Being an artist is a lifelong vocation. How do you want to be recognized when you’re gone? And how can you plan for your art to sustain you while you’re still here?
A career doesn’t last for just a season, or a few years. Creatives should be prepared for the long haul, with its inevitable ups and downs. Throughout my own professional evolution over the past twenty years, I’ve weathered recessions and economic meltdowns, and I’ve also witnessed how the internet has revolutionized the way that artists and others can do business. In this current moment, when a crisis continues to undermine global markets in general, it’s even more vital to think about the big picture.
But first, look at the positive side of the equation. Digital connectivity has given us an expanded notion of what “community” can mean, and it’s also given ordinary individuals the access to unprecedented waves of information. What’s more, it’s made it even easier for artists and other creatives to tap into the worldwide network of “helpers” who are instrumental as you move from emerging to established.
If you think that marketing and self-promoting is boring, you might want to abandon stale notions of what those terms even mean. They don’t have to mean spamming thousands of randomly selected people with unsolicited information about your next performance or gallery exhibition. Marketing means targeting those individuals who may actually be passionate and engaged with the art you’re making. It means finding new ways to make marketing itself a creative endeavor.
For instance, consider an artist I know who wanted to get on the radar of new audiences. She hosted a live video to spotlight her practice, and also launched a truly innovative initiative: Anyone who wanted to could enter a free drawing to win one of her paintings. The response was overwhelming, and the return on investment tremendous. Sure, she had to give up one of her paintings, gratis, and ship it to the eventual winner, a patron in Boston. But along the way she garnered invaluable exposure from the many people who engaged with, and shared, this unique giveaway contest.
Likewise, if you’re an artist—especially a millennial artist—you should think of your creative output as something that, when properly marketed, will carry you through the rest of your life. If you’re in your twenties or thirties, the art you create could become a literal portfolio, a pension fund or retirement plan to support you in an uncertain future. Whatever you create, whether it’s a new dance move or a massive metal sculpture, it’s your intellectual property. Failing to market that work—or falsely assuming that marketing in the first place makes you “inauthentic” or a “sell out”—is like leaving money on the table.
As I discuss extensively in my book, The Modern Artist’s Way, there has never been a better time to be an artist. And there have never been more affordable, or free, resources available to get you there. Give yourself a masterclass in marketing and promotion with an endless array of videos and talks hosted on YouTube. Tap a flexible, global labor pool on sites like Fiverr.com, where you’ll find top talent to revamp your website or edit a video of your latest performance. Instagram is home to countless influencers, a new breed of savvy “helper” that has harnessed and monetized the platform’s unique reach.
Don’t just expect these things to happen for you. You need to make a concerted effort to follow a defined path to success.
Find a creative you admire and dig deep into the ways they market themselves online and elsewhere (don’t be afraid to borrow some of their tricks and techniques)! Each month, choose a marketing topic—like how to gain more social media followers—and commit to reading and taking notes on two articles that explore that theme.
Picture the legacy you’d like to have decades after you’ve left this world, and write down five key components of how you and your art will be remembered. Then ask yourself, “What can I do in the here-and-now to make that future a reality?”
My own road has been a long one, full of unexpected challenges and detours. From my earliest days working at a prestigious New York gallery, I ended up building a life and career in gritty, blue-collar Philadelphia. There, I discovered space and enthusiasm to create the kind of career that I imagined for myself.
I was able to build my own art world, rather than trying to fit uncomfortably into an existing one. It became clear that the Hollywood version of “the art world”—which is basically New York’s gallery world—is only one aspect of a much larger, much more inclusive and exciting system. There’s room out there for alternatives, for experimentation and creativity—for those who are willing to take risks, and put the work in.
What I’ve learned from being in this business for decades is that you, the artist, are always in charge. It might not always feel that way, but it’s true. Be mindful, be dedicated, and persevere. Ignore the doubters (and the doubts in your own head) that suggest that success is unattainable, or that artistic integrity means suffering and starving.
Always keep moving forward. No one said that the Modern Artist’s Way is easy—but the journey can be its own reward.