Art for Thought: Self-Promotion–A Hindrance or Help to an Artistic Career?

“Most artists do not have the luxury of an agent, spouse, or
supporter to raise their value in the art world, so they
are left to their own devices to create a marketing plan that
best positions them in the highly competitive world of fine-art sales.”

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Children Pursued by Hostile Butterflies by Carroll Cloar

You may have heard marketing experts tout the importance of self-promotion in an artist’s career. The common thinking is that there’s nothing wrong with tooting your own horn because, after all, if you don’t get your name and artwork out there, how are you going to sell paintings? Most artists do not have the luxury of an agent, spouse, or supporter to raise their value in the art world, so they are left to their own devices to create a marketing plan that best positions them in the highly competitive world of fine-art sales.

I think a certain amount of self-promotion of one’s paintings, accomplishments, and working methods is necessary for artists to retain a viable place in today’s market. But a problem arises when artists spend more time marketing or promoting themselves than they do studying, painting, or participating in enriching experiences that inform their work. What eventually starts to happen is they become more focused on recognition and commercial success than they are on the craft of painting and growing beyond their current level.

I was recently talking with a gallery owner and art-club director, and we were discussing the downside of artists who are over-promoting themselves-they are essentially becoming overexposed. These artists seem too accessible, available, and mainstream, and therefore they start to loose some of the exclusiveness that makes their work stand out. On the flip side of this are the painters who retreat so far from the public eye that they run the risk of becoming an artistic recluse, more or less only painting for themselves because they are too far off the radar for anyone to notice.

I could argue this topic from both sides, but personally, I always find it refreshing to discover a relatively unknown gem of an artist hidden away somewhere painting for the pure love of it, with no other motives in mind. Such a stance can actually work in an artist’s favor. The artists who are standing at their easels day and night are the ones who tend to win the respect of fellow painters. Those painters, in turn, make sure that gallery directors, dealers, collectors, and critics know who these artists are, and this word of mouth can bring about a tipping point for the artist’s reputation.

Although this kind of attitude toward art making may be the antithesis of Marketing 101 and likely won’t help pay the bills, there is something about this stance that I respect. These types of painters are devoted wholeheartedly to their art, and they let the resulting work speak for itself. If the art world listens, so be it. If not, so what? They are accomplishing their personal goals for themselves as painters and people and basing their worth not on volume of art sales or fame but by the artistic standards and values that matter most to them.

I know the ideas of self-promotion, marketing, public relations and, all the other business-related responsibilities that goes into an art career is a sensitive subject for painters, and it is one that they grapple with daily. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic, and I encourage you to leave a comment.

Allison Malafronte is the senior editor of American Artist.

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About Allison Malafronte

Allison Malafronte is the senior editor of American Artist magazines, and the project editor of  Plein Air Painting and Workshop With the Masters magazines. She is also the creative manager of the Weekend With the Masters Workshop & Conference (www.aamastersweekend.com) which was launched in 2009 and is now in its third year. She is author of the Art for Thought column in American Artist magazine (also on the Artist Daily site under The Artist's Life blog) and the 2008-2010 Plein Air blogs on Artist Daily. 

10 thoughts on “Art for Thought: Self-Promotion–A Hindrance or Help to an Artistic Career?

  1. Currently art school curricula generally do not have a “sales” component. People take hours of art but have no benefit in the educational system as to how to sell it. As a result tons of good stuff is sitting in closets, under beds, under sofas and behind other furniture as well as hanging on walls. The concepts of animation company start-ups is not taught as well; support business loans are discovered ad hoc. When things aren’t going well for artists, they turn to public funding and grants.

  2. Allison, I think you are right because I was just griping to myself how much time the social media and marketing sucks the life out of me. If I took every minute that I sat in front of the computer trying to upload images, write blogs, send emails and instead cut it out, I would free myself to paint more. There are so many paintings that didn`t get painted I thought today and yesterday. Ones I wanted to but became a distant dream.
    I just had the thought that if an artist devotes the most of their time to painting and studying, they will progress to a point that is going to be noticed. I enter juried exhibitions and will continue to do that, but I want to cut back on the technical marketing. I was just getting so impatient today as I waited for Blogger to decide when it would stop making those swirly motions while it was hung in limbo. I went outside to look at my waterlily that just opened in the pond and said I want to be sitting here and painting instead. That is my calling, I should answer that. Not go right back to this computer and take another stab at uploading something to Facebook or Twitter or Blogger.
    But we must keep our websites up to date and keep our customers informed of our art and shows by newsletters. Blogs everyday though, no thanks!

