Artists' Career Moves from Beginner to Established

There are no set steps that can take you from the beginning of your art career to the pinnacle of success. [Tweet this]

I know you would feel much more at ease if I could advise you to first do this, and then do that, and then do this other thing, and if you follow each step precisely, you’ll be assured a spot in the history books. But I can’t do that.

Diane Varner photograph of person in kayak

©Diane Varner, The Prayer. Photograph. Used with permission.

What I can do is give you some sort of idea of the phases artists work through over the course of their careers: a timeline of artists’ career moves from just starting out to the highest levels of establishing and cementing a reputation.

First, a word of caution: Because an article is linear, you might read this and think that you have to implement one step before you can move on to the next step. This isn’t the case.

I can’t come up with a single artist who has hit on each one of these points.

Artists who are full of confidence and forging their own paths can jump past entire sections!

Hopefully this list will plant the seeds for your next move.

Beginning Your Art Career

Kevin Aita painting of classic cars in various colors.

©2015 Kevin Aita, Color Wheels. Oil on panel, 33 x 22 inches. Used with permission.

Start your mailing list immediately. You will have no idea what to do with this, but trust me. Just start the list, even if the names are on scraps of paper in a shoebox.
Join and become active in a local artists’ organization.
Show your art at local coffee shops, restaurants, bookstores, churches, salons, and, libraries.
Post your art on Instagram or a Facebook business page.
Try selling your art from Facebook.
Host open studios. Invite people to be on your mailing list.
Sell your work to friends and family. Rejoice in the fact that they want the work and are happy to support you, rather than bemoaning the fact that you have only friends and family buying your art.
Enter juried exhibitions. Become increasingly particular about your venues.
Develop a recognizable style.
Get a professional website. Start driving traffic to it.
Add another social media platform to your marketing mix, such as Pinterest or Twitter.
Offer commissions. Always deliver on time (or early).
Invest in a white tent, and enter the art festival circuit.
Meet artists, curators, writers, art consultants, and influential people.

Mid-Career Artist

Teach classes to become known as an expert in one area.
Dedicate yourself to a monthly newsletter or regular blog posts.
Continue your education. Challenge yourself to expand as an artist.
Enter more prestigious juried exhibitions, including those in other states.
Speak to an audience about your work.
Write about art for a local publication.
Have a solo exhibition at a local non-profit space.
Gain local gallery representation. Continue promoting your art – knowing that you do a better job of it than a gallery can.
Meet local collectors and businesses. Start selling your art to them.
Get featured in local publications and blogs.
Inventory and improve your marketing material.
Win awards.

Kellie Day painting of bicycle on road.

©Kellie Day, How to Charm. Mixed media on canvas, 30 x 40 inches.

Established Artists

Apply for grants or public art commissions.
Snag a solo exhibition at a non-profit space in another city.
Meet more curators, writers, art consultants, and influential people.
Receive grants. 
Don’t rest for too long! It’s time to leverage your success.
Plan art journeys to see what is available in other cities.
Continue learning.
Sit on grant and awards panels, and judge exhibitions.
Receive public art commissions.
Place art in corporate collections.
Have solo or small group exhibitions in nearby small museums and in university galleries.
Donate your work to a local museum or art center.
Gain gallery representation in other cities.
Hire people to help you with certain aspects of your business. You will always be CEO of your art business, but you’ll need help juggling commitments.
Understand that higher levels of success come with more business responsibilities.
Gain gallery representation in a larger metropolitan area.
Work is acquired by a larger museum.
Receive more prestigious honors.

Your Turn

What’s your next move? Tell us in a comment below.

Art Career Checklist Download

Send to Kindle

52 comments to Artists’ Career Moves from Beginner to Established

  • All excellent ideas. I would also add, start teaching classes beyond your city.
    Initially I added workshops in nearby cities and states. This past year I taught in Maine, Cuba and Italy; which led to invites for me to teach in more nearby states, plus Barcelona and Venice in 2016.

  • Thanks for posting this! It is a great way to judge where you are in your art career. I’m definitely still at the very beginning but making progress on developing a mailing list and networking more.

  • this is SUUPER helpful, and yes, most of us will be overlapping in categories, but as a very general overview this definitely helps clarify activities and goals. Thanks Alyson!

  • I often download these posts into a pdf to save and reference, but I wonder if anyone knows if there’s a way to save not just the post but the comments too. Often there are good ideas in the comments. Alyson? thanks!

    • I don’t know how to do this, Kristen. Sorry! And, I agree, the comments are often just as good as the article.

    • Suzanne Champion

      Evernote can usually save articles/posts plus the comments. I just use the web version of Evernote, and then all my notes and saves are accessible from the cloud anywhere.

    • Have you tried Evernote. You can save full pages, bits and pieces or whatever you want. It is like a giant, searchable filing cabinet and with ad dons you can clip directly from the web…and it’s free.

  • What I have left on the beginner list is:
    Enter juried exhibitions. Become increasingly particular about your venues.
    Develop a recognizable style.
    Invest in a white tent, and enter the art festival circuit.
    Meet artists, curators, writers, art consultants, and influential people.

    There isn’t much happening locally since I live in a small village (300 people), so I guess my next step would be developing my style, which I am working on, or do a show somewhere. I don’t have a studio, so opening it will be hard. From the established list, I am blogging and sending a regular newsletter. Plus I’ve been meeting with local businesses.

  • Thanks for this excellent article Alyson. Really helpful for me as a beginner to see the progress I have made in a short time and also to have a “map” of sorts to help me navigate this wonderful and sometimes overwhelming journey.

