Art Career by the Numbers

There are in the numbers the means for any artist to quantify their career in ways that can help them make smart informed decisions about how to enjoy a successful calling as an artist.


Recently, I needed to revisit a guest blog I wrote for titled, Art vs. Marketing – Making Hazel Dooney Cringe. Rereading the post reminded me it mentions Andy Warhol’s “Do It Yourself (Seascape).”  It is an example of how many believe his best work was expressed in the form of clever jokes on high art.

Warhol is oft-quoted for his pithy and spot-on sayings regarding the art business. Obviously, he had no problem connecting business and art.

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In my most recent guest post, titled Welcome to the Wilderness, I comment that an art career can be quantified.  While such a thought may be anathema to some artists, I’m sure Andy Warhol would not have been one of them.

Visual art careers can be successful with fewer patrons than other arts

One of the points regarding quantifying an art career in my recent post was, of all the arts, visual artists require the fewest patrons to enjoy a successful career. For the most part, authors, playwrights, actors, musicians and performers require large numbers of paying customers to make a successful career. Not so for visual artists. There are obvious reasons, such as differing consumption rates and price points between art forms. As an example, for the price of original works and higher priced prints, one can buy opera season tickets, boxed sets of The Beatles and Bob Dylan, or see lots of films, et cetera.

By comparison, a successful visual artist arguably may only need a thousand, or fewer, consumers to purchase their art in the trajectory of their career. Of course, those who end up in the mass market with posters may end up with tens of thousands of buyers of their art. Posters and open edition prints aside, by most standards, a visual artist who gains 1000 collectors would be considered very successful.

What is your projected body of work?

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I speculated in my piece on that a prolific artist might make 100 paintings a year, which over a 30-year span would create a 3000-piece body of work. You naturally would adjust the numbers to your situation. Regardless, you can ask and answer these questions. What would it take to sell all my work? How many collectors? How many shows? How many galleries? If you have been making and selling art for a while, you have the data to plug in a spreadsheet. The raw results will you a good indication of how your current marketing stands up.

You can use such quantified information to help create a marketing plan for improving your sales. It will help you create “What If” scenarios. If a gallery gets 50% and your additional costs to ship and work it are say 5%, you net 45%. If you sell direct, (I recommend to never cut your direct sales prices. Doing so has nasty implications on your work’s value and your worth to a gallery.) your net is 100% less your marketing costs. A figure of 25% – 30% for marketing on average is conservatively reasonable, as it could easily be much higher.

Although you may have symbiotic relationships with galleries, dealers and designers, you are still looking out for number one. As such, you need to get a finger on what is working regarding how you get your art to market. The question you ask is can my galleries move my inventory faster than I can? Or, should I go it alone and sell direct through shows, Web sites and alternative spaces?  You have, or will gain through experience and exposure, enough information to guide your decision.

You can turn raw numbers into actionable plans

The above is just one example of how you can think through what works best for you. Here is another one. I worked in gallery in Scottsdale that, while open to the public, primarily catered to the design trade. Its best artist was a very pragmatic fellow. His work was impeccable and he was very productive. In his 60s, he still painted with a passion. He told me his work had sold for 3-5 times greater prices than ours in higher end galleries. He wasn’t in them any longer because he had found our gallery would pay in full on delivery. He was happy to trade $4000 – $5000 far in the future dollars now for $900 today. Because his work was so good and priced so right, it never stayed on the floor for long.

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Would such a deal work for you? It doesn’t matter. What is important is this artist found a way to work steadily and be paid regularly. He was not worried about his legacy. He figured it would be what it would be and decided after he was gone. He had run his own numbers and found this distribution system suited him. For others who paint slower, or whose work is less accessible, this may not make sense. But, there in the numbers somewhere is a way for any artist to quantify their career in ways that can help them make smart informed decisions about how to enjoy a successful calling as an artist.

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  1. Brad,
    You are a trooper. I’m happy for your success even if it comes a little bittersweet regarding keeping some balance in your life. Are there some slight alterations you can concede to slip away in slow times to see your family, send a blog note or just chillax? Thanks for the note and your ongoing support.

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