What It’s Like to Run an Art Business

Can you believe that I’ve had by business license SIX MONTHS? I hardly can!

During this time, I’ve had countless conversations with friends and family about what it’s like to be an artist. But these conversations are more about what it’s like to run an art business.

Because let’s be real—I’m not sacrificing hours of my free time just to say that I paint. I’m trying to make this interest and skill profitable, y’all!

Which often leads to questions. And understandably so, because few people treat art like a business, and even fewer talk about.

So, six months in, I thought I’d pull back the curtain and give you a behind-the-scenes peek into what it’s like to be an art business owner.

Ready? Let’s go!

what it's like to run an art business six months in

So, how’s it going?

I’d love to say, “Great!” But I don’t think anyone can say that truthfully in their first six months.

What I usually say is, “It’s going OK,” and what I really mean is, “It’s slow.” Real slow.

The hardest part of selling art is finding people who will actually buy your work.

Not just like it on Instagram. And not just “ooh” and “aah” over it and encourage you to sell it.

But people who like your art enough to want to display it in their homes or offices, and who are willing to spend a significant amount more on your pieces than the prices you see on mass-produced prints in big-box stores like Target. Because running an art business ain’t cheap.

Think about it: How many pieces of original art have you purchased within the last year?

I’ve had an encouraging number of my pieces purchased thus far, and of course there are people out there who buy art regularly. (A big THANK YOU to everyone who has supported my business so far!)

But getting your work in front of enough of those people–and getting a substantial number of art collectors to notice you–takes time.

And in the beginning, when you’ve just started putting your work out there, it can feel like you’re doing a whole lot of painting and a whole lot of promotion for pennies in return.

How do you get your artwork in front of potential buyers?

Well, there are several ways.

The most straightforward (but also the most costly and time-consuming) is to start applying for and showing your work at outdoor art festivals, which can attract thousands of potential buyers in a single day. I’ve done one of these and submitted applications for two others so far.

What most people don’t realize, however, is the high cost of participating in these shows.

For almost every show, there’s

  • A $25-$50 application fee, which is non-refundable no matter whether you’re selected for the show or not
  • A $150-$400 booth fee, which simply reserves your space and does not include a tent or any other equipment you’ll need to display or sell your art
  • A temporary business license (usually around $30) for the town in which you’re doing the show

And then there’s equipment. Those crisp white tents you see at art shows are owned by the vast majority of artists participating, as is everything you see beneath the tents. Tables. Tablecloths. Chairs. Specialty walls, shelves, and other display systems. Credit card readers. Price tags. Bags. Weights to keep your tent from collapsing or being carried away with a big gust of wind. The list goes on.

By my estimates, I spent no less than $500 on equipment to participate in my first show, not including paint/canvases/paper/etc. And I even borrowed what would have been my biggest expense, a set of $800 mesh walls specifically designed for hanging paintings. (!!!)

Of course, these costs are one-time (until something needs replacing) and tax-deductible, but significant.

And that’s not to mention the back-breaking labor of waking up in the wee hours of the morning to arrive and set up before most people have had breakfast, standing on your feet all day (sometimes in not-so-pleasant weather), and tearing down only to do it all over again another weekend.

But the costs and time and energy are worth it…most of the time. Because you have the potential to reach thousands of people in a matter of hours, many of whom will buy your work, and some of whom may even sign up for your email list or follow you on social media and eventually become repeat customers.

But then there are the bad shows where–because of lack of research or bad weather or some other factor–you barely make anything at all.

It happens. Just part of doing these types of shows. High potential reward, but also high potential cost.

You can also get your artwork seen by potential buyers by showing your work in art galleries. Less up-front cost, but a bit more complicated and competitive.

First, there are one-off juried shows. Artists typically show 1-2 pieces in these shows alongside works by 25-40 other artists. Shows like this are great because they’re low-cost (typically $25-$40 to apply, plus the cost of shipping your pieces to and from the gallery), and they help build your resume and reputation among gallery owners and art collectors.

These shows’ judges, called jurors, are respected artists and curators in their own right, and they judge your work blindly (only by looking at images of your work and not knowing anything about who you are or how much experience you have). Get into a few of these shows, and your resume becomes like a stamp of approval by well-respected artists and curators across the country. Most shows accept fewer than 20 percent of artists who apply. (Me, I’ve been accepted into one, rejected by another, and have applications out for two others.)

