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Strategies to Advance Your Art Career... Maybe
A good percentage of artists would like to become rich and famous as soon as possible, and to make art full time in peace and quiet in their studios while other people sell it. In their quests for lives of pure creative bliss, many of them come to people like me for guidance, searching for tips and techniques on how to hasten their inevitable eminence. In response to these requests, here's a little grease for your art world ascendency.
The number one question artists ask is how to get representation. This is a bit of a catch-22 because you have to sell art in order to attract galleries or agents or whatever, while on the other hand, you can hardly make sales without them. Or can you? The answer is that you can-- especially in the Internet era-- and if you can't, you'll have to learn how. Once you learn how to make sales (translation: communicate to people that your art has merit to the point where they have to have it in their lives) you'll be ready for representation.
In a sense, learning to sell your art means being able to understand and convey what gives it "value," not so much dollar value, but rather intangible value. We're not talking used car type selling, but rather being able to dialogue on what your art is all about. Developing the ability to convey your calling is an important aspect of your or any artist's career. I've never met a successful artist who was not aware of the impact that their art has on others, and who was not able to talk about it in ways help people connect with and appreciate it on deeper levels. Galleries and dealers take the marketing and promotion of this impact to a higher level, of course, in how they present art to the public, but the initial responsibility lies with you. And in the large majority of cases, galleries incorporate what artists say about their art into how they present and sell that art to collectors at their galleries, at art fairs, online, etc.
Developing an awareness of how your art expresses your will to create, and becoming increasingly confident your art is impacting somebody somewhere on a meaningful level is what opens the door to representation. When people get the "it" of your art, whatever that "it" is, things start happening. Yes, everyone interprets art in their own unique ways, but your art will attain greater and greater significance and your career will progress in an onward and upward direction the more the "it" people get is identical to the "it" you intend. When people not only understand your work and what you have to say about it, but also want to own it, galleries begin to take notice.
I realize I'm being abstract here, but you must somehow convince others that they're better off owning than not owning your art. However this happens is unique to you and your art, and to how you present it; until it happens, few people of any consequence will pay attention to you. Hearing someone say they love your art is wonderful, but you can't make a living off of lip service. You need buyers. Those who not only understand and appreciate art, but who are also willing to buy it, or who know people who are willing to buy it-- these are the people who count. So whenever you find yourself in any situation where bona fide buyers have opportunities to see your work, watch them respond, listen to what they say, consider their suggestions. They are the audience you want to attract, the ones who have the capabilities to jumpstart your art career.
The recipe is simple-- make art, show it wherever you can (galleries, alternative or non-gallery venues, and especially online), pay attention to how people react, particularly those who either buy or come close to buying, and gain insight into that mysterious time interval between the moment you first expose a work of art in public and the moment someone pays you to own it. Over time, all kinds of artists develop and perfect all kinds of strategies for how to play this time interval to the max, how to attract buyers, sidle up to people with profiles in the art world, and tilt their prognoses towards success. So let's take a look at some of these strategies, and see whether or not they'll work for you.
Artists often wonder whether they should introduce themselves to curators, critics, significant dealers, gallery owners, or other art world players (or whether they should put themselves in positions to increase this likelihood, such as working at museums or galleries). The answer is "yes" if you have a reason and "no" if you don't. "Hi. My name is Bill, and I'm an artist" is not a reason. Reasons are that you have valid (not contrived) questions or comments, you share a common interest, you know a common person, you have useful information, your art is relevant in some way to what they are doing, and so on. In general, an opportune moment to approach any such individual is when you are relatively sure that they'll benefit in some way from the interaction... or at least break even on it. When it's more about you and less about them, maybe put it off until later.
Assuming you have a reason to meet someone influential, being introduced by an intermediary who knows that person is always preferable to introducing yourself. Whenever possible, get introduced. That's way better than saying "Ms. So-and-So told me I should talk to you or call you or email you." The person who introduces you is like an instant character reference, a tangible indication that the encounter has the potential to be productive or worthwhile in some way. Hopefully you are capable of fulfilling that potential.
The next best thing to a personal introduction is to have the intermediary mention your name to the curator, gallery, dealer, or critic in advance or to CC an email to the two of you. The overwhelming majority of art world relationships are initiated through networking between people who already know each other. This is pretty much the same in any business. Very few people are willing to take chances on total strangers, and this is why cold calling or cold emailing rarely work unless, of course, you're a killer sales talent or you have something unbelievably astonishing to cold call or email about. By the way, never ask people who don't already know you to make introductions on your behalf; that puts them in very uncomfortable positions and will not reflect favorably on you as a artist.
No matter who you meet, and whatever art circumstances you find yourself in, your best approach going in is to never expect anything. If something good happens, that's great. If nothing happens, wait until another time. Let the experience be the reward in and of itself. The worst thing you can do is to leave the other party feeling that they have somehow not lived up to your expectations, that they've fallen short, that you don't appreciate having had the opportunity to meet them. The take-away should always be positive. There will be a next time.
A corollary to the above is to keep your selling to a minimum, or preferably not at all. Artists are intensely invested in selling themselves and their art; everybody knows that. Never sell though, unless you sense that whomever you're speaking with wants to be sold to. You don't see car salesmen walking out of their dealerships and onto the street, stopping passersby and trying to sell them cars, do you? They wait for potential buyers to come in, walk around, check out the cars, and show interest-- and you should do the same with your art. Then when someone's interest appears serious, that's when the selling begins. Furthermore, you don't want to get a reputation as someone who's always trying to sell. That's little more than an elevated form of panhandling. People will see you coming and walk the other way.
Don't get hyper-analytical about every little thing that happens to you. For example, a gallery might offer you a show one day and rescind that offer the next. Somebody might commit to buying a painting today and change their mind tomorrow. The art business has no rules when it comes to how people react to art or what they're required to do once they react (assuming, of course, no contracts have been signed). Pretty much anything can happen at any time, and you have to learn to take it all in stride.
Artists sometimes wonder how to act in various situations. "Should I act a certain way to get what I want?" You can act however you feel like acting, from being completely genuine to totally disingenuous... from premeditating, calculating, and deliberate to totally non-invested in the outcome. It's up to you. Know going in though, that in response to the way you act, you will attract people and find yourself immersed in circumstances where everyone's acting exactly the same way you are. So really think through how you decide to go about getting what you want.
While you're on the rise, don't concern about what happens at the extreme high end of the market, who does what to who, who said this about that, who's hot, who's not or how much this or that sells for, like it has some bearing on your career. Paying any more than passing attention to these high-end headlines is a complete waste of time. When you're just starting out, these stories are noteworthy for entertainment value only, if that. You'll have ample opportunities to take them more seriously once you get to that level.
Ultimately, the passage of time is far more important than strategizing for success. Make art, get it out there wherever and whenever you can, do what you have to do so that as many people see the work as possible, prove that you're a going concern, that you're in this for the duration, you're committed, you're not going to give up, and that nothing will stop you. Sooner or later, others will begin believing in you just like you believe in yourself, and that's when good things start happening.