How Art Businesses Die

Though we like to think of ourselves as artists, if we’re selling paintings, we are running a business.

According to trainer Tony Robbins, businesses go through the following cycle:

  • Birth
  • Infancy
  • Toddler
  • Teenager
  • Young Adult
  • Mature Adult
  • Mid-Life
  • Aging
  • Institutionalization
  • Death

Rather than explaining these cycles in depth, I’ll just say they are much like life. Each of us and our art businesses are at a different point in the cycle. If you’re just launching or planning your art business, you’re pregnant and about to give birth. If you’re a teen, you make reckless decisions. The longer you’re in business, the more you mature, until you grow old.

The part of the cycle I want to discuss today is death — when your business is no longer sustainable and there is no one to support it.

My goal is to help you, or those you know, to prevent death — to keep art selling.

All Cycles Are Predictable

One thing always follows the other. The problem is that we often cannot see when we’ve gone from one part of the cycle to another, and if we’re not paying attention, it’s often too late.

Recently I met an artist who had been a queen in the art world. She was a big seller, she’d made a lot of money, but she came to me for marketing advice because nothing is selling anymore.

How is it that an icon, a success, enters the part of aging where the breakdown in the business has been accelerated?

As I asked this woman some questions, it was clear this had been happening gradually over time, but she had not recognized the signals. And she was in denial about her current circumstances. She was placing blame on the economy, claiming that “people just don’t buy art anymore,” which is completely untrue.

In her case, her business had been aging for years, but since that fact went unrecognized, the aging continued until she may have reached the point of no return.

Though I’m always one to believe any circumstances can be changed, I also believe that once we get comfortable with a certain lifestyle, once we get to that point in our careers, we’re often unwilling to do what it takes to reinvent. We get set in our ways.

Not Seeing Obvious Signs

This lovely woman had not seen the key sign — gradually slowing sales. She had been in a number of galleries, but many closed over time and were not replaced. “People are just not buying your work anymore,” she was told.

The reality is that she did not reinvent herself when the signals of mid-life appeared, and never considered that aging would be next. She did not see that some of her galleries were dying, for the same reason she now faces … they did not reinvent themselves. Had she replaced her aging galleries with new, vibrant ones, she may still have been selling work.

“I tried to get a couple of new galleries,” she said, “but the new galleries had no idea who I was and how big I am in the art world. I tried to tell them how big I was, how I sold hundreds of paintings at high prices, but they did not seem interested.”

What had happened is that success killed this woman’s career.

What? How is it possible for success to kill a career or business?

This woman was so successful that she stopped doing what had made her successful in the first place. When I asked her about her early career and her struggles, she told me how she worked the galleries, how she advertised heavily to get collectors even when she had no galleries, and how that resulted in her getting invited to shows and events, which made her better known. It also made her known to the galleries.

Business Was Booming
Within a few years, she had several galleries, and she couldn’t keep up with all the work they were selling. This feast went on for several years. Because she sold so well, the galleries were advertising her work. That continued to build her name, which made her prices go up because she could produce only so much. In fact, demand became so high that the galleries didn’t even need to advertise. All the collectors knew who she was and wanted her work in their collections.

Over time, sales started to slow down. It took a while, but she would sell a little bit less every year. The galleries told her all her collectors were saturated and there was not as much demand for her work. Of course, they gave that as the reason they did not advertise her anymore. There simply was not the demand there used to be. Yet they still sold some — it’s rare that sales just come to a halt. Death in most cases is gradual.

From Queen to Virtually Unknown

I pointed out to her that new galleries did not know who she was because she had not worked to continually brand her name. I pointed out that as an artist, you have to take some control over your success. When the galleries stopped advertising, there was a gradual decline in her sales. I don’t believe it had anything to do with demand or oversaturation. I believe it was because they no longer promoted her.

A fact of life, as an artist or a gallery owner, is that when you fail to do the things that made you successful, you fail to get the results you used to get. When you achieve success and comfort, you can be slowly dying and not realize it.

