Small Business

Business Advice for Artists from Artists


While most fine artists will not see Picasso-size deals in their lifetime, they have ways to promote themselves and boost their sales

Nearly 10 years ago a Japanese real estate developer paid $51.3 million at auction for Pablo Picasso's "Pierrette's Wedding." The buyer, Tomonori Tsurumaki bid by telephone from Tokyo with the Paris auction house Drouet. Tsurumaki said he planned to hang the painting at an auto racing resort he was building on the Japanese island of Kyushu.

At the time, Tsurumaki's purchase was the second-highest amount paid for a work of art. Two years earlier, Vincent van Gogh's "Irises" was sold at an auction at Sotheby's in New York for $53.9 million.

Fast-forward to the summer of 2006 when cosmetics mogul Ronald S. Lauder (co-founder of the Neue Galerie in New York) bought Gustav Klimt's "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer," a work of oil, silver, and gold on canvas. Lauder paid an astounding $135 million for the painting, eclipsing all other deals.

The jaw-dropping purchases of Picasso, van Gogh, and Klimt are the kind of art sales that make headlines (BusinessWeek.com, 4/8/08). But realistically speaking, few artists get those kind of prices for their work. "More people are making art than buying it," says Laura Miner, a former art buyer for Citibank (C). Citing a familiar art world statistic, she adds: "Ninety-seven percent of the people making art have other jobs."

The Business of Art

While most artists would not consider themselves entrepreneurs, art is still a business. And while most painters, photographers, or sculptors will not see Picasso-size deals in their lifetime, they can still find ways to boost sales of their work.

A main problem is that most artists learn art, not how to make a career out of it. "When I was a young artist I had no idea about the business of art," says Judith Page, a visual artist who went on to teach other artists about the commercial side of their profession. "At [art] school, none of the students were encouraged to ask questions about how to sell art. It wasn't even discussed." Miner concedes that most artists aren't wired for accounting but says: "I think that artists should take some business classes."

Visibility has always been crucial for artists to get their work out to buyers. Today, with the Internet, resourceful artists can get their work noticed by creating Web sites or establishing a presence in online communities. These serve as a virtual portfolio. "Web sites are essential," says Page, who for five years directed a program about the business of art at the Aljira Center for Contemporary Art in Newark, N.J. "You might not make sales directly through your Web site, but people research art online."

Know the Galleries

Offline matters, too. Keep abreast of the galleries and stores that might carry your work and try to forge a relationship with those gatekeepers. At the same time, experts suggest, do your homework. "Many dealers tell me that artists walk in and say: 'Will you show my art?'" says Miner. "And the dealer only deals in abstraction while the artist is a realist painter."

Callie Danae Hirsch, a painter who was recently awarded a Metropolitan Transportation Authority Arts for Transit commission to design the tiles at a New York City subway stop, says it's essential to be professional and prepared at all times. "Always have your résumé, artist statement, and bio updated and ready. Make postcards for your shows, keep your work in [prospective buyers' or exhibitors'] minds, in their view. Have business cards, a Web site, and anticipate what works and what does not."

Although it may seem obvious, artists should be able to explain their work. "Writing about your art is very important," says Page. It lets people know what you do, who you are, and why you do it. A good impression will go a long way.

Barter, Barter, Barter

"If you cannot write a good artist statement, barter with a writer who can," suggests Hirsch. In fact, all artists need to be just as good barterers as they are painters or sculptors, she says. "I once traded a painting for six therapy sessions. This works for Web design, graphic work, and anything else you may need that others can provide. When I started out, I used to barter for Web work. I went through three designers this way in 10 years. They received paintings, and I got more exposure."

Artists should also know those they are dealing with and keep rigorous records of any transactions. "It's like the Cold War," says Miner. "Trust, but verify. Never leave your work on consignment without getting something in writing. So many artists can be charmed by a gallery owner and give them 10 paintings and never hear back from them. Next thing they know, a friend tells them they saw one of their paintings sold for $10,000 and they never got a penny because they left the work on a handshake."

Finally, be persistent. "If you love what you are doing and keep at it, then you are bound to always be improving," says Hirsch. "You never know when or where you will get your next break. Just be ready for it"

For more business advice, flip through this slide show to hear from a cross-section of painters, sculptors, and other fine artists

Perman is a staff writer for BusinessWeek.com in New York.

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