Why are Artists bad at marketing?

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A friend told me a story a few years ago about a very talented Architect he knew who worked out of a run down old studio, wearing 8 layers of clothing with just an electric bar heater to keep him warm. Apparently he would spend way more time on a project than he should, always tweaking things until he had blown the budget… He would never ask for more than the fee he had quoted, and would always find himself out of pocket. Guess where he is now…? Picking fruit.

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Having seen a few of his buildings, I believe it would be fair to say he was an Artist-Architect. But whilst he excelled in one area of his practice, he was a failure at the business end of things… The time management. The money. The marketing.

And although it certainly would not be true to say that all Artists are bad at business, we are generally pretty awful at marketing. And the proof is in the pudding – if we weren’t, why else would there be a burgeoning market of self-help advice for Artists on the internet?

So why are Artists so bad at marketing? Well, it’s a big question with many possible answers, but in order to get the ball rolling I’m going to stick my neck out and suggest that there are only two possible reasons:

  1. most Artists do not have any training in marketing, and do not understand the importance of it to their careers.
  2. Artists are inherently anti-marketing.

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The first point is fairly self-explanatory. The second is deliberately contentious.  But bear with me because there might be something in it…  In order to support this speculation, I’m going to take further liberties by distinguishing between Artists who are concerned mostly with making attractive things, and Artists who are conceptually driven…

The difference as I see it, relates to ‘pleasing’, and ‘consciousness’. Artists wanting to make beautiful, attractive things are in the business of pleasing – they make things designed to please, and appeal to the senses. On the other hand, Artist’s concerned with making conceptual works that challenge us cerebrally are likely to rely on a sceptical / cynical disposition to inform their work, and a cynical disposition involves being conscious – or as Julian Baggini puts it in this article for the Guardian newspaper, cynicism ‘is one of our best defences against spin and manipulation’.

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Now, instinctively the words ‘spin’ and ‘manipulation’ smell a lot to me like they belong to the vocabulary of ‘marketing’…

So, if it is possible to distinguish broadly between these two types of Artist, it might also be possible to make the case that Artists concerned with beauty are likely to have a very much easier time with marketing than conceptual Artists who are inherently wary of it. Which is good news for Artists making landscape paintings and decorative abstracts, who it would seem just need to take a crash course in marketing, but not such great news for conceptual Artists who are likely to struggle with their conscience.

For those who find themselves somewhere in the middle, as I do personally, perhaps our aim should be to find the appropriately fabled ‘middle way’ – to disassociate the words ‘spin’ and ‘manipulation’ from ‘marketing’, and look for opportunities to promote our work in a way that doesn’t offend our sensibilities. How do we do that? Well, that’s what the climb ‘from 0’ is all about isn’t it?

If you agree, disagree or would like to share your thoughts and ideas about why Artist’s are bad at marketing, please do so in the comments section below.

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6 Replies to “Why are Artists bad at marketing?”

  1. Damn right, Paul. I’ve been working to shift my mental disposition on this to a more productive (and healthier) attitude. Its a tricky thing, for me, at least, to try to use the tools that seem to typify the superficial, the fashionista-able, the shallow, the selfish, the exploitative, the dishonest, the ego-stroking, the vapid, and the fleeting to lead to a kind of dialogue in which I am more interested.
    I would hazard, somewhat trepidatiously, that many artists are concerned with getting to a kernel of truth, whatever that is to their thinking. Much of marketing seems inherently deceptive, doesn’t it? And perhaps overly concerned with many things many artists, and people, find objectionable (see the list in the previous paragraph).

    1. Thanks for the comment Adrian. I share your pain when it comes to what seems to be a dilemma with the ethical side of marketing, and its something I’d like to devote a post to, as I think there’s more to it than meets the eye.

  2. I find your argument interesting, and I’m glad you’re speaking out on the issue. I’m not sure I totally agree, however, with some of your assumptions. I would suggest that it is those artists interested in beauty who have no concept of marketing, simply because it’s not their sphere of interest/skill/knowledge/talent. On the other hand, conceptual artists are often great marketers, since their work is all about ideas and getting things out there…

    1. Thanks for your comment Anna, it’s an interesting point that begs a question… Why are some conceptual Artists ‘successful’, and others not? Often these days its not the quality of an Artist’s work that makes them successful, so it can’t all be about Artistic talent can it? Motivation, desire, perhaps necessity may play a part in making some Artists want to market their work to an audience, which they then believe may lead to ‘success’?

      If some conceptual Artists are more naturally predisposed to be better marketers than others, do they still have to learn the craft of marketing, or can they rely on their talents and wing-it?

      And then, what about the poor souls making beautiful things? Just because they are unskilled, disinclined or disinterested in marketing must they resign themselves to a state of destitution? Or can they, like their conceptually more able, but perhaps equally disinclined cousins learn the craft of marketing?

  3. Marketing most of all takes a lot of time and energy. Things most artists would rather devote to their art instead. Finding outlets, communicating, promoting, pitching, proposals, compiling/submitting paperwork, are only a few of the tasks involved. Dealing with turn downs, fees, rules and regulations, such as the new Amazon website’s demands (they hold one’s art hostage) or dealing with say an art gallery where the norm is a 45% cut of the sale or even a start-up/entrepreneurship which takes again time and money, can also discourage an artist. These are a few of the realities.

    Nevertheless, I do sell, have won competitions and have done commission work.

    1. Thanks for the comment, and I absolutely agree – there is an enormous amount of work involved in learning marketing and applying it, as well as battling with the ethical dilemma that both myself and Adrian refer to.

      I think I read or heard somewhere that an Art career is 10% making Art and 90% marketing… And regardless of whether or not I’ve remembered the numbers correctly, it feels like that could be about right sometimes. I used to think that a 50/50 Artist, gallery split was an outrageous exploitation by galleries, but knowing what I know now, sometimes I think that perhaps they deserve more… (I hasten to add, that this would be in a world where the Resale Royalties problem were properly fixed – see the #7/11 Project page here – http://www.paulsewter.com/711project/).

      All this aside, we still have a catch 22 right!? – Artists don’t want to bother with marketing because they want to spend their time making work, but then they still have to pay the bills, which means spending their time cleaning hotel toilets instead of making Art…

      And if you’re over cleaning hotel toilets, then inevitably you’re going to do the maths and complete the circle by coming back to… Marketing. Even if ‘marketing’ in its most simple form means learning how to contact a gallery and present your work to them so that they can do the donkey work for you, don’t you think?

      Can I ask what you think you’ve done right when you sell a piece of work, or win competitions / commissions? Is it purely the quality of the work or are there social connections, or good communications (verbal, printed, screen) skills involved as well?

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