She Killed Her Own Career
I believe this woman killed her own career because there are always new people coming into the market and other people leaving. In a typical year, it’s probably 20 percent attrition. That means you have to bring in 20 percent more people every year, because if you lose 20 percent of your customers a year, it only takes five years until you have no more customers.

Furthermore, the galleries not advertising sped up the death of her career. They were comfortable with her sales and did not feel they needed to advertise because everyone knew who she was and who the gallery was. They were dead wrong.

How Customers Act
In my first Art Marketing Boot Camp video, I show an up and a down escalator to make the point that people are always leaving and people are always coming into the market to buy. People leave because they age or die, they run out of wall space, they run out of money due to retirement or going to a fixed income or another change in their circumstances, like the loss of a job or needing to save money for college for the kids.

On the other hand, new people are coming into the market because their kids got out of college and they have money again, or they got a raise, or a bonus, or an inheritance.

New people coming into the market don’t know you exist. They don’t know that galleries that have been around for decades exist. They don’t know who has a good or a bad reputation. They have all of that to learn.

A Million Bucks and Nowhere to Spend It
I once met a collector who asked me who to call because he had a million dollars to spend on art and wanted to buy a John Singer Sargent painting. Imagine that. There were people who had been known for many years as experts in Sargent, yet he was not aware of them because they had not been advertising for decades. I had to tell him where to go. (He bought two Sargent paintings.)

Habits of New Buyers
When new buyers (they are not collectors yet) start to get interested in art, they start picking up books or magazines, or start Googling and studying what they find. They discover artists or galleries that are visible at the time they enter the market. New people enter every day, yet most artists or galleries are not there when those people begin to look. Those who happen to be there at the right time start branding themselves and eventually, over time, get a chance at a relationship with that new buyer. Those who are not there stay invisible.

Of course, there are years when 20 percent is a low attrition rate. In a year like 2008, there may have been a loss of 60 or 70 or 80 percent of customers who never returned to the market.

The Impact of the Election
We’ve seen this happen in election years. Both sides play up fears that the world is not going to survive if their candidate is not elected. Consumer confidence is everything. State of mind impacts spending if you think everything is about to get bad. So people lay low for six months or a year, and sometimes even for a few months after the election, until the sting disappears. In fact, we know a lot of artists who had not seen any significant sales for months and only just recently started to see things selling again.

People with art businesses need to anticipate this and be ready for the storm, whether it’s a short- or long-term storm.

In every storm, there are always people spending money, but you have to hunt them down and find them.

Taking Advantage of a Crash
I know of a very smart and successful couple who started a new gallery in 2008, after the crash had happened. Everyone thought they were insane, but they understood human nature. In 2008, almost all the galleries and many artists stopped advertising because business was bad. This couple doubled down on advertising and managed to draw massive attention from the people who were still spending. The environment was less cluttered, too, so they got more value out of their ads. Like a giant magnet, they drew customers away from other galleries that were quickly forgotten because they were out of sight, and out of mind. This gallery was booming as a result.

It’s counterintuitive to spend when things get bad, but there are always buyers. Even the Depression saw massive spending among the wealthy.

Success as a Sign of Near Death?
My dad, a successful business guy, always told me that companies often go from having their best months ever to having their worst months ever almost overnight. The reason is that they hadn’t recognized problems when those problems were revealing themselves. Plus, when times are good, people tend to take more time off, take longer vacations, do more remote management and more spending, and put less money away for a rainy day. Plus, business is so good they assume they don’t need to advertise or even do as many shows. They don’t follow the practices that made them successful.

Momentum Is Powerful
What they fail to understand is that success is the culmination of momentum created by years of doing things right. Momentum does not stop immediately, but if you don’t continue to feed it, your business starts to slowly die, because you’re not staying visible, and not bringing in enough new customers.

By the time they recognize the problem, it’s usually too late. There is no money or no energy or desire to work as hard as they used to.

