Artists, Do You Need an Agent?

By Carolyn Edlund

Carolyn Edlund

Carolyn Edlund

There is a huge hunger (and confusion) among artists about how to sell their work. Would an agent be the solution?

 

Each month, I receive at least 25 emails from artists asking me to represent them and sell their work. Now, I don’t represent individual artists, but that’s not the point here. These requests have a common theme, which is “I’m confused and not sure how to get into galleries or sell my art. I’m not very good at marketing or promoting myself and I want someone else to do it.”

The idea that there are people out there who will step up as your agent and take over the burden of running the business side of things for you is mostly a myth. If you have a spouse, family member or close friend who understands marketing, is devoted to partnering with you and desires to put in many hours to do so, that’s great. You are fortunate.

Most artists don’t have this situation, and many are casting around for a solution. They have a need, a “pain point” to resolve. They want to find someone who knows how to present, publicize, and sell their work. Often they will reach out to anyone they hope can help them. If you are in this situation, it can lead to trouble – you may end up paying dearly to a vanity gallery or unscrupulous individual who wants money upfront to “represent” you as an artist and then produces nothing.

The Conundrum

If a legitimate agent was in fact available, why would they choose to represent an unproven artist who was not selling very much work? Everybody needs to earn a living. A representative would be looking for highly saleable work by a seasoned artist that could produce commissions for them quickly and on a sustained basis. Ramping up the business of an unknown artist who doesn’t want to deal with the “business” side of things could end up as a nightmare, right?

Avoidance

The ongoing search for a mysterious “agent” to take away the pain of marketing and sales is often the expression of an artist who is trying to avoid reality. If you want to produce and sell your work, then you are in business and you are in sales, like it or not.

Putting all of your faith in someone else who will pull the strings and make things happen is a kind of magical thinking. Even if that happened, what would you do if that agent decided to quit? Handing over the reins of your business isn’t a good idea. What’s a better alternative?

Empowerment

The reality is that nobody cares about your business as much as you do. If you are truly passionate about being successful as an artist, you must learn to be an entrepreneur as well. This means embracing the business side of things rather than avoiding them.

Taking control of your business is empowering. It gives you valuable experience and it gives you options. Sometimes you will make the wrong decision, and sometimes you will fail. But learning how to “be your own agent” puts you in a position to take action and start getting things accomplished rather than wishing that someone else would step in and take away that burden.

Does this mean that you do all the selling yourself, and not pursue galleries? No. It means that you have a road map to succeed and are fully engaged in your business. You know how to talk about your work, you understand your market and how to gain publicity. Developing these skills only enhances your relationship with any gallery who represents you, because you will then be a good business partner to them, which leads to more sales.

You know the old adage, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

When I work with artists, I do a lot of teaching how to fish. There is planning and some heavy lifting to be done on structuring your business and putting systems into place to present your art, reach out to your audience and start to get traction. It takes a lot of commitment and a willingness to be persistent. It is hard work, but then again, anything that is really worth it isn’t easy. It is very gratifying to see artists take the initiative and create businesses that fit their needs and fulfill their goals.

Ultimately, empowering yourself as the architect of your own business as an artist is far better than hoping to find someone else you can relinquish control to. Success breeds success, so get started by creating your own. The knowledge and confidence you gain will inspire you to continue building on that good foundation.

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Carolyn Edlund is the founder and author of Artsy Shark, and a business consultant for artists.

 

Comments

  1. Nice to know I’m doing that part right 🙂

  2. Delving into the marketing and sales end is providing a steep learning curve for me, but, as you point out in this article, it’s also very empowering. Instead of allowing me to remain isolated in my studio, it’s showing me the importance of reaching out into the art-related community to expand my network of contacts–not only with other artists, but with various service personnel, gallerists, and others who are full of helpful information and the potential for additional contacts. Learning to present and talk about my art in a confident manner has also taken some time and effort, but the more knowledgeable I’ve become about art in general, the more confident I have become about the quality of my own work. It would be lovely to not have to learn the aspects of business for which so much left-brain thinking is required, but it provides a certain beneficial balance to life that could be easy to miss. Thanks for this affirmation that I’m on the right track!

