I get asked a lot and I’m sure it’s on many people’s minds, “How do you turn professional?” Many people, it would appear, want to “make it” as an artist or photographer and maybe don’t know how or don’t know how to go about getting started. I’ve talked some about this on the blog in the past and I thought that, now with the season turning, the new year starting, and all, it might be a good time to re-visit this topic. So, here goes.
For starters, it helps if you have a definitive body of work. What I mean by that is that you have some “style” of work, some sort of “collection” of say 20 images that are somewhat cohesive in nature. A lot of people are great shooters, and, yes, you can make a career out of shooting this and that but starting with a defined “body of work” is a great place to start. It’s much easier to market, that’s for sure. And, my painterly friends, don’t go thinking you are “off the hook” here because you work in paint or some other media that’s not photography. You want to start off with some body of work that’s say 20 paintings all the same size, media, and basic “technique.” You basically want to start off with a body of work that looks like the same artist created it and, it really helps here, if it’s large enough to fill a gallery space (that’s why I suggest 20 pieces, although it could be more or less, obviously, depending upon if you work very large or small scale.)
Given that you have a defined body of work, how does one get started? I now offer up some pointers.
- The East Austin Studio Tour (EAST) was a great opportunity for artists to sort of “spring board” but what if you don’t have an “EAST” where you live? Do some research and legwork here-find a local group, maybe a photo group that does some shows or a painting group that you can join to organize shows. Also, find out about local art tours in your area. That’s always a great place to start.
- Just finding these local opportunities is not enough. You need to prepare yourself for them. Have some business cards done up along with some postcards or handouts/flyers, anything you can hand out to tell folks more about your artwork. If you can manage it, do a Blurb book of your artwork. Even if you don’t sell the Blurb book, have one copy available as a “display copy” so that you can present your work in a formal format.
- Websites! This is so important. A blog (like this one) is great but everybody really needs a website as a springboard. Now, you might be thinking that this is really too difficult or expensive for you to manage-it doesn’t have to be. In fact, some of the websites I recommend are not at all that expensive and they provide you with the best marketing available. If you can’t afford anything, start with Google pages (those are very close to being free.) I use VisualServer from the folks at PhotoEye books in Santa Fe and highly recommend them but there are a few other outfits you can check out as well. BigBlackBag.com is another one of my favorites as is Foliolink. I recommend going with a website that does not use Flash but also one that has templates you really like. Browse the sample websites here and find one that really “wows” you and then basically use the same style of templates to build your own. This will be time well-spent, trust me. Nothing pulls in more sales, traffic, or just basic “attention” than a well-crafted website and the prices of these “template driven” websites have come down, way down, to the point where they are not affordable.
- On your business cards, include your name, website address, telephone (if you are so-inclined) email address and sample images. I use Moo.com for great looking business cards as they are affordable and provide you the opportunity to do different images on the cards. On my Moo cards, I have the following information: My name, my business name (or studio name, in my case: “Carol’s Little World”) my telephone number (including area code) my email, my website address (in my case: “HouseOfCarol.com”) and my blog address (since my blog gets a lot of traffic and it’s separate traffic, I decided to include it on my business cards.)
- Use an image hosting/print sales site such as ImageKind. Etsy also works here and there are also several juried on-line sites you can frequent to get your work more “out there.” These sites work well because they allow you to sell prints directly to customers. I try to avoid selling prints of work that I’m doing in gallery shows on these type of sites but these sites are good for things like older work or work that you shoot specifically for them. The idea here is to have some kind of an on-line presence and to be able to find your work in a multitude of ways, not just through your own personal website.
- Teaching-explore teaching opportunities. It wasn’t until recently that I realized teaching is a great way to get more folks to look at your website, to purchase prints, etc. not to mention it gives you a built-in set of followers and a back-up income. All of that, plus you get to share your know how with a budding group of artists or photographers. For all of these reasons, I recommend teaching in a local studio, gallery, art school, or community college setting if you can manage it. (Many of these programs are offered in the evenings and on Saturdays, so they will not take away from your “day job” and you might find the extra income useful for doing things like getting a new printer or buying that new lens you’ve always wanted.)
- Load up your work-This might seem obvious to some and unheard of to others but load up a portable hard drive (doesn’t have to be a large one-you can get a 250 GB drive these days on the cheap) with some of your best work. Carry it around with you on your laptop and be prepared to send out work often. Those times when you’re waiting for that morning coffee could be better spent at Starbucks by uploading some images or submitting some images to shows for consideration. This will help you be location independent, portable, and also organize your work better.
- Workshops-think about starting workshops. This kind of work can be difficult to get but it’s worthwhile and there seems to be a never-ending market for workshop instructors. Try to team up with somebody who is doing workshops or attend a few workshops so that you can see how they run and how to run one smoothly. I’m a big fan of the workshop experience and while I’m not running ones of my own, could really see how I might do this someday if I really were interested in pursuing this type of opportunity. Places like the Santa Fe workshops and the Maine Media Workshops are great places to start but there are also tons of others out there, so look around, be selective, and find the ones that interest you.