  3. I know everyone is different, but I find it difficult to Self-Promote. For years I was so passionate about painting that I would become uncomfortable when talking to other people about my paintings, so I was that unknown gem of an artist hidden away. I accumulated so many paintings, stored in my basement. I was waiting to be discovered, which never happened till I started Self-Promotion. Now the business of painting is a balance of Self-Promotion and painting and life with my Family. I am lucky I have retired from other types of income, so I don’t have to rely on selling to pay the bills. It is always good though to sell a painting, I always make prints of my paintings so I will have a copy of it when it sells.

  4. > My name is Robert O. Caulfield. I read with interest
    > your article about self promotion. I’m a national
    > artist having sold over 2,000 paintings all over the world
    > in 28 years. Since we (my wife Marilyn and
    > I) decided to quit our jobs and open an Art Gallery in
    > Woodstock, Vt. in our home in the downtown area. I was
    > 55 years old, and we had no previous sales experience.
    > We did all this without any agent, mainly by exhibiting in
    > galleries all over the nation.
    >
    > The only self promotion we’ve done is place Ad’s in
    > American Art Review Magazine where Tom Kellaway is the
    > editor. We’ve been with these ads for over 28 years
    > now. We have had many articles written about my art
    > work in the magazine, and newspapers, even the New York
    > Times and Christian Science Monitor.
    >
    > Of course, some of the galleries we’ve been in over the
    > years and exhibitions on Rodeo Drive, San Diego, Palm Beach,
    > FL, Michigan , Boston, Carmel, CA, has helped.
    >
    > As far as self promotion goes I’m not complaining, but in the
    > back of my mind, I think If I can sell this many paintings,
    > why haven’t some of the larger galleries around the nation
    > contacted me? Although, one major Gallery I’m proud to be represented by is the J.M. Stringer Gallery in
    > Bernardsville, NJ. This gallery sold 15 of my
    > paintings on an opening day exhibit for over $200.000.00 in
    > gross sales. John Stringer writes in his biography on
    > the web page “we are so proud to be the Eastern
    > Representative of this extraordinary American talent.
    >
    >
    > I give my wife of 59 years all the credit in the world as
    > she has turned into an excellent sales person. My
    > daughter, Cynthia also assists in the gallery. I
    > have written my life story “Ruggles Street”, which HBO
    > thinks will make a great movie someday. I have also
    > written a book “The art of Robert O. Caulfield”, which was
    > sold out in Borders, Barnes & Nobles; a total of over
    > 4,000 copies.
    >
    > Where will it end as I’m 80 years old now? Still
    > painting every day and so proud of how far I’ve come in the
    > world of Art. Without any help from an agent or the
    > world of art.
    >
    > Please feel free to contact me via email to caulfieldartgallery@comcast.net.
    >
    >> Robert O. Caulfield
    > http://www.caulfieldartgallery.com

  5. Allison, very interesting topic.

    It’s usually best for an artist to have a gallery or dealer who can market their work to collectors while the artist paints, but recently many galleries have been forced to close for lack of sales and those that are still open are often not able to spend on ads or promotion as they did before the recession.

    Just like the housing bubble, there was an art buying bubble which allowed many new galleries and artists to make a good living from the sale of their art. It was exciting, but now the tide has turned and everyone, including artists who have sold well at galleries for over 20 years are having a hard time making even a modest living. For the most part, their gallery sales have diminished to the point where the artist must promote themselves – because in most cases, the gallery cannot afford to do it for them.

    Everything has changed in the way art is sold and bought in the last few years. I have a couple of close artist friends who pulled out galleries and began doing the outdoor show circuit in New England – lowered their prices, and guess what? They had their best year of sales ever! While some other artists friends who are continuing to wait out the recession and keep their work in galleries are really suffering for income. Some have begun to teach or do commercial work.

