As artists, creativity comes naturally to us and so we tend to focus on materials, techniques, and theory as a means to improve our craft. This perspective is fine just as long as our studio remains as a means of personal enjoyment, utilized more as a creative pastime, a whimsy. As our art improves, however, and our popularity increases, so do the stakes. We may begin to want to sell our work, and the moment we do, we not longer practice a pastime, but commerce. It's exciting and reaffirming when someone wants your piece bad enough to actually pay for it! It's like a rite of passage. So we may become tempted to turn our pastime into a business, a means to supplement our current income or supplant it altogether.
The moment we make this choice, everything changes—and so must our practices and perspectives. The problem, however, is that artists often aren’t trained in effective business practices, or worse, don’t lend enough weight to them. Instead, we might retain a casual attitude while engaging in commerce that beg aspects of lability, business acumen, good faith, and due diligence. And that’s a recipe for big problems. The consequences of such an oversight not only threaten the success of our business, but can also be dangerous to us financially and legally. The point is: if we don't practice professional standards, we won’t remain in business very long!
The truth is that running an art studio as a business is no casual matter. It's best to approach it with informed care, savvy, and astute responsibility in order to maintain a sound reputation to ensure our continued success in the future. Because that's the basis of any successful business, isn't it? A rock solid reputation that people can depend on and trust. And while other issues exist, there are definite “do’s and don’ts” that we should be aware of so that we can create this good foundation.
Why Is A Foundation Important?
Do we wonder why some studios stagnate, struggle, or even fail, while others become successful almost effortlessly…even despite the quality of the work? This happenstance isn’t arbitrary.
Do we wonder why some artists become embittered and envious while other artists become ever more enthusiastic about their work and their market possibilities? It has little to do with character.
Do we wonder why some artists are perceived as unpredictable, touchy, untrustworthy, even unpleasant while others are thought of as professional, accessible, welcoming, and dependable? This isn’t a puzzle.
Are we surprised when some artist's work becomes inconsistent in quality and scope while others deliver high quality, provocative work every time? This isn't a coincidence.
Are we curious why some studios are regarded in a lesser, dismissive way while others are held in great respect and esteem? It’s not due only to the work.
The fact is that the quality of our art is just one component of the business equation. That is to say we can be incredibly gifted, yet our studio can still fail. This means we not only can’t bank on our skills as a guarantee of success, but there are also other important factors to consider outside of our creativity that can make or break us. And it’s these factors, working together, that establish our art business foundation, so if we’re serious about our work, it's is a smart prerequisite.
But how do we build one? What does it entail? For this purpose, this discussion will address the proverbial Do’s and Don’ts when constructing a strong base for our art business. Each one is based on practical experience so we can trust that the Do’s work and the Don’ts…well…don’t. With the insights from this article, hopefully we can construct our own foundation to better set ourselves up for success.
It’s a good idea to consider these as nonnegotiable aspects of your art business, especially if your work generates large sums. The basic concept is this: if we intend to operate as a business we need to act like one. We can’t go “halfway” and expect to succeed in the long–run. Never forget that while collecting may be a hobby to a customer, it's a professional business to you. Therefore, many of our opinions about fairness, spending, and sacrifice might need to be changed, and perhaps radically. Unless we can accept these changes, it’s wiser to keep our studio as a casual endeavor for everyone’s sake, most importantly, your own.
So let’s dive in!…
- Put a 100% effort into each piece you create, and strive to make each piece better than the last. Unless you're pushing yourself, you risk more than you may realize. Producing consistent, quality work builds a reputation of reliability, excellence, and care, and those are your best selling points.
- Keep your work innovative and cutting edge. Don't cut corners and avoid routines and formulaic habits. Stretch, stretch, stretch. Stay ahead of the bell curve—both yours and of the market—is critical.
- Create a branded identity. This can include a studio name, tagline, logo, or color scheme. Be sure to keep this branding consistent in all your promotional material and studio pages on social networks. However, branding is a highly personal aspect of your business, so do what feels right to you and your work without copying or borrowing from others. And always think, “Will this still apply to me and my goals ten years from now?” Design branding based on a long–term view. Tip: choose fonts that are clean and legible, and an uncomplicated logo that can scale up and down cleanly.
- Set up goals based on a five–year time line. This includes your budget and business plan as well as your personal artistic goals.
- Set up a yearly schedule of your deadlines (which can be broken down even further as you wish). Don't just wander—establish realistic and smart objectives and work towards them.
