8 of the Biggest Mistakes Artists Make in their Art Careers

You might be making mistakes in your art business that are holding you back from big growth.

Mistakes aren’t bad, and I don’t want you to feel like you have to be perfect in everything you do because seeking perfection is a sure way to be paralyzed by fear. We have to make mistakes in order to learn and to grow.

Are you making these mistakes in your art career?

Mistakes are only detrimental if you keep repeating them without learning and correcting your ways.

Are you making any of these mistakes?

Not knowing where you want to go with your career.

I’m not talking about the need to have a specific plan, but I’ve noticed how few artists, especially when they’re just starting out, don’t “get” that running a business is serious stuff. You’re no longer making art for pure pleasure.

Everything changes when you start asking for money in return for your talents. For some artists, it changes for the better and you’re fired up to get your art out there. Other artists can’t stomach the pressure and lose all interest in making art. They can’t seem to get into the studio.

Is it more important that your work is in a museum, or that you earn $50,000 a year? The two aren’t mutually exclusive, but you will make different decisions if one is more important than the other. Only you can decide what is best for you.

Set goals and plan a path (or at least make some decisions) to get you there.

Not following up with people who express interest in your work.

Wow! Someone said they liked one of your pieces and talked with you about it for 25 minutes! And you just let them go???? Were you hoping that they’d magically find you, call you up, and ask to buy the work?

Some thoughts:

1. Ask such people if they’d like to be on your mailing list. If you can get one of their business cards, even better because you can send a personal “nice to meet you” note in the mail.

If they say No to the mailing list or if you forget to ask, track them down and find an email or address and send a quick note their way.

2. Tell them about a show or event you have coming up and ask if they’d like to receive an invitation.

3. Invite them for a studio visit.

Staying insulated.Great art is from your journey

Too many artists find a safe place and stay there for decades. You hang out with only watercolorists or potters and enter the same shows year after year.

Is that not you? Maybe your protective shield is the Internet. You stay in your studio and live your life online.

In both instances, you’re avoiding challenges and, therefore, avoiding growth.

Great art is informed by what we encounter on our journey in the world. Get out! [Tweet this.]

Ignoring your finances.

You can’t expand a business if you don’t know what your profit margin is or you don’t pay taxes and bills on time.

Ignoring your finances doesn’t make the problems go away. On the contrary, it compounds the problems.

My clients who start paying closer attention to the money trail find the experience enlightening. Either the situation isn’t as bad as they had imagined, or they are able to identify what must be done in order to improve their bottom lines.

Trying to do it all yourself.

There comes a point when you have to stop wearing all of the hats in your business.

Investing in help for your art business means that you are then free to work on the most important tasks that bring in income and recognition. These include making art and being the face of your marketing.

You will wear yourself out if you continue doing everything yourself. Not only that, but your best work will suffer and everything else will be substandard.

In my experience, you should hire help while it still stings your pocketbook a little. You’ll never wake up suddenly with an extra wad of cash to spend on personnel.

Waiting on someone else to sell the work.

Nobody cares about your success more than you do and very few people – gallerists, curators, agents – are going to be interested in buying/selling/showing your work until you demonstrate your interest in the same.

Artists who are just starting out are especially fond of focusing on gallery representation or in finding the mythical agent that will do all of the work for them. The gallerist might come in time, but you have to pay your dues.

You have to create a market for your art from the ground up. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. You must be dedicated and ready for the long road ahead.

Presenting yourself in an unprofessional manner.

Examples of unprofessional presentations include:

  • Talking smack about festival organizers within earshot of visitors.
  • Self-designed (especially over-designed) marketing material that has no coherent message.
  • Missing important deadlines.
  • Showing up late to appointments.
  • Not returning phone calls or emails promptly.
  • Using crappy photos of your art.

You only get one chance to make a first impression. Again, the goal isn’t to be perfect, but to show the world you care about how you and your art are perceived.

And, without a doubt, the biggest mistake you can make in your art business is . . .

Neglecting your mailing list.

