Everything You Need to Know to Succeed in Art

So you want to be an artist.  Okay great!  Now how do you become successful at it?  That's the tough part and not easy to answer.  The internet is filled with articles explaining how to become a salable artist.  There are lots of good tips to be had about marketing and social media, etc. etc. but that is really only half of the picture.  One of the problems is that being an artist is a uniquely individual experience...what works for one person doesn't work for another.  The reason is that what is being sold is something very personal.  It's not a pair of shoes...it's part of the artist's soul.  That can be a tough thing to sell.  Because of this I think it's important to address this issue from a different angle than merely stating a list of business-y things to do.   Instead I think we need to approach this as a list of traits necessary to follow this path.

  1. Ego - first and foremost you have to believe that what you create is important to share.  You MUST believe that the world will benefit from your point of view.  Sure, this is bit megalomaniacal but it is this trait that keeps you moving forward.  
  2. Relentless Devotion to Artistic Growth - If you want to be an artist you must grow...and grow...and grow.  Push your boundaries.
  3. An Understanding of Art History - For me this is crucial.  Art is a science that grows out of the soil prepared by our predecessors.   Every artistic stroke we make is because of what came before.  Understanding our artistic ancestry helps us move forward.
  4. Making Art...Not Just Talking About Making Art - To be an artist you have actually make it.  Professing artsy fartsy ideas isn't going to cut it unless something is happening in your studio.
  5. Call Yourself An Artist - If you don't describe yourself as an artist...then you aren't one.  Most of the battle is about identity.  You have to believe you are an artist to become one.
  6. Thick Skin - Some people will like what you do...some people won't.  Oh well.  You can't take rejection personally.    You'll get gallery rejection letters...so what...everyone gets rejection letters.  Believe in yourself and move foreword.
  7. Don't Let The World Change Your Art...Let Your Art Change the World - I am firm believer in sticking with your guns.  If you have something worth saying then don't let it get diluted by chasing the market.  For all you know the market may want what you're cooking up.
  8. Endurance - Unless your incredibly lucky, you probably won't be "discovered" overnight.  This biz really requires a devotion like no other.  It is a willingness to move forward when others run for cover.  Shows will come and go and you keep plodding along...always mindful of the goal.
  9. You Can't Imagine Doing Anything Else - I often tell a story that took place a little over decade ago.  I was an artist but supported myself by bar-tending.  I had plenty of exhibits and a little bit of notoriety but nothing special.  One night I came home from work and I stood in front of my art studio door.  The sky was glowing with stars...more than I ever remember seeing.  I was exhausted...I was dejected.  I wondered if the art thing would ever catch on...or if it was time to go back to school and look for a different career choice.  Who knows how long I was standing there, but at some point a metaphoric bolt of lightning hit me.  I realized that if I changed my course I would always be left wondering "What if success was right around the corner".  That was something I could not live with.  It became clear to me that I had to be mentally OK with the journey whether it led to "success" or not.   In fact I had to redefine the word "success".  For me the term evolved to mean the artistic journey outside the world of economics.  In my case I felt that what I had to say was something worth sharing...therefore I had no choice but to continue foreword.

So...all this is great but how do you make a living being an artist?  So many different roads have been traveled with different outcomes.  For instance, I know a guy who became quite successful in the Art world...featured in Art in America...whose advice would be to hang out at NY cocktail parties...it worked for him.  Is that everyone's path?  Certainly not.  

So here are a few tidbits of advice...from my perspective:

  1. Be Seen - Exhibit, post online, get involved with auctions, etc.  The more your out there the more comfortable people will be with your style
  2. Create Opportunity Where There is None - I used to be involved with a group of artists called "The Salt Mine".  We used to find vacant spaces in Missoula MT and put up temporary galleries.  Each exhibit was at a different location.
  3. Be Wily. You have to find ways to make your money when art sales are slow.  This could be anything from Zines, to teaching, to Art Fairs.  I've found multiple streams of income to be very beneficial in slow months.
  4. Connect - Other arty folks are your strongest allies.  They may know of opportunities or they might be willing to put on some crazy event with you.
  5. Do Something Out of The Ordinary -  One way to draw attention to yourself is do something a bit out of the norm artistically.  For instance, about twenty years ago my friend Bev Glueckert and I founded the a Day of the Dead parade in Missoula MT....that's right...Montana.  At first it was a shock to the system now it's a mainstream annual event in the city.  This event probably did more for my art career than anything.  It forced my name out into the world.
  6. Don't Be Afraid to Ask -  The world is filled with all sorts of people.  Some of the most unlikely folks might be willing to help you out whatever your dreams are.  May not be with money but it might be with promotion.
  7. Personal Touch - Remember that many patrons not only buy art because they like it aesthetically ...but also because something the artist is saying, speaks to them.  Because of this it's not a bad idea to try and maintain a correspondence with your patrons.  
  8. Create a Persona - I'm not saying that you need to become BatMan but you want to create a professional mask that encompasses what your art is about.  In my case, I play off the  comically sinister.  Is that really me?  Sort of...but it's also a helpful exaggeration that helps people identify me.

So in conclusion, I'd say read through all those "How to succeed" articles (there are plenty of them) but for me I think before those really mean anything you might consider some of the issues I chatted about here.