- Retain a lawyer versed in art business and copyright. They'll be immensely helpful, and you may need to enlist their legal services at some point.
- Hire a skilled accountant experienced in small business to guide you through the tax morass of running a business, and to file your annual taxes. Moreover, be sure to file legal forms and quarterly taxes on time.
- Maintain meticulous books keeping track of all business–related sales and expenses. Hire a bookkeeper, if necessary (and your accountant often can fill this position). If dealing with numbers isn't your game—delegate to a professional. Besides, your time is better spent in the studio, right? There's also some fantastic bookkeeping software out there that can automate many aspects for you.
- Have all your ducks in a row before making a sale. These include having all the necessary business licenses, permits, IDs, business designations, and tax forms in place before making a sale. Your lawyer and accountant can help guide you in their formation, or generate them for you. Again, if paperwork isn't your forte—delegate to a professional.
- Consider setting up your studio as a Limited Liability Corporation (or LLC) to protect your personal assets and to lend more credibility to your business. Note: there is more paperwork and filing involved, but it's easy and straightforward.
- Set up a separate bank account, checking account, credit cards, and savings account for your business. It’s not a good idea to mingle them with personal accounts, especially if your art generates large amounts of income. Keep the business finances totally separate from your personal finances.
- Be focused and finish what you start. Having a pile of unfinished projects isn't going to generate income.
- Have your own criteria that defines success since the market can be fickle and confusing at times. Determine your own goal posts.
- Think about how each new piece expands your portfolio. Create with a bigger plan to offer your customers something fresh and new.
- Purchase a P.O. Box for incoming business mail, especially if you intend putting a mailing address on your website or promotional materials. It's safer than using your bricks n' mortar address in this day and age of easy access.
- Obtain business insurance suitable for your needs.
- Set up an organized and efficient filing system for the studio whether on your computer or in a cabinet. Keep it updated and cleaned out.
- Maintain a customer and professional contact database. This is one of your greatest assets so take care of it. Many database programs exist to make this easy on your computer, and if you employ an email newsletter, your subscriber list can double as your customer list.
- Employ information security protocols for all your devices such as phones, tablets, computers, etc. This also includes your papered information so have a quality cross–cut shredder and use it enthusiastically to protect sensitive information. Also, always download updates from your software providers because nearly all those updates are security patches. Above all, never assume hackers will get “the other guy.” Just one intrusion can put you out of business! Learn how to secure your information and harden your system. [Note: Mac products are no longer safe against hackers, viruses, and malware. In fact, iPhones® and iPads® are considered security loopholes by those in the Information Security industry. Their functions may not be affected, but they can be “carriers” to infect other networks. So do your homework to harden your Mac system.]
- Register new art work with the U.S. Copyright office and file the certificates in a safe place.
- Understand that you will have to spend money to make money: you cannot run a successful business on the cheap. On the other hand, don’t spend dollars to make dimes. Be smart in your spending and make sure each dollar you spend has a clear objective. This includes establishing your hourly wage and making every hour count.
- Remember that it's a happy customer that's your primary goal when you become a business. It’s not about just you anymore! Always go the extra mile for a customer, and an extra ten miles for a regular customer.
- Accept that, as a business owner, you will be the one who will have to bend and make the sacrifices and compromises for the sake of the deal. It’s more important to have a satisfied customer who had a good, happy experience than it is to have a forced sale, buyer's regret, or negative feelings. And be ready to refund if a deal falls through. Taking care of your customer is the best long–term strategy.
- Always take the high road.
- Be disciplined and diligent in your work day. Just because you work in a studio doesn’t mean you’re “not at work.” Practice smart time management plus make it clear that your work hours are sacrosanct with family and friends. This can be a particularly sticky subject, of course, as not all of us are so good at it, and others can intrude on our time even with good intentions—but it's essential. When we get paid only by what we produce, every minute counts.
- Have firm and clear policies in place, and make sure your customers have easy access to reading them. Moreover, be sure they understand them before entering into a business relationship with you (such as a sale or contract). You definitely don’t want misunderstandings. Such policies can include these considerations: Payment, down payment, time payments/layaways, returns, pricing, cancellation or refusal-of-service, refunds, exchanges or credit, shipping rates and services, out of stock or discontinued items, special orders or discounts, commissions, rush-shipping or rush-completion, licensing, gift certificates, returned checks or charge-backs, repairs, and a copyright and VARA notice.
- Develop a website. It should look professional and be easy to click through. Again, if that's not in your skill set adequately, delegate to a professional. Keep it current, polished, and accessed easily by mobile devices as well as secured against intrusion.
