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Common Artist Questions Answered
Q: How can I find an agent to represent my art?
A: The "artist agent" is basically a myth. Art dealers and galleries represent artists-- that's about the closest thing to agents in artland, and they're the ones you should be contacting. A small percentage of artists have what you could call agents or representatives-- more like managers really-- but these artists tend to be highly successful and established in their careers, and so overwhelmed with dealer, gallery, museum, and collector requests that they hire professionals to handle their business affairs.
Q: I keep sending my art out to galleries and no one is interested. What am I doing wrong?
A: If you send your art to galleries you don't know or who don't know you or who aren't familiar with your work, this won't be productive and chances are slim that ever you'll get a show. Or if you send your art to out-of-town galleries without first establishing a local or regional profile, this likely won't be productive either. You have to network in your community, target specific galleries, make sure they sell art that's similar to yours, and be able to state clearly and concisely why your art is right for them.
Q: I've been making art for several years and have been in a couple of group shows at local galleries. Should I contact major galleries and try to get shows?
A: Let me ask you a question. If you're in a band that plays local bars and nightclubs, should you try to get a gig at Madison Square Garden? The art world is like anywhere else. You work your way up; you don't skip steps.
Q: Should I make limited edition giclees (inkjet prints) of my art?
A: Generally no, unless you've got significant name recognition and your art is in such demand that you can't make enough fast enough to satisfy buyers-- or that your originals have gotten so expensive, hardly anybody can afford them. Most people who buy giclee prints buy the "name" first and the art second-- they've read about the artist or seen a major show or all their friends own one, and they want one too. Also keep in mind that if you're not well known, a significant downside to making prints of your art (assuming you have plenty of originals to sell) is that you essentially compete against yourself-- people opt for your cheaper giclee prints rather than your more expensive originals.
Q: Should I invest in a website to show my art?
A: Yes, but don't pay a lot for it (unless you're rolling in bucks), and if you're not well known, don't expect to make sales anytime soon after going online. The problem with getting traction for a new site is that people who don't know who you are can't type your name into search engines-- which makes you mighty tough to find. Best procedure is to design a basic website and combine it with traditional face-to-face networking in your art community. A good starter website should include your statement, bio, resume, images of your work with prices, and how to get in touch with you. And no fancy shit like flash or music or blinking caterpillars that move all over the screen and you have to chase 'em down to click on 'em. When I go to an artist's website, I don't want to be tortured by some whack-off web designer's tech tricks. I want to see art-- that simple and no more complicated.
Q: Should I pay for gallery space on large art websites?
A: Perhaps, but don't pay much (some large sites offer free gallery space-- start with those). Large art websites are designed specifically to make money for their owners, not for the artists who sell on them. On many, the artists pay for show space whether or not they sell art. So right of the top, it's owners 1, artists 0. Sure, the better websites sell art, but they don't care whose art it is. For example, if a prospective buyer lands in your gallery, the site will suggest options to see similar art by other artists. There's no incentive whatsoever for that buyer to stay in your gallery (owners 2, artists 0). Furthermore, the larger sites offer many thousands of works of art for sale by many hundreds of artists, and the odds that someone will buy art from you are comparable to winning a jackpot in Vegas (owners 3, artists 0). The odds may be better if a site agrees to feature your art on a regular basis, but if you're one of the herds, don't expect much upside.
Q: Should I rent wall space at a pay-to-play gallery?
A: Depends on the gallery. Some are genuinely artist friendly, charge reasonable prices, and perform valuable services for their local communities by providing aspiring artists with a venue. Others are expensive, out for themselves, make big promises, and deliver little or nothing. Best way to research this type of gallery is to speak with artists who currently and have previously shown there BEFORE you pay for space.
Q: I get occasional offers to submit my work to directories of contemporary artists that say they print thousands of copies for national or international distribution. Submission may be free or nominal in cost, but if I'm accepted, costs range as high as several thousand dollars. In return, I get a page or two-page essay about my art and anywhere from two to five illustrations of my work. Yes or no?
A: No. Established respected directories like Who's Who in American Art (Marquis Who's Who) or New American Paintings (Open Studio Press) do not charge to be included-- you have to be accepted, though, and that's not easy (New American Paintings charges a nominal submission fee; Who's Who in American Art charges no fees). The ones that charge for inclusion are basically overpriced, poorly circulated, one-way tickets to nowhere that have little or no credibility in the art community. They're more about vanity than anything else, and if you apply, you can bet you'll get in. Why? Because that means you get to pay them hundreds or thousands of dollars. So what incentive do they have to turn you down? Right you are. Absolutely none. And while we're on the subject, what incentive do they have to distribute their publication? Right again. Absolutely none. They've already been paid. Plus this-- for the kind of money some of these publications charge, you can buy a display ad in a major glossy national or international art magazine, or build yourself a serious website.
