You Must Obey the First Rule of the Art Business or Risk Failure

You must understand and obey the first rule of the art business.

Rule #1 establishes the ironclad premise that on the business side of your career, nothing happens until somebody buys your art. You can make the most beautiful, powerful, spellbinding, and compelling art possible. However, until it passes hands to someone who willingly steps up and pays for it, you are working at a hobby.

Art Business Rule #1:

Make art people want to buy and find efficient, effective ways to sell it to them.

You can spend hours building the Taj Mahal of websites and write blog posts until your fingers bleed. You can create a vast newsletter mailing list, and grow a massive list of Twitter followers, Facebook friends, and fans, and be up to your ears in all kinds of other cool, trendy social media, but without buyers, it is useless.

Does Your Career Need a Tune-up?

Unfocused activity is a career killer, and so is letting perfectionism rule while productivity declines. You must know:

  • The sources of your website traffic
  • What motivates customers to buy your art
  • What kind of art you make sells the best
  • Which of the various art marketing methods you use produces the best results

Not knowing these things may be the reasons why your career might be floundering, or needs a tune-up.

Free Art Business Checklist
Get your free Goalkeepers Club checklist. All help. No pitch.

You are an adult, solo entrepreneur. As such, you must be self-motivated. Being an entrepreneur, especially in the early going, means giving up stuff you like to do. Watching your favorite television shows has to go. Leisurely shopping in a mall or online is out. Taking long vacations unplugged from the digital world is a no-no. Wasting time on Facebook looking at silly cat videos needs to stop, no matter how tempting. ANYTHING that consumes your precious time needs to be cut out of your routine until your career is running smoothly and profitably.

Don’t Dismay. It’s Not Forever.

These things are not a life sentence. You can eventually carve out time to do those activities you have temporarily put away for the sake of your career.

The E-Myth RevisitedThere is a reason Michael Gerber’s book, The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It has been a perennial bestseller for years. He tells the unvarnished truth about entrepreneurial failure and offers rational solutions for avoiding the pitfalls that kill so many otherwise promising careers and solo business ventures. Much of it hinges on learning to let go, to trust, and how to build a team to help you reach your goals.

Working at a Real Job Makes Succeeding at Your Art Career More Challenging.

I think you are starting to get the drift here. I am talking about making sacrifices to get the place you want to be with your career.

It’s only worse if you are a breadwinner with an RJ (Real Job.) A full-time job seriously cuts into your productive time. It forces you to be focused, driven, and organized to meet your goals.

Free Art Business Checklist
Get your free checklist. All help. No pitch.

I Have Been There, Done That and Have the T-shirt (and scars) to Prove It.

If you are working full-time, I can sympathize. For ten years, I published this blog, built courses, gave workshops, and wrote my books as a second career to a demanding full-time job. It was grueling at times, but it was worth it. The things I sacrificed were mostly in the leisure time category. As such, I have no regrets. It’s why I encourage you to buckle down if you have a goal of going full-time as an artist.

I like to make money. I bet you do, too.

To make the many hours I spent doing all the activities mentioned above payoff while continuing my RJ, I had to make sure I kept my blog current and exciting and continue to offer a growing range of products that artists like you would want to buy.

I taught myself how to build a blog and website using WordPress, studied SEO tactics, sharpened my marketing skills, gained a growing familiarity with social media, and dug into online advertising.  I had to learn how to do the right things with the right media so you could find me online, and I had to package what I offer to encourage you to go from being interested in buying things from me. It’s a lot to learn for anyone, and you can’t do it without putting in the time.

The result is this is my full-time job now. I know I can do a better job providing information for you and a better job of marketing that information to you. I’m working steadily at making that happen. As an artist, you need to do the same things. That is to work smart and hard to make art others want to buy and work equally hard and intelligent at finding buyers for it.

You Can’t Do It All—and Do It All Well!

You can’t just do one thing well and succeed. You have to get it all done, and the better you are at each facet of your art business, the more you will thrive. Many artists I know have a spouse, friend, or employee who handles helping do some of the business and marketing aspects for them.

Free Art Business Checklist
Get your free Goalkeepers Club checklist. All help. No pitch.