- Consider starting a blog about the behind the scenes production, inspirations, and goings–on in your studio. Think about what collectors would be interested in hearing, and work to share your experience in an upbeat, informative way. Showing people your experiences behind the studio door lends value to tour work and the customer's investment. It's also very visual, which is a bonus for art work. Plus it's fun!
- Think about creating a studio presence on social media. It's a great way to keep people connected to you and your work. Social media—when strategized correctly—can also humanize us and make us more accessible to people. Being an artist—especially a very successful one—can be intimidating to people, so anything that levels the playing field is a good thing to employ.
- But exploit social networking avenues smartly—always be professional, fun, friendly, accessible, and neutral. And be mindful of how you come across to others in social media because being "tone deaf" is a PR disaster. Also avoid oversharing, so be careful with what you share and how you share it. Always project your best self and think twice before posting something inflammatory or potentially provoking. Treat each post as a first impression.
- Compile promotional materials such as business cards, postcards, brochures, etc. Make sure they look professional and are well–designed. And go the extra mile to have them professionally printed. As for their information, they should provide your contact information and any branding you've developed. Then pop them into the box of every item you send out. Always carry business cards with you, too, since you never know when an opportunity will arise.
- Research art marketing techniques and employ them vigorously. Don’t depend on your customer base to spread your talent by word of mouth, or expect the quality of your work to speak for you. You need to make your work stand out so take advertising seriously. Included in your budget should be a "marketing" category, and learn how to get the most bang for your buck with advertising. For instance, target venues or forums that appeal to your target customer base, and be creative—pique their interest. Your work is unique and special, so show it off!
- Start to think in terms of profits and investment for the long–term—how will each completed project fund the next? How will an edition serve your goals, both artfully and financially?
- Take time for research and development. Staying at the forefront of the market and diversifying your portfolio are crucial for the continued success of your studio. Work to stay on the cutting edge.
- Consider expanding your creativity into other outlets because you never know what new thing could diversify your portfolio. Stay open to new possibilities and applications. For example, explore different media or different applications of your talents such as bas–reliefs, busts, jewelry, ornaments, giftware, house or garden ware, medallions, or starting to work in ceramics or bronze casting. Each creative excursion informs the next. This will keep your body of work varied and vibrant to keep your collectors interested and delighted.
- Seek to diversify your offerings in terms of price points. Having something to fill each price point is a great way to expand your business platform by making your art more financially accessible to more people. For example, you could augment your full body works with bas–reliefs or busts, or offer a variety of scales and media.
- Regard your work from a collector’s point of view, particularly if you offer limited editions or series. Collectors are just that: they like to have all the pieces in a series or collection. So give them the opportunity and “financial space” to collect them by not inundating them with too much all at once with a highly–limited items. Pace your sales. Or you could have such sales available for a long time, even indefinitely (and open edition) so that there isn't a crunch time that excludes collectors.
- Set up a source that people can join to stay current on your news, sales, releases, updates, and general goings on in the studio. Yahoo Groups is a popular option, but a more professional touch is to use a newsletter service. It's more visual and more adaptable, full of useful feedback data, and integrated better into social media. You can even put cart buttons in them. So it really puts the final touch on your marketing.
- When posting to your newsletter, always keep the members' needs in mind. What information is of value to them? Informative details and photos, for example, are a good start. And keep things concise and to the point. Also avoid being "tone deaf," so think of each newsletter as a new first impression every time. Remember, new people are subscribing all the time.
- Consider clear, thought–out, and fair contracts for commission work, time payments, and other situations where a long–term set of obligations are part of the deal. It’s also a good idea to enlist the help of your lawyer when drafting them, but there are several good legal templates and forms out there for artists to use, too. And understand that honest people will not balk at signing your contracts. Only those who could potentially be a problem will often hesitate or complain.
- Be clear in your mind about the purpose of your customer financing and contracts. Are they an incentive for an unruly customer to complete a deal, or to protect everyone and foster clear communication? It’s surprising how many erroneous assumptions are made when the conditions aren’t written down. Regardless, you’ll find a certain percentage of people willing to sacrifice the non–refundable deposit or break a contract for their own reasons, so be ready to follow through. And always remember that a short–term gain often has unwanted long–term consequences. Always play the long game.
- Act to support and protect the market, even if that means adopting new ways to foster it for the better. Being in business means you now have a stake in the larger experience and so what’s good for the market is good for you.
