Blog / 2016 / The Art Business Isn’t Like Any Other Business.

July 6, 2016

[video transcript]

This 25 minute talk was commissioned by Cory Huff of The Abundant Artist for his conference. The theme he provided was: “What It All Looks Like.” I struggled for almost two months with how to bring it all together, but the effort was worthwhile. I’m grateful for the challenge as well as for what it helped me to make.*

Gwenn Seemel photo by Isaac Watson
photo by Isaac Watson

Actually I’m grateful for a few things when it comes to Cory. His new book, How to Sell Your Art Online, features my career as an example!

Gwenn Seemel, Vicki Amorose, and Melody Blore
photo by Eileen Goldenberg

This photo represents a few of my favorite parts of the conference. I got to reconnect with the brilliant and lovely Vicki Amorose, whose ear I am about to lick and whose excellent book, Art-Write, should be in every artist’s library. Also, I got to meet the fascinating and funny Melody Blore, who’s pictured at right, as well as the wonderful and witty Eileen Goldenberg, who took the photo.

If you want more personalized advice about your art career, you can hire me as an art guide.

Gwenn Seemel
slide from the talk

You have probably been told throughout your life and in so many ways that artists aren’t good at business.

There’s the consoler: “You’re not good at making money with your art because real artists don’t have any business sense. Your poverty is proof that you’re a real artist.”

The berater: “Have you read any of the marketing books I’ve given you?”

The degrader: “Art is just a hobby. Don’t try to make money with it.”

What the consoler, the berater, the degrader, and all the rest don’t understand is that it isn’t us.

It’s not that artists aren’t good at business. It’s that the art business isn’t like any other business, because the so-called “products” that artists make aren’t like anything else on earth. They are little pieces of ourselves that we break off and shape before launching them into the world. They are love letters to people we’ll never meet. Blood, sweat, and tears. Our art is what keeps us alive, what makes life worth living.

In other words, the way most of artists feel about their “products” isn’t the way that most manufacturers feel about theirs. So why would our business work anything like theirs?

Artists don’t just make things and sell them. We make things, and we share them. And it’s as we share them that we start to connect with an audience, people who are interested to see what we will do next. And then it’s through that connection with that audience that we actually make money.

We get paid through private patronage—so that’s individuals purchasing our art or reproductions of our art. Through public patronage, which is individuals coming together as a community in order to support our art. And the money really flows when we understand our paywall.

So, that’s a lot of information! I’m going to dig into it all right now, starting not with the money stuff, but with your audience.

If you’re anything like me, you’d like to believe that anybody could be a fan of your art. Every single person in the entire universe might very well love what you do, and you wouldn’t want to deny anyone the pleasure of seeing your art. That’s nice and everything, but the truth is that not everybody likes everybody else, and not everybody is going to like our art.

The sooner we figure out who is actually a part of our audience, the better off we’ll be. When I was trying to determine who was part of my audience I found it easier to rule people out, at least to begin with. The process looked a little bit like this.

I’m a woman and I have strong opinions. Some people—both men and women—cannot stand women with strong opinions. These people are not my audience.

I’m friendly but I also have a kind of formality. Probably because my mother is French and French culture is a bit more formal than American culture. Also, my dad is ex-military and he was born in 1924. So, anyway, wherever my formality comes from, the point is that for some people it reads as snobbiness. These people are not my audience.

I don’t believe in copyright. I place all my art directly into the public domain refusing to claim my copyright on any of it, because I believe that copyright is damaging to creativity and it doesn’t actually help artists to make a living. Some people think that questioning copyright even a little bit is totally evil. These people can hardly talk to me without cursing at me, so it’s safe to say that they are not part of my audience.

That’s just some of who my audience is not. These are just three quick sketches for figuring it out. The first takes into account what I am, the second something of how I occur for others, and the third gets into the advocacy that I do through my art.

So that’s not my audience.

This is my audience. Her name is Charlotte, but I call her the Full Yum Unicorn because I love the living snot out of her. I mean, she’s my friend and she’s not my only audience member, but when I sat down to really write out or describe who is a part of my audience—the ideal audience member—what I realized is that I was basically describing my good friend.

She’s an artist and activist. She brings creativity into her everyday. She loves women, justice, equality. She’s bold and she’s curious about the world.

My audience is also Katie. She’s a longtime client. She’s funny and perceptive, and we just have a really nice time together. I’m longtime clients, I just, I can’t get over how wonderful it is to have them in my life and how sad my life would be if they weren’t there. And so how glad I am that I make art because it means that I get to meet these wonderful people.

My audience is also Gabe, Gabe Flores. He’s an artist. In fact, he was the first friend that I made through my art. And he helps me to see me—like see myself—more clearly, while also showing me how he sees the world. Side note: Gabe is also the person who pointed out to me that I needed to figure out who my audience was.