The people on your mailing list are your collectors, fans, and supporters. They have asked to be part of your career.

Nobody else has the same list.

When you ignore the people on your list, you are saying that you don’t care enough to stay in touch.

When you promise a monthly email and fail to send it for many months, you are saying that your art career is unimportant.

When you contact your list only when you want something from them (e.g. sales, attendance, signups), you are saying that you value the relationship because of what you can get from them rather than what you can share with them.

Don’t you see how much easier it is to enjoy nurturing relationships in an authentic way rather than contacting people only when you want something?

Use your list! It’s your #1 asset.

I know this is just the start of a list. What mistakes have you made in your art career? Please share in a comment so that other artists can learn from your experience.

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48 comments to 8 of the Biggest Mistakes Artists Make in their Art Careers

  • mel

    I’m lousy at most of these, except I haven’t slacked on the newsletter yet! I’m the type that finds strength in deadlines so that stuff is no problem.

    My problem is a historically low confidence/self-esteem combined with some social anxiety, so you’d never see me talk up people at a reception. Plus, there’s the whole terrible day job that gets the spotlight, since I prioritize the thing that actually makes the money.

    I always wonder how different (read: better) life and art would have been if I had been socially adept. Currently trying to dig my heels into youtube!

    • Hi Mel

      I can relate to some of your feelings of low self esteem. I have struggled with that for years and felt why would someone buy my work i felt it wasn’t worthy of a sale. I decided to work on my self esteem issues with Paul McKenna’s you can change your life in seven days. I realise it isn’t for everybody but it works for me and i made a sale this week and i am approaching a company with a view to selling my wrok which i now feel is worthy with them long term.

      Work on yourself ther are plenty of self help books out there or whatever you feel is right for you, once you feel good with yourself you will value your work more and take steps which will lead to sales.

      Joanne

    • Mel: Bless your heart. I applaud you for sticking with it. Joanne’s resources looks like a good one. Probably a lot of artists could benefit from the same kind of self-work.

  • Mailing list? Not sure where to begin with that one. All my sales are through galleries and their mailing list is their guarded secret. I don’t even know who purchases my work.

    • John: But you know people, yes?

      Did you ever want to contact those buyers? What if the galleries went out of business (as so many have lately).

      • Yes contacting those buyers would be great. The problem is the institutions that have been extremely successful at selling my artwork keep their lists to themselves which makes complete sense. If they gave their list to me people could cut them out completely. I tried selling selling artwork on my own a decade ago. It was a haggle game all the time. The galleries have been very good for my bottom line. They have extremely wealthy clients that pay top dollar. But of course, if they went out of business that would be a problem. This is a conundrum I’ve gotten myself into.

        • Suzanne Powers

          I think you need to revisit the reasons you would want to be in competition to the gallery that is doing such a good job of selling your work. From the information I have read you don’t want to ruin a good thing once you obtain the list of buyers from the gallery. Why would you want to cut out the gallery that has worked to gain you clients?

    • Where do you live? If any of your galleries are in California they are legally required to provide you with the names and contact information of anyone who buys your art.

  • Great list Alyson.

    I appreciate your thoughts about hiring out aspects of the business to experts. But I have found that it takes just as much time and sometimes more, to find, hire, and work with someone in my experience, sometimes more, as just doing it myself.

    • Then you’re not hiring and training correctly, Kristen. I’ve learned, with the help of my coaches, how to hire the right people to support me – people who complement my strengths.

  • I vowed that when i had an email list to nurture i wouldn’t neglect them, asnd I have for the last two months, nearly three. Only because i do not know what to talk to them about. I bought Carolyn Edlunds marketing strategies where it talks about sending out monthly emails and to make it about my customers. I don’t have a clue how to do that unless i am promoting or talking about future exhibitions or new work.

    Please help as i want to start this weekend and never leave it so long again.

    I also made the mistake of one of the people on my list to mess me around for three months. They expressed interest in my work and wanted to buy a print so i took in a couple of prints i had oredere from my print on demand website to show him exactly what he would get for his money I even gave him a discount code which could be used on the next print when he referred people to me. He arranged to call me and never did. I could have handled the situation better by me ringing him that way i would have been in control, it just didn’t occur to me at the time.

