When you break it down to the fundamentals, making a living from the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination is… well, it’s complicated. Let’s face it if you want to make art and make money then pursuing an art career is a dead-end road unless you learn to run a business — and that my friends, is where it gets nice and complicated.
There’s a tremendous amount of conflict between creative expression and profit-making, between art as a vehicle of resistance and artists blissfully participating in networks of power. There’s continual debate around valuing art, countless white papers on paying artists to exhibit their work, and the discourse surrounding struggling artists is endless and can be exhausting.
These issues can’t be solved overnight, nor should they but there are a few marketing strategies that artists can be leveraged to develop a sustainable practice. The content of this article isn’t about buying art, it’s about selling art — what I wanted to highlight in big beautiful bold letters is that in order to sell your art you need to convince people to buy your art. A message from Captain Obvious, but hear me out…
Know Your Audience
Understanding who is buying your art, and who you would like to buy your art, is key. If you haven’t already, do a little googling around “buyer persona”. If you know who you’re selling to you’ll have a better idea of where you should be selling, how you should be selling your work, and where to focus your resources. If your buyer persona is a c-suite executive, then you may want to consider upgrading your packaging, learning how to speak corporate, figuring out LinkedIn, and focusing on partnering with and participating in events, auctions, and exhibitions, where you’ll find these types of individuals willingly engaged. Likewise, if your buyer persona is arts residency board members and foundation committee members, then you better start getting really good at application and grant writing.
Carving out time to build networks, relationships, and friendships are important. We all get busy, I get it — guilty as charged, but making the time to genuinely build relationships is a vital lifeline to selling your work or landing that envy-inducing arts residency. That might mean scheduling in an hour each day to interact with your networks on Instagram, maintaining an up-to-date contact/mailing list, taking a curator out for coffee (after the COVID-19 curfew ends of course), calling up a fellow artist and asking for their thoughts on your latest installation. Word-of-mouth marketing is a powerful tool, and it doesn't need to cost more than a cup of coffee and a couple of hours of your time.
Know Your Practice… It’s All About the Benjamins BRAND
To build networks and to convince people to buy and truly value your work, you’ll not only have to produce quality work, but you’ll also need to build a convincing brand. Branding is a process of clarifying who you are as an artist, what value you bring to the table (or wall possibly in this instance), and directly reflects what your goals are. A strong brand has the potential to hook a patron's attention, to connect individuals with your work, and to capture the imagination of those who will remember you and your work into the future. Image is everything, and if you don’t know what your values are as an artist then it's going to be difficult to be authentic. Collectors, curators, institutions, and investors are becoming more brand-savvy than ever and will, I kid you not, sniff out ungenuine dribble faster than you can say “fake news”.
Find ways to convey your unique qualities, skill and expertise through what you do. If you’re building a website, a social media profile, a blog, a newsletter, or whatever — make sure that you're telling a story, sharing your vision, reflecting your values, showcasing legitimate accomplishments, and ultimately reflecting your brand. What you put out there in print or online represents you and your work, so it’s important to carefully consider what you do and invest some time and resources in thoughtful design — and please, for everyone’s sake, take quality photographs of your work.
Expand Your Web, You’re an Entrepreneur, Damnit!
Artists are intrinsically creative and entrepreneurs at heart. If you can find ways to diversify your revenue streams and increase the number of consumer touchpoints, without negatively impacting your brand, then do it. The more you can build out your income web the more sustainable your art practice becomes. 1 + 1 = 2 ✓. Got it? Good.
Do the research so you know how exactly to get your work shown in galleries, exhibitions, art fairs, design stores, and wildlife park gift shops if that’s what you’re into. Learn to gracefully jump through the hoops to apply for funding, to land a well-paid teaching gig, or win that public art commission. Be professional about it, meet the deadlines, know how to ask for money, don’t be afraid to pitch your work, and don’t give your work away for free, unless you’re playing the long game or building an important relationship. Pro-tip, a thank you note goes a long way.
As you continue to develop your deal-sealing skills, ask questions, learn to let go, move on, change directions, and take on new challenges.
Be Prepared & Buy More Art
If you’ve made it this far and you’re still reading along, you might as well get started and set yourself some realistic goals. Don’t forget to ask yourself “why” you’re doing what you’re doing. Be ready to speak about yourself and your work, be fully prepared to stand up to your values, and make sure you’re organised with that professional headshot, bio, artist statement, and branded invoice template on standby. And just remember, it’s not a big deal if it doesn’t work out, don’t be afraid to f*ck up — everything is going to be okay.
And now, to end with an important public service announcement. Artists and arts institutions are often among those most affected in a crisis like COVID-19. For anyone who can afford to purchase artwork during these uncertain times please BUY MORE ART and don’t ask for a discount. Artists around the world are currently pledging to buy each other's work, and that’s pretty neat. If you're tight on cash right now, support an artist by sharing a post on social or talking to a friend about their supercool work. Art carries our shared culture and affirms our relationship to the rest of humanity, so in whatever way you can, reach out (virtually) and support your creative arts community.
Written By Kaitlyn Elphinstone
Marketing and public relations professional by day, Kaitlyn Elphinstone is an interdisciplinary artist who is known for her environmentally-driven work and unique use of materials. National Arts and Culture Award recipient for Creativity, Kaitlyn’s works 'Woven Sea Fan' and 'White Plaits, Blue Braids No. 1' are part of the Permanent Art Collection of the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands and is regularly featured in exhibitions throughout the region.