Uphill, Downhill

It’s like a car that chugs up a hill, but keeps trying till it gets to the top. Then, once at the top, it heads to the bottom, going faster and faster until it’s going so fast the driver doesn’t need to do anything. But if the driver fails to keep the gas on, they’ll coast until the next hill slows them down and, eventually, they stop.

Death can happen to any business, including yours, whether you’re an artist, a gallery, or any business outside of the art world.

Clues Even When You Are Thriving
The best time to pay close attention to the danger signs is when you’re thriving. Because once you hit your mid-life crisis, things begin to break down. Entropy begins. You have to decide if you are going to reinvent yourself and rejuvenate your business by getting aggressive again, by promoting again — or will you decide to just ride it out as long as you can? That is when you really begin to die.

Once things get bad, you’re in denial. You can’t see the problem clearly, and tend to blame the market, the election, “people not spending anymore,” the state of the art world, etc. You feel like a victim, and you begin to attack and blame others. That’s when good employees bail out, because they’ve been saying it all along: “We need to do things differently.”

Death is usually self-imposed.

It’s rarely about market conditions alone. You see smart operators who are ready for the storm of a bad economy or changes in technology or changes in consumer behavior.

A Tough Decision

My friend was faced with a decision and had a tough pill to swallow. Once famous, once rich, once world-renowned as an artist, she was no longer known by the galleries or collectors, and a whole generation of people in charge of art shows and events had never heard her name. She had not been visible for about five years, and she had been forgotten.

To her credit, she did not just lie down to die. She asked what she could do and said she would do everything she could to get another decade or more out of her art career.

We’re working on a plan, and soon the world will know her again. I’m convinced her wonderful art will sell and she will be embraced as she once was. She is fortunate to be in a position where she is able and willing to work at and invest in her career. And she now wishes she had never stopped promoting herself and given up control of her own career.

How to Prevent Death

Whether you own a gallery or are an artist, your best chance for survival is to always assume people are in and out of the market and that you’ll need a plan to stay visible, stay relevant, and bring new people into the fold each and every day. You need to return to the things that made you successful, and you must always be paranoid and never get too comfortable, no matter how well things are going.

You and I both know artists who have been relevant and at the top of their game for decades. It does not just happen. They work hard at staying visible, doing shows, and continually reinventing themselves and exposing their work to new people coming into the market. If they did nothing, they would be unknown today as many once-famous artists are.

Lifetime Commitment
If you’re young or if you’ve got a lot of years ahead, you need to assume that visibility is a lifetime commitment. Too many people think they can run a couple of ads and everyone will flock to them. Your career is a marathon, not a sprint.

Just like you pay the electric bill every month of your life to keep the lights on, you need to pave the way to keep customers flowing to you for a lifetime. When you slow down, the customers may keep coming for a short period, depending on how much momentum you’ve built, but when the momentum ends, there are no more customers.

Death in life isn’t preventable … but it’s preventable in business.

Even old, established companies can die because they get comfortable and arrogant and don’t continue to do what made them successful in the first place. Yet those in a continual state of customer acquisition and occasional reinvention stand a chance of a long and healthy business life. The same is true for artists and galleries.

I wish you great success.

By | 2017-06-13T08:57:45+00:00 April 16th, 2017|Uncategorized|7 Comments

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7 Comments

  1. Theresa Grillo Laird April 16, 2017 at 8:49 pm - Reply

    This comment is a bit off the point, but reading between the lines I see that keeping your work in front of people and advertising are important. What if you don’t have a budget for advertising? If someone has already cut their daily expenses to the bone, borrowing more to advertise, enter shows, go to events, buy courses etc, and hoping it will pay off isn’t realistic. I’ve yet to see a plan for success that starts with little or no financial resources, but I know that plenty of artists face that predicament. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts.