I think this should be the goal of every artist. That is, work as fast and efficiently as possible to get to the point where you can bring on help. If you think only you can do some of these things, you are doomed to a low paying career.

Sure, you may be better at some things, it doesn’t matter what the other things are, well accept maybe making the art, (Damien Hirst and other contemporary artists don’t even do that), but you need to let go of everything you can delegate to someone else. Whether marketing, selling, exhibiting, shipping, or customer service, getting help will help you obey the first rule of the art business.

80% of Something Beats 100% of Nothing.

When you attempt to do it all, the tendency is to let things slide. This is bad. It is much better to find someone who can do the same work as you at 80% of your ability. The difference is they will get it done rather than have it languish along with your career. And, if they are any good, in what will seem like no time, they’ll likely be as good or better than you if for no other reason than repetition.

What you need to do is start recognizing and obeying the first rule of the art business. I could write a whole book on this subject, and very well may someday, but I’m busy right now promoting my new How to Sell Art to Interior Designers book. In the meantime, here are some suggestions for you:

  • Set up a Google Analytics account and start tracking where your web traffic comes from.
  • Find out what pages are most popular and look for trends.
  • Track which of your art pieces sell most regularly and identify why.
  • Track your social media activity to see if you are getting new buyers or solid prospects from it.
  • Try setting up unique landing pages for specified campaigns to find out if you are generating buying traffic from your social media, newsletter, email, and other targeted marketing efforts.
  • Keep track of your time to know if you spend enough time on marketing, or are spending too much time in the studio.
  • Are you getting business from some physical galleries and little from others? Find out why.
  • Are you getting business from online galleries and not others? You need to determine what is working and why.

There is much more you can do. Don’t wait for a perfect plan. Just get started and figure it out as you go. If you can’t all the above done right away? No problem. Just get started.

Get to the Heart of What Works and Why, Then Lather, Rinse, and Repeat.

The essence of what we are talking about here is pinning down the first rule of the art business. The more you know about why you have buyers, where they come from, and what they like to buy, the more efficient you can do your marketing. And, armed with that information, the more likely you are to create art that sells quickly with ease.

If you are getting a significant portion of sales from one distribution channel, and they are not direct sales from networking with collectors, then you have a potential problem. If Facebook is delivering a significant chunk of buyers to you, that is great. But it’s scary, too. Anytime you are dependent on some other source of revenue; you are at risk. If something happens to that distribution channel, you don’t want to be scrambling to build up another one to replace it.

Keep going full steam on what is working, start looking equally hard at other opportunities to sell your art. There is always more than one way to sell your art. My book, Guerrilla Marketing for Artists: How 100 Collectors Can Bulletproof Your Career offers the fundamental premise that direct buying collectors can insulate you against galleries failing, Facebook falling from favor, or other distro channel failures, and put a solid foundation under your career.

You Need Multiple Distro Channels to Ensure Success and Safety.

I don’t believe you should ever have just one distro channel — the more ways you can sell something, the merrier. You must always know if your distro channel is producing a positive cash flow. If I find Facebook advertising is turning a profit, I am not going to rely solely on it. It is too fickle. I am going to look at postcard marketing, Twitter advertising, Pinterest marketing, and anything else that offers promise.

The way to succeed is don’t put too much on your plate at one time, but keep steadily testing and improving. You have to spend money to make money. Maybe Facebook advertising brings you enough profit to hire a part-time marketing person who can now help you get started using Pinterest, Twitter, postcards, or whatever you think is your next best method of selling art.

The smartest, most successful marketers at the entrepreneur and the corporate level are the ones who keenly study their business to know what works and why. They keep trying new things, blowing up the stuff that’s not working, and tweaking what is working to make it more efficient, effective and affordable.

When you begin to understand and obey the first rule of the art business, you will put yourself on the path to profitability and sustained long-success. Get going, and I will see you at the top!


Free Art Business Checklist
Get your free Goalkeepers Club checklist. All help. No pitch.


art business, marketing art, Selling art

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  1. Hi Barney,
    Good advice here and your efforts to keep us all motivated are always appreciated. The cat video was hilarious – I did watch it and may spend a little more time watching it again. I haven’t read your new book yet but Guerrilla Marketing is full of great stuff and I highly recommend it to anyone who is building their art career.