  • This post is a great check-in for me. I’ve gotten much better at hiring help with chores like yard work, so I can stay in the studio. It does sting but it makes me prioritize what is really important in my life.
    I still suffer from not contacting my list on schedule – asking myself “What the heck is “newsworthy” this week?”. Thanks for reminding me how much value there is in my list and they deserve to hear more than just when there’s an event or sign up.
    p.s. Love the photos of your cat!

  • There are a few areas (finances) here that I could definitely improve on, thanks for the nudge!!

  • dan

    Mistake number 9, constantly listening to others critic of your mistakes and never offering anything other than constant critic of your mistakes.

  • dan

    I question someone’s business skills if they point out a business failing of an artist and fail themselves to see an opportunity in finding sources to help that artist. Would there not be income benefits, perhaps?

  • Laurel

    #1 is my problem. When I do schedule a show, I am very motivated to create. I feel a little awkward talking to people, but mostly really enjoy it. During the show I say to myself “I have to do this more often! I love this!”

    After the show? Creative death. I had my last show in February and haven’t made anything since. And it is precisely that “where to next?” dilemma. Why AM I doing this? So I allow myself to get caught up in teaching. And that is okay, I love teaching. I have a really tough time maintaining a consistent studio practice because of a complete lack of motivation. Maybe that is okay.

    • Laurel: This is such a common problem. Set a new deadline for motivation! Another show or event.

    • Yes! Yes, Laurel, I completely sympathize! The exact same thing happens to me! :O My year becomes like a roller coaster! (Painting small has helped me greatly since 2011. My ‘dead’ periods are usually no longer than a couple of weeks, a month at most… Allowing myself to become ‘addicted’ to posting my art on social media has REALLY helped. MUST paint something in order to post it! Lol.)

  • I can appreciate the comment about using your maillist. I prefer to publish my newsletter when I have at least one new artwork to give a “birth announcement” for or an event that cannot wait for a new work. Sadly, I am a very slow producer for a variety of reasons.
    However, I do not enjoy having my art newsletter only be about my art or worse, me. As Alyson points out… SHARE.
    So, I write about art-related topics that are only related to me because I SAW them (an exhibit or an artist whose work moves me or makes me curious) or a place I visited or an experience I had. Recently, I wrote about a non-art experience: Visiting the Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade, Serbia. I am a big Tesla fan, but also I love his desire to GIVE to the world.
    But for me, I can easily tie in science, mathematics, and travel to my work.
    Still, I feel less ego-driven when I write about someone else!
    I hope that helps. You are allowed to be a human being with multiple passions. 🙂

  • Good points all. In addition, it’s often overlooked the dedication needed to address each point. Polishing your craft, your presentation, your network building, your selling abilities don’t happen overnight. Only your attitude can change instantaneously. Enjoy the whole process.

  • Just polish your brand every day. Make better art. Make your website better every day. Make all your administration documentation better. Be a better ambassador to the world of art. It’s your life’s work after all.

    Only. You can do this for your art..

  • It is a part of my contract with my galleries that I receive the name and contact information for those who buy my art every time. I rarely get that, even when I follow up and get told that I will… later. Never comes. Sadly, I am not in a position to enforce this contract. The truly exasperating part about this is that my main dealer even has past experience that when clients he found for me later came directly to me, I pay him his regular commission. Always, no matter how many times that client comes directly to me. So, I ask you, what else am I suppose to do to earn his trust in this matter? Not to mention respect.

    • @Kelly Borsheim I’m glad I’m not the only one feeling these pressures (see my comment thread above). The internet has merely exasperated the problem. I recently got into an uncomfortable position in which a client pulled out his phone and was looking at my work online and asking the gallery owner if they had it. The gallery was put off because they wanted to feel exclusive to my work even though I told them right from the start that they were not. I promised to not use any galleries within 100 miles of them and have stayed true to my word. I feel for the galleries, I do…the walls have been closing in for the past 2 decades. But with that said the internet has made everything 0 miles away. My current feeling is that this modern world with rapid connections (internet,social media etc.) has been really good at giving everyone a little but at the loss of advancing the middle level/career artists to a sustainable career. It’s like taking what would have been a decent living and dividing all the proceeds up by retirees who want to make a few bucks online. The internet has created a race to the bottom.