  3. Carolyn, as always, you’ve written an excellent article. Thank you for telling it like it is and for educating artists on the realities involved in being a professional artist in the real world.

    • Many thanks, Renee – your comment means a lot. I know that you also have a mission to support and educate artists, and your work is so appreciated by the arts community!

  4. The key as you say is to embrace the business of art. All the rules of business apply, but you don’t have to let it rule your art. There is time for both. The most important word in business is “cashflow” – keep it positive and you can sleep at night and paint in the morning.

  5. Renee said it exactly right! It is an excellent and eye-opening article that is vital for artists of all genre to investigate. Thank you Carolyn!

  6. What a GREAT nail-on-the-head article, Carolyn! I also have artists wanting me to “fix” it so they can just do their art. Your article and this link will go into my archives as a standard response to those floundering for a professional career without creating professional foundations.

    It is why it is so essential that my fellow artists here in Hawaii take advantage of the Arts Business Institute coming to Maui and Oahu this September. The work-shop IS the foundational building tools that ALL artists in every medium need. And we are so fortunate to have you visiting personally!

    I am so excited to meet you in person.

  7. Thank-you, Carolyn, for this excellent and succinct article which is a total reality check. I found out about everything you’re saying the hard way– but the bottom line taught me that my work can only be successful once I see it as a business, and my studio as a profit center. Since then I’ve turned things around. A changed perspective yielded a major change in results. What’s more, this is a universal truth, applicable everywhere on the globe (I live and work in Switzerland.)

    Marcella Lassen

  8. Cal Zontal says:

    Thank you Carolyn for sharing

  9. Thank you, Carolyn, for this article…I know I was falling into the mindset you wrote about, and I have a renewed focus after reading this!

  10. True, true. Oh btw, I am selling in case you’re buying! 🙂

  11. Fantastic article that fits in so well with the business element to my diploma of visual art course. I would like to refer students to your articles if that is OK with you as they have information we all really need as we plan our businesses and careers.

  12. Pat DaSilva says:

    I really got a lot of good pointers from your article Carolyn. I am a Canadian single mother juggling working at a day job, paying the bills and mortgage and supporting my daughter through college. My degree is in English, not art, but I started my career at a financial newspaper and learned from the ground up about business. I have been painting for almost ten years and love it more than words can say. I have sold about 7 paintings so far to friends and family and think my next move will be to create a webpage for my work. It’s difficult to find the time but not impossible.

  13. An agent, like the Messiah, will appear only when her or she is no longer needed.

  14. A few thoughts here: Just did a really crappy show and feeling down in the dumps but I know that Marcella is dead on here when she says that her studio is the profit center and she has to treat her business like, well a business. Nothing is going to get sold unless we artists learn the business of art and be totally committed as professional artists. Thank you Marcella and thank you Carolyn. I would love to come to Hawaii but sadly the time is not right this year……

    • Hi Ellen, Yes it is easy to get discouraged by a tough show, but that’s part of the experience. I personally feel that persistence is the most important characteristic that successful artists have.

  15. Hello Mrs. Carolyn Edlund
    My name is Yunior Hurtado. I am an artist
    Thank you very much for article.
    It really gave me a lesson. So we artists create dedicated 24 hours a day to our creation, because at the end of the day it seems unfinished ideas and always want to develop more and more what we do. That’s why we always need a second person with knowledge of the real world to make money. Many people have that ability or fitness for any business, love of learning, and also, I think intelligent give work to those people who in the end will produce more than what one can do. And so the artist can be more focused on developing his art. Ideally, your own family were that person, but also at risk.