- Work to protect your customers and their interests. This includes employing policies that prejudice against scalpers, spec buyers, and others who would prey on them.
- Consider refunding return postage fees when issuing refunds on returned work. These concessions are part of the package of being in business and breed good will.
- Learn quality photography skills and invest in the proper equipment and training in order to present your work truthfully and with professional polish. If you can’t, hire a professional photographer who can. Quality images are that important.
- Become skilled in the use of your photo editing program to improve the quality of your images. And keep your images well organized for easy access.
- To expand your studio, research some galleries, local shops, or artist co–ops to find reputable ones that are the right fit for you. Be well-versed in their policies and contractual obligations, keep them well–stocked, and actively promote them in your marketing. What's more, when offering and promoting work outside the equine collectibles market, only offer work that's 100% yours, 100% your original work. Avoid offering or showcasing pieces involving other people's work.
- Take care of your gallery partners. If a private sale was inspired by what someone saw of your's in a gallery, consider sending that gallery a percentage of that sale—remember, their promotion played a part in it. A great gallery relationship truly can be a tipping point in your career, so nurture it.
- Have a business agenda behind every donation, collaboration, licensing agreement, exhibition, expo, art fair, etc. They should have a tangible purpose for your long–term business goals as well as immediate benefits.
- Try to have a ready inventory of available work—you never know when that happenstance sale will happen. This is especially true with giftware or jewelry lines because they're usually impulse buys.
- Find your niche. Discover your target customer. Likewise, pinpoint open niches in the market because perhaps some scales or breeds are underrepresented.
- Price your work with the resale market in mind. The customer should be able to resell your work for at least the initial purchase price. A good rule of thumb is this: if you have about ten people all seriously wanting to buy a single piece, you've hit "Goldilocks" price point for that piece.
- Always side in favor of original authorship because that ultimately protects you, your colleagues, your collectors, and the market.
- Back up your computer and devices regularly!
- Be prepared to take risks. Weigh the pros and cons, of course, but sometimes a strategic risk can really pay off. This includes the kind of work you produce: stretch yourself.
- Read books, talk to professionals, and take classes on running an art-based business. Stay open and stay flexible.
- Along those lines, don't plagiarize or copy another artist's work: make your work 100% original, yet with the understanding that similarities will naturally occur in such a focused, limited art form as equine realism.
- Think about the presentation and packaging of your art work, regardless of what it is. This can be particularly important for giftware and jewelry because people want gifts they can be proud to give. Presentation is an important first impression and is actually a form of marketing. It's not an afterthought or "extra."
- Think about framing and phrasing of your work and involvement.
- Engage your community!
- Network and develop good relationships with your colleagues. You never know what wisdom and opportunities they have to offer—and don’t forget to return the favor. So build and maintain a solid network of successful colleagues already running their own successful art businesses.
- Realize that some people won’t regard their obligations to you as important as their mortgage payment or power bill. In fact, a few will try your patience consistently. This is inevitable. Your only real recourse is prevention, so keep tabs on the behavior of each customer during transactions. For those people who are consistent problems, don’t be afraid to quietly blacklist them. On the other hand, you’ll find that many people are reliable, responsible customers who make a transaction a breeze. If they’re repeat customers, all the better! It’s smart to offer exclusive perks and access as a show of appreciation to them—they’ve earned it. Those who read and abide by your policies and don’t abuse the business relationship should be given more consideration.
- Become sophisticated in the different ways to sell your work to your best advantage.
- Learn to defend your work professionally and convincingly. Use informed examples, accurate knowledge, biological facts, and common sense...and never become shrill. Keep it cool, composed, and collected. Also don't put words in people's mouths, especially a colleague. Base your argument on your own facts and perspectives.
- Don't spend too much time selling your work. Remember that your time is best spent in the studio generating more of it. So streamline wherever possible. KISS.
- Establish these three concepts as your Three Steps to Success: (1) Reliability: the quality, consistency, and diversity of your body of work, (2) Relationships: the customer’s positive experience and perception of you and your business, (3) Relevance: the question, “How will this situation, choice, or opportunity benefit my business five years from now? Ten years from now?”
- Put together a portfolio. It should look professional and be well thought out. You can even create on one digitally for your smartphone to make it portable. You may also want to create one for gallery submission, so research today's standards and etiquette if that's your intention.
- Never become a blowhard.
- Always try to be cheerful, accessible, and accommodating. Treat each interaction as though it was the first, and be respectful, courteous, and professional, too. Creating a happy relationship simply makes for a happier experience for all involved. And remember, for every problematic person there are loads more lovely people. Find them, and let them fill your lives with their cheer and good will, then pay it forward.
