The image of the artist hard at work in her urban loft, basking in natural light has been hammered into our consciousness for decades. When we dream of becoming artist-successful artists-this is the movie that plays in our heads. Or perhaps we are in some posh gallery yucking it up with the elite and waxing poetic about inspiration as they look on in awe. Yes, this is what we imagine the life of an artist is. And wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could have just a little taste of this dream? Maybe you feel you’ve paid your dues, trying to carve out space on your kitchen table, painting through the night while your kids sleep or enduring years of theory and studio sessions only to realize that you in fact do not know how to make it at this game. You have no clue as to what makes a successful artist and further, you are wondering if you even want that anymore.
So, what is the answer. How can you really make it as an artist without selling a kidney or waiting on posthumous discovery?
I am about do you a huge favor and tell you to stop asking that question. Yes, I know that it’s the title of this article, but it’s not a great question. And great answers come from great questions. So, here’s a better question: “Who will pay me to paint sad clowns?”…And you’re probably scratching your heading right now, unless you happen to do paintings of sad clowns. You see, I have been told many times that art is really not about art. Art is not a thing-as in a product-it is a subject of study. But, now pictures of sad clowns, that is a product. That is something that a person could identify and tell a story about. And more importantly, they could more easily find people who would love to own a picture or two, or even three of some very despondent clowns.
So, you see, this is about what you offer. What is it that you’re actually giving to people? The Gallery Owner, The Collector, The Interior Designer. They all want to know:”what is this stuff you’re trying to pawn off on me?” Respond by telling them a wonderful story, an epic tale. And whatever you do, don’t tell them it’s art, or it’s Impressionistic, Modernist or Outsider. Tell them why you made it, and why you feel drawn to sad clowns. Tell them about the time you visited the circus as a kid and saw a clown crying in his dressing room. Weave a compelling narrative that will have them hanging on to each word.
But, what does this have to do with “making it”? If we’re all on the same page, we’re talking about- at least making a living-and at the pinnacle, becoming famous. Making a living requires consistent sells, consistent sells require collectors. How do you draw those people in? By telling them why you make the things you make. I know this seems way too simple and that’s because it is. But simple does not equal easy. This will probably be one of the most difficult things you do because it requires a certain amount of honesty and vulnerability. However, once you find your home in this space, you will wonder why you waited until now to do it.
Now, you’re probably wondering if there’s going to be anything practical in this article. ‘Yes, telling a story is great, but does this really equal art sells? What are the nuts and bolts of this?’
Ok, let’s imagine that you have a body of work that you’re proud of and you’re ready to approach some galleries. You send submissions to a dozen galleries and in your statement to tell an amazing epic tale of your body of work. In a few weeks time, one of the galleries sends you an email saying that you have been accepted for a group show. At the group show, you are a ball of nerves because you have to speak to the audience and there is a large turnout, due to a more established artist exhibiting their latest work.
Your stomach is swarming with butterflies, but you promise yourself that you will not waver and you will tell your epic tale. Now, you are before the audience and muster up enough courage to talk about your inspiration and why you make what you make. The audience asks questions and you find out that a few people really seem intrigued. Now, after your talk, it is your turn to ask questions. You approach those few interested people and ask them which paintings they feel more drawn to and for what reasons? What do they feel when they look at them? Ask them if they would like to own it-yes-ask for the sale-then offer to bring it to their home to ‘try it out’ with no pressure to buy.
If they start gushing about how it looks on their walls, ask for the sale again. Offer to have it framed and give them a time of delivery. If they didn’t really connect with the piece you brought along, get their contact information so you can let them know when you have something new.
Rinse and repeat. You can use the same principles if you’re selling online.
The idea is to tell a story, your story. Why do you make what you make? Honor this narrative and continue to develop it over time. Also, respect your craft and don’t be ashamed to ask for the sale. You are doing a brave and noble thing by choosing to live as an artist. Now, it’s time to make it work.