Starving to Successful

starving

By way of justifying his art college’s lack of business of art courses, the former chair of the fine arts department at Ringling School of Art & Design, once told me that “our faculty are all practicing, exhibiting artists who know very well what it takes to make it in the art world.” Presumably, just the presence of these teaching artists and the example they set would provide their students all the information they needed. However, that claim is difficult to test. Certainly, art faculty don’t lose their jobs if they haven’t had a show or sold a work of art in many years, and no one would want that to be the criteria for evaluating an instructor.

Since that conversation, most independent art colleges, as well as a small number of university art departments where most art students receive their training, have established career workshops or entire business of art courses. One hopes that it does some good, although most undergraduate and even graduate art students don’t take these workshops and courses and those that do are doing so during their last semester when their thoughts are largely consumed with their senior or MFA exhibitions. It is difficult to blame their lack of interest in the career stuff, which seems so far off and unrelated to their lives as students – what do consignment agreements and registering copyright have to do with me? – but the result is that almost every art school graduate leaves the academy with no clear idea of how to build an art career at the same time he or she is trying to find a job and an affordable place to live.

For the foreseeable future, career assistance guides for artists will continue to find an audience of people who read the magazine articles about successful artists and have little to no idea how artists achieve success. Scottsdale, Arizona gallery owner J. Jason Horejs is among the many people offering career advice to artists, and some may be familiar with his online postings (http://reddotblog.com), which offer advice and suggestions on a range of practical topics, such as How to Behave in a Collector’s Home and How to Overcome Rejection as You Seek Gallery Representation. The responses to his posts, and Horejs’ responses to those responses are no less informative.

Artists who prefer reading his advice without having to scroll through years of blog posts, and have that information laid out in a more structured format, might consider his book ‘Starving’ to Successful. The tone is chatty, and Horejs views his audience as quite diverse, some of whom may have studio art degrees while others may be only self-taught. The title of the book concerns artists getting into galleries, but the first 130 pages are much more devoted to artists selling on their own. Again, Horejs is looking to appeal to the widest readership.

Certainly, there is plenty of information and advice available, such as: How many gallery-ready artworks should you have before approaching a gallery owner (and what does “gallery-ready” mean)? What kind of people (gender, age, occupation, geographical location) appear to be most attracted to your work, and how do you determine that? What do prospective buyers and dealers want to know about you? How and where should you go to meet people, and what do you talk about? How do you price your work? How and when should you raise your prices? What should an Artist Statement and a bio say about your work and you?

Horejs advises readers to work diligently and be organized. He offers tips on setting up a Web site and, being an inveterate blogger himself, recommends that artists create an “e-newsletter” for the purpose of “building relationships with your customers and driving them to your [Web] site….Make sure an image is the first thing appearing in subscribers’ emails.”

It would be difficult to argue with many of his recommendations, while some others may strike readers as a bit more debatable. He suggests that artist be willing to accept a discount, reasoning that “[c]ollectors understand there is some give in the value of artwork, and for many it is part of the excitement of buying to negotiate the price down.” That seems truer for gallery owners than for artists who sell their work directly, although artists certainly get bullied at art fairs. Horejs also advises artists not to put a date on their work, as some potential buyers may look at an older piece and wonder aloud or to themselves, “Why has this piece been around for so long and never sold?” There may be buyers who turn away from older, unsold works, although not dating pieces creates inventory tracking problems for artists and other concerns for dealers, museum curators and heirs.

His advice for artists seeking gallery representation is not sending portfolios or CD-ROMs or emails but “throwing your best pieces in the car…and approaching the gallery in person.” Being right in the gallery makes an artist harder to ignore – the dealer cannot just hit a “delete” key as he or she could for an unsolicited email – and it is more difficult to say “no” in person. Pretty ballsy, although sculptors may have a bit more difficulty “throwing” works in the car than artists working in two dimensions.

‘Starving’ to Successful is an introduction to the business side of art, a starting point for artists who have decided to become more serious about their careers. The book’s greatest strength is that it is written easily and conversationally, and from a gallery owner’s point of view about how artists can make themselves more ready to be shown in a gallery and more appealing to both private buyers and dealers personally. The (free) Red Dot blog offers more in the way of specific issues that artists may face, but the book offers an overview for those who feel a need to start from Point A.

By Daniel Grant

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