- Always invest in R and D: research, study, experiment, improve.
- Learn professional standards of shipping and religiously employ them.
- Be mindful of production schedules and the pace of your work. Don't overbook commissions or sign on for more than you can chew.
- Know thyself when running a commission-based studio. It demands a peculiar artistic mind with a peculiar knack for organization, time management, and working under pressure, so if you can't, avoid commissions altogether. It's just better policy to operate within your realistic limitations rather than hopeful objectives. It's often better to adopt the idea of "it's not ready to ship, it's not ready to sell."
- Complete contracts and work-for-hire pieces on time, according to specifications. Work with clients to deliver exactly what they want—they aren't your opponents, but your partners. And always be professional and friendly—never become intractable or a diva.
- Find a healthy equilibrium between your studio life and your life in general. Make time for family, friends, and outside interests. Taking moments away from the studio helps to reinvigorate creativity and interest, and can even inform your work.
Clearly The Do’s encompass those aspects of your studio life that think of the quality of your work and operations, your customer, your public image, your reputation, and your long–term business goals. Doing so puts you on the fast track to success and ensures that you’ll be creating happily in your studio well into the future. So now let’s see how that can go horribly wrong…
These "don'ts" are best avoided in your art business, and the important key term is art business. Selling tires, apples, laundry soap, insurance, cars, or other needed items is very different from selling art, a luxury item. People buy art or become loyal collectors for highly personal reasons, and if you disregard them, you’ll be out of business pretty soon. We're also selling in a niche market—equine collectibles—and that adds on complications and concerns that need consideration.
Also keep in mind that unlike other businesses which are often based on a mass–produced or imported product, you are an in–house production company—only you can create the art you do. This means that there's already a highly skewed supply and demand equation. So your time is precious because, remember, you only get paid by what you produce—with no vacation, no sick days, and no other co–worker or department to cover for you or take up the slack. You have to wear a closet full of hats, and all you have is you, your hands, and the clock. Always keep this reality close to heart. Where is your time best spent? How can you make every minute count?
Also remember that the market for equine realism is relatively small and highly competitive. This means that if your work slides in quality or you have enough bad PR, you may have compromised your long–term interests. Always evaluate how each situation will impact your future, which is especially important with problematic methods, situations, or customers. It also includes social media posts, posts on forums, or interactions with people. If you’re serious about your art business, you have to think in long game terms about everything. If you don't, you risk tumbling into trouble, and once you’ve fallen, it can be difficult to climb out. Always tread carefully. So…
- Regard your art and the business of your art as separate aspects of your studio. In reality, they are interdependent, so be as passionate about the art of your business as you are about your art.
- Forget that time is money. You’re a working artist who’ll get paid only by what you produce. If you’re too undisciplined to buckle down, it’s better to dabble in your art as a pastime endeavor.
- Bite off more than you can chew—ever. Have a very clear idea of what you can accomplish within certain time lines, and never push that envelope.
- Underestimate production schedules. If you think it’ll take a month to get into the customer’s hands, triple that time to be safe. Something always happens to muck up time lines, and timelines rarely pan out as planned.
- Don't be inconsistent with quality such as creating better sales pieces then skimping on commissioned work. Each piece must represent your full investment.
- Abuse your mailing resource. Keep a newsletter or mailing list strictly for business and keep it to the point. It’s not a vehicle for personal tirades, vendettas, babbling, oversharing, griping, or inflammatory topics. It’s a business tool—nothing more. Never hold your collectors as a captive audience, so only post information directly relevant to their interests in your work.
- Confuse friendships with business relationships. Keep business as business—always. And strive to maintain your boundaries with compassion and fairness. Your true friends will appreciate and respect that boundary while those who intend to exploit you will show their true colors.
- Assume that a notarized contract or agreement will make something official and binding. An attorney can draw up a contract, but a notary cannot. That’s called “practicing law without a license.” All a notary stamp can do is authenticate a signature in court—that’s it.
- Send paid–for pieces as "gifts" overseas so the recipient can avoid paying customs fees. That's defrauding the respective government and if you're caught, big financial and legal problems await you. No one serious in your work will demand this "perk" because it places you in the firing line of big liabilities.
- Engage in trading work for business ends. The problem with trading work is that the trade rarely is truly equitable, and trades are considered income to the IRS, which means your book–keeping just got that much more complicated. Keep it simple—keep it in dollars and cents.
