Artist as Entrepreneur
So you have an MFA not an MBA. It was a conscious decision based on your talents and abilities. Had you chosen an MBA, your income stream would probably be better. But then again, you like so many others, want more out of life than a career in business can provide. You are an artist-- one who creates beauty or makes visual statements--the solitary genius working alone in the studio. However, you still need to make a living beyond sales to friends and family. This post provides some thoughts on how to make a living as an artist, and it all starts with rethinking the concept of what is must be to be an artist in the year 2016. I believe you must think about the business of art as much as you do technique and medium. You need to be an artist entrepreneur. Here are some tips:
Build a Financial Base: Art sales may not be coming fast enough or at all. You will need another source of income. Applying for grants and residencies is a nice thing to do and you might become a recipient and you should apply. However, the entrepreneur does not want to leave his future in the hands of the juried few but knows she/he needs a steady income, at least for a period of time, for a very important reason—you need enough cash to promote yourself as well as meet expenses until art revenues are steady. Obviously, you will also need time to create. Part-time teaching, bartending, working for an established artist or becoming a handler for a large, international gallery may all help you build a bank account as you paint or sculpt. The trick to saving money is to think of your savings as money you owe like you do rent or loans. You need to pay yourself first, then the landlord. So what ever your rent is, it just went up a bit. You now have a new budget. And by the way, start making a budget and stick to it.
Building a financial base also means taking some of that savings and investing for the long-term. There are ways you can invest with very small amounts of money that will help you reach your goals over a number of years. I will talk about many of them in future posts.
Get Out and About: Ok, you have been up until 2am closing the restaurant, getting home at 3am and rising at 11am to paint for 4 hours. Thank goodness you only bartend 4 days each week so you don’t need to return to the pub this evening. My suggestion is to sit down on your laptop and make a list of everyone you know or would like to know who may be in the business or has an interest in listening to you. Find out how to contact them and start sending emails, call or show up at their place of business. The point here is that to be successful you are not going to do it alone. Collaborations, partnerships and a helping hand are all essential. So who should be on your list? I would place small galleries (larger galleries want artists with a following), agents, artists, art professors, online magazine publishers, critics, writers, alumni, friends of friends etc. Many of the artists I represent sought me out. After all, I am looking for the next Picasso like everyone else. Go to opening receptions, free concerts and dance recitals. Anywhere people who love art tend to hang out.
Find Exhibition Space: Now that you saved a few dollars, it is time to spend a little-and I mean a little. Start to network with other artists to discover where you can rent cheap or free space that can be used for a gallery exhibition. For example, if you hear about a vacant storefront that doesn’t seem to rent, call the landlord or realtor and suggest that they let you use the space as a gallery for free until it is rented. You will offer to paint it, and make it look pristine so it is easier to rent. See what they say then begin to negotiate. Also some artist collectives need money from time to time. If you don’t want to join, you may offer to rent part of the gallery for a reasonable price to help offset their costs. Approach restaurateurs or merchants who either have no artwork on their walls or art that doesn’t work well and offer your work on consignment for a period of time. You can also tell the staff that they will receive a small percentage of the sale if they refer one of their patrons to you. Create a price list and statement just the way you would for a gallery exhibition. Exhibitions are a way to capture the names of interested people. Once you have a list, hold a salon night at your apartment or studio with a little wine, beer and snacks.
Web Presence: You can use a service like WIX for free to create a decent website and for $10.95 a month they will remove all their advertising. A website is essential. Other sites like Artsy and Saatchi are OK. However, if you quote prices on those sites, you should also use those same prices in exhibitions. The first thing a buyer is going to do is check you out online. Social media like Facebook and Instagram are fine. Just don't expect too much in return. They are create meduims for getting the word out however.
My purpose is simply to get you to think a little differently about your profession. I know many of you have tried some of the ideas I presented in this post ,and they unfortunately did not work as well as planned. But the entrepreneur learns a little from every failure, makes changes and keeps moving forward with improved or new ideas. There are no guarantees but the effort itself can be rewarding both psychologically as well as financially.