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The Pro-Files: Avoiding Career Pitfalls As A Fine Art Photographer

There’s an old wives’ tale that somehow it’s noble for an artist to be starving. Not so, say those who’ve been there. There’s nothing at all romantic about failing to earn a living from your work. To that end artist advocate, marketing consultant and career coach Caroll Michels wrote a book aimed at assisting artists of all types—including photographers—to help them not only survive in the art world, but actually prosper. I reached out to ask if she had any advice for photographers who are trying to build a career selling their art—particularly when it comes to the things we often get wrong. She was happy to offer some key pieces of sage advice that are applicable for anyone trying to navigate the pitfalls of the fine art world.

Don't Expect Instant Gratification

Many artists and photographers have an expectation of instant gratification when it comes to their marketing efforts. But these investments take time to bear fruit. Michels says failing to recognize this can lead photographers to abandon otherwise positive marketing efforts when they fail to see immediate results.

“It’s very important to really understand that art marketing is not an exercise in instant gratification,” she says. “The time instant gratification most occurs is during the art creation process.”

Take Advantage Of Free Press

One great marketing tool that happens to be highly affordable and cost-effective is utilizing press releases and editorial opportunities to spread awareness of your work. There’s an old cliché that remains true to this day: there’s no such thing as bad press. Yet, too many artists let opportunities for free editorial coverage slide by.

“Many artists are too humble,” Michels says, “or too absorbed with aesthetic problems or the bumps of daily living to recognize what about themselves is newsworthy. Or they view the media as an inaccessible planet that grants visas only to famous artists. All too often very interesting projects, exhibitions and life-related stories go by the wayside.”

Pitch these stories to blogs, newspapers and magazines in your own neck of the woods and elsewhere. If you’re having a show, tell the world about it. When you can find a way to make a connection between your work and a publication’s mission and audience, chances are good that you’ll be offered an opportunity to publicize your work. The time it takes to write guest posts and press releases is simply an investment in your future.

Invest In More Than Just Equipment

Forgetting to make the investment—of time as well as money—into one’s own career is another major pitfall to be avoided at all costs. Expenditures for cameras, computers and lighting equipment may be de rigueur, but too many of us fail to spend the dollars that would help our careers in countless other ways—from beneficial networking and sales advice to contractual help and accounting services.

“Other than purchasing materials and equipment,” Michels explains, “all too often artists do not invest in career development expenditures. This ranges from the purchase of mailing lists to using the services of professionals who specialize in the arts—such as attorneys, accountants and career coaches.”

Diversify Your Clientele

Putting all your eggs in one basket is rarely a good idea, and that’s true when it comes to a clientele too. Sure, having an art dealer or consultant who loves your work and is responsible for a large portion of your livelihood is a good problem to have—but it’s still a problem. Relying on a single dealer or consultant for the bulk of your business puts your entire career at risk.

“Your dealer might die, go out of business or declare bankruptcy,” Michels says. “And unless a dealer understands the importance of expanding his or her client base, the gallery’s narrowly focused marketing will soon become saturated and sales activity will come to a screeching halt.”

Set Your Sights Beyond The Local Market

Another way to bring a career to a halt through short-sightedness is via localized stagnation—the failure to look far afield for opportunities and instead only making a name in your hometown.

“Some artists adhere to a self-imposed hierarchy of believing that you have to ‘start small and work your way up,’” Michels explains. “Other artists believe that their market is limited to their town or city of residence, or that some sort of universal censorship is imposed, illogically concluding that there is no market ‘anywhere’ for their work if they are unable to find a receptive audience in their hometown. Artists who pine for national or international recognition, but limit their horizons to local or regional resources, will find that their longings will go unfulfilled. These artists have yet to understand the universal law that national and international recognition and support usually comes your way from venues and audiences outside of your neighborhood. Preoccupation with regionalism has given rise to the expression ‘regional artist,’ a self-limiting phrase that, unfortunately, some artists use to describe themselves.”

Segment Your Brand, And Your Marketing

There are differences between aiming art marketing at a consumer audience versus an audience comprised of the art consultants and dealers who can ultimately bring success on a broader scale. If you expect good results by sending the same messaging to these vastly different audiences, you’re likely to fail on both sides.

“Don’t approach the consumer market and the fine art market in the same way,” Michels says. “Understand their differences. There are some advantages of selling work from your own website. These include, for example, elimination of the exorbitant 50%-plus sales commission that most art dealers charge. This gives artists a strong sense of autonomy and independence, free from the subjective whims of the gallery system—which can be very harsh, cruel and nonsensical. [Selling work from your own website makes it] possible for artists to receive a steady stream of income, which helps to defray the high cost of student loans and high cost of rent.”

“If an artist’s only aspiration is to derive a steady income from sales from the consumer market,” she continues, “I would never provide advice that interferes with that goal. However, if an artist has other aspirations, he or she needs to consider the downsides of selling work from their website. For example, vying entirely for consumer sales does not encourage creative exploration or experimentation. Just like any other ‘store’ owner, artists with commercial websites will consciously or subconsciously create artwork that they know will please the public and hesitate to change gears for fear that it will negatively impact sales.”

“Art dealers and art consultants are not interested in competing with artists’ shopping carts,” Michels adds. “The chaotic design and unsubtle commercial orientation of many artist websites can turn off curators and people positioned to award artists public art commissions, residencies, grants, etc. Although the submission guidelines of these venues do not state ‘artists who sell work directly from their websites need not apply,’ generally it is an unspoken rule.”

So what are the things that differentiate a consumer-focused website from one aimed at an audience of curators, gallerists and consultants? It’s as fundamental as the difference between a library and a bookstore; both audiences love books, but one of them is more crassly commercial.

“Fine art photographers, as with all artists, must keep in mind that you can’t be loved by everyone,” Michels says, “and not everyone will relate to your work. Finding your audience requires ‘detective work,’ and this can be accomplished, in part, by creating a website that is sensitively designed and well curated—setting you apart from the ‘supermarket’ sites with shopping carts aimed at the consumer market. The site needs to be directed to a fine art audience, and tender loving care should be given to an artist statement—which serves as an educational tool to help your audience better understand your work, the equipment you are using, and the time-consuming process involved in creating a photograph. Arousing the attention of curators, gallery dealers, art collectors and art consultants and advisors, and getting them over to your website, requires an extensive and ongoing outreach through the use of printed matter and email presentations. Guidelines for various support materials are included in my book.”

Caroll Michels is a well-respected and award-winning career coach, artist advocate and author of How to Survive & Prosper as an Artist: Selling Yourself Without Selling Your Soul, now in its seventh edition. For more information on Michels and her work, visit her website at carollmichels.com.

About the author:

William Sawalich made his first darkroom print at age ten. He earned a Master's Degree from The Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California. Along with portraiture, still life and assignment photography, Sawalich is an avid writer. He has written hundreds of equipment reviews, how-to articles and profiles of world-class photographers. He heads up the photo department at Barlow Productions in St. Louis.



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