- Jump into collaborative work or work–for–hire without some somber evaluation. An invitation to paint or sculpt a piece as a professional commission may be flattering, and even good exposure in the short–term, but is it an equitable situation for you? What are the pros and cons? Again, always evaluate such things from a long game perspective.
- Behave in public in a way that compromises or tarnishes your professional image. You need professional distance, so avoid sharing too much about your personal life because TMI isn’t only awkward, it can be destructive to your PR. Also refrain from political or religious opinions because they can be polarizing. The fact is, the moment you chose to operate as a business is the moment you lost your freedom to be "just one of the guys"—accept it.
- Treat your colleagues or collectors—or anyone—disrespectfully or carelessly. Be mindful of what comes out of your mouth and off your keyboard, especially about your fellow artists and their work. Snide insinuations, careless words, prickliness, over–sensitivity, passive–aggression, or outright hostility have no place in a business plan.
- Make snide insinuations or beg questions about the work of other artists in advertising and promotion. If our work cannot stand on its own merits, we have to revise our own methods and prerogatives.
- Forget that your business is founded on your current and future customers. Never take them for granted.
- Forget that you must prove yourself with each new work; a positive artist reputation is something that must be affirmed with each new piece. Never bank on the fame of previous work! You’re only as good as your last piece and so the longer you’re in this business, the more you have to prove.
- Use access to your art as a weapon. Sure you may not personally like so–and–so, but to prevent them from buying from you is bad business. Remember, business is business. Keep the personal out of it. The only time to blacklist is with a problematic customer.
- Violate the reserved rights of another artist. If you want your rights to be respected, you first must respect those of others.
- Claim original authorship to works that aren’t wholly yours.
- Plagiarize or steal the ideas, techniques, or work of others.
- Assume that copying is going on if pieces are similar. Remember that we are dealing with a finite number of possibilities within equine realism, and unintentional similarities should be expected. So never leap to conclusions if two pieces are similar in scope or design—try to remember that coincidences happen, especially in such a focused art form.
- Assume a judge is an "idiot" if they didn't place your work favorably. Remember that we're all one a sliding scale of knowledge, and we're learning all the time. It could very well be that our work is flawed, but our blindspots aren't letting us see the errors. The venue also applies inconsistent judging criteria, and that's typically the root of goofy placings, not judge shenanigans.
- Design your own website when you aren’t skilled in this specialized skill. Between advancements in social networking, search engine developments, website features and pirating activity, leave those concerns to a pro. Also avoid music—that's a big no no. And keep things visual—we're selling art and people need to see it!
- Undercut your galleries in private sales for the same type of work they’re offering of yours, especially if that work is under thirty months old (and thus no longer considered current). Never forget that a gallery is your business partner!
- Sell at a loss. You destroy the value of your work and that has unwelcome repercussions for you and your collectors.
- Hold discount sales regularly to move product, especially at deep discounts. This sends problematic messages to the public, and conditions them to simply wait for these sales. Keep your prices reasonable and firm. If work isn't moving, you may have to have a discount sale—sure—but learn from it for the future because your price points may be off.
- Put all your proverbial eggs in one basket. Diversify your portfolio, your selling methods, and your avenues of selling—you'll reach more people that way and give them more opportunities to collect your work in a way comfortable for them. So take advantage of the instant global marketplace created by the Internet, and the many art–based and hand–made online selling venues like Etsy® and ArtFire®. Payment buttons (like those created through Paypal®) and auction sites like My Auction Barn® and Ebay® are also options.
- Depend on a small, fixed client base to provide you a steady living wage. You need to develop your customer base so it diversifies and grows, which will safeguard your livelihood. The bigger and more varied your collector base, the more options you have, especially if the market takes a hit.
- Allow “spec buying” of your work. This is when someone commissions work from you and then resells it, sometimes before they receive it or even before it's finished, for a price bloated far beyond what they initially paid you. Not only is this exploitative of you and the other buyer, but it places you in a terrible position of delivering a piece inconsistent to the value you agreed on. It also heaps unsettling liabilities onto you without your consent. The best plan is to immediately cancel the order, refund, and blacklist.
- Donate willy–nilly. Sure, donations may be good exposure when you’re wanting to get known, but donations actually tell the public that you can afford to give away your work. Do that enough times and you begin to erode its value. This isn't to say that donations are a bad thing, just be careful in practice.
- Price your work too high as to compromise your resale market. If you have less than five buyers for a particular piece, you’re pricing your work too high. On the other hand, if you have more than fifteen, your pricing is too low. Find that sweet spot of about ten people ready to buy. Protecting resale protects your customer, and that's always a good thing.