    The galleries who keep their roster of artists small and actively promote their artists through ads, email newsletters and shows are those who are doing well right now. If an artist can list with a gallery who limits their number of artists and actually hangs the work, they can do well and spend more time at the easel.

    On the other hand, many galleries (even well known ones) are storing the majority of their artists’ work – not hanging anything but the current show. They make little effort to promote the artists who are not “big time” sellers already, and so the work sits, and there are no ads – and sometimes the gallery even forgets to update the artist’s page on their website. When these things happen, the artists stay in the gallery anyway because they feel that being on their roster helps the artist’s resume.

    Some artists who are continuing to sell with galleries are beginning to do some self-promotion in order to help bring attention to their work whether it’s in a gallery or not. Almost everyone I know personally who is a full time artist is experiencing a slow down in sales – at the galleries and is engaging in plein air events, invitational shows, and selling at the workshops they teach. Without these “extra-curricular” sales efforts, many would need to find a second job. In fact, many artists are working second jobs outside of the art industry.

    It still remains true that artists need someone to do the “office-work” and promotion for them on some level, so they can get time to paint. If the gallery can’t do it, then perhaps they can hire someone to put their artwork out there in-front of collectors. My husband has a full time job, so I need to do everything myself. However, I once hired a friend – paid by the hour – to do all the promotion, and admin work for me… contacting associates, keeping track of email, sending photos and submissions etc. Now, there’s a job just waiting to happen!

    Artists who have spouses to do the promotional and administrative work seem to get the most work done. Dennis Sheehan had an agent who did all these things for him – including shipping the paintings, and that agent only took 10% on sales. They insisted that their galleries only take 40% so that Dennis was only 50% when the sale was made.

    gotta run… I’m going to paint at the Bedford Farmers’ Market now – lots of fun and self-promotion… plus I get work done at the same time 😉

  6. I agree on non exaggerating self-promotion and work more on progress as artist (techniques, concept and self-expression). I feel like Esther said: self promotion is sucking out life from the artist’s soul. I am enthusiastic of making people know my art but there must be a limit. So I cut back on self-promotion and go on heavily on study and practice. Life is short and I am very ambitious, so I have to use well my time and my energy.
    On the other hand I can’t agree on the idyllic scenario described in the article. Fellow artists that spread the word about you to galleries etc. Why’d they do? Maybe they admire you but they may also envy you. The fact is that there too many artists and too few people that can afford buying art, especially in crisis time. So everybody tries to sell his/her own art.
    Possible buyers in general that have no clear idea about art and its value, will follow the artists that are “in”. Like advertisement, the more you hear about the product the more you’re convinced that you must buy it. A good part of clients buy as investment, they go for the known names. As nowadays anything passes as art, even the more horrible creations, maybe only because provocative so people speak of, so the “artwork” becomes famous and sells. Who cares the humble artist that maybe creates masterpieces?
    Sorry, I see it in this way. I live in Italy, maybe in the US it’s different

  7. I agree with this post wholeheartedly.. I am an artist, and I’ll always be one. I try to create every day and yes I blog and show my work online, but I’m not as money driven and success driven as others out there.. if i lived the rest of my days just as I am now, with no big notoriety or fame, I would die happy.
    xo hugs
    bonitarose
    http://bonitarose.com

  8. I think a painter needs to learn to promote himself as he grows as a painter. I believe that without self-promotion it probably won’t get done. Therefore the right amount of self promotion is necessary. This year I decided to learn to use all social media that was available. Last year I pushed myself to start a web site, which I did, it is TLMYERS.webs.com. I am also on Facebook on ThomasLivingstonMyers. This year I have sold 5 or 6 paintings and a lot of prints. If I were young and single this would probably not be enough to live on but it is a start and with some parental help I believe a career could be developed like this.

  9. I would love the luxury of an agent !
    A good agent.
    I was represented by one who called himself agent who did nothing but being just a whole seller with no intention to help me grow.

    So I quit working with that and I’ve bee self representing for 8 years now. Sales are better now but that extra creation time that an bad/ good agent provide still miss me.

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