  • Great list !! and not just because I can proudly say I’ve hit almost all the ‘Beginning’ steps and have moved into some of the ‘Mid-Career’. I took a leap in 2012, giving up the full time job and really concentrating on my art for the first time in my adult life. Reading your list helped me realize how much I’ve accomplished in a relatively short amount of time. I have two websites, I’m active on social media, have an online shop, and have been hitting the art/craft show circuit regularly, while also applying for exhibitions, and I started teaching in 2015.

    2016 is already stacking up to be a winner – just got accepted into my first ‘big-time’ juried art shows (both out of state) and have a couple of teaching gigs booked. I’m turning 60 this year – hooray – and one of my celebrations will be to host my first open studio! The next step for me? – I think that is gallery representation.

    Anyway – THANKS for ‘mapping’ the journey here – Great post!!

  • Thanks for yet another helpful guide to developing an art career. Your suggestions always seem to hit the mark (usually on my backside!) and help me understand what the next moves are. Using your list as an assessment tool, I realize I’ve moved into Established Artist territory. I’m taking a deep breath as I contemplate taking on new challenges.

  • I would add in at some point-get focused on your strengths and what you want to achieve as there are so many distractions along the way that will not take you closer to your dream! It was only when I got really focused that things really began to move for me and this coming year I have some fabulous projects confirmed or in planning!

  • I am glad to see I am further along than I perhaps thought, which is encouraging, because one would hope that after ten years one would be past “Beginning” and on to “Mid-Career”!!!! Most importantly – keep making art!!!!

  • Thanks for featuring my bike painting Alyson!

    You are constantly coming up with the next great advice – Another strategic article that really speaks to me. I appreciate your work so much! xo Kellie

  • Thanks for featuring my “Colorwheels” Painting Alyson!
    Always Interesting and useful advice. So many new artist in the market think they should raise to the top over night but it takes perseverance and a ton of painting “Colorwheels” wasn’t my first painting

  • Claire

    Thank you for this, so helpful.
    I’m in mid career but trying to upkeep 2 art styles to increase chances of sales, both sadly low as promoting and creating for 2 types of clients is difficult and I dare not drop one in case it’s the wrong one.

    Do suggest licensing at any of these stages, once you have a body of work they can be earning for you whilst you’re creating new ones! Best wishes all.

  • Alyson, I so appreciate your honesty in this article as well as the many suggested steps to a successful art career. I use to look for the “perfect path” in getting ahead but realize now, that a large part of it is finding the steps and the rhythm that work for me personally. Your extensive list reminds me that there are many options and ways to reach one’s goals. Thank you.

    I am honored to have my image included with your wise and insightful thoughts. Thank you!

  • Kristen Watson, there is a great way to store articles that you want to save or read later. It is at GetPocket.com I have it installed on my desk top but I believe it is also available for various mobile devices. Once installed, there is an icon on my tool bar and when one clicks on that it will save the article. You can even use tags such as Art as a Business so you can search for specific topics more easily later on. As a test to see if comments showed up, I saved this article. When I went to my files at GetPocket.com and opened this article the comments were not there but I noticed in the upper part of the article there was a faint link that said Original Article. When I clicked on that it went straight to this page with all the comments attached. I hope this helps!

  • Honey Lea

    I had been putting off joining a state-wide artist group of folks working in the same medium that I do. But prompted by your advice, I did. I got the level of membership that allowed me to have a spot on their website. Since I am nowhere near ready to have my own site, it is a real benefit to be able to direct others to the organization website and then on to my work. This is working really well for me.

    Again, prompted by your video to get my work in an exhibition, I contacted a local highly visible venue. Although I don’t have my own website, I was able to direct them to the organization site. I got great feedback from them after they saw the work and we will be scheduling the venue pretty soon.

    I am very excited about being on day 10 of the Artist Statement journal. Already it has made a big difference as I am talking with others about my work. It’s also helped me when I am painting to evaluate my images to see if they really do communicate my message as I have stated it to myself in the journal.

  • I love this list. This is terrific!

    Thanks,

    Pam

  • I am saving this for future reference and a reminder of how much I’ve accomplished in a short time and how much longer I need to go!
    Thanks you for a straight forward and very informative article!

  • Great list, Alyson. When beginning artists ask me for help getting into galleries, I now tell them that the process of trying on your own makes you ready for that step, over time. In most cases, I believe “You can’t jump from the ground floor to the 10th floor. You have to go up all the stairs.” (-Dalai Lama) I would add one biggie to the list: it is better to pursue excellence than to pursue success. The former will often lead to the latter!

  • I love this post Alyson, and I’d like to share a link to it on FB, where my posts are geared to painters who want to learn more about painting (and art business!). Am I missing it on your FB page?

  • Wow, great reference! The things I can cross off are all over the place. Some are not applicable to everyone but this is still really thought provoking. Starting locally did not work for me but because I already had a blog presence, online exposure did work and I got attention from the people I wanted. I have representation in larger cities and an upcoming feature in a national magazine. I am moving to a larger city with a great arts scene so I can keep up the momentum.
    I wish I had started the email list earlier!

  • Wonderful list Alyson. I was gratified I find I’ve accomplished most of the Beginner steps and am on to Mid-Career. I would love to teach but my medium is so specialized, I’m not sure how to market it.

  • Hi Alyson,
    Whew! I found you at just the right time! My assistant is coming over today to review with me my business goals for 2016 including a marketing calendar. This is so helpful. I am inbetween mid-career and established artist. I am a full-time artist going on my 10th year. My sales were better than ever in 2015 and I really need a plan to continue with the momentum. I would love to work with you. Thanks, Anne

  • A goal I have is to give more (at least 4 in 2016) presentations/lectures/talks.

    Also, this list is great…I think I’m all over the place as to which categoty of things I’m doing…I’m hesitant to say I’m mod-carreer but I see it as a reasonable goal in the next couple years…thanks for this