      • Now this is an interesting concept, John. And I know what you mean. Everyone who is anyone can sell their art (or “art”) online. Good or bad? Depends on who you are.

    • John and Kelly: I know this is so frustrating. Keep in mind, though, that it might not be that the gallery doesn’t trust you. Galleries have privacy policies just like we do in sharing our lists. Many (probably most) collectors do not want artists to have their names. These days they could easily find you online if they wanted.

  • Build Your List. If I got nothing else out of Art Biz Makeover last November, it was Build Your List. In 2015 I got aggressive with this. At every art festival, I have 2 locations were people can sign up. When someone asks me for a card, I respond by signing them up first, then they get a card. that list is so valuable that in one show, I sent a post show order that was so large, it had to go by crate via Common Carrier. It was all photography for a business office.

    My goal was for 2015 was to send out a quarterly newsletter. I realized very quickly, that it needed to be monthly and went one step further and began segregation that list by zip code, so that I can market each zip code when I am doing a show in that area. I realized that you have to have a constant presence in order for people to remember you, follow you, find you, and then purchase from you.

    I may not have the perfect newsletter yet, but my goal is to try to give a photo tip on how anyone can take better pictures, a current schedule link to all my shows, a free monthly drawing, and some sort of discount or special offering that ONLY my subscribers can get.

    I keep a note pad with me all the time, so if I have down time, or during travels, I can pre-write upcoming newsletters. My personal coach told me that any excuse to avoid doing something, no matter how you present it or defend it, is still just that; an excuse. So, I have a no excuse approach to building my list and staying in contact with my list.

    • You’ve done a great job, Ken! And if I recall correctly, you were hesitant to create a newsletter before you had a better list. I remember saying something like “you won’t build your list until you have the regular email.” And then I challenged you to start it right away. YOU DID!

      So, have you noticed sales as a result of sending the newsletter?

      • Alyson, you are correct. I was hesitant because I thought without a list I would be putting the horse before the cart. However, I sent my first newsletter with just 57 people on my list, forcing myself to be true to my list. Now, I average 40-60 people who sign up at each show, and another 10-20 per month directly on my website.

        Have I noticed sales? YES!

        I love the ask for a business card tip and I will be adding that to my agenda too!

  • Dear Alyson,

    Not only is your advice right on target, but your website is FAB-U-lush! (I am updating mine as we speak)

    With years of marketing classes behind me while growing my design business, and much forgotten, I appreciate your 8 reminders. One of the best, is to ask for that business card so that I can follow up rather than hope that they will contact me—because I know that I will!

    Acknowledgement is VERY important. Thanking people for their help along the way builds friendship and business.

    Thanks,
    Alice

  • Another valid point you have made, Alyson. However, a gallerist should mention a privacy policy of his own up front [or discuss any part of a business agreement he disagrees with] and NOT SIGN A CONTRACT he will not honor. It is just as easy to write a line in a contract that says that the gallery will ask the collector if he wants his information shared with the artist. In my case, my contract was upheld until the last two years or so. No discussion, no excuses/reasons… just “I will get to it later.”
    What is so horrid about saying, “I no longer wish to have that item in our contract.”
    I would prefer honesty to deferment and no conversation. It saves me a lot of time and energy to not chase the wind.
    We only have control of what we say and what we do. A contract is obviously worth nothing if one party does not honor it, despite signing it. That is my point.

