THE YEAR 2003 came in with the mixed promise of profits and same market anxieties as did 2002.
It began as every business year does, with greater hope than the year before, but this time mixed with low expectations. After many great sales years from the 80's to early 90's; then growth spurt from the mid-90's to early 2000 I've found that expectations are a key element to success.
I keep a watchful eye towards the art market since my profession is as a painter. But with an awareness of global and regional market trends it is important to position the artist's business, your business, no matter what financial patterns might intimate. I don't claim to be an expert in financial market predictions by any means which beyond the scope of this article. But I would like to make some observations.
Before I describe my 2003 sales and marketing year in more detail, let me expand on the concept of "expectations." Expectations can be good or bad, high or low or can be nothing at all -- they are what we anticipate receiving either inherently or through our hard work.
In the case of art sales, high expectations can be extremely helpful or hurtful to your business. They are helpful if you plan, work, persevere, and if the market itself is faring well. However, they can put you in a tailspin of discouragement and defeat if not prepared. The downside to high expectations is that even with all your work, in a declining or flat art market you can be defeated thinking you've done something wrong, made poor decisions or are a failure.
Neither of these extremes is healthy. But with a strong constitution, could drive you to work even harder and become more successful in the long-run.
For instance, if you paint x number of paintings and expect that they will all sell when and where you want them to and do, that's tremendous. On the flipside, if you expect a sellout and only none or a mere few sell do you could find yourself going belly-up.
With low expectations, you may miss great opportunities for change and growth. For example, you may have outstanding artwork but due to reluctance, shyness or lack of confidence the art will just sit and collect dust.
"No expectations?" you may ask. Yes, no expectations. Having no expectations of course can hurt just as with low expectations. But the great benefit is that if you work as hard as the person with high expectations but have no expectations you will feel successful no matter what comes or does not come your way. Everything is a surprise, everything is fine, whether or not things sell.
This may sound strange to some of you especially if you "live by your brush." You have to make an income. But even when times are rough you'll keep going at the same intense pace and as you go the money will come in, sometimes little, sometimes much. The point is to not change your focus or work intensity just because things are not selling.
When the big rush of sales do come in you'll be prepared and can celebrate!
Some of you wrote-in to tell me what you had done in '03 to stem the tide of low art sale. Here are some of you comments/activities. I thank you for taking the time to write. Perhaps you'll find some good suggestions here:
"I participated in several outdoor shows securing some new clients as a result."
One took part in a local studio tour selling a number of paintings and got the word out that they were "open for business."
Still others said they had been in "many shows with few sales." But one added that they "aggressively marketed with direct mail and other publicity."
One artist said they "sent out email newsletters to customers and prospects."
The same artist said, "I made sure I had on hand my smallish affordable paintings which I know to have fairly broad appeal."
So what did I do in '03 to counteract what was expected by all reports to be a sales rebound from the previous 3 years? One thing I learned as a graphic designer in advertising for many years is that when the market is down most companies reduce their advertising efforts. But doing the opposite is what usually yields better results (several of you did this last year.) While did not spend as many advertising dollars as the year before, advertising activity was greater by do ing something substantial which in the long run will pay dividends.
I broke new ground. I've always been an advocate of keeping an active eye and ear out for opportunities to sell my work. But in 2003, I worked very hard at finding additional gallery representation to help move more paintings in a sluggish economic environment (which I will continue to into 2004) as well as utilize more low and no-cost self-promotion to make sales (many ideas applied were from the book Sue Viders and I published, Promotion for Pennies.)
Another counteractive measure...several years ago, after dipping my toes into the print market, I made the decision to sell only originals. Some would think that by doing this reduced my income. But it did the opposite. It has allowed me to focus on one business rather than two. That does not mean that selling prints is bad...absolutely not. Some of you may be selling prints perhaps as your primary source of income. That's fine...keep up the good work. It's been proved that marketing prints, over time, is where the money is, not in short-term efforts.
Another thing I did in '03 was paint...just paint. When the market is down, the tendency for artists is to be discouraged and stop or slow creating. But the benefit of painting during this time is that you can build up a surplus so that you can take on more shows, galleries at a moments notice. Additionally, this reduces the pressure to output large quantities -- you can spend more time on marketing, painting quality work, studying new techniques, and the like.
One more area I emphasized in the last year was giving private instruction.
These steps may not be exactly appropriate for you but ended up being the right move for me in '03. What did you do last year to advance your art business?
Going into 2004 we are again hearing reports of an improved economy (although I have not experienced this in my region yet.) Even if the economy remains flat, the ground I worked last year will benefit me well into the future.
So what would I recommend for artists still struggling or may even be profiting heavily in 2004? Read, talk about, and explore new sales venues. Be flexible while maintaining your artistic integrity and goals:
Read the Wall Street Journal, The Economist or other financial publication from time to time. At least have an awareness of what's going on economically worldwide even if you have little interest in finances.
Talk to other artists, gallery owners, in your own and other towns/cities to arrive at your own sense of how the art market is doing.
Explore new venues where you can market your art. What worked five years ago may not be working the same way today. Therefore, flexibility and being open to different or unusual places to sell your art is of extreme importance.
Observe the usual recommendations of keeping a watchful eye on price-points of your competition and,
Mark your artistic progress.
Have you been painting for years and your skill set has changed? Evaluate how much improved or creative your art is now. Be honest with yourself...you may be on the threshold of abandoning hobbyist status, be looking at mid-career, or on the opposite side, need more training and practice.
Whatever you do with your art career this year, be honest with yourself and your distribution partners.
In conclusion, barring any unforeseen tragedies as we saw in 2001 (which changed the complexion of markets for a protracted period) 2004 looks to be shaping up as a better year for art than 2003. What do I base this opinion on? No hard evidence, simply the fact that artists are working harder than ever to penetrate obstacles and that the economy while not improving as quickly as we would hope, is getting better.
Remember, everything takes time, and each year you break new ground and forge new territory like a pioneer. I wish you all the best of success in this New Year whatever your objectives - it may be a great one!
All the Best,
L. Diane Johnson NAPA PSA NAPPAP, is an fine artist, instructor and author with over 30 years experience. She also owns the Art Business Academy which trains fine artists to market their work and improve their self-promote their careers.
Visit her online gallery for more information or reach her via email.