Are you a customer or a partner?
This issue has come up frequently in my experiences in the art world. It is too easy to take advantage of an artist’s dream to make it big. Creative people are romantics. We can get swept up in the “go big or go home” and “you have to spend money to make money” approaches to being successful as artists. It takes courage and a willingness to take risks to be an artist, which means we are prime candidates for businesses to make money off us and our dreams.
As you navigate the art world, you will come across a lot of opportunities to further your art career. You may find opportunities organically, make your own opportunities, or likely people will seek you out and sell you an opportunity. An opportunity looks different for every artist. Maybe you want exposure, a larger following, art sales, gallery shows, commissioned work, money, etc..
Whatever your goal, there are business that will try to help you reach it. The question is: are you their customer, their partner, or both? Not all opportunities are created equal and the ones easily presented to you might not be in your best interest.
What intentions lie behind an opportunity?
Anytime I get an email, DM, or any sort of correspondence that includes an opportunity for me to make money or gain exposure for my art, I ask two questions: How will this benefit the person presenting the opportunity? And how will this benefit me?
And then I assess the person I’m working with to see which of these three categories they fit into:
- People who mainly support the arts and artists.
- People who support the arts, but also see an opportunity for themselves.
- People who are mainly looking out for their own interests.
I try my best to avoid people in the third group and I want to share with you how you might encounter these people. Naturally, every business is trying to make money. The issue I have is when businesses rely on an artist’s dreams to blind them and push them into making bad financial decisions. Instead of offering a one-to-one exchange of money for goods and services, a lot of business will sell you an intangible hope for future success.
You pay ‘x’ and maybe you get ‘y’.
You work for free and maybe you’ll get money in return in the future.
You create art for free and just get “exposure”.
In these situations, the business you’re working with will always get a benefit from the opportunity they present, and you just might. Here are some of the situations where you can run into this:
1. Art publications that charge submission fees
Online and print art publications are inspiring and wonderful for those who are featured in the content and for readers. Though, when these publications source new content by hosting open calls for art that have a fee attached to it–I get real peeved off.
Yes, businesses need to make money. The people sifting through art submissions need to be paid for their work, but I do not agree with artists paying for opportunities like this. Sure, it’s often just $20-$35 for an entry fee, but that fee does not guarantee you get anything in return. If you are not selected for publication, that money is gone.
If you are okay with seeing that fee as a donation to support the publication you’re applying to, then by all means, submit all you want. Just don’t believe the facade that this publication primarily has your best interest in mind. They are first and foremost, getting a boost in revenue from hundreds of artists submitting material. Second, they are building hype around their brand by running calls for art, which gains them new followers and readers. Third, they are making someone else (you) work to create content for their business and making you pay to submit it.
You are their customer. It’s great exposure for you if you are part of the small percentage of artists chosen for print, but they will always benefit from the system, where you only have a small chance. Some people might say it’s better to just play the game and pay these fees, and that’s fine if you do, but I say put your money towards something that guarantees a return.
2. Group art shows that charge submission or jury fees
This is a very similar situation to the one above. A group art show is a great way to get exposure and mingle with the arts community. An organization creates a group show for artists, advertises a call for art, and charges a jury fee that the artists need to pay for their work to be considered for the show. A jury fee does not guarantee you a spot in the show, and nor should it, but this means that you get no return on your investment if you aren’t chosen for the show. And even if you are chosen to display your work, there is no guarantee that your work will sell, so you might just be paying for exposure.
It’s such a common practice that I don’t even know if most people question it, but fees like this can be a huge obstacle for struggling creators who don’t even have enough money for art supplies. A $20 jury fee might not sound like a lot, but it would be put to better use at Blick.
A lot of the organizations that I have seen do this are local arts boards hosting shows in community spaces. Like county or state run programs that are supposed to help artists thrive. Unfortunately, these programs are publicly funded, and likely underfunded, so they have to get their money somehow–but getting it from artists hoping to find success is not the best option in my opinion. Creativity doesn’t discriminate when it comes to income, and opportunities like this for creative success shouldn’t either.
If these programs want to bring in more cash, they should form relationships with other businesses who are willing to sponsor these events. Being a patron of the arts looks damn good for a business (and it’s probably a tax write off…). For the galleries that engage in this practice, fees on top of commissions don’t give me confidence that the gallery knows their market enough to consistently sell the work they show in their space.
3. Art contests with submission fees
By now, you’re probably sensing that I hate submission fees. If you see an art contest that asks you for money in order to submit, just ignore it. It’s gambling that requires more work. You are the one subsidizing whatever prize is at the end of the rainbow. The organizers are the ones benefiting here. Not the majority of the artists submitting to the contest.
Plus, it’s not really a fair contest if income excludes talented creators from participating. Just a thought…
4.Poorly run craft fairs/art events
Back in Minnesota, I participated in a few craft fairs to try and sell my art and jewelry. A promoter I worked with organized events around central Minnesota almost every weekend of the year. Booth fees started as low as $75, so it was a great entry level event to get into–but I was lucky to make my show fee every time I did one of these events. Mainly, because they were poorly curated and marketed.
Vendor curation is important. When event coordinators let anyone buy a booth at a show, quality suffers and the event attracts a different audience. If you are a handmade vendor sandwiched between Scentsy, Mary Kay, Norwex, and cheap jewelry wholesaler tables–you’re in the wrong place and clearly the event coordinators are not concerned about exposure for the arts. They just want your show fee.
