Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Nobody Listens to Artists

It only took a week of being a full-time artist to learn one of the abiding truths inherent in this business: Nobody listens to artists.

Truly, the quickest way to get a door slammed in my face was to say something like,

“Hello, I’m an artist, and I’d like you to look at a few of my…” SLAM!

Nothing could shut down a business conversation faster than uttering the A-word in the first person. Ad executives, gallery owners, architects, store managers, business administrators, charity directors, teachers – all dismissed me routinely, usually before I had the chance to show them any of my artwork.

“Leave a card and we’ll call you if we need you.” Operative word: Leave.

Friends and relatives often responded similarly, with a modicum of disappointment and a quick sendoff, occasionally leavened with a polite, sympathetic smile thrown in to make me feel better, and visible relief at my (hopefully) hasty departure.

This was a big change from how I was used to being treated, a completely unexpected consequence of my decision to step out of the hospital and into the art studio.


Sure, I understood that ‘art’ was, generally speaking, a hobby, for most people a diversion rather than a calling. For me though, my career change was just that, and nothing less than that – a move from one profession to the next. I had the talent and the drive to succeed as an illustrator and a designer, and I had the work to prove it. Besides, with degrees in biology and medicine, I had the background to handle drawing assignments on subjects ranging from wildlife to healthcare to robotic technology. Why was it so hard getting anyone to pay attention?

As a doctor, I was accustomed to being taken seriously - often a little too seriously for my liking. That’s one reason I wanted to explore the arts, to get away from the regimented solemnity and enforced humorlessness of the hospital.

The trouble was that
 artists aren't professionals.

After years of academic and clinical training, I knew how to conduct myself professionally, to communicate clearly and concisely in a face-to-face interview. I did my homework, too, staying up late planning schedules and strategies, following leads, putting together a balanced mix of appointments and cold calls. I arrived for meetings in plenty of time to review my presentation, and my appearance: Combed hair, shined shoes, business suit, tie with matching pocket square, fashionable overcoat.*

Heck, I even carried an expensive leather (leather!) artist’s portfolio chock full of my work, neatly arranged in an understandable, logical progression from graphic design to illustration to my own brand of composite drawings. I showed up with a positive attitude, a firm handshake, and a winning smile.

“Oh. You’re the artist. Leave a card.” Such reactions were as baffling as they were consistent.

Lacking experience to the contrary, I assumed people in one line of work respected the ability of others to perform well in their chosen professions, at least until they had demonstrated otherwise. The trouble, I came to understand, was that artists aren't professionals.

Artists are a lot of things. We’re thoughtful, innovative, hard working, and usually we’re an awful lot of fun. We’re free spirits, too: Quirky. Eccentric. Weird. In the world of business, that makes us strange, and suspect. And since our work schedules seldom fit the usual nine-to-five routine, we’re often considered unreliable and irresponsible, or worse, lazy, living off the sweat of others who aren’t afraid to put in a full 40-hour work week.

But we’re not professional. Professionals are people with real jobs. Professionals work for someone else, every day, for a thing called a regular paycheck. We free-lance artists work for ourselves, at whatever assignments we can get, for whatever pay we can negotiate. And once we’ve successfully completed a project, we’re… what’s the word? Oh, yeah… unemployed.

The working world seems to frown on this business model. Projects come through or they don’t, feast or famine, with frequent interruptions in cash flow. For beginning artists especially, these uncertainties make it difficult to secure adequate housing and studio space, or to make regular payments on car notes or insurance premiums (assuming loans or insurance coverage are even available). Even artists with long track records, substantial client lists and above average business sense are vulnerable to dry spells that can unravel years of financial success.

So, art is not a real profession, it seems, unless you happen to be a real professional artist. We all know a number of these. They’re household names. The ones whose work we recognize. As a rule, they died a long time ago.

Then there are the few successful artists who live and work outside of the stereotype. We know their names, too. We recognize their work. We might even recognize them if we saw them on TV, or hanging out at a restaurant downtown. We understand that they get paid a lot of money for their art, and we wish that we had bought one of their pieces years ago when it was affordable, before they became well known - before the world recognized them as professionals.

That’s the second enduring 
truth of the art business: 
As soon as someone other than you 
likes your work, and is willing to tell 
someone else about it, you’ve arrived.

But how do you know when you, as an artist, have crossed that line? How do you tell when you’ve made it?

That’s just it. You don’t. Someone else tells for you.

That’s the second enduring truth of the art business: As soon as someone other than you likes your work, and is willing to tell someone else about it, you’ve arrived.

You can't be that person. Your squeak won't grease your own wheels.

Hi, I’m an artist, and my work is awesome!” will get you nowhere.

Fortunately, though, that ‘right person’ can be just about anyone else:

Hey, have you seen this dude’s work? It’s awesome!”

That kind of recommendation will get you recognition, and sales, and contracts to make more of your art. If you are fortunate enough (and persistent enough) to string together a number of recommendations like this, you just might stay in business long enough to build a career in art.

Our business plan at DS Art is built entirely around these two truths. We want our clients and customers to be happy with our work, and our work ethic. We understand that every piece of artwork that leaves our studio is an ambassador for our future success, and that every customer we earn becomes a potential cheerleader for (or against) our creative ability, our professionalism, and our future .

Just don't take our word for it.

*In hindsight, this could have been part of the problem. I can recall but one episode in those early days when I received a bona fide art commission, entirely on my own. The client was in a bind, facing a tight deadline. He needed to speak with someone right away, and would meet with me only if I could get to his office within the hour. That office was more than 50 miles away, which left me no time to shower, shave, or even change clothes. I jumped in the car and drove to the meeting ‘as-is’. The client took one look at my scruffy weekend beard, dirty sneakers, worn jeans, and rumpled jacket, and instantly awarded me the job. Apparently he needed an artist, rather than a professional.

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