Sunday, July 18, 2010

Advice to a confused artist

Today on the Quiltart list somebody wrote a long, discouraged message about her future. “I am really at a loss as to go about BEING an artist and having hopes of being successful at it,” she wrote, then went on to share some of her confusion.

“I was a member of a local art guild and showed at their big fall show and sold quite well BUT since this area is rural, my prices weren't very high. In fact, I was told to at least double my asking price when I sent a piece to a show once. So, I thought maybe I should try to get my art somewhere where I could ask for higher prices and began entering some of the national shows… Most of the time, I've been successful at getting into them and I sold one once from the Chicago IQA show...

“Seeing what the exhibits will be in Houston this Fall, I noticed SAQA is well represented. Am I the only one, or does it seem like it's mandatory to be a member of SAQA now to get any advanced information for shows?

“I never joined my ‘local’ guild because it's 1 1/2 hour drive away and I wasn't sure I wanted to join a guild that is mostly traditional and be the odd person out. Maybe I do need to start trying to connect more locally and try to fit in a bit more.

“Of course, all this costs money. Memberships in the guilds, IQA, SAQA, then entry fees for each show... it adds up and, at this point, it's adding up to a nice hobby but not much of a profession. I know I have to get my art in front of people to sell it, but I sure don't know where the best place is for that to happen…

“How much time do I have to put towards this? I work. I have kids that are active in different things. I feel good if I have time to make art, let alone try to market it. I know the day will come that I can devote more time to my art, but I don't think I should wait to create when I'm an empty-nester.”

I’ve heard this kind of anguish before, and not just from art quilters – the cry of somebody who doesn’t know where to start in getting out of a situation they are unhappy with. For some reason this message struck a chord and I thought I would respond at length, not just to the person who posted but to everybody, because only the details are different from the situation that everybody else is in to some degree or another.

So here’s what I have to say to the confused artist. Before you can become successful you have to define success. It seems that you define it as selling your work and turning your art into a paying job, so to speak.

If that's the case, you need to decide where is the best place to sell your work. What places could you sell locally or regionally? At a guild show? (That's once a year -- is that enough?) At a gallery or gift shop? In a restaurant? Through a real estate dealer? Via commissions? For this approach, you need to focus on building a local reputation so yes, you might want to join your local guild -- not so much for artistic inspiration but for networking. And you might think about doing things like giving talks to local groups or approaching the school to be an artist in residence, not to mention schmoozing any rich people you can find. Also for this approach you need to determine what kind of art will sell, and perhaps that will mean you make art on a production basis, lots of little blue quilts with birds (even if you hate blue), art that you think people will buy rather than art that you want to make.

Maybe selling locally is only a start, because you can't get enough money, and your ultimate objective is to sell on a wider geographic scale. In that case SAQA would probably be a great resource for you, since that organization is focused on selling members' work and encouraging collectors to buy quilts. In this case you will probably want to enter as many big shows as possible, not that you will sell a lot of pieces from shows but your resume and profile will benefit. And you should have a website and explore online sales opportunities.

No matter where you want to sell, you need to have a financial target in mind. If you want to make $50,000 a year from selling your quilts, you’ll need a different plan than if you would be happy to make $5,000. Of course you won’t make as much when you start out, so maybe you set a sliding target, $1,000 the first year, more in later years.

And no matter where you want to sell, you have to ask yourself, am I good enough to sell my work for the amount of money I would like to get for it? In other words, do you focus on finding a market for the type of work you are now good at producing, or do you concentrate on growing and improving so that in several years you will be good enough to make a better type of work? There are artists who never get past the little blue quilts with birds, because they manage to find enough buyers with undeveloped taste, and it's easier to keep churning out the birds and not have to think too hard. Of course, that makes it more like working at the garment factory and less like art, but maybe that’s OK with you.

The final question was "How much time do I have to put towards this? I feel good if I have time to make art, let alone try to market it."

That's a huge question. If you want to be successful at a free-lance business, whether it’s art, writing, massage therapy or real estate, you have to put in a lot of time marketing, maybe even half your time. For that reason, a lot of artists have decided to keep their day jobs to pay the rent and do art in their “spare time.” At least that way when you have a weekend to spend on art, you get to actually make art. In other words, maybe you should redefine success for the next ten years or so till your kids get older -- decide that you are aiming toward making quilts, entering shows, and getting better at your art/craft. If you sell stuff along the way that's fine but it's not your primary objective for this stage of your career.

As in every other aspect of life, be careful what you wish for. Think hard on how you define success and what you set as objectives. Only when you have your goal very clear can you decide how to accomplish it.


  1. I think you have some really good points in your post. I also think the reality of being a fiber artist that's going to make a living is not very realistic for the majority of us. So, yes, you need to set a goal of what you want to do but...I think unless you are a teacher, writer, developer of some unique technique or product you are not going to make the 50K a year in this art world. Just enjoy doing art! Find a library or gallery to display your art if that's what you want for people to see your work...and continue to enjoy the journey. Yep, this is just my 5 cents worth..ok, maybe it's only a penny's worth!

  2. Robbie -- you're right, of course, about $50,000. But it's surprising how many people will talk about wanting to make a living at art without giving any thought to how much constitutes a living. If they did, perhaps they would realize that they need to do a lot more than sell their art, such as teach, etc. Or that they can never realistically "make a living" out of it. Some people have managed to buck the odds, but I'm a believer in the don't-quit-your-day-job approach to art.

  3. Thanks for your thoughtful reply to the original question, Kathy. Taking the time to address this is a boon to all and just a small representation of your big heart.


  4. Your post probably just changed my life. I may have heard this advice in one way or another other places, but what you said makes so much sense and the way you put it together just struck a chord in my heart. I have a lot to think about, but a specific direction to take (for a change!) Thank you!

  5. Thanks for such a thoughtful post. The only careers advice I received at art school was find another job to support yourself as you will never make money from fiber art. So I have a 'portfolio' career (artist, writer, editor, teacher, lecturer and mother) so I don't have to make quilts with birds on blue. I forget sometimes and get discourage when my work doesn't sell. Thanks for reminding that I'm not necessarily a failure just because my work does not sell in copious/any amounts!

  6. Hi, And thank you for your post ... I believe there are a whole lot more artists out there who would benefit from your thoughts. This post is so extremely insightful and sometimes to hear someone else say what you can't straighten out in your own head ~ it just a very good first step to moving forward.
    Bravo and would absolutely love to hear more!
    Very best wishes,

  7. Thanks for your post! It helped me to hear how other people are dealing with this issue, to hear what they are thinking and doing about it. I'm right in the middle right now: trying to decide if I want to do the marketing it will take to really make a living at this, or find a job to support myself.