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