I’m an Art Director, and I talk to artists on all experience and success levels. It’s really eye-opening to me that most artists have the same doubts, fears, and roadblocks — whether they’re just starting out or at the top of their field. I see the same patterns over and over, and I want to share my perspective with all artists, so they realize they’re all struggling together. After a few years of educating artists in Art Business, I’ve definitely noticed some patterns holding artists back. Are you stopping yourself from building the Art Career you want?
1. We Cling to the Identity of the Starving Artist.
The inevitability of the “Starving Artist” is drilled into us from the moment we even consider becoming a professional artist. So many of the artist biographies we repeat are tragic — the genius artist toils in obscurity and poverty and then is only discovered after their death. (Van Gogh, anyone?) We are addicted to the heroism of the starving artist. This could be a blog post in itself (and it will be) but somewhere along the line we’ve gotten the myth confused in the retelling. Artists should struggle, but they do not need to starve. What is heroic about artists is that they struggle with the collective unconscious of their culture, go deep into their subconscious, and bring back important truths for the rest of society to understand. That is definitely a struggle. However, that struggle is mostly mental and emotional. I’m not sure where along the line it got mistranslated to physical and financial struggle. Regardless, we have it drilled into our heads for years that artists can’t make money, can’t have a steady career, and will probably die before they make it big. But we see the struggling we’re doing as heroic, and that makes our habits very hard to change. It also sets up a subconscious barrier to wanting to think too much about money and business.
Repeat after me: Artists CAN be successful. Art DOES have steady careers, if that is what you’re looking for. There is NOTHING noble about starving.
2. We Don’t Want to Find Out How Much We Don’t Know.
Learning the techniques to be an artist and honing those skills is all-consuming. Artists spend lifetimes perfecting their craft. But as we say here at Make Your Art Work, making great art is only 50% of the job. The other half is getting that art is front of the right people. And that second half, that “getting it in front of the right people” is all about the Business of Art. Self-Promotion, building a Portfolio, Contacting Art Directors, Networking…these are all business skills you need to know in addition to honing your art skills. But it can be really daunting to try to tackle a new set of skills when we’re still overwhelmed by the making-great-art part. And to be fair, we didn’t become artists because we wanted to be social media managers, publicists, accountants, and marketing gurus. Unfortunately, as all Art Directors know, there are so many great artists out there in the world that never become successful professionals because their work never gets seen by the right people. The secret is, many of the best artists in the world don’t get the career their art skill deserves…because they’ve never learned the Art Business to complement it.
3. We Are Angry That Art School Didn’t Prepare Us Better.
Many of us are still paying the debts from an art school education. And while we definitely learned a lot in our studio classes, most art schools do not feel it is their responsibility to prepare artists for the working world. Sometimes individual teachers go out of their way to make sure to teach business skills, but it is very rare that an art school officially makes business preparation part of the actual curriculum. Art schools are expensive and time-consuming—and understandably students expect to leave knowing everything they need to know to become a successful working professional. Unfortunately graduation brings a very rude awakening to a lot of artists when they realize they have been taught either no skills to help them find work — or they have learned out-of-date methods from teachers that have been in academia too long. There are many teachers in art schools right now that still teach that it is rude to email an Art Director your work without permission! (Spoiler: This is not true.) Trying to catch every art director on a phone call is not only time-consuming, but also advice that is at least 10 years out of date. Misconceptions like that could be the very thing keeping you from getting jobs.
4. We Think We Aren’t Ready.
As I mentioned above, artists focus hardest on the first half of the equation: “Make Great Art”, then figure they’ll tackle “Show it To The Right People” later on. Many artists (and a disproportionate number of the women artists out there) are afraid that if they reach out professionally before their work is perfect then they’ll “miss their chance”. Well, it’s just not true. You don’t only get one chance. Or two. Or five. Art Directors and clients are not going to look at your work once and then never again. As an Art Director myself, I not only don’t hold it against someone if they submitted a lackluster portfolio that wasn’t quite there yet, and then send in a great portfolio a year or two later — I celebrate their improvement and they actually get extra credit with me for the hard work! That’s a much more memorable relationship than just sending work in once. Submit your art as it is, then get better, then submit again.
That means you shouldn’t wait until your art is “perfect” to send out promotional emails. And that means you shouldn’t wait until your art is perfect to learn Art Business! (Spoiler: You will never think your work is “perfect” anyway so give up on that goal right now.)
5. We’re Scared to Find Out How Good (or Bad) We Really Are.
As long as we can hide behind the excuse of not knowing how to contact Art Directors and Clients, we get to keep working on our art and we aren’t getting judged. If we never send work to our dream client, then they can’t turn us down! If we never send our work to that Art Director we met in the elevator that day, we’ll never know if they would have hired us or passed us by. If we keep considering art business as some arcane magical lottery (as opposed to a formula you can learn) then we’re holding ourselves and our artwork back. But if we learn the techniques proven to get responses back then we don’t get a response, it means that our work isn’t as ready as we hoped it was. And that’s a letdown. This is a rough reality check some of us would like to avoid at all costs. I recently heard an artist say that it was safer being an artist that no one knew rather than risking learning they were an artist that no one liked. But in the long run, it is better to know the truth about where you stand — and start building relationships with your dream clients whether you are ready to start working with them or not.