The International Post-Dogmatist Quarterly - Vol.1, Issue 3 - Fall, 1994
Art and Business
A couple of my Post-Dogmatist buddies thought that it would be a good thing if I would regularly present an article on the business end of the art world so here is the first of the series.
I will be speaking from my own experience in being involved in the exhibition and sale of my work through the gallery market over the last eighteen years. While I have had considerable experience in this particular area, my knowledge is limited to my own experiences and my views are not necessarily the same as other artists. However, having achieved a certain degree of success, which is to say, I make my living at this point solely from the sale of my art work, perhaps some of my observations will be of use to others.
To make a living as an artist is probably one of the most difficult, frustrating and close to impossible things that anyone can decide to take up as a goal in life. Nevertheless, if you achieve this goal, it is one of the most rewarding achievements that anyone could hope for. Imagine the thrill of going into a bank to get a loan for a house solely on your art income and having the banker not only take you seriously, but actually approve the loan! I did this very thing just last year. Wow! What a feeling! Just three years ago I couldn't make the electric bill and had my power turned off more than once over the years.
Don't get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with being poor if you don't mind not being able to buy the supplies that you need or have a studio to work in or be taken seriously by your family or the community at large for that matter. Like it or not, people in general think that you are just puttering around and not taking life seriously if you are not making a living from your work. Strange but true.
option #1 If there is some other way that you can enjoy making a living, go for it. Your art will suffer in terms of the amount of time that you can devote to your art making but there is no pressure on you to produce a living from your art activity. For many, the security of having a steady income from teaching or some other activity is well worth this sacrifice. If you are married, your spouse will be happy that you are making a living at some socially acceptable activity but will be jealous of your free time and not too crazy about you spending it in the studio that you have confiscated from your living space especially if you are spending some of the household budget on your unproven (financially) activity. For all but the imaginative, if your not producing objects of clear and obvious value, then you are just screwing around.
option #2 If you know that you will not be satisfied with option #1 but are not financially independent try this. Work at something that will make you some kind of a living but work hard in the studio on off hours with the idea that art making is you first priority and that you have every intention of eventually making a living from your efforts. In this case you will want to do 'outside work' as a way to derive income to support your goal of becoming a full time artist at some point in the future. But don't get confused. Don't let the steady or perhaps good income that you might be making from your job seduce you into reverting to option one. You may not see any real income from your art for years so dig in, work hard and don't think about what you could have done or that what you are doing might fail. It is easy to fall into this trap so you have to insure that you won't. How do you do that? How do you have the confidence and faith to go on for years in the face of the near impossible odds of 'making it'?
Is it sheer stupidity to think that you can succeed as an artist? No. It may seem that there are too many artists and too few galleries and buyers but there is always a place for good work and a serious, dedicated worker. When you go to the galleries you will notice that a sizable portion of the work is not that great.Yet, some of those artists are making a living from their work so there is always room for good, solid work.
Is there a way to plan on being successful? Yes. You make a business plan with short and long range goals. You schedule your time just like any body else that plans on being successful. You set deadlines that you work toward to get the work made and to get the work out on the market. You study the logistics of your art and hone your production into manageable, shippable, handleable, storable, affordable products. Business-wise you are doing research and development, manufacturing, representing your art business, wholesaling and shipping your product to retail outlets (galleries).
Most artists may regard this as crass commercialism and it is but let's get real, this is the environment that we currently live in and it isn't going to change any time soon. The way I think about it is like this. When I am in the studio I am an artist engaged in my own weird art activity. I think about my art, I make my art and I admire my work. I hang it in my house and look at it. I consider all of the same issues that I would other wise think about. But then when it is finished and I am finished with it. I become a business man with an object that I want to convert to cash so that I can buy more supplies and pay the household bills and maybe even go out for dinner once in a while. Being an artist is the first thing you have to achieve but if you plan to support yourself and your activity you have to put considerable efforts into making business an equally important area of disciplined effort.
Secret: You can only make as much income as you have in production.
This seems very obvious yet it took me years to realize and exploit this simple truth. It dawned on me like a revelation. I felt like I was selling a lot of work and was starting to become successful but my check account didn't agree with me. I wondered, what can be the problem? I decided to keep meticulous records of my production in a journal noting the size, medium, retail and wholesale price, date of completion, and what gallery it went to. It didn't take long before I figured out that I was only producing a small amount of wholesale income over the course of a year due to my low prices and very small works so that even if I sold the entire year's work which is asking a lot, I still would be very poor. No wonder I wasn't making enough money! I then decided to make significantly larger works so that when they sold it would be a good chunk of money. Ithen also made the sizes that I knew would sell. In addition, I raised my prices. Between these two things it wasn't long before I was actually making enough money to support myself. So simple and yet, if you don't analyze, and take into account this very practical matter, you will keep yourself in the poorhouse no matter how hard you work.