    I think we artists could not show our art without the help of the second person. The person who is capable of reaching and entering a whole market system and dominate. People who develop your career evolution and, for that one day when you show your catalog to focus solely on your art, not your resume. But the most important is to have all the knowledge and control of the whole process, that somehow influences your own work.
    Thank you for defending us and our success. I appreciate your work and maybe I can learn to do it but not if I can do it right or if I have the ability. Anyone can learn to paint, but not everyone can be creative.
    I would love to represent me (one more than his long list of both asking him represent)
    Sincerely. Yunior Torres Hurtado. http://www.yuniorhurtado.com

    Note. Excuse me for my English.

    • Dear Yunior, Thanks so much for commenting. Your English is perfectly fine!

      Although I understand your point of view, I believe that if you depend on others to do all the business for you, you might be waiting a long, long time. Many artists are seeking that elusive “agent” and that person never shows up.

      I honestly believe that anyone with enough motivation can learn to talk about and present their art. This is empowering to you as an artist, and a business person, and help you take control of your own fate.

  16. Thank you!
    If all hope that agent. And the truth that no one can speak better of my art myself. But as a businessman is always better to assign jobs to people who do well, as long as you have control of everything. But do you think the great artists themselves sell their art? Behind them there is a whole market structure and marketing that did not make them. They only have made their art and what they feel. And thanks to talented and specialized market have been able to achieve these levels of acceptance for everyone achieves see his art as expressed. Anyway, for us always the most important artists that our art is to see and reach all thanks to these people is that we can.
    Thank you very much to you for what you do.

  17. well – from what I see in the business world – each and every business is unique in its own way of doing things – the way that it operates – how it goes about finding or capturing clients or customers and then how from that point it begins growing – and continues on in the face of all sorts of financial storms and hurricanes – not many business go on forever and the strengths and weaknesses of each are not always quite visible to the spectator public – even to the investor in whatever business we might be looking at – one very positive business that we might look at for a moment is Coca Cola – which many people utilize as an example when thinking and referring to branding – but there are developments – changes and nuances occurring each and every day in such a company as this – not always visible to the casual observer but happening never the less – take a look at their products:

    http://www.coca-colacompany.com/brands/all/

    my point is that not one single product is developed – managed – marketed and sold by one single person – but a whole slew of people or teams and then the bottling and distribution for each of these brands are actually managed by various independent bottling companies:

    http://ccamatil.com/Pages/default.aspx

    http://www.cokeconsolidated.com

    http://www.cokecce.com

    in fact here is an official list currently introduced to the public by the Coca Cola company itself:

    http://www.coca-colacompany.com/our-company/bottler-web-sites

    now what is my point?

    well, none of us artist have enough years (at least most artists don’t) to build such an empire as Coke has done till this point in time, however – there are tools now available to each and every artist which can help them *(including myself now) to market their (my) art to individuals throughout the world who are interested in both viewing as well people who are interested in purchasing various art work – but – there might be some changes to both your and the potential customer’s thinking before such tools will be of any value to either side of the equation –

    what I mean is – that the delivery system for most businesses back when Coke was started was most of the time a horse and buggy – that went for Coke – Exxon *(Standard Oil):

    http://www.us-highways.com/sohist.htm

    – Heinz:

    http://www.heinz.com/our-company.aspx

    – Entenmann’s:

    http://www.entenmanns.com/au-ourHistory.cfm#.UfOO_BZ978s

    – Hershey’s :

    http://www.hersheys.com/our-story.aspx#/the-company

    and a little research will show that company’s like Coke are sometimes still mulling over their mistakes that they made 20 years ago:

    http://www.coca-colacompany.com/stories/new-coke-and-new-media-reimagining-the-infamous-product-launch-in-the-digital-era

    but what we have here is something to learn – lots to learn – there are videos galore about other artists and each of their varying careers as well as business efforts

    but – we also have a whole lot of tools to have our work even seen – let alone presented for sale to people from al over the globe in a fashion never before possible to any individual artist so it may be a prudent move to focus on utilizing these new tools since if we look back at the horse and buggy utilized by most of the companies mentioned above – within a few years of the invention or introduction of the motor car into the system of delivery – there were hardly any horse and buggies that were able to compete with this vast new way of distributing goods throughout the country on the ever growing highway system – and now we have the digital highway – vast – unpredictable in its bursting growth and able to penetrate countries throughout the world with little effort –

    do you want to limit yourself to a few viewers stopping by your booth at a local art fair? or even a gallery in Manhattan?