  2. Eric Rhoads April 18, 2017 at 2:21 pm - Reply

    Theresa,
    Good observation.
    You probably won’t like the answer. As artists, if we plan to sell art than we are in business. In business, we typically have to find the means to do what is necessary to build our business, including marketing. It’s true it takes $ to make $.
    But there is a ramp up step. Few people are in a position to do the ultimate marketing from day one. When I was building my business I had to make a sale and keep part of the money from that sale to do the other things I needed to do… like marketing or hiring help… or paying the light bills or rent. I had to do what I could gradually.
    The reality we all face is that we can only do what we can do. It requires a thoughtful strategy. Though there is no better way to increase sales than a comprehensive marketing and advertising plan, most of us start out small… maybe with a simple postcard or email campaign to keep costs low. As those things help make sales, next time you add a little more, and a little more… till the point where you have all the sales you can handle or all you need. Then you have to keep it alive (if you’re out of sight people tend to forget you quickly).
    Time is often a substitute for money. For instance you can put in your time to do your own mailings or notes to clients or newsletter or list-building and can invent ways to be frequently in front of buyers or potential customers.
    What you’re asking is not unusual. But to make progress you have to do something. Its pretty rare that things just fall into place… usually it’s because someone is working very hard at helping things fall in place.
    Hope this helps.

  3. Jeffrey L. Neumann April 18, 2017 at 4:08 pm - Reply

    One of your best, Eric. This article has lots of spot-on information on why and how we all need to keep on keepin’ on. As a working artist and a gallery owner, your sage words about customer attrition really hit home with me.

  4. Eric Rhoads April 18, 2017 at 4:48 pm - Reply

    I’m not suggesting borrowing nor am I suggesting you have to spend any money.
    I’m suggesting you can be visible to the extent you can afford to be. An artist who has zero money can still put in the time to make things happen.
    For instance their is PAID media and there is FREE or UNPAID media. Press Releases are free media if they get published… local newspapers or tv or radio. Social media can be free media (though they only distribute 7% of your posts and they may not be going to buyers). Yet is doing something.
    You can pick up the phone and invite people to a show, an event, even a website.
    Mail can be inexpensive. You can print it on your printer and mail to the extent you can afford to. I’d rather see repetition to 10 or 20 prospects 20 times a year than nothing at all. Probably would cost you $50 a mailing. Maybe less, and you can generate a lot of business that way IF your message is right and IF you have developed the right list. You can also work the gallery angle for free in order to get them to pick you up.
    It simply requires creativity. Money does not solve all problems. Often people with money lack the creativity needed to promote themselves properly.

  5. Theresa Grillo Laird April 18, 2017 at 8:50 pm - Reply

    Great suggestions Eric! I’m already employing some of them, but haven’t been re-contacting my best prospects often enough. 6 newsletters a year and some postcards aren’t cutting it. I’ll be working on that thoughtful strategy.

  6. Theresa Grillo Laird April 18, 2017 at 9:10 pm - Reply

    What needs to be done to arrive at “right message” and “right list”? I gather names from people who enter my tent at festivals or wherever else I might show. Is right message simply a matter of experimentation to see what works? Thanks!

  7. Anita Ronning April 19, 2017 at 12:01 am - Reply

    Thanks for your advice & encouragement. Also thanks for all the advice & great experiences from the PAC in Tucson, the first I attended. 4 of us signed up to again attend this year. All year we have quoted Lee Milteer, as well as you (Eric) and other artists. Also, still following your lead & painted in Glacier National Park last summer. Also attended paint-outs with Montana Professional Artists association & Montana Painter’s Alliance. Plus has Exhibit rooms during Russell week in March. Also was accepted into juried show. Yesterday 2of us changed out our exhibit at a local gourmet coffee shop. Need any advocates for being 62 & 72 years young and having art careers? Let us know! See you in San Diego next week.
    Yours for another great convention! (Notice all the exclamation marks?)
    Anita Ronning, Marcia Ballowe, Sharon Weaver, Charlotte McDavid

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