These shows are also great for getting your work seen (and name known) by everyone who attends the show during the weeks or months the show is on exhibit. You can also usually sell the works you display and pay only a small commission fee (usually 20-40%) to the gallery in return.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s gallery representation, where professional art galleries put you on their roster of artists, and they actively show, market, and sell your work on your behalf.

There’s no up-front cost to do this (just a 50 percent commission fee every time a piece sells). But getting galleries to decide to represent you is no simple task–because galleries have limited wall space, and it takes time to get gallery owners to trust you and your work.

First, you need substantial number (usually 12-20) of good, consistent works. It also helps to have established relationships with the gallery owners and/or the artists they represent (which you can do by attending their shows), and/or evidence of previous success in the form of sales, getting your work into solo, group, and/or juried exhibitions, etc.

Six months in, I am in the process of researching galleries, continuing to build my resume, and making solid artwork. I hope to approach my first gallery about representation within the next year.

You may have noticed that I’ve said nothing about social media. That’s not because social media isn’t important; social media just takes more time to see any substantial monetary return.

Emails, for instance, generate on average 2-4 times more revenue than posts on social media. That means I would need at least 1,000 Instagram followers to sell the same number of paintings that I could with 250 email subscribers. (To put that in perspective, I have about 240 Instagram followers right now.)

So, I’m posting semi-regularly on social media and slowly trying to grow my audience on those platforms, but I’m focusing the bulk of my energy on growing my email list. (More on that soon.)

How do you have time to do all of this while working full-time?

I make time. At night, on weekends, during lunch breaks, and on my personal leave time.

But I try not to spend so much time running my business that I dread it.

So, I focus first on what is absolutely necessary–I make and photograph paintings; upload said photos to my website and social media to let potential customers know what’s available; keep track of art show deadlines and other opportunities to show and sell my work; APPLY to and participate in those opportunities; ship work once it sells; follow laws like paying sales and income tax and keeping my business licenses up-to-date; and continue to grow my audience little-by-little online.

Over the last six months, I’ve probably spent an average of 10-20 hours per week doing all of this. So a good amount of time, but nothing drastic. Hence the slow and steady trod.

How do commissions work?

Commissions are essentially completely custom works of art, but I’ll only accept them if they genuinely fit my particular style and skill set.

Quotes are free, but I require a 50% nonrefundable deposit before I’ll start painting (to weed out people who aren’t genuinely interested and to protect myself from laboring hours for no pay).

Prices include several edits or requests for changes, and in the case of abstracts, you are never obligated to purchase. If you aren’t happy with your commission for any reason, you can use your deposit as credit for other non-commissioned work (pretty standard practice among artists).

All of this is spelled out in a digital contract that we both sign before I begin, so we’re both protected from any unforeseen surprises.

You can email me or fill out a commission request form for more info! 🙂

Why don’t you include photos on your website of everything you’re capable of doing?

Because, ultimately, I’m trying to attract a particular kind of customer who will pay me to make the work I most enjoy making–that is, big, bold abstract landscapes.

And I’m more likely to attract that kind of customer by only promoting and showing that kind of work.

Think about my website like your favorite brick-and-mortar retailer. J. Crew and Anthropologie and Lilly Pulitzer don’t try to be everything to everybody. They each have their own unique style that is consistent and immediately recognizable. I’m aiming for the same.

Will I make other kinds of works (like more realistic watercolor landscapes and portraits) if I’m commissioned to do so? Absolutely.

But will I share those works widely on social media? No.

And will I continue to make those works if I’m ever able to sustain myself making those big, bold abstract landscapes that I really love? Probably not.

Keep in mind: I’m not doing this solely to make money. I already make money doing the job I have now (which I like, by the way).

I’m doing this to see if I can make money making art that I love. So that’s what I share.

Is it worth it? Doing all of this extra work?

Yes. Absolutely.

I love painting. It’s one of the few things that I get absolutely lost in once I start. (I could seriously spend hours mixing and layering paint while listening to my favorite playlists and feel like I had been doing it mere minutes.)

I also love breathing new life into people’s homes and offices with my work. All of us spend so much time in these two places, and I think it’s important (if not essential) to surround yourself with things that lift your spirit and rouse your senses and help you relish the here and now.

And most importantly, I’ll never know if I can “make it” as an artist if I don’t suck it up, do the work, and try.

So that’s where I’m at–six months in, doing what I can to grow my business little-by-little while maintaining balance so I don’t get burnt out. It’s been a wild ride so far!

Do you have more questions about what it’s like to run an art business? Shoot me an email or post a comment below!

what it's like to run an art business while working a full-time job

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