  • Are emailed newsletters really that important? I’m actually very interested to learn this. I’ve never thought of them as having any importance due to the fact that I never read any emailed newsletters myself. I find in my own life that social media is a much easier way of keeping up with the artists I follow. Even when there is an artist/business/organisation etc – (even my children’s school newsletter) that I’ve subscribed to read via email and genuinely want or plan to read, when it comes to checking my emails I simply don’t have time to read them and never return later to read them. So I’ve never thought to make my own newsletter- am I wrong? I’d love to know some statistics

  • Alyson, I’m so happy I found your site and blog. This is a great list. Even for artists who are doing okay, this list is a nice reminder. I especially like your points about staying insulated. As a writer, I deal with this the most. However, when I feel that I have been isolated for too long and feel my “muse” wither up, I make it a priority to get out of my little bubble. I try to write with others often for inspiration and feedback and I enjoy making friends with jewelers, painters, potters, etc. Talking to artists that work in a different way means I can learn something new from them, we support each others’ art, and there is always something new to talk about it. Thanks again for your wonderful resources. xo

  • David Cochran

    One thing that I often struggle with is pricing my art. I find that there’s a narrow window between pricing so high that you’re out of the market and pricing so low that people believe the piece must not be any good. Like it or not, a lot of people associate price with quality. I certainly don’t want to lose money on a sale (although I do want the sale), but I don’t want to overestimate a piece’s value, either.

  • Merlin Porter

    Hi all. J Millington I don’t think you have to have a newsletter. I don’t and I make sales and I know artists whom sell well without them…the post on this site about there is no big magic bullet that sorts everything out comes to mind. Saying that I may have a go at one if it seems right as it sounds potentially lucrative. I am learning most of these pitfalls now and realising how much I need to refine in every area to be truly professional and dedicated to being a successful artist. Burying my head in the sand with finances is my worst and a.big challenge, the time is right to take it on though and luckily I have a good friend whom is streamlining his business whom is a good sounding board.

  • Thank you for your articles. I am new at all this so your information is very helpful.

  • RE: Author: Suzanne Powers’ comment
    You certainly do NOT want to bite the hand that feeds you! Nor do you ever want to engage in dishonorable behaviour. However, there is an interesting and perhaps delicate balance in the artist/gallery relationship and each artist must decide how to run his own business… as the gallery runs their own.
    The problem lies in that galleries close, retire, or move, or whatever. Also, the galleries promote many artists, not just you. It is important that the artist know who bought the work for at least a couple of reasons:
    1) If my art is sold to an important collector or location (such as a public space), this enhances the career and must be bragged about by both gallerist AND artist.
    2) If something happens to the gallery, the artist has the ability to keep making a living. We KNOW that a person who buys once is more likely to buy again statistically. Plus, it is easier to sell to a known fan than get a new collector. If the gallerist actually cares about the artist and he retires, would he not want the artist to be able to sell his own work or at least KNOW where his art has gone?
    3) I have had galleries tell me that they will not even consider representing me if I sell my art myself. Right or wrong, my feeling is that THAT is a behaviour based in fear and I do not appreciate fear making decisions for my life. Unless that gallery gives me a stipend to live on, how dare they tie my hands.

    In the end, my belief is that we EACH run our own businesses and we come together as partners to make something bigger than both of us happen. To do that, we must trust each other. I must trust the gallery to care for my art when it is in their possession and to share with me information about our sales, as well as pay me the agreed upon amount and in a timely fashion. The gallery must trust me to give new art when they want it and to give them a commission when/if their client comes directly to me to buy and that I will honor my own work by selling at the retail price for consistency and moving my career ahead… and to be respectful of all of my collectors, past, current, and future. Frankly, if the artist and gallery do consider themselves equal PARTNERS, the collector should enjoy buying from either one.
    Maybe I am an idealist, but I live that way with my dealers, as far as my end goes. But in the end, I market my work more than they do. I must, it seems.

  • I’m a bit confused about number seven. What would responding promptly to phone calls or e-mails mean. Does it mean they day they’re received or just whenever I’m able to, or someone working for me is able to. I’m asking because from what I’ve heard, if I reach the level of success in my art business that I want to, answering all correspondence super quickly, probably won’t be feasible. Is it about figuring out what correspondence needs a quick response what doesn’t? Thanks.