“Ambitious artists hire me because they want more recognition for their art and support as they get their art out of the studio and into the world.”
I strung together these words during a small group discussion at a conference. One of my Inner Circle members happened to be sitting next to me and flinched at the word choice: ambitious. (You should have seen her face!)
Then she challenged me on it. The word just didn’t sound right, she thought.
I said, “You’re ambitious. Don’t you think?” She thought a bit, and agreed with a little hesitation, “Yes, I probably am. It’s just the word I have problems with.”
Definitions of ambition include:
– A strong desire to do or to achieve something, typically requiring determination and hard work.
-A desire and determination to achieve success.
– An earnest desire for some type of achievement or distinction, as power, honor, fame, or wealth, and the willingness to strive for its attainment.
If you don’t see yourself in any of these definitions, you might want to rethink your path as an artist-entrepreneur (all successful artists are also entrepreneurs).
Without the desire, there’s no
You love making art.
You probably think it would be great if you could just make art all of the time and do nothing else.
The title of my book on self-promotion for artists didn’t come out of thin air. It came from hearing artists whine about not wanting to do the business stuff: I’d Rather Be in the Studio.
Yeah, the studio is a great place for you to hang out and to be creative, but two things cannot happen if you stay holed up in the studio:
1. You cannot be financially viable by hiding out in the studio.
2. You cannot be emotionally or professionally fulfilled by keeping your art to yourself.
For these two things to happen, you have to embrace your role as the leader of your business. This doesn’t sit well with many artists who prefer pretending that they can ignore the business stuff.
There are ways to be happier about running a business, but first you must decide that this is what you want. As part of that decision, you can decide to be pouty and grumble about all of the hard work, or you can decide that you’ll find ways to enjoy the ride.
Which way would you rather go through life?
What Makes Me Happy About Running My Business
Running a successful business means long hours and many sacrifices. But if I had known about the deep satisfaction that results, I might have explored the options much sooner.
I love that …
When it comes to building an art career, I subscribe to Thomas Jefferson’s view of luck:
I’m a greater believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it. ― Thomas Jefferson
In other words, don’t rely on luck to hand you a successful art career. Roll up your sleeves and get to work. Every. Single. Day.
On this St. Patrick’s Day, it doesn’t hurt to remind ourselves how lucky we are. But every lucky gold coin has a flip side to be aware of.
You’re lucky you can express yourself freely through your art form. We take this for granted, but not everyone in the world can safely get away with doing so.
In many countries, artists are a dangerous lot because they refuse to go along with the status quo and have “outrageous” ideas about democracy and freedom of religion.
Above all, be grateful for freedom of expression.
On the flip side:
People don’t buy what you do or why you do it. They buy how it makes them feel. – Bernadette Jiwa
When I heard Jiwa utter those words on a stage in Denver last year, I had an AHA! moment. I had previously been sucked in by Simon Sinek’s famous TED Talk, Start With Why.
People don’t buy what you do, or how you do it. They buy why you do it.
It’s a powerful message that is hard to disagree with, yet it fell short for many artists, who were paralyzed for months or years over the inability to nail their Why.
Jiwa’s quote adds clarification. People buy how it makes them feel.
People buy your art because it makes them feel something.
To find your purpose (your why), all you have to do is remember the connection you are making with others through your art.
In 2000 I had been working in art museums for 10 years and had a great job as a director of education.
And I was miserable.
I had a choice. I could keep being miserable, or I could do something about it. I chose the latter. The next year I sold my house and donated many of my belongings. Then I packed up a U-Haul and moved to a small garage apartment in Denver.
I started an art-consulting business and was instantly happier.
I had no steady paycheck, no health insurance, and no idea how to run a business. But I was blissfully happy.
I chose happiness over the security of a museum job.
It was rocky in the beginning, but I kept getting requests for help from artists I had known in my museum career and others who found my art-consulting business online. I chose to listen to them.
I could have easily held firm to my original plan, but I made a different choice that has worked out pretty well.
Choice v. Sacrifice
We often think that building an art career requires sacrifice. You might sacrifice:
1. The janitor who cleans your gallery or apartment lobby.
2. The housekeeper who does good work, so that you can focus on your good work.
3. The gardener and lawn mower who tend to the outside of your space.
4. The tech person who was so patient with you when you thought the world was falling apart.
5. The person at the shipping company who “gets” that your art needs white-glove treatment.
6. The mail carrier who delivers important correspondence and packages.
7. The coffee shop owner who lets you mooch wifi for two hours in exchange for a $5 cuppa joe.
Building a business is exciting and scary for anyone who undertakes the task.
Building an art business is even scarier because your artwork is so personal. It’s not like you’re making widgets. You’re baring your soul to the world.
You’d be crazy not to be a little scared.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve coached clients with the following fears:
- Fear of setting boundaries with a spouse. (It ended up that the spouse wanted the same thing. What a relief to have the conversation!)
- Fear of public speaking, and knowing that it is necessary when you get to a certain level with your art.
- Fear of the next step when you’ve reached what you always thought would be the pinnacle of your career.
- Fear of too much success and being overwhelmed.
The fears I have in my business:
I feel like there is this big secret in the art world. It’s about how things work and how to be successful. Everyone but me seems to know what it is.
Ever feel this way?
If I only knew this one thing … this one elusive thing that I have no idea what it is … my art business would be a success. But I don’t even know what questions to ask to find it.
You’re not alone. Many artists are on a quest to find the magic bullet and hoping to uncover it in a new class, blog post, or book.
And, still, the cogs and sprockets (Jetsons, anyone?) that run the art world machine are a mystery to most.
Let’s consider all of the personalities that are part of the drama. You’ve got your artists, gallerists, and collectors. You have critics, curators, and consultants.
Not part of the gallery scene? You’re looking at festival organizers, licensing companies and agents, portrait brokers, and art consultants. Not to mention the people in organizations that oversee public art projects and residencies.
These days you have tech startups that create apps, software, and websites for artists to show their work. So let’s add RedBubble, Etsy, Fine Art America, and Society 6 to the list.
Finally, you have people like me who try to help you navigate the possibilities. Each of us comes from a different background with a unique set of strengths. Who to trust?
No wonder you’re confused!
It would be lovely if someone would hand you a road map to success, right?
[Art] isn’t about being in the studio, it’s about being in the world. – Robert Irwin
I count myself lucky that I ended up at an art talk with Robert Irwin last April.
Irwin didn’t just get off the art school bus. He’s been in the ‘hood for a while now. He’s 86 and was the first artist to receive the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur “Genius” Award in 1984.
He’s well known for his garden designs, though he says he never gardened or even planted a plant before tackling them.
He didn’t know how the gardens were going to happen. He just knew it was something he wanted to do, so he educated himself through a lot of research.
Irwin is also an educator, though he doesn’t believe that you can teach art. Instead, the art educator’s
Newsflash! You’re just getting started.
Whether you think this is good news or bad news depends on your disposition.
Some people feel fulfilled and complete every day. I envy them.
I want more. Not more “stuff,” but more out of life. More experiences, more love, more friends, more cats. (Only kidding about that last one!)
I know it’s not fashionable these days to want more. They say I should be content where I am and live in the moment. Can’t I want more and appreciate the present?