The Business of Art: The Business of Practicing Your Art (Part I of II)
There is a market out there for every artist. The difference between a successful artist and a struggling one is the maintenance of a healthy and manageable balance between the practice of creating work and the business of supporting that practice.
As you embark on a career as an artist or continue your journey working in the arts, I think it is important to remember two things. First, success is relative. Whether you maintain a day job and make work on nights and weekends to sell on Etsy/Ebay and local galleries, or you have mastered the art of writing proposals and have lined-up back-to-back residencies and grants to dedicate yourself to your practice full-time, as long as you are satisfied with your practice and the way you are supporting it, consider yourself successful. Second, having (at least) a general sense of the level of success that you want to achieve in mind will allow for realistic goal setting that can make planning and working towards that success more manageable.
Below, are suggestions for basic ways to move from goal setting to success:
1. What You Want – Write out your goal(s). It is nice to have things floating around in your head, but make it tangible and allow it to be someplace that you can physically revisit as you move along your path towards success. It could be on a vision board, in a journal, the background image of your computer screen…wherever suits you. Write it out and revisit it daily, weekly, monthly. This will remind you in a concrete way, what you are looking to achieve. Additionally, it can function as a great motivator, when you have lost sight of your goals or have become discouraged.
2. What You Need – Fact check your wants against your needs. Meaning, can you afford (financially, emotionally, physically) to really do what it takes to reach and maintain your goal? If not, maybe you need to reassess and adjust your goals.
3. Who You Are – This may sound very philosophical or incredibly broad — but really, it is very basic. You need to really think about all of the buzz words that identify or describe you and your work (think themes, styles, subject matter, etc.). This will be one of the main tools used to locate opportunities, since it gives you a bank of keywords to consider when conducting research. Some opportunities are limited to artists that fit very specific criteria. Other opportunities may be open to a wide range of artists, but the buzz words in your application or interview may be, in part, what sets you apart from other applicants.
Some categories to consider are: nationality, ethnicity, origin of birth, age, gender, location, experience/jobs/exhibitions/collection, and medium or genre. For example, for me and my artistic practice, this entails jotting down things such as: Black, woman, emerging artist, experimental, media artist, video artist, based in New York/U.S., Queer, performance, identity, history, semiotics, body, senses, etc.
There is no limit to the amount of words you can use. So, when you have made your list, ask friends and others who have encountered your work for descriptive language as well.
4.Your Audience – As stated at the beginning of this article, there is an audience for every artist. However, that audience needs to be identified and fostered. Depending on your means and support, this process can be made a little easier if it is done by seasoned professionals working in the art world, since they already have experience with targeted audience outreach. However, if audience development is being handled primarily or completely by you, it may be an intimidating process in the beginning, but it is not impossible.
When you are first working on building an audience, I recommend two approaches. First, think back to the list of descriptive words that you developed in step three (Who You Are). Use those words as a guide to help you compile a list of likely groups, organizations, events, and individuals that may be aligned with your work. For example, if you are making a film about punk music in New Zealand, think about reaching out to online forums about punk music (and music in general) with a synopsis and a link to a trailer. Reach out to film festivals and local film societies. Attend punk concerts and pass out/leave postcards with a still image from the film and a web address with a trailer. Contact music and/or film bloggers with a link to the trailer (or offer to send them a screener/tickets to a screening). Contact cultural arts organizations that primarily focus on New Zealand or the Pacific Islands.
The second approach is simply casting a large net. Don’t just limit yourself to the obvious. Your audience may be partially made of up of people who are introduced to a subject or style through your work. Attend any and all art events that you can. Attend gallery openings, art talks and other networking appropriate events and get to know people while you also let people get to know you and the ideas behind your work. Have postcards with images and a web address or a business card with all relevant contact information (e.g., web address, email, twitter handle) on hand.
In an earlier Business of Art article, Creating an Artist Website, or The Art of Storytelling, I discussed the importance of having an artist website, along with other web-based marketing tools, such as an email list and social networking accounts. These resources should be used to inform large audiences about your work and activities (exhibitions, publications, awards received, etc.) as well as facilitate one-on-one interactions. You should build relationships with personal exchanges via email, online forum discussions, and social networking platforms (e.g., Twitter, Facebook, MySpace). This encourages people to have a personal connection to you and your work in a meaningful way that can lead to audience growth and sales.
Sometimes there is a belief among artists that if you build it, they (the audience) will come. The art world is no field of dreams. There are a growing number of artists that are making the effort to actively get their work out there. If you are not one of those artists, you are undercutting your (potential) audience’s chances of knowing you and your work, simply because they will not be able to find you.
5. The Basics – Bridging the gap between ideas and success is the artist’s business toolkit. All artists, regardless of what stage they are in their career (emerging, mid-career or veteran) are expected to have the tools listed below, as they will be needed to apply for various opportunities, including grants, residencies, fellowships, competitions, exhibition calls, teaching opportunities, etc.
- CV/Resume: An overview of an artist’s education, achievements and exhibition/publication/presentation. This should be updated as new relevant opportunities occur. Resources for CV/Resume information:
- Artist Statement: A short narrative with information about your vision and creative process. It may include information about your influences, inspiration, materials and creative intent.
- The Pitch: A brief verbal summary of your artist statement. This can be presented to someone, should they ask you to explain your practice.
- Website: Your professional website that includes the following:
- Artist Statement
- Selected Works/Work Sample
- Store (Optional)
- Press (Optional)
- Contact Information
- Worksamples: Excerpts of select artistic works that are representative of a large theme or style explored in your overall body of work or a specific series (e.g., a passage from a novel, a video clip of a performance, or a photograph of a painting). This is commonly needed for inclusion on an artist’s website or a grant/fellowship application.
NOTE: Visual artists should consider securing the services of a professional photographer. Performance artists should consider securing the services of a professional videographer and editor.
- Business Cards: A 3.5” X 2” card listing your contact information.
- Email Account: Either a free generic account (e.g., yahoo, gmail) or a paid personalized domain name (e.g., @Iloveart.com), where you can be contacted. Some artists choose to have one for personal use and another for business purposes.
- References: You should have a list of professionals that you have either worked with or who know you in a professional capacity and can attest to the quality and purpose of your artistic work. Often times, these will be needed when you are applying for more competitive opportunities. In general, ask potential recommenders if they can be listed as a reference at some point in the future. When that point arrives, contact that reference before listing them to ensure that they can still be used and alert them to the fact that they will be contacted about you in the near future. When doing so, make sure to update them about the specific upcoming opportunity, as this will allow them to prepare to talk about you (in relation to the opportunity) in detail.
- Insurance: As an artist, you should have at least two types of insurance. One for you and one for your work. This may be one of the most overlooked parts of an artist’s toolkit, but really, it is one of the most important. Your work, tools and materials are an investment, so it is important to have them protected in the case of a disaster (natural or man-made), whether they are in your possession or on loan for a show. For an overview of the type of insurance needed, depending on your discipline, Fractured Atlas has published several online discipline specific guides for artists and art organizations. Also, Craft Emergency Relief Fund (CERF+) has an extensive online guide, as part of their Studio Protector: The Artist’s Guide to Emergencies, with information about risk management as well as resources for various relevant insurance types (i.e., disaster, flood, business, homeowners, and health).
With your goals and tools in place, you are well on your way to realizing your success as an artist. To learn how to apply these elements to a strategic opportunity search, stay tuned for my next article, The Business of Practicing Your Art, Pt.II.
Toccara A. Holmes Thomas is Program Associate, NYFA Source.