Putting specific faces on your audience like this is comfortable—it helps make marketing more comfortable—but it’s also really practical in the sense that anytime you’re about to start a new project or grant proposal or a blog post even, you can reach out to these people. You can call them up and talk to them and tell them about what it is that you’re working on.

Their feedback will probably be interesting, because they’re probably interesting people, but the exercise is more about what you say to them than what they say to you. When you need to get an idea out of your head and into someone else’s you talk about it a lot more clearly than when you’re just making notes for yourself. Plus, you have different relationships with different people. And so, maybe with one friend you’re more playful and with another you’re more analytical. Talking with both of those friends will help you to learn more about what it is that you’re actually thinking.

So that’s the audience part of things. Now let’s talk about how you turn that relationship with your audience into money. I talked about three ways of doing this: private patronage, public patronage, paywall.

The first, private patronage. Admiration for your art turns into sales when there is an appealing context around your art.

That context can be physical. It can be the space that literally surrounds the art object. So...your studio, or maybe a coffee shop, or even a gallery.

The physical context includes everything from lighting and placement on the wall to ambient noise and location of the venue. I mean there are just so many things that are wrapped up in physical context.

Then there’s emotional context, which is the mood of the potential buyer and of the people they’re with when they come to see your art. That emotional context can be influenced by what other people say about your art. Was it a critic—a trusted critic—who wrote about your show and that’s why people are coming to see it? But it’s not just what other people say. It’s also what you say about your art. It’s your marketing, your artist statement, all of that is going to influence how people see your art. It’s even just who you are! All of you is going to be a part of the emotional context of your art. And one last part that’s a part of emotional context that’s maybe not something that people think of right away is the price tag. That will definitely influence how your potential buyer views the work.

Of course, making the emotional and physical context around your art appealing can seem impossible because “appealing” is subjective. This is why you need to know who your audience is! Because otherwise you’ll get caught up in trying to please too many different kinds of audiences, and you’ll dilute yourself, your personality, or your message just to maybe make a sale. And it’s just not worth it. You just need to be who you are, and you let that appeal to the people it’s meant to appeal to.

For example, I easily pass as straight. I was born female and I identify as a woman, and my partner was born male and identifies as a man. But I’m also queer. I love people and all the shapes they take. And I don’t hide that. It’s a part of who I am.

In fact, I made all of this work about it. It’s a series and a book called Crime Against Nature. All of the images are animals who in some way diverge from our traditional notions of gender and sex. It’s pro-queer in an unapologetic manner that nevertheless has the possibility of appealing to people who may not be certain about homosexuality, but only so long as they enjoy learning science.

By promoting this art—this pro-queer art—maybe it’s true that I am making people who are uncomfortable with homosexuality not want to commission me to paint their portrait. But, it’s okay. I don’t hate them for their opinion, but I also don’t need to stare at their faces for eight months—because it takes me eight months to do a painting. I don’t need to stare at them and wonder what it is that makes them so uncomfortable with homosexuality. There are plenty of people who are okay with queerness and who need portraits done. They are my audience.

Before moving onto public patronage, I want to say one last thing about private patronage and specifically context. The first and best context for your art is always all the rest of your art. A full and rich body of work is impressive in a way that no amount of awards and accolades can ever be. So what do you do if you don’t have that full and rich body of work yet? It’s okay: you can take a kind of short cut if you’re not there yet. All you have to do is make your art in series.

So instead of making just one image of a dandelion, make many! This is good for you both artistically and in a business sense. Artistically, by really digging into everything that dandelions are, you’re going to make the best possible dandelion art. So, that’s cool. You’re going to be looking at different compositions, different moments in a dandelion’s life cycle.

And in a business sense, this will allow you to promote your stuff to different audiences. Ya, you can reach out to art writers, but now you can also reach out to botanical periodicals maybe. All kinds of things open up. Instead of doing the typical and rather boring marketing that so many artist do—the “come support my art!” approach—you get to do something more fun because the art isn’t just about you. It’s also about dandelions.

Some people are not going to be interested in this work. Some people just don’t get the appeal of dandelions. But that’s okay. That just means that they’re not your audience for this particular work. And the people who do love these little bits of sunshine that grow directly out of the ground, they’re going to be that much more into the show. They’re going to really dig into danelions with you, and they’re going to be able to compare your work to itself in a way that they can’t when there’s no theme to it. So they might like a piece, and then, in comparison with a similar piece, they might actually realize that they love it. So, liking becomes loving, becomes buying.

I get why artists put up shows that are just whatever they have in their studio, nothing related, no theme drawing all the work together: “Recent Work” shows. I get why it happens. I’ve done it, and I’ll probably do it again, but it’s a missed opportunity, and I would encourage you to not be losing out like that anymore.