So keep a production journal. You might want to keep much more extensive notes or even more rudimentary than mine but be sure to keep a steady track of you work. Maybe you title your work maybe you don't but at the minimum give each work an inventory number so that you can track you progress or lack of progress and so that, without looking at the work, distinguish one from another. Doing this will yield all kinds of important information. You can track what times of the year that you tend to be the most productive. You can study the range of sizes and types of work that you have been making and you will be able to discover your working pattern and rhythm. Knowing these things from your record keeping will greatly increase your ability to plan out your future and understand your limits.
As a young artist you have no history except the history that you learned in art school. From keeping records of your work, you are building a history for yourself that you will later be able to deepen your self-knowledge with which will help you to focus on your main interests instead of drifting along from one impulse to another without being aware of the larger patterns that will be emerging in you work over long periods of time. The more clarity that you can achieve about you working process, the more clear and refined your work will become and therefore, the better it is for your business.
Personally, I found that if I work in series, I can build several cohesive bodies of work that I can market and that viewers can identify as my work. This does not mean that you have to develop a 'signature style' that you are going to be stuck with for the rest of your like. Break down the various concerns within your work and isolate them into several different series of work so that you can pursue several avenues of research at the same time. This way, when you have come to an impasse in one branch of your work or you have played it all the way out, you have several other ongoing series of work that you can jump over to without coming to a standstill. In addition, this gives you the ability to experiment in one body of work and then import successful techniques or elements into other compatible series of your work.
Secret: Talent without disciplined effort is worthless. Develop disciplined work habits and be efficient with your time.
If you plan on being a full time artist you must learn to work in a self-motivated and disciplined manor. This means that you are not standing around waiting for inspiration to work. Inspiration comes while you are working. To go into the studio and begin to work is the primer that your mind needs in order to access intuition and inspiration. Much of the work in the studio doesn't need to be inspired anyway. There is a lot of work that you can do even if you are not able to get inspired. Build stretchers if your a painter or sweep and organize or catch up on your notes or read an art magazine. You can do some research at the library looking for galleries that you might want to send slides to, and, oh yes, take slides of your work, label them, organize them by type and date and protect them.
Set 'job hours' for your self and no matter what, work when it is time to work. Make your working habits into a daily routine and stick to it. When you use your art time for other purposes you are seriously undermining your future. It is going to take "X' number of hours to achieve a favorable business condition and it is a shame of you piddle away those hours over years of time when you could have fit those same number of hours into half as many years. In addition, if you work regularly the people around you will realize that you are serious eventually and won't see your art time as free time that you could be doing some favor or task for them during that time period. When do your friends come to bother you or expect you to drop what you are doing if you are at a 'job'? Not very often! Thus, tell people you are at work and you cannot be disturbed. Also, the advantage of keeping regular hours creates a rhythm so that it becomes easy for you to work because you don't have to waste energy getting yourself cranked back up like you do if your work habits are more sporadic.
Secret: If you don't take yourself seriously, don't expect anyone else to.
It took me until I was nearly thirty before I was willing to say, "I am an artist." When you are not making a living as an artist and your hardly working in the studio, it is indeed a strange feeling to hear these words coming out of your mouth. You feel like a sham. Nevertheless, if you are doing the above mentioned items you have a right to call yourself one even if it doesn't seem to ring true.
There are a number of things that you can do to help you take on the personal identity of an artist and that you are in the process of creating a profession out of your efforts.
1) Make up a name for your business like, John Smith Contemporary Art go down to city hall and get an Assumed Name Certificate for your business.
2) Then go to your state comptroller's office and get a state sales tax number.
3) go to the bank and open a business account with your company name.
4) get a Federal Tax I.D. number from the federal government. Then you can right off you business expenses from your taxes if you are making enough money that you are paying taxes.
5) start looking around for places where you can buy wholesale as a business. Most places won't give you a discount but some will. Find out who they are. For instance, you can buy canvas in bulk for wholesale from canvas and awning distributors and there are art stores in Texas that will give 40% to 50% off of retail for art supplies with a state sales tax number.
6) get some business cards, stationary, etc. with the money you are saving on supplies with your business name on it so that when you approach galleries you look like a business. This always helps and make you look like your serious. Galleries want to feel that they can depend on you to provide professional service to them when they need it. Business-wise, think of yourself as a manufacturer and wholesaler. If you don't feel that you will be at you current address for a long time but will probably be living in the same city, get a post office box for an address and don't put a phone number if you think it will change.
With a focused effort you can do all of these things in about a week's time assuming that you can get some time during day-time business hours. All of this effort and this business-image development can make a big difference in conditioning your mind into the proper mind-set for taking what you are doing seriously and encouraging others to do the same.
Secret: Even if people don't understand what you are doing they will, at least, respect how well it was done.