- Assume that you deserve high prices because so–and–so gets them. Your work is only worth what the market will pay for it, not what you think you deserve. And nice price tags are earned and re–earned with each piece—they are not an entitlement. If you want the nicer prices, be sure your work begins to reflect it. And yes—it takes a lot of hard work and sacrifice.
- Consider the purchase price as “your money” until the piece is finished and safely delivered to the buyer. You never know when you may need to issue an immediate refund. Realistically speaking, that money isn't yours until the finished piece is satisfactorily delivered to the buyer.
- Assume the buyer will like the piece when seen. Again, be ready to issue a refund. Buyer remorse is just bad PR for you. Never force a sale onto anyone.
- Become a “lend/lease” exchange for work by allowing the infinite option to exchange old work for new work while an order remains pending in its completion. Not only does this obligate you to become a storehouse of sitting inventory (and that's a liability), but it sets you up for a nightmare of record–keeping and shipping. And again, it obligates you to deliver quality you never got paid for since improvement will happen over time. Once a piece is agreed upon and sold—it’s sold as is.
- Accept time payments that are too spread out over the calendar. Keep your payment plan short and sweet whenever possible. It may be nice to get that high price, and the customer may be gleeful about the “friendliness” of a long–term payment plan, but what are you risking with it? A lot of policing, time, energy, money, and your liability has just increased a hundred–fold. A lot can happen in that long span of time, and it may not unfold in your favor! Never forget that “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”
- Show a piece that’s currently under a payment plan because of your liability. What if something happens to damage it? And what if that piece places poorly at a show? What if it gets stolen or mislaid? No amount of damage control will save that PR disaster.
- Sell a piece until it’s finished and ready to ship; otherwise you’re opening yourself up to a lot of liability and unhappy customers. Again, “if it’s not ready to ship, it’s not ready to sell."
- Be casual in accepting down payments to generate start–up capital for an edition or project (especially if the master is unfinished). Doing so, especially without a working mold or viable production process, is asking for heaps of trouble if taken lightly. Give this serious thought regarding the long–term liabilities this practice can generate for you.
- Be cavalier about accepting down payments on an unfinished sculpture or piece. Like the previous situation, there are too many variables that can spell disaster for you. While it’s alright to keep a “first option” list, it’s often problematic to accept payment to reserve the piece. Try to keep it simple: once the piece is finished and ready to ship, that's when you sell it.
- Underestimate the bad apples. Every community has them, so learn to deal with them in a professional manner. Avoid places where they frequent if necessary, to include forums. Consult successful colleagues if you need backstory or references.
- Ignore that about 10% of your customer base will try to push your boundaries, disregard your policies, or take advantage because they regard you as “just an artist” and interpret their purchase as more of a pastime than a contractual agreement. This means that your policies and selling methods must be designed for that bottom–line.
- Ignore the fact that your presence on forums or other social media will be interpreted differently than that of a collector or casual participant. Artists, and especially popular professional artists, inhabit a rather strange place where our words and opinions have greater weight, even in casual conversation. Our mere presence can skew conversations or inspire conclusions that weren't intended. Those who agree with us get equally chastised, too, for being "sycophants." For this reason, professional artists need to be extra careful where they socialize, how they socialize, and about the nature of those connections.
- Engage in practices that don’t come easily to your inherent nature. This includes commission work, donations, or work with deadlines or micromanaging. Trying to work in a way contrary to your inherent nature is a train wreck waiting to happen. You have the power to design a studio life custom–fitted to your tendencies, so do it.
- Engage in commission, donative, or other such work without clear–cut policies and procedures. These can include a non–refundable deposit (usually about one–third of the purchase price), a time–line of deadlines, and (ideally) a contract.
- Keep credit card numbers on file, or store such information on your electronic devices, especially those that are networked. Shred every number after you’ve run the card, or delete it from your devices. For onsite processing, use new technology like Apple Pay, Square, and Paypal POS gizmos to process card information. You never want to be the depository of people's credit card data. A single breach will put you out of business and open you up to extremely expensive liabilities. Similarly, don't process credit cards unless you comply with the new PCI compliance standards. This includes processing in your home, or from an exhibition or fair. Remember, as the business owner you’re responsible and liable for identify theft.
- Assume your work isn’t selling because the market is depressed. Good, innovative work that taps into what the market wants always has healthy sales, regardless of market trends.
