How do I make a name for myself as an artist?
November 26, 2018 6:45 AM   Subscribe

I'm about to graduate with a PhD in history, but I've been producing artwork (mostly physical objects, a few images) along the way. I'd really like to develop this work, and even do so professionally (I'm not looking for an academic job), but I am intimidated by what feels like the arbitrariness of what sells in the art world. It seems like there are no rules. Where do I start?
posted by Dr and Mrs Eaves to Media & Arts (7 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: While you're working on creating a consistent, professional body of work -- not a hodge-podge of styles, but something that is uniquely your own and easily identifiable as you -- make friends with successful artists in your field, and cultivate the acquaintance of gallery owners and curators. Identify marketplaces that sell work like yours, retail galleries? Etsy? Craft fairs? And explore those avenues and determine how you might wedge in. Don't count the compliments of friends/relatives. Get accustomed to being told your work is lovely; the compliments are nice, but someone putting down money for your work is the best compliment.

The art world is random. Extremely random. The way you beat the randomness is by getting into a situation where you are rolling the dice as often as possible. And that means marketing, promotion, networking, schmoozing, doing lots and lots of things That Are Not Art. In addition to the business side which is also Not Art.

The advice -- if you enjoy making art, don't do it for a living -- is real and practical. It is vanishingly unlikely that you'll pay a mortgage with fine art or craft sales unless you are both lucky AND bust your ass for years.

I know successful artists; some very successful as in put-kids-through-college successful. I am modestly successful. The only formula is a consistent, stylistically unique, personally identifiable body of very high quality artwork, extremely consistent and aggressive networking/marketing, and a series of lucky die rolls that put you in sync with the taste of the moment, and in touch with people who can and will enthusiastically promote and sell your work. The Internet only makes some of this easier, but it also makes it easier for every other artist; in a sense it levels the playing field and makes the die-rolls even more important than the quality of your work.

If you enjoy the process of creating art, but don't want to take your chances or do the schmoozing, consider commercial art -- working for The Man -- instead. You won't get to pick your topic but at least you'll get to pay the bills.

Good luck, and please post photos, we'd love to see them.
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:10 AM on November 26, 2018 [23 favorites]

A corollary is that what the internet can do that was impossible even 20 years ago is -- if you can find 1000 "true fans" who are willing to support you for $5-$10 a month e.g. on Patreon, you will have "made it." This is kind of a new way of being a professional artist, and many people are having some success with it, especially in fandom. But keeping in touch with your true fans will occupy a large fraction, perhaps even more than half, of your time, and if you can't hack the social side of constant Patreon/Instagram/Twitter/Email/Twitch/Youtube updates you'll need to produce, it's not for you.
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:16 AM on November 26, 2018 [6 favorites]

Ugh, one more update. Going to art school, getting an MFA, may not teach you how to make better art, though it can teach you to produce a consistent body of work. But it will teach you how to network, cultivate curators, and bring you together with a cohort of people who will help provide you with mutual support. If you're in a big city and can afford another two years of school, you might want to consider it, as it can get you "Hooked Up" to the local scene.

I'm done.
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:21 AM on November 26, 2018 [4 favorites]

there's a common phrase among writers which is "Writers Write". In other words, before everything else, you've gotta do the work. Hiding in the shadow of this is a perhaps more important and equally obvious notion (and equally simple on the face of it, though complicated as hell in this so-called modern world), which is that "writers make time to write". So yeah, above and before all the "... marketing, promotion, networking, schmoozing, doing lots and lots of things That Are Not Art", you must prioritize the art, the making of it.

The best I've ever heard all of this put is in a rather rambling essay by Joan Didion called Los Angeles Days which covers a lot of ground concerning screenwriters and their relative status in the showbiz community -- how everybody in L.A. will tell you about the movie (or twenty) they have in them that they're convinced would be brilliant, amazing, but they just can't seem to find the time to actually write them. Meanwhile, pro writers do find the time and everybody secretly distrusts them.

Hope this helps.
posted by philip-random at 9:19 AM on November 26, 2018 [4 favorites]

Making art for money is a job. A real, full time, challenging job that involves not only creating, but documenting, networking, online marketing, and direct promotion at art events. The particulars of how you go about promoting your work depends largely on the type of work you produce and who your intended buyers are. Most successful artists I know held down at least a part time job during the period where they were establishing their style, their social media accounts, engaging with the local art community, and building up their base of supporters.

Most of them do not make a living exclusively through sales of original works -- they are supported by ad revenue from YouTube channels, commissioned pieces, Patreon accounts, and selling prints and printed merchandise like shirts, stickers, etc. Even the ones who don't use YouTube do everything else. If I had to generalize, I would say each of the successful artists I know has taken at least 6 or 7 years to go from 'I am producing good quality artwork and I want to sell it' to 'I quit my job and now support myself from sales of my art work and associated products.'

Yes, you must create. You must consistently strive to improve your craft. You need a unique style that speaks to a large enough demographic to support you. But being a successful artist as opposed to an enthusiastic hobbyist involves a lot more skills than simply being able to make art. These are all learnable skills! You can take business courses, marketing classes, and get involved with the art selling community in your area to learn more about how all this works. There are lots of YouTube videos by professional artists that talk about all these things. If you are truly prepared to dedicate your energy towards this, and get a few lucky breaks, it is possible to make money from art.
posted by ananci at 11:02 AM on November 26, 2018 [2 favorites]

If you're talking about fine art you need to learn about how the art market works. It's a specific industry with specific codes and mechanisms that you should be au fait with, even if you don't aspire to the big leagues. Understanding the broad landscape will help you position your work with the relevant audience. Selling Contemporary Art is a great primer.
posted by freya_lamb at 4:00 PM on November 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

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