"My Work Isn't Marketable" and other #LiesStarvingArtistsTell Themselves

Here's a picture one of my customers posted on Facebook of the living room in her new crib. The painting on the wall is Mug Shots (Jesus O' Nazereth), which she bought from me in 2011...

I painted Mug Shots when I was in college, so I had been toting it from place to place for over a decade. It had been in several art shows, a coffee shop, my mom's house, and my garage before I finally sold it. Although I always thought it was a great painting, and many people who have seen it over the years said it was brilliant, I eventually told myself the lie that artists often tell themselves. "No one is going to buy this painting" I said to myself. "People only seem to buy art to decorate their living rooms, and my paintings are not made to match anyone's sofa."  Well, even though I didn't see it coming, this painting is now looking pretty freaking awesome in someone's living room. And it even matches the sofa.

It's a common idea among artists that there is no market for real art, especially among artists that have chosen what they think is a non-traditional direction for their work. I hear this all the time from artists of all mediums and genres, and I used to believe it myself, but I am now convinced that it isn't really true. Saying there is no market is just a cop out. As so-called Starving Artists, we shift the responsibility away from ourselves, essentially blaming the world for not beating a path to our door and buying all our work. The Starving Artist fancies himself a victim of the world's shallow morals and bad taste. We are unique visionaries, and the pearls of our souls are only trampled by the swine that surround us.

Sound familiar?

If there is no market, the Starving Artist has no responsibility to find the market, right? Whatever, dude... That idea is rooted in bitter and lazy thinking. Instead of surrendering your mind to thought patterns that undermine your goals, you would do better to start thinking like a working artist. The Starving Artist blames others for his failures, while the Working Artist takes responsibility for his career and searches for ways to succeed.

If there is one thing the internet has taught me, it is that there is a market for anything you can make. In his book The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More, Chris Anderson talks about the ways in which new technologies have lead to a rise in niche markets. Companies like Amazon, Google, and more make their money (at least in part) by empowering niche marketing. Some markets have more members than others. Some markets have many big spenders in them, while other markets are made up of people with less to spend. Some markets are swamped with competition, while others are less congested. All markets require work to penetrate, and more work to maintain. If you want to make art for a living, you must commit not only to making your art, but also to finding like-minded people to support your art career. As Hisani P. DuBois said in her book Do I Have to be a Starving Artist in the 21st Century, you need to start your own business.

Every working artist must become an entrepreneur. If you think you can't do it, you're right. The end. But if you will instead say you don't know how to build your business, that's the beginning. Armed with a problem to solve, you just need to research, experiment, and learn from the results. Repeat until you figure it out.

Marketing is a dirty word to artists. When I mention marketing to artists, they often cringe, because they think I'm about to tell them to find out what people want, and create art that meets that need, even if they hate doing it.


That kind of marketing exists, but that's not what I'm talking about.

Here's what I mean by Marketing:
  1. Create incredible work. Marketing starts by making work that you would buy. Work that is sincere and reflects your values and aesthetics.
  2. Find like-minded people. People who share your values and aesthetics. Social media has made this one million times easier (and more fun!) than it used to be.
  3. Talk about your common values and aesthetics. Going straight to trying to sell your work can be awkward. Just spend time online meeting people and having conversations. Make friends. Again, fun and easy.
  4. Make it easy for them to buy your work. Or hire you, or support you... financially, that is... Make it easy for them to PAY YOU, OKAY?! If you make it easy for them to buy, it should be easy for you to make more work.
  5. Show them your work. Remember to make it incredible. Show your friends (online, at work, and out in the real world) your work. Become a working artist in others' eyes. Stop hiding from everyone. Do art shows. Group shows. Solo shows. Organize them yourself if you have to. But if you did step 2, you probably know people who would be happy to help you.
  6. Take good care of them. Honor agreements, meet deadlines, etc. In business, they call this customer service. It's how you get loyal, repeat business.
  7. Repeat. Stay in touch.  Use an email newsletter service like Mailchimp to keep your admirers updated.  Answer questions.  Be cool.  Or at least act cool!
People who share your values are likely to enjoy your work. Find enough people who enjoy your work and some of them will buy it, or commission you to do more work for them. Some might not buy, but they will recruit others and help spread your work.You need those people, too, so be nice to them (not just because you need them... be nice to everyone, if you can).

Is Mug Shots as marketable as those prints of sexy bare-chested Black Jesus that have been spotted at Wal-Mart stores and in college dorm rooms across the country? Probably not, but Toni (the lovely lady who bought this painting last year) "got" it immediately. When she saw the painting, she had to have it. I didn't have to explain my aesthetic choices to her or convince her that it would be worth millions after I died. Toni had bought cheaper items with my art in the past. She was in the market for this painting, and it was on sale. At the time, she did not have enough to buy it, but she put half down, and I marked it sold*. She paid the other half later, and the painting found a new home.

*In retrospect, I could have been stubborn when Toni said she didn't have enough money to buy the painting. But I already had a good relationship with her, and I wanted to sell her the piece, so I worked with her. Paypal has a Bill-Me-Later financing option that can break a purchase up into six monthly payments (while you get the whole amount up front), and has other automatic billing options. So with a little creativity, you can sell stuff even if your fan base isn't loaded.

So anyways, thanks for reading. If you are an artist, I hope you will stop believing there is no market for your work. If you work hard to create work, and you honestly think your work is good, there are most likely others who would agree. You just need to find them! Feel free to leave your questions or comments below or on social media. We'll be addressing more #LiesStarvingArtistsTell, so feel free to send in your suggestions or use the hashtag on Facebook, Twitter, or whatever social media site you like!


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