- Increase on-line presence-the on-line market is really just a series of eyes upon your work and it can be difficult to translate those “eyes” into page clicks and then additionally into purchases or solid leads for your work. Sign up for something like iContact or ConstantContact and begin growing an on-line database contact list of sorts. Organize this and watch it grow, as care and feeding of a list like this makes a career. Many galleries are famous not so much for the work they show but more for the list of collectors they keep and you should start to do the same thing if you want to be successful.
- Find a local market-in my case Houston is not too far away so it would be in my better interest to try and get myself into the Houston market. Research galleries there, go gallery hopping, load up websites of artists who regularly show there and poke around some to see what it takes to tap into sometime like this, a local or regionally well-known market for your work.
- Do some 1-person shows-try to get a 1-person show of your work by approaching galleries. Do this once you have your business cards and website complete. Organize your website along the lines of a gallery submission packet, including your C.V., artist statement, and information about your work. What’s that you say? You don’t have an artist statement? Oh, get used to writing them. Go on, do it now. You have ten minutes. GO! (Hint: don’t muss and fuss, read a bunch of others and come up with something you can live with for starters. Let your body of work guide you on this one.)
- It helps to come up with a “generic” artist statement in case your tongue gets tied. You can do this in addition to coming up with an artist statement for each body of work that you complete. Here’s another hint: get used to writing and talking about your work. You will not be a success, you will never “go far” in this crazy art world if you cannot do the basics like write about or talk about your work. Accept that now and get over it. Either learn to do it and do it now or accept the fact that you will be a bank teller or waitress for the rest of your life (spoken with apologies to bank tellers and waitresses here-I have a great deal of respect for what it is you do, it’s just that we artist types want to do something different with our lives.)
- Social media-don’t neglect Facebook, Twitter, Blogger, Blurb, and the rest of the lot. When I say, “don’t neglect” I actually mean “don’t neglect” although I find way too many artists putting this type of marketing first. If you don’t have a body of work, if you don’t have an elevator speech, if you don’t have a clear artist statement and a general “direction” for what it is you are trying to do, these type of social media outlets will only be a waste of your time. Focus on the important stuff first, then do this, but, you know, don’t forget to do this too.
- Don’t neglect advertising-there are many outlets that will provide ads and places for you to advertise. Don’t neglect ads. Spending $100 on a ad in your local art rag might be more productive for you, and might reach more eyes than say spending hours on Facebook, especially if you find yourself talking only to your own friends on Facebook. If an ad allows you to reach news eyes and you can afford it, go for it.
- Reach out of your comfort zone-figure out how to print, matte, frame, and ship your work. Start doing shows outside of your local area and outside of your local art market. Use resources like ArtCalendar and ArtDeadline to find out about shows and opportunities and get your work out there. Some of these, many of these in fact will have a fee attached. That’s part of doing business. The fact is, it costs money to apply for some shows and you should be prepared for this. I usually recommend students prepare themselves to send out about 4-10 opportunities a month, some of which come with a $35 or even a $50 fee. I’m sorry to say but many galleries, especially the ones that make money, won’t even look at your work for free.
- Do as many shows as you can and keep track of all of the shows you wind up doing. Keep a detailed C.V. listing the shows, locations, dates, jurors, and relevant information for all of the shows that include your work. Just as having a detailed database is important, this is going to be your calling card of sorts. Most galleries only want to do shows with people who have done shows before so it’s important that you keep an accurate record of all of the shows you have been in. Don’t leave anything out, no matter how small, especially as you are just starting out. So what if you can only get into a restaurant show right now, list that proudly on your C.V. as the next guy applying for the slot might not even have a restaurant show to his name. Aim for getting into bigger and better venues but keep track of the smaller ones too.
- Consider branching out into merchandising-stuff like calendars, T-shirts, etc. if you can afford them are also a great way to get your brand out there.
- Lastly, consider charity and pro bono work. While this is not the best way to sell work, it can be really helpful if you are just getting started. Don’t have any shows to your name? Consider doing some mail art shows and donated a matted/framed print to a charity auction. It’s a great way to support a cause you care for as well as get a show/line item listed on your C.V. Besides, I can’t imagine something more suitable to get your branding out there-imagine if you will an underwater photographer who regularly donates to the “Save the Manatee” organizations or a portrait artist specializing in children who does something like the Heart Gallery or helps out adoption causes? That’s a great way to brand yourself without investing much money and it’s a great way to help out a cause you can believe in.
I hope this helps or at least gives you something to think about. It’s a lot to digest but I’m sure it’s a great place to start if you haven’t thought much about it before or if you are just getting started down the road to turning pro. I’d also be curious to hear some other techniques you might have tried that worked for you, either positively or negatively so for my artist friends, please feel free to drop me a line with any additional pointers so I can include them the next time I prepare a list like this one, for those just starting out as professionals.
Until next time…