The great debate among those of us who make art is whether we are selling out when we strive to make a living. For some, complete purity is a must. An artist, they say, must never allow outside influences to affect his or her art. It's a very romantic concept.
I know of an artist who lived this life. Let's call him James. Never in his life did James sell a painting — he only worked ON his art. I was contacted and shown his work by a friend of his, and his work was amazing. He had a body of work of hundreds and hundreds of paintings and had determined it was time to sell them. Up till then he felt his work was not ready, and he never want to be influenced by something so crass as a commercial gallery.
James' goal was to sell his entire collection to a museum, showing the progression of his work from a young age to his mid-60s. As I inquired about his life, I learned he supported himself with a job he despised, one requiring hard labor. Most of his life was devoted to this go-nowhere job, and now that he was near retirement, the thought of selling paintings may have actually been motivated by the need for money and the need to downsize for storage. I passed on the opportunity.
This week I attended a celebration of a life cut short by a freak accident. The show, at the Southern Vermont Art Center, was a retrospective of the life of painter Brian Sweetland, who died in October 2013, far too young. It was among the most crowded openings I've ever attended, and it was filled with adoring fans, many of whom had contributed their paintings for the show.
Which is better? To live a life uninfluenced? Or to live a life in which your paintings have brought joy to hundreds of homes and spread your art, your message, your soul to others? Brian lived most of his life as a painter, supporting his habit by selling paintings. James held on to a job he barely tolerated, which enabled him to paint and not be "commercialized." Yet he came to the later part of his life unrecognized, without the encouragement or gratification of knowing people loved his work, without someone helping him gain freedom from his awful job by showing him how to sell paintings.
I didn't know Brian, nor do I know for certain if his galleries made his work more commercial or otherwise affected his paintings, but, judging from the show, his work was strong and consistent.
James, on the other hand, may never see a painting sold because of his desire to sell an entire body of work to a museum. His work was good, but not that good. Further, momentum toward painting sales takes time to build. People buy a brand, and James will have to start building that awareness, which takes time. He is starting late, and, though it can be done, he has lost a lot of years of opportunity — assuming he ever comes to the conclusion that his work can be sold in a gallery.
There is a misconception among artists, I think. We tend to think that gallery people who ask us to paint something that sells are being "evil" in some way because they want to sell more of that kind of painting. Yet gallery people play an important role in the lives of artists. We often do not perceive what they can clearly see. They know when we're ready, and they know when we need to make adjustments to our work.
Galleries are run by professionals who make a living selling paintings and who can provide you, the artist, with a great deal of value. They not only offer perspective, they are your marketing department, your sales department, and your promotion agency. They build your collector base, they hang your work on their walls with no up-front charge, they pay the light bill, they pay the employees who are showing your work, they have their people talking about you, and they pay for food and wine to attract customers. And they advertise, at great expense, to bring people in the door.
Best of all, your gallery is your coach. They'll tell you what you need to hear and help shape your work. Frankly, you'd have to pay a lot more than a 50 percent commission to cover the cost of marketing yourself and the value a good gallery can bring to your work and your career.
I suppose one could make the argument that a gallery is reshaping you into an artist who sells, but it seems that, for most of us, that is important. Maybe there is a limit to what you're willing to do or where you're willing to go, because your soul still needs to be satisfied. But many artists are ready to take some direction, or make some small compromises, in order to eat. After all, doing a painting once in a while to meet a gallery's needs might be a better alternative than working on a road crew. It's kind of like the dad or mom who will take a second or third job to pay the bills. If painting helps pay the bills and you have to stretch out of your comfort zone once in a while, perhaps it's worth considering.
Seeing Brian Sweetland's life cut short and the celebration of hundreds of people who loved his work was an eye-opener. Brian was a local Vermont artist, mostly known regionally. He lived the life he wanted to live, painting and selling art. Had he waited like James, he would have never seen that recognition and may have had to make great sacrifices to keep painting. Neither decision is wrong — but it is a decision.
I speak to hundreds of artists, and most I know are playing it safe and not going for the life they really want to be living. They have a lot of reasons — some of which are practical, like waiting for the family to grow up and move out. Yet I recently met a woman who thought she needed to do that, but found a way in spite of it.
Your life is your choice. Most of us never make choices; we simply live the life expected from us based on our family and circumstances. I have a friend who grew up in a family of line workers in a factory. She is living her life as a line worker in a factory, yet she is a brilliant artist, and she looked forward to retirement so she could paint full-time. When that day came, she decided she couldn't live as an artist yet, so she took another job at another factory. "Someday," she tells me. Yet I predict someday will never come, because her fear is holding her back.
One of my biggest goals in life is to help you take the leap, to give you the encouragement you need, to help you think through the options and offer you the tools to help you make a living as an artist on your terms. But at the end of the day, most will stay in their go-nowhere jobs and groan as they go off to another day of doing what they don't love. Most will give excuses for why they cannot make the leap. I totally understand, I've been there. I wasted a lot of years doing what I didn't love until one day I broke the chains. Now I'm living a dream life. Is it perfect? Not quite, but it gets closer every day because I refuse to let others dictate what my life should be. I went through a process to design my ideal life and a plan to get there (I talk about this in Marketing Boot Camp 1).
A life cut short is a reminder that we need to go for it when we are able and not allow anything or anyone to prevent our dreams from coming alive. Yes, there are circumstances that can block you, there always will be, but a plan can move you forward.
If you're on the fence, if this is speaking to your heart and you know you need to make a decision, take some action every day toward that decision. You can be James or Brian. It's your call.
PS: Last April at the Plein Air Convention I met a young man named Jonathan Luczycki, who told me that by following the advice he'd received in Marketing Boot Camp 1 and 2, he was able to quit his job and become a full-time artist, and he'd sold over 400 paintings in one year. I was approached by dozens of artists who had also transformed their lives. When I hear this, I get energized, and I want to do more and more to help.
So I'll be launching a whole new series (to be announced) at next April's Plein Air Convention, and I'm releasing the third in the series of Marketing Boot Camp DVDs this week (look for an announcement.) This content is not theoretical. I've made a lot of businesses successful with these concepts, which I've applied to selling art. It's different from other art marketing programs out there because it's rooted in marketing products and in business. All I know is that I'm seeing lives transformed and people breaking their chains. I hope you'll respect the fire that is burning inside of you and live the life you dream. It IS possible and ANYONE in any circumstances is capable of it. It starts with your determination to make a decision and make a plan. Go for it.
I know you are right and I am planning on studying your DVD’s to help me get the plan in action. We moved this year and life has been in the way. I still paint every day and am now back to using a different web-site to get some traffic. I also am looking at different galleries. I need to get busy with your Boot Camp DVD’s next. We are so lucky to have you helping. We need to wake up every morning and as you say Go for it!
Eric, Very practical suggestions and much common sense in your points.
Your recognition of Brian Sweetland, aside from the fact that his approach to making a living from his art is in line with your thesis, is much deserved. Brian was a gifted artist, but more than that, a most decent person. He is greatly missed by his many friends and collectors. Thank you for mentioning Brian.
Wonderful post, Eric. I’ll be there bright and early! Thank you for sharing.