  2. It’s difficult to analyze sales when you have no sales. I have tons of people, friends and strangers alike, who tell me they love my art – but no one buys anything.

    1. Sorry to hear that. To sell your art with ongoing success, you have to find ways to show it on a regular basis to people who want to buy it and have the money to buy it. When you get to that point, you have to ask them to buy it. Jason Horejs has an excellent book called How to Sell Art. You can find many great tips and techniques in my Zen of Selling Art e-book. Both are available on Amazon.

  3. I’ve been reading your emailed Art Marketing ideas for a while now and really appreciate that you share your expertise. One question I’ve been meaning to ask you before I invest in one of your books, which I’ve long been tempted to do: I’m a photographer (scenics, fine art), thus do your ideas as put forth in your books apply to photographers as well?
    Thank you very much.

  4. Great ideas for starting artists, many of whom call themselves artist because they paint.
    This sometimes is more like somebody that has a bike calling themselves a cyclist.
    If your creations are desired by those other than your family or people that know you personally, you may have a chance. After that it is a job done with passion. Which still makes it a job, and if you want to keep working at it you have to keep working creatively, as with most rewarding jobs. This requires listening to those that have achieved this goal and putting those ideas into endless hard practice.

  5. Thanks Barney I really like your ideas and advise. Yes guilty as charged I tend to get involved with my computer and cant seem to put it down. You hit home with the putting the time in what works. I have a restaurant that does a great job of selling my art so I just let it chug along without paying much attention to it. Maintenance is one of the hardest things for me to do.

  6. Thank you for your articles which I continue to read and enjoy, Barney. Here’s what I’m wondering: Over the years as the economy has changed, I’ve watched what I can only describe as a huge decline in those who value original fine art enough to actually purchase it at a price that will compensate an artist for his or her costs let alone make them a profit. (Where I live, people don’t want to pay more than $300 for a large, nicely framed original.) Yesterday’s affluent boomer buyers have become today’s wanting to downsize and simplify retirees. Gen Xers and Gen Yers seem to be content with investing in cheap prints they can easily change out every few months as the mood moves them or art they can download to their Smart Phones. Over the years I’ve watched way too many galleries (including those that have represented me) close due to lack of business. And although I put a lot of energy into trying to form collaborations with interior designers, it was not productive for me. Whether that was my particular style, timing or what, I don’t know. As for on-line, in my experience, people don’t tend to purchase original art this way. I must admit, I’ve not warmed up to the social media thing. Have tried it, but found it to be very time consuming, an invasion of privacy and really not for me. Perhaps there’s a secret formula to succeeding in it, but whatever that is remains a mystery to me. So is your on-line marketing advice geared towards high volume, low-cost (e.g., prints) sales? What’s your marketing advice to those of us still creating original art that we don’t want to give away? The only thing I can think of (but don’t know how to actually do in practical ways) is to locate affluent art lovers.

    1. Thank you for following me and for kind comment regarding my work. You sound dejected, which I am sorry to hear. I don’t know where you live, but it is difficult to believe collectors are only willing to pay $300 for a large original. That sounds like you are running in the wrong crowd to me. I agree times are different and galleries are not as potent in selling art as before. Your comments include lots of reasons why people don’t buy art. It’s true, many don’t, but they also don’t matter. Your last line holds the key. You need to associate yourself with those potential art collectors both online and offline. I devote an entire chapter to Networking and another to Local Marketing in my Guerrilla Marketing for Artists book. The gist of both chapters is to get among those who buy art. Art openings, museums, art shows, cultural events and so forth. They are out there, you need to put aside your assumptions, get enthused about your art, and find ways to pull potential buyers into your orb. Easier said than done, but this is true for all entrepreneurial activities. Building a customer base for any small business is a numbers game. You need to get exposure to your best prospects. It’s totally doable, not necessarily easy, but worth the effort.

  7. Very important blog post, Barney. I was raised in a family-owned business, and my parents often said “know every day where your bread and butter comes from”. I personally have been writing too many blog posts as a distraction from thinking up and creating new pictures. Thanks for the kick!

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