Public patronage.

This includes grants and public art commissions, but also crowdsourced funding through websites like Kickstarter and Patreon. Crowdfunding is when individuals give amounts of money, either large or small amounts, and then, taken all together, this money is a way to fund a project if you’re working through Kickstarter or it’s a way to fund an artist’s career more generally if you’re working through a website like Patreon. Whatever form it takes, public patronage is always individuals getting together as a community to recognize the contributions that an artist is making to the health of that community.

And the community—when I talk about community—I can mean people who recognize themselves as a community, like for example the City of Portland, which would identify itself as a community, finding a wall for me to paint. Or I might mean a community in a broader sense, like the people who follow your art. So they may not even know that people exist—they would assume that you have an audience—but they won’t know each other and recognize each other. But they will still act as a community, drawn together by you.

For example, in 2011 I did a Kickstarter for that pro-queer work that I was talking about before. And when I started the fundraiser, I knew exactly what the work was going to be about. I had most of the text done, and I generally knew what the images were going to be. But I didn’t really want to reveal yet what the work was about because I hand’t made any of the images and it still felt really vulnerable.

So I decided to not tell my audience what they would be helping me to create. I did give a few details, like the fact that it would be images of animals for the first time, instead of portraits, because up till then I’d only done portraits when I was working in series. And my audience came together for me. Over fifty people gave to this project, both through Kickstarter and outside of it, and they really helped make it happen.

Asking for help like this directly from my audience is super vulnerable, and I say this despite the fact that I make a lot of really vulnerable work.

I think what really eats at me is the question: what if I ask for help and nobody gives it and everybody can see that nobody is giving it? How can you know that crowdsourced funding—that this kind of asking for donations—is going to work? The short answer is that you can’t. But you also kind of can.

Public patronage shouldn’t be your first attempt at monetizing your art. It’s really important that you have a track record, that people can see that you are unstoppable, that you’re going to make this art no matter what.

I didn’t get my first grant until five years into my career. I was asking for grants before then, but I didn’t start getting them until five years into my career.

I didn’t do the Kickstarter for that project until eight years into my career.

And I didn’t get my first offer for a public artwork until ten years into my career.

And then it was only in my twelfth year that I started to ask for support from my audience through Patreon.

These markers aren’t set in stone. I’m sure that someone could develop a relationship with their audience better and more quickly than I did, but that’s not really the point. The point is that public patronage doesn’t happen overnight. Nothing in an art career happens overnight.

Wou can’t be making art in secret, then publish like three pieces, and expect everyone’s going to automatically see you as an artist. If you haven’t been promoting your work and nurturing your relationship with your audience over the course of a period of time, it’s going to be really hard for that audience to see your work as something that is valuable to them, that is really a part of their lives. So, I guess what I’m saying is that: you should probably get to know people before you ask them for help.

Or not. I mean I’m sure there someone who, right out of the gate, makes buckets of cash and that’s cool. You hear stories that it happens. But what I’m saying is that, when I give, I know that I like to give to a cause I believe in and to a cause that I feel apprciates my giving. That’s what allows me to ask for help. I know what I give, and I know that I can provide that for the people who give to me.

Now let’s talk about the paywall. Unlike private patronage and public patronage, the paywall isn’t some source of money that you can tap into once you have a good enough relationship with your audience. Rather, the paywall is a way to think about making money.

The most common example of the paywall would be the news media site that publishes half of an article on the World Wide Web—or the beginning of it—then asks you to pay before you see the rest. It’s not like artists are doing that. They aren’t showing you half an image and asking you to pay before you see the rest, but in a sense we are. In the sense that we are publishing certain formats of our art for free and then reserving others for payment.

For example, a lot of artists will put their art up on the web for free—you can access it, see it, save it, all of that, all for free. But if you want a physical reproduction of the artwork, like a postcard or print, you need to pay for it. It’s one artwork, but it’s two different formats.

The first, the web version is outside the paywall. The second, the “in real life” reproduction is inside the paywall.

Of course, a paywall isn’t a solid, immoveable thing. And lots of artists who subscribe to this idea that web stuff should be free and stuff—objects—you should have to pay for that, they sort of also break that rule by giving out promotional materials, like postcards or business cards, images of their work in that way. And that’s okay! Paywalls are supposed to be changable and porous. They need to respond to context. In fact, it’s actually your job as an artist to figure out when your audience needs you to give them the art for free and when they are willing to pay for.

A good way to start decoding this is by looking at who your audience is, but this time in a financial sense. Every single artist—no matter who they are—has four different kinds of people in their audience:

One, there’s the people who don’t pay.

Two, the people who donate.

Three, the people who browse.

Four, the people who buy.

