Issue #1 | Fall/Winter 2003

the business of art

By Dymphny Dronyk

For many of us walking that tightrope between making art and making a living, “business” is a dirty word. We are not business people, we are artists. We want to make art that maintains its integrity, that is not compromised by having to determine its marketability.

Yet in order to make a living by making our art, we are plunged into certain harsh realities of the retail environment. Ignoring the basics of selling our work may mean we either starve or have no time for art because we’re back to flipping burgers. (Those of you who have a found a loving, gainfully employed spouse or an indulgent patron of the arts to support your endeavours may gleefully skip to the next article now.)

Business parameters do apply to the world of art and learning the basics will allow you to recognize and embrace any opportunity that comes your way.

Let us assume that you have mastered the most critical first element – hard work. You have created awesome pieces of art, and your commitment is unflagging. You continually push yourself to create more, learn more, experiment more. You have the work. As you work, get into the habit of documenting, or archiving your creations. Invest in a decent camera or work together with a photographer. Throughout your career, you will be asked for images (slide or digital) of your work. It is a good habit to develop. Take the photos, label them with date, size and description. Now if the opportunity comes up to submit a query, or a grant proposal, the inevitable request for images will not cause massive panic and costly delays.

Build a stunning “curriculum vitae” as you grow. A resume should maximize any and all of the wonderful things about you, your career and your art. Get a loyal admirer to write it for you – most of us have a hard time blowing our own horn. The next hurdle is promotion and subsequent sales. In business there is an old saying: “Doing business without advertising is like winking at a girl (guy) in the dark. You know what you’re doing, but no-one else does.” If you want to make a living by making art, you have to take your art out into the world where the lovers of art can collect it. There is nothing crass about this. It is a purely win/win relationship. The collector feeds his/her love of art, the artist feeds his/her family.

The internet has become a common and effective marketing tool. Building and maintaining a striking website is an affordable way to expose your art to the world, and can also serve as a sales venue.

Typically though, art is sold in galleries, either private, public, or artist-run. Equally typically, most gallery owners are lovers of art who have had to learn about business in the hands- on, dog-eat-dog world of retail. If you want to build a close working relationship with your gallery, be organized. When approaching a potential gallery, leave a solid resume with gorgeous photos of your work behind. Show that you are an experienced professional by having sizes, prices, payment expectations and delivery times clearly defined.

Once the commitment is made, try to deliver on time. Make sure your pieces are clearly labelled with your name and item number, or name and provide a stock sheet. Gallery owners spend their day dealing with astute customers who want a good deal and who don’t usually understand the nuances of creating art.

Networking, that overworked word, is nevertheless also an invaluable element of the business of art. Build relationships with your fellow artists. Together you share a phenomenal amount of information and experience. You can learn all kinds of things; which gallery to avoid because it makes you wait five months for your miserly 50%; a cost-effective, efficient way to ship your work; the last pottery supply place to still stock the secret ingredient for your favourite glaze.

Educate yourself about the rudiments of bookkeeping and filing and establish some sort of system to keep track of all the bits of paper required by the bloodhounds at Canada Customs and Revenue. If you can’t afford the services of a gifted office administrator at least pretend to be one once in awhile and tame the clutter into shoeboxes.

Lastly, nurture your support groups. Art grows out of passion, and passion does not exist in a vacuum – it requires like minds and inspired souls. There is a kinship amongst fellow artists that will ignite your imagination and affirm that even though you may have lean times, you are on the righteous path.

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