I remember reading an article that someone wrote about a biennial in Italy, I think, that discussed the general public's attitude about sculpture. If the sculpture was in a traditional medium and of apparent quality, nobody messed with it. If recognizable quality was absent, the pieces were defaced. There are a number of interpretations that can be advanced about this but for our purpose I am proposing that people in general expect to see quality in art and when craftsmanship is lacking so is respect from the viewer.
If there is any field where extravagance, in terms of craftsmanship, can be
lavished onto an object, it is art. Everyone can appreciate quality and after a work's initial interest has been assimilated, it is the quality of the work that will then be scrutinized. To be creative without the application of craft-skill seriously undermines the appreciation of a work of art and viewers will soon lose interest. But if a work shines out, because of the skillful attention put into a work's construction, the viewer will linger to enjoy the fineness of the work's craftsmanship even if they would otherwise not be interested in the type of art that is being presented.
To keep quality uppermost in your mind, think to yourself that your work will one day be hanging in the museums of the world and everyone will be handling it with white gloves. You don't want to be embarrassed by the fact that you didn't bother to put enough attention on the quality of your work to warrant such treatment. Construct your work so that it can hang with confidence on the same wall with any masterwork of a similar style found anywhere. Whether your work ends up in such places or not makes no difference. But, by virtue of the fact that you have taken such standards into consideration , you will greatly enhance the quality and future value of your work.
Secret: If you don't have a place to work, you won't.
Without a dedicated studio space that is sitting there waiting for you to come and work in it, the possibility that you will work on a regular basis is greatly diminished. Depending on the type of work that you do, you must design a dedicated working space into your living space. Even if all you can set aside is a space the size of a drafting table, at least it is something. It is a dedicated space. I have worked is spaces as small as a tiny bedroom and been able to continue making art. So it is not the size of the space that is so important as it is the fact that it is a studio space that is not used for any other purpose. If you say, "I can't work because I need more room to make the scale of work that I need to make." then you are really saying , "I don't want to work." Live within you abilities. If you don't have the space or money to work at the scale that you dream about, adapt. Make smaller works, make models of the pieces and use those as the main body of your work until you have a bigger space and more money. There may be things that can only be experienced at a large scale but if your prohibited from working at this scale that shouldn't stop you from working. If you want to work you have to figure out how you can do it. To me it is much better to make a hundred models of future works and develop you image and style than to wait around to win the lottery so that you can build that dream piece.
Secret: There is a market for almost anything.
When thinking about your work as a product to be sold, don't confuse this with trying to guess what collectors want to buy. It is a bad mistake to attempt to make art that you think people want to buy. Make art that you want to make. Make art that is important to you. There is a market for your work because there are collectors who will appreciate what you are doing. Your market may be large or small but you won't know that until it is out there in the public eye. So don't worry about it or let this effect your creative impulses or progress.
However, there are things that you can do in designing you work so that it is easy for galleries to show, store and handle it and for collectors to buy and display it. For instance, if you make a lot of drawings, make them on good paper instead of napkins or what ever is laying around. This way, you are more likely to be able to convert you drawings into sellable objects instead of just scraps of paper that have some drawing marks on them. If your going to mess around with sculptural ideas, use some decent material instead of a ratty piece of cardboard unless, of course, that is an important material aspect of the piece. In short, take presentational considerations into account on even the most fleeting of your creative impulses. You are going to make art anyway so why not add a little extra attention and make something that can be appreciated as a work of art and sold when you are finished with it?
Secret: Art is art and business is business. Don't confuse the two.
Don't take business matters into account when you are working in the studio. Make art! While you will want to make life easy on yourself by designing your work to be sold, transported and stored, don't let business effect your creativity. On the other hand, when it is time to deal with the business end of things, be professional and be serious. Don't let sentiment or ego as an artist effect you business judgment. You, the business person are a representative of you, the artist. As a business person, your interest is business not art. As an artist, your interest is art not business. Learn how to interchangeably wear these two different hats. When you can integrate these two very different things and create a harmonious balance between the two, you will be successful.
Secret: Respect your audience. Nobody likes to be insulted or made fun of.
If you intend to publicly exhibit and sell your work, you must take your audience into consideration. Art is a form of communication so be clear as to what you are communicating and to whom. Since your work will be seen one on one with your viewing audience, you are carrying on a conversation with the viewer all be it visual instead of audial. Thus, imagine, while you are working that you are at a public gathering and conversing with people. This is a good guide for how to work.Give enough information in your art for people to feel that they have somehow understood what you said instead of being cagy and making your work impenetrable. This doesn't mean you have to be overly obvious or excessively intellectual or provide a map to the uneducated. But it does mean that you need to realize that most of the viewers don't know you personally and if they cannot find an opening into the conversation, which is your art, then you have lost them. This is your fault not the viewer's. Provide enough cues in your work to give some modicum of access to the viewer just as you would in a conversation.
Additionally, if your work is aggressive and insulting in its imagery
or is excessively crass or crude, it may have some shock value that will
get people to look at it for a moment, but not many people will be too
excited about having such work around on a permanent basis in their personal