters not if you are self-taught because once you start working in the creative sector as a professional, you can be the best artist ever, know everything about Van Gogh, and still not get a sale if you don’t have the other ducks if not lined up, at least in the same pond.

The moment you leave art school or step out into the big wide world, suddenly you’re not in Kansas anymore and it is then not so much about the books you have read, but the experience you go on to gain and the continuous learning you have to go on to do, and it is at the exact moment when the real learning about art and the business of art begins. If a formal class isn’t for you then there are plenty of resources for learning about the business of art and the business of running a business from some of the world’s best academic institutions and often you can find much of what you want for free. You can read about informal and micro-learning in the article I wrote on that very subject right here

My only other advice for any artist is to take some time to frequently reflect, learn empathy and sympathy, learn about your own emotions, those are the skills that no matter how great the art school or what you read on the internet, you will only get the answers from within. In fact, many of the skills we really need an artist will eventually only come from within, intuition, gut instinct, empathy, sympathy, appreciation, and a dose of common sense, these are skills that have to be built up over time but you first need the foundation on which to build them and a foundation in running a business is definitely going to help.

Need Help? Reach Out!

As always, if you have a burning question related to the business of art or art projects in general, leave a comment below and I or someone from our wonderful community will maybe have an answer! In the meantime, as always, best wishes, and happy creating!
Mark x

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: https://10-mark-taylor.pixels.com  
Any art sold through Fine Art America and Pixels contribute to the ongoing costs of running and developing this website. You can also view my portfolio website at https://beechhousemedia.com

You can also follow me on Facebook at https://facebook.com/beechhousemedia 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 at https://pinterest.com/beechhousemedia 

I also do that Instagram thing when I remember, you can allegedly find me here @beechhouse_media

If you would like to support the upkeep of this site or maybe just buy me a coffee, you can do so right here. https://gofundme.com/mark-Taylor-beechhouse-Media

Comments

  1. Replies
    1. Thanks Cliff, deeply appreciated and hope you are having a great week.

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    2. I paid my dues participating in those art fairs, galleries and the like. I did fairly well but the work one goes through setting up displays, stands, easels not to mention talking all day long with people. Some just wanted to pick my brain and there were those that wanted to steal my ideas. I didn't like that scene one bit. There was nothing easy about it all. It's a profession only for the tough skinned.

      Thanks Mark for another awesome post!

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    3. Totally get that Colleen, a thick-skin is essential and more so when you show and start gaining any exposure. Definitely not a scene for everyone but I really do feel for new artists who break into it without a heads up that it can be one tough world this art business. Good with the bad and all that, you just have to be very prepared for those kinds of bumps!

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  2. Fantastic work Mark! Thanks so much!

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    1. Thanks Jane that’s so deeply appreciated xx

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  3. Great article Mark! I definitely need help in marketing. I feel like that comment, I'm doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results! Isn't that insanity? LOL! Then of course, I start questioning my abiltiy to create art that anyone can identify with. I need to change something in my marketing, but I'm just not sure what. You've seen my art and you know I market on FB and Insta. I resist doing local shows because the hauling and the setting up doesn't seem to be worth little return. Maybe, I have to change my mindset.

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    1. Thanks Mary Ellen, deeply appreciated. I gave up the shows because they were so expensive, and the hauling everything around was getting to be a problem. I had to make some changes and went with long durations of placing art in coffee shops and offices and spoke to independent retailers and those just about carry me through and there’s a lot less hauling everything around. I think it’s similar to shows, sometimes you have to do the same thing in a different way, and there’s a lot of gut instinct involved so it’s definitely not insanity! It’s all about the numbers, something I learned the hard way, but if there are people around, your tribe eventually find you if you are around. You create great work, do you work on Etsy? A few of my friends keep telling me to go on there, although the need for marketing is just like everywhere else.

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