    things are rapidly changing –

  18. Quite right! However having said that I agree with you that an artist should take the bull of marketing and selling his own work by the horns, it means also sacrificing valuable time of being in creative phases. One has to de darned lucky if one has a trusted person who is not taking advantage of an artist and his genuine creative output. Work that is neither copied nor plainly assembled and has no depth of innerness whatsoever. As everything is art today, the artists themselves are in a dilemma to produce genuine art or art-directions, never mind the general public, who has a poor picture of art due to lack of education.

  19. All is well here in Tampa Fl, Every Saturday CHA (Coalition of Hispanic Art r) has been united for quite a while. Vendors at the Ybor City Fl. Centenial Park at 8th street 19 Ave. has been exhibiting their art work.
    As a member, it is great to meet with the artist , have workshops, attend Art exhibits, and some galleries has invited some us of individuals. Mostly great artist from all latin America. I have been chosen twice,
    Its not easy as a group. There is always the same winners, competition, jelousy, misunderstanding, , that mis – interpretations, of what it should be, and how it should be done, that there is no room for creativity. Most of these artist wants to be a perfect painter. Is there such thing. ? Like the cup has to have the handle Ex. What do you recommend for our group to have success? sincerely,
    Yolanda

  20. jezz oxtoby says:

    ive been with an online company for 2 years now and have had little success in selling because im one of 10000 artists and the work fails to come over well on a thumbnail pic. The local auction house sells some pics so there is a market but im only breaking even or losing . I see the sales as a lost leader and at least the paintings are on someones wall. Gallerys in my area are booked up with artists selling pretty pics, but in the recession few sell. Do you think an agent would help if i can find one?.

    • Honestly, Jezz I think your best bet is to learn how to market your work yourself, create a marketing calendar and stick with it. Reach out on a regular basis to get publicity, find opportunities to meet the public and start interacting.

  21. I need your help ,
    I am started a business of handicrafts. it is very difficult to me sale my items in international market so i am requested to you please help me in this regard,

  22. Hi.

    My name is Nick, I am from Norwich, England and I am considering my career options. My partner is a very talented artist (www.jonismith.co.uk) but suffers from a lack of directon and confidence in ‘getting herself out there’. I know a number of artists and illustrators in the same boat in Norwich with back catalogues of work desperately seeking exhibition. In an ideal world, I would love to gather said collections and get them displayed somewhere, hopefully sold and the revel in the success, driving a grass roots, bohemian yet accessible art collective in the city of Norwich for art lovers to come from far and wide to see.

    HOWEVER! my experience in such endeavours is little to none. Apart from finding a space, putting work up and inviting appropriate people to a private view with a look towards sponsorship if possible… what advice would you or anyone have for me?

  23. I’ve been an artist forever and am constantly out there marketing. Yes, the myth is like grabbing a cloud. Some days are OK, some are good and some are better than good. But, I have to admit to myself, that I would not choose to be anything other than an artist. And as you say, who knows my work better than I ?