Q: Can you give me some names of galleries, collectors, or agents that would be interested in my art?
A: The idea that someone established in the art business is supposed to give total strangers contact information is absurd. To begin with, they have absolutely no idea who you are, what you're like as a person, what you're capable of as an artist, or how you are to work with. The way the art world works is that people only refer artists who they already know, and they only refer them to dealers or galleries who they already know (and who already know them). Art business relationships are built on trust, familiarity, and successions of mutually beneficial transactions that accrue over time. No one wants to jeopardize his or her standing or credibility in the art community by arbitrarily giving out contact information to artists they don't know. When referrals are made, they're made for specific reasons, with specific intentions, with specific outcomes in mind, and between people who already know and trust each other.
Q: Everybody loves my art. How come I can't sell any?
A: Depends on your definition of "everybody." If you're talking friends and family, they love whatever you do (and even if they didn't, they wouldn't tell you). Try this-- next time "everybody" starts gushing about your art, ask which pieces they'd like to buy and how they'd like to pay for them. Love means lots of different things to lots of different people, but in the art business, love means $$$.
Q: Should I buy mailing lists of galleries and then send out introductory information about my art?
A: This is a complete total utter consummate waste of money-- and the art world's version of spam. You have no idea how the mailing list was assembled, what kinds of galleries these are, what kinds of art they deal in, whether your art is even remotely right for them, etc. etc. etc. Would you walk up to a total stranger and ask him to buy your art? That's basically what you're doing with galleries when you buy mailing lists. Galleries get these kinds of random intergalactic inquiries all the time. What makes you think they're going to look at yours when they throw all the others in the trash?
Q: I donated a painting to a charity auction and it sold really high. So I raised all my prices. Now I can't sell anything. What's the deal?
A: The money went to charity, not to your art. Charity auction selling prices generally have little to do with the value of what's being sold-- items sell way too low and way too high all the time. Many people who bid at charity auctions see it like this-- they donate money they intend to donate anyway, except when they donate it at an auction, they get free stuff in return (aka your art).
Q: Is it best to let my art speak for itself?
A: Yes, but only if you make talking art. Otherwise, you have to speak (or write) for it-- contextualize it-- so that viewers can better understand and appreciate what you're doing. It's like the difference between watching a play with actors dressed in street clothes on a stage with no set, and then watching the same play with actors in full costume and the stage completely set. The script is identical in both cases, but your depth of understanding and immersion in the experience is far greater with one than the other.
Q: Do I need to explain my art in terms of art history and talk about where it fits in?
A: Not really. About the only time you do that is when someone who understands art history asks. Most people don't know enough about art history to fill a thimble. And of the few who do know, most can figure out where your art fits in for themselves. What they want to hear is your story-- why you've dedicated your life to making art, how you've chosen to express yourself through your art, how you make your art, why it looks the way it does, what it represents, and how it conveys your commitment, beliefs, feelings, and opinions. A good honest story trumps an arcane disquisition on art history approximately 100% of the time.
Q: Should I mention names of important artists who influenced me when I talk or write about my art?
A: No. For example, if you say your art is influenced by Warhol, the attention is immediately off you and on Warhol. By invoking famous names, you leave yourself and your art open to being compared with those names, and unless it compares favorably, you're screwed. It's your art and you're the one who made it, so keep the focus on you. Let the critics drop names on your behalf-- that's their job.
Q: My art professors tell me that the way to succeed as an artist is to "go forth and make art." Is that right?
A: Professors who drench their students with that bucket of bullshit should be more honest and tell the truth, which is that they don't know how to succeed because nobody ever taught them, and if they did know, many of them wouldn't be teaching. Now I'm not knocking professors here; we need you dearly and teaching is an eminently honorable profession. All I'm saying is that it's OK to admit you don't know something when you don't know it instead of getting all noble and "go forthy" about it to insulate your egos. As an artist, you can transit the fine art marketplace effectively or you can stumble around like a cluck. So many artists at all stages of their careers make so many obvious mistakes that they would never otherwise make if only they had basic training in how the art world works. Once a work of art is complete and ready to leave the studio, it's subject to pretty much the same market forces as any other product. And using some or all of that art to generate cash flow is essential because you can only travel the creative road to success if you can afford to buy gas. Hopefully, more and more art schools will address the issue that artists have a better chance of surviving as artists if they understand a bit about how art and money mix, and hopefully, those schools will strive to graduate increasing numbers of students with a modicum of preparation in that regard.