- Be bullied, guilt–tripped, or coerced into practices, projects, or situations that are counter–productive to your goals. For instance, you’ll often have the “fairness” card played against you when it comes to selling methods. Similarly, you may experience the “entitlement” card played against you when it comes to donations, as if you owed donated work. So have clarity and perspective when evaluating such complaints, and dive only into those endeavors that benefit your goals and the long–term interests of your consistent collectors.
- Be distracted by general complaints and whining. And if you notice, most of that comes from those who aren't your customers anyway! Only concern yourself with your work and your paying customers, not those who don’t buy from you.
- Bait and switch—ever.
- Confuse your customer or fee them to death with shipping costs. For clarity, it’s often better to make your items postage–paid, especially if they’re high–ticket items.
- Skimp on shipping supplies, methods, or avenues. Pack professionally and responsibly so your work gets to the buyer intact and beautiful. Never forget that your standards for shipping will be the first in–person impression the buyer will have of you.
- Assume that a customer who hasn’t responded to your inquiry is deliberately ignoring you. Things get lost in the mail or in a spam blocker. You also don’t know if that customer may be dealing with an unforeseen misfortune that takes precedence. Again, life happens.
- Be afraid to use certified letters or your lawyer to get a desired response if someone really is being problematic. Emails often aren’t acceptable in court for official contact or documentation in such matters.
- Engage in sales with a casual attitude—ever. Take what you’re doing very seriously, especially if you’re selling high–dollar pieces. When you begin to act like a business, a new set of obligations come into play: live by them.
- Send out mixed messages. Telling people you won’t ask “unreasonable” prices, yet standing on the sidelines while your auction prices go through the roof, or accepting high–dollar offers only means you aren't walking your talk.
- Forget that how you act is a reflection on your colleagues and the larger community. When you act in unprofessional ways, you contribute to the perception that the business of art in this venue really isn’t a business.
- Attack, be rude, or antagonizing towards a customer (especially in public) for any reason, even if he or she wants to make you scream. Above all, never try to “teach them a lesson.” Chances are they won’t get it and it’ll only be fuel they’ll use to publicly flame you. No matter how wronged you feel, always remain professional and polite, and never hand anyone ammunition to fire back at you. You’ll be judged more on how you handle a difficult transaction than how you handle a good one.
- Blather on with a customer—get to the point, stay on point, and be professional. Your customers have busy lives, too.
- Underestimate the power of customer satisfaction. The realistic equine art market is relatively small and collectors talk to each other, and you can bet they’re sharing their buying and collecting experiences. So make sure what they say about you, especially repeatedly, reinforces your business goals.
- Dismiss these four factors: (1) ability to maintain the quality, diversity, and innovation of your work, (2) embracing the customer’s experience, (3) having a vision for your studio goals, (4) being mindful of your online and social network practices in regards to your PR image.
As you can see, The Don’ts essentially discourage the running your art business with a casual “hobby” attitude, or acting on impulse or unprofessionalism. Because all this may be a hobby to your collectors, but it certainly isn't a hobby to you. If you’re going to engage in business, assume a business–like attitude; otherwise you’re doing a disservice to others and especially to yourself.
Art and business aren’t like oil and water—they’re more like cream and a whisk. Use the whisk properly and you have something even better—whipped cream!
Likewise, a big mistake many artists make is dismissing business aspects that are contrary to the artistic mind. Many of us artistic types just aren't good with all the paperwork and fiddly stuff that goes along with running a brisk business. That's because business elements are different from creating in clay and paint, yet they’re no less important to our future. So automate, delegate, or hire out whenever possible to minimize your efforts directed to such dealings. Always remember that only you can create the work you do, so think about where your time is best spent—filling out tax forms (which can be hired out) or creating your art?
But also remember that being “business–minded” doesn’t mean you have to be all business and no play. You can maintain your artistic integrity and approachability while still making a living off your creations in a responsible, professional way. Artists around the world prove this every day—and you can be one of them. Indeed, if you want to spend most of your time creating in that clay and paint, adopting a sound business foundation is your only insurance, your only best bet that will remain true indefinitely.
All said and done, good business is good for you, both financially and emotionally. It keeps you productive, saves your sanity, fills your life with happy customers and supportive colleagues, and it keeps you hungry for more. And that’s a sure–fire recipe for long term success. You owe it to yourself to be as business–like as you are creative, so adopt a smart foundation and join the happy ranks of successful working artists!
"The method of the enterprising is to plan with audacity and execute with vigor."
~ Christian Nestell Bovee