    It’s a lifetime commitment – so, even with the best agent, it could never be that…

  24. Carolyn thank u so much I was not awe of that it’s a fact doing for yourself it’s better although we learn by our mistake it’s to learn by our mistakes I don’t need a agent thank u

  25. Raceanu Claudia says:

    Hello.My name is Raceanu Claudia.I was searching on the internet to find an agent for my husband,who is a surrealist painter.His name is Mihai Adrian Raceanu and you can see his work here: http://ishyndar.deviantart.com/gallery/.
    I would like to learn “how to fish”so this way to not lose important time searching for an agent for him.In stead ,I could be his agent.Please,could you teach me what to do? I am aware that is a lot to learn,but I am a patient person and most of all ,I want to help him find his succes.We are from Romania,Europe and here ,his kind of art is not that well looked for.Thank you and waiting for an answer.

  26. I am looking for an agent to work with my art
    Thank you Roger

  27. this is so very UNHELPFUL!!!

    • Hi Jonathan,

      Thanks for reading the article, and for your comment.

      If you believe that artist agents are out there, ready to help at a reasonable fee to any artist who wants to sell, that they get great results, and are easily found, please post that information. Personally, I don’t think they exist.

      I’ve worked with artists for years on their marketing and planning, and have never met an “agent” whom I would recommend. Never. This might be unhelpful – but it’s true. A more common situation is hearing from an artist that an “agent” asked them to sign a contract with unreasonable terms that was a red flag for them, or that they agreed to work with a representative who did nothing for them.

      It’s my experience that artists who are actively involved in furthering their own careers and businesses do best. And when they do gain representation from a gallery – the gallery itself acts as the agent.

  28. im 16 and trying to promote myself. im exceedingly good, but i need help getting a little more known. how can i get the bigger league’s attention?

    • I suggest that you apply to competitions, get a few exhibitions on your resume, and continue to build your portfolio. At your age, you are most likely on the way to developing your own signature style, and need to have patience. Meet as many people in the art world as you can, and find a mentor who can help you develop your artwork and your network.

  29. Carolyn, thank you for the article. However, I have mixed feeling about it and will explain. As an artist, I had an agent (not a mythical one, no) for seven years. Mary helped me a lot, as I was not known and being not from US, with art still based in US, she helped me with all the odd ends such business usually require. She represented me at galleries (New York, Boston and mostly East Cost, thought Seattle and Chicago were among cities in which galleries I exhibited in, as well). She was expensive, taking 45% of my earnings and in many ways it wasn’t a great deal for me (with all that galleries took, I usually earned less than 40% of prices, on my own work). But she took her share only of sold works, nothing beyond that. And I could relax in trade and business side, which I hate, and dedicate myself to the only thing that really matters to me: art.

    Few years back, Mary decided to early retirement, due to health issues. She left me with numbers and addresses of other agents, but despite my now fairly well known name and presence in galleries, they were all reluctant to work internationally, because of all difficulties involved. I was left stranded and even now, few years later, I’m literally struggling for existence. I have Etsy shop, Saatchi Art and Absolutearts account. I have numerous exhibitions, but it is hard to deal with galleries for precise above mentioned international problems and it costs more than it did when she represented me. In my own country, galleries are practically non-existent and exhibitions are done for peanuts.

    From artist who used to earned in between $10 000 and $15 000 per art work, I am down to artist who earns possibly around $1000 per one, if lucky and live mostly of selling miniatures on above mentioned sites, which move between $30 and $200, if customers show up. I divulged into making toys, dollhouse miniatures and similar, which often renders me from my real work in painting and sculpting. It is a horrible feel indeed to be forced to keep an image or art work in head for weeks, sometimes months, before being able to afford materials for it. Mentally, I live on making sketches of the said art.

    Many days I struggle for food and bills and worse, materials. I keep wishing for another agent to represent me, yes, no matter how expensive, as long as they would be successful in their work. I keep and will keep trying to find one. But it seems this job is dying or is giving up to dealers and gallery representatives. It mostly turned into one big mush of a job and I’m sure that is better for people who do it, but it is very hard on artists.

    It is not a myth we seek. We seek for someone who will be well paid for their services, while mostly talking on the phone and writing mails, as galleries and dealers these days rarely require in person representation (I should know, the little work and all exhibitions deals I get now are done over mails and phone calls). But you are right, maybe we’re seeking more for managers, only, manager takes their money in advance, and most artist can’t afford that.

