It’s Not About the Art: Tips for long term success
I remember being confused when galleries first started to ask me if I knew any good artists. I didn’t understand why they were interested in my suggestions since I knew that they saw applications from dozens of artists, every month even, wanting to be represented by them. What I soon realized was that their definition of a good artist was quite different from that of most artists. I’ll get back to that.
Success can be defined in countless ways and can be different for everyone, for now, let’s settle on the idea that you want to create art that you love, that inspires you and others, and is an occupation that is fulfilling and rewarding, over the long term. I am also asked by many aspiring artists about what it takes to be successful and my advice is pretty consistent. I had a conversation recently with an artist friend in fact, and we discussed all those things that I have learned that work for me, and pretty much all of the other successful career artists that I know.
My first attempt at an outdoor art fair after moving out west.
- Be Yourself
Make art that you like, and that fits for you. I am into abstract paintings, that’s what I like to look at. But I don’t paint abstract art myself, I am uninspired by the effort, and I quickly get bored. It’s just not a good fit for me.
Also, rather than try to figure out what the market is into and mold your art to fit in, take the time to find your style, your voice. It is possible to make art to match market demand, but if it is not in keeping with what you are all about as an artist, as a person, you will end up frustrated, or bored, burned out. It will not be fulfilling in the long term. Moreover, when the taste of the market shifts, your art will be left behind.
I left Montreal all those years ago and came out west because it was clear that my art was not a good fit for that market at the time. So, make art that is in your wheelhouse, and then go find the market that fits your art.
My first solo show after coming out west with my funky tree paintings. The show was a sell out.
- Be Yourself (It’s not about the art)
People are into people. Yes, they like art too, but mostly they buy art because of who created it. In other words, you are for sale, not so much the art. Here we come to the difference in the definition between good art, and a good artist, that I alluded to at the beginning.
If you ask most artists the definition of a good painter for example, they will likely suggest things related to composition, use of color, creativity or ingenuity, and the like. Good galleries and agents will be looking for an artist that has a marketable product of course, but they will also insist on character traits like reliability, consistency, integrity, work ethic, which are all essential to guarantee long term success. When I was asked by galleries if I knew any ‘good’ artists, this is the kind of thing they were looking to find in an new artist that they would be willing to invest in. They knew that I had these qualities, and so it is a good bet that I would recognize these attributes in others.
What my art looks like in galleries in recent years
- Be Yourself – in Business
Just like with your art, if you want to be successful, long term, selling your work, then you should choose a business model that fits your personality, and skill set.
Some artists want to sell all of their art themselves, and keep all the profits, in shows, trade shows, or on line; there are various opportunities and venues to do this. This works if you are good at selling yourself. See what I did there? It’s not about the art! Other artists just want to paint and let others sell them,… I did it again. The financial result will be equivalent in either case since time spent marketing and selling is time that is not available to make more art. These are the two extremes and you may find you are, like me, comfortable with a business model that is somewhere in between.
There is an expression about paying the tailor to cut the clothes or something like that. Pay other people to do stuff you are not good at is a good life strategy in general. We don’t have that much time in this life, and I want to spend most of it doing stuff that is productive and fulfilling.
- Be Yourself – relationships
It’s all about relationships for me; connecting, networking, meeting people, making friends,… That is why, while I am not very good at selling my art myself, I still like to have a business model that connects me with galleries and customers. After being rejected and disappointed trying to get my art into galleries and working to sell art on my own in various ways - like many artists starting out find themselves doing - I decided to change my strategy.
I made a commitment to myself that I would only work with galleries that had been in business through more than a couple of economic cycles. This way, I would know that they had the kind of qualities that I described earlier for successful artists. Also, I decided that I only wanted to be in business relationships with people that I liked and trusted, and they needed to feel the same way about me, and my art.
I have met so many wonderful people through the years by putting myself out there with my art. It can be a very fulfilling and rewarding vocation when you are genuine and courageous in your approach.