First, the people who don’t pay. I know that thinking about these people might make you angry, like: who are these people?! Total jerks, right? But if you look again at this group, I think you’ll find something interesting. I think that this group might surprise you because it probably includes you, definitely includes me, and almost certainly includes everybody else as well.

We’re all online every day, being inspired by other artists’ work and ignoring the fact that artists are not being compensated for this use of their art. And that’s not the only way we have free access to art. Plenty of times we go to public exhibitions and we don’t pay for them. We may be paying for them through our taxes that support public programs that make these exhibitions possible. But they’re basically free. And, what’s more the money that doesn go towards these exhibitions often doesn’t make it to the artists. You know, the curators and designers and everybody who works to put these exhibitions up, they’re almost always paid, but the artists rarely are.

This can seem unfair, but, like I said from the very beginning, the art business isn’t like any other business. It’s not like the manufacturer’s formula of:

Make the thing. Sell the thing.

And it’s not like the curator’s formula either, or the service-provider’s formula more gnerally:

Do the thing. Get paid for it.

Art isn’t like a product or a service in any traditional sense, because ART MUST BE FREE. Art must be free because it’s vital to the health of society, but it also must be free in order for all artists to make a living. I know that may seem nonsensical, but go with it, right?

If all art was locked up behind a paywall, not only would the world be really drab and boring: it would be hard to understand the value of art because it wouldn’t be a part of our everyday in the way that it is right now. So I guess what I’m saying is that we are all the people who don’t pay, and the fact that we sometimes don’t is also why we sometimes do.

Two, the people who donate.

I love these people. These people totally get it. They understand that are must be free, but they also want to see that artists are compensated for their work. I talked about donor stuff in public patronage, so I’m not going to get too far into it, except to say that besides Kickstarter and Patreon—the microdonation model of donations—there’s also the pay-what-you-want model, which is where you maybe have a set price for your artwork or reproductions of your artwork, but you make it possible for people to add a few bucks if they want to do that—or many bucks, whatever how much they want—you make that possible.

Donors aren’t trying to turn artists into charity cases. It really bothers me when artists feel that way about donations. I get where it comes from, but it really bothers me, because I think that donors are really coming from a place of love, of wanting to support artists. Maybe they don’t want any more stuff in their lives. Like maybe they’re not buying prints to support you because they don’t want anymore things in their life, but they want to put their money where it matters, and that’s with you. And so I would hope that all artists would at least consider making space for donors to do their thing.

Three, the people who browse before buying.

Most of us like to see what we’re buying before we purchase it, so even if you can’t quite cuddle up to the notion that art must be free, I hope that the browsers will encourage your to convince you to try to figure out how to share more versions of your art for free. You’re probably already doing it by putting your art on the web, so the fun is in trying to figure out how else you might do it.

Four, the people who buy.

We love the people who buy. They seem to really get it, you know? They understand and respect the work that goes into making art, and they are pretty awesome. But, while we’re busy adoring patrons and bemoaning the fact that there aren’t more of them, we often forget that buyers are also browsers, and sometimes they’re donors, and often they’re the people who don’t pay.

Understanding your audience is the key to making a living as an artist. And I mean this in the financial sense that I just described, but also in a way that is more specific to you, that is the people you gather around your work.

You find this audience by taking care of the context that surrounds your work, because, when you get the context right, your audience will be drawn to your work. It will work a lot more easily if you get context right. Then you need to ask your audience for help to really further and deepen that relationship. And really what you’re looking for is a relationship that has mutual respect. Audiences deserve the respect of the artists they support. They could be doing anything else with their time, energy, and money, but instead they are spending time, energy, and money on your art. And so I think it’s really important for artists to respect their audience because of that. Also, I think it’s important for audiences to respect artists. And maybe that’s not something I can control, but, when I see it happening—when I see an audience that really gets the courage and persistence it takes to be creative—there’s nothing more beautiful than that.

The art business isn’t like any other business. It doesn’t follow the manufacturer’s formula, and it definitely doesn’t follow the service provider’s one. Art has its own formula:

Share and connect.

The sooner artists recognize that we’ve got are own thing going on, the better off we’ll all be. We won’t listen to people when they tell us we don’t know what we’re doing, and we won’t pretend to be anything we’re not. We will be exactly who we are. We will be artists in the truest sense of the word.


February 3, 2022

*I still love this talk, but I struggle with one part of it: when I call myself cis. I finally came out more full about my identity in 2022, thanks to the pandemic. This video explains everything.

Maybe this post made you think of something you want to share with me? Or perhaps you have a question about my art? I’d love to hear from you!


To receive an email every time I publish a new article or video, sign up for my special mailing list.


If you enjoyed this post, Ko-fi allows you to donate. Every dollar you give is worth a bajillion to me!