    The truth is, art alone is dying. Our world is preparing for bad things and like many things beautiful, art is obsolete in such a world, until things calm down again. Who thought of art in WWII? People sold paintings for bread, traded fine art sculptures for medicines. We’re not in war yet, but I think it is similar now, or it is approaching, anyway. And artists who can’t get their heads around “business” as you call it, will simply die off. I know I will. At present state, I can’t even buy my medications now, if I choose between them and food. And blasted, I hate myself when thinking how much I crave a simple banana or an orange and can’t afford it anymore. But I invest all into my paints and into other materials and into exhibition fees, when I get to them. That is the only way out I see, if I manage to survive this. And there’s joy in working that is beyond earthly pleasures, anyway.

    But I’m digressing and sorry for that. All I wanted to say, art agents might be a myth nowadays, as you say, but they weren’t just couple of years back. Or I had a pleasure to work with a myth. Artists are not made to be business people, though some of them know how and manage. Do you even know how much hours of day is taken from the artist, work in art wise, while trying to maintain presence at all those art sites, write to galleries, talk with dealers? You do not expect an movie star or a singer to represent themselves, do you? We were there to create, agents were there to sell and represent us, if they could (and earn a good money if successful). Now, as artist are left alone to struggle on two fields and this will lead us only further down, affecting all the culture left slowly, but surely.

    • Dear Maylar, Thank you for your thoughtful post and sharing your experience. I have to wonder how you paid Mary 45% of your half of the sale price of your paintings. For a retail sale at $1,000, you would have only earned $275.00, which seems pretty outrageous to me. Double commission is a killer.

      You indicated that your experiences were good, but without your agent, you feel helpless. Honestly, I believe that if you had learned how to market yourself and your artwork yourself – and deal directly with galleries, you would not now be suffering because she is out of the business. And the reason you are still wishing to find another agent years later? Because that person you are seeking (and that so many other artists are seeking) is mostly a myth.

  30. mr e. connor says:

    Hi Carolyn I don’t really have a problem getting art sold, its just that I’m very shy about selling my own work. There has been those who have so called helped me by helping themselves to my art and I’m certainly not having that around me any more.
    I have recently had an interview with a magazine and have been overwhelmed by it all and would like to now seek a professional agent to help me understand the business of selling art whilst doing what I’m best at doing and that’s creating the products.
    +

  31. David Hesser says:

    Hi there, I thought I might add another comment to this amazing thread. At 50, I’ve had to re-invent myself a number of times as an artist – all with little success. I made expensive custom knives in the 90’s but that fad was replaced by cheap imports. I’m working part-time at a sculpture studio but have little direction with my own studio. Basically I have no brain for business. My time is absolutely best spent in the studio where I have complete confidence in my abilities. The world is FULL of specialists. I have gotten into a prestigious gallery and after 6 months of promises and total BS no sales happened. Meanwhile the works were not available to promote elsewhere. I want to give a big warning to the struggling artists out there. Galleries are a myth – just because you get in a really good one there is NO guarantee that you will sell ANYTHING! Do not trust gallery owners under any circumstance. That being said, it either comes down to promoting your work at shows (which take a considerable investment and often have low numbers of customers due to no advertising) ; be an internet GURU and make a fantastic website; or hire an agent and be able to produce WHAT SELLS and what the agent requests as desirable works. At this point I’m ready to make THINGS THAT SELL in the sculpture and metalworking world, But I’d rather shoot myself than make cheap earrings for the masses. So I need some real direction. Too bad I can’t afford $50,000 for a real life coach. At 50, with no savings and barely pulling down $20 grand a year (before taxes!) I’m ready for something radical,

  32. Love all the blogs. Art speaks for itself. Take it or leave it. I will keep reading. Thanks for your window.
    Georgia

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