Though, I do not consider event organizers as a whole to be taking advantage of artists. There are many successful art events that have developed a reputation for showing high quality creators and they draw in an audience that appreciates fine art. You may have to pay a huge booth fee, but you are paying for reputation, marketing, and the organization of an entire event that draws a paying crowd. It can be worth it, but do your research before you buy a booth at a show. If it’s a yearly event, attend one of the events before you apply. Ask the vendors how they like the show and how the crowd behaves. Also, if there isn’t a jury process for applications, be wary of the quality of vendors that you’ll be displaying with.
Oh, and I want to touch on a popular world wide event coordinator that makes a profit off of artists by making them sell $400+ in tickets to friends and family in exchange for a booth at their show. I don’t want to say the name, but you know who they are you’ve encountered them. I’ve never been to one, and maybe some people make money–but to me the whole thing seems shady. They promise 1000+ people will attend the event, but if tickets are being sold to friends and family of all of the artists participating–will there really be dedicated buyers attending?
When you think of networking potential, these events can be beneficial for you–but before you ask your friends and family to buy a $22 ticket to see your art I’d suggest just attending one of these shows first to see what it’s all about. If you’ve already participated in this show, please let me know your experience in the comments.
Personally, I feel like investing in a good widely known summer art fair would be more beneficial.
5. Retail spaces that charge you to show your work
Think about any store you visit. Target, a grocery store, H&M, etc.. All of these stores have to pay overhead costs to run the physical location and pay for the products in their store. They don’t make money until customers come in and buy the products. The risk is all on the retailer.
Now, think about consignment stores. They have the overhead costs of keeping the lights on, but they source their products from people like you. They won’t pay you for your products until they sell–but when they make money, you make money. It’s a fair arrangement and it means they will be highly motivated to advertise your work. It’s low risk for you.
Then there are retailers who are really quite savvy business owners, but are clearly not keeping an artist’s interests in mind. These businesses have a physical location and charge an artist to “rent” the space to display their work. Sometimes these locations will let the artist take all of the profit from sales (which means they don’t care if anyone actually buys your work), and sometimes they will take a percentage of the sale as well your “rent” money (which means they are a little more motivated to get bodies in the door.) The arrangement is higher risk for you and low risk for them.
Businesses like this have found a way to 1) not pay for the inventory they stock in their store 2) make money directly from their product creators through rent 3) outsource some of their advertising to all of the creators they are collecting rent from and 4) pay their overhead costs without ever opening their doors. Businesses like this can keep the doors locked and still make money, because you my friend are their customer. As long as there are artists with dreams of succeeding, they will be able to fill their walls with merchandise that doesn’t need to sell to keep the lights on. I’m not saying you should automatically say no. I just want you to be cautious.
Now, I have to admit that this is a really smart business setup. They are still technically providing a service to you, but you are their customer and not their partner. They already have your money and there’s no guarantee your items will sell.
I have gotten a couple of emails from international galleries that work with this model. You pay ‘X’ amount to rent the walls, but keep all the profit if art sells. And that’s a big if. I trust the galleries who will take 50% commission from my sales more than I trust those who just want a fee upfront.
6. Businesses whose primary revenue source isn’t art
There are many art friendly businesses that will host artist’s work in their locations. My favorite ones do this for free, because bringing in new artists can only benefit them. Artists bring in friends and family, and rotating art keeps the decor interesting and prevents a business from needing to buy art for their walls.
There are other businesses that will take a commission from the artist. If the location is handling art sales for you and advertising your work, then taking a 10-20% commission isn’t unreasonable, but if a business that doesn’t specialize in selling art tries to take 30% or more from an artist if their work sells, this is where the business is beginning to take advantage of the artist. I have even seen a food and beverage business work a minimum base fee into a contract where if the artist didn’t make any sales, they would still need to pay the location a minimum fee to display on the walls.
As an artist, you are an asset to businesses. Yes, they are giving you wall space to show your art, but they will always get the better end of the deal. They get increased exposure, foot traffic, and business from your friends and family. As well as free decor for a set time, and positive branding for supporting the arts. When they start taking more money from you, then they are tipping the scales even further in their direction. It’s smart business, but it’s not in your best interest. If you encounter a place like this, try to talk to other artists that have displayed in the same location. If they don’t have a reputation for selling art off the walls, then do not give them money up front.
7. Companies that offer you free products with strings attached
If you develop a social following online, businesses might reach out to you to form a partnership. Some businesses will send you free products without asking for anything in return, but others will send you products and expect you to give them a plug on your social media platforms. If you are happy with free products, then great! Take all you can get! But when a company asks you to review their product, post and tag them on social media, dedicate a video to their product, or try to control the content you create in any way–this isn’t working in your favor anymore.
Bottom line, if you are doing any sort of marketing for a company, your time is worth more than free product. Don’t be afraid to do what I do. When a company reaches out to me, I tell them they can send me products, but if they want a guarantee that I will post about their products, then we will have to discuss additional compensation. Whether that be money, or more free products, it doesn’t matter. The goal is just to establish your boundaries and avoid them taking advantage of your excitement to be chosen to represent their brand.
Oh, and if a company reaches out to you with a promo code for you to get a percentage off their products and potentially earn a commission off referred sales–just run. These companies want your money and free advertising. You’d need a massive and engaged following to generate meaningful commissions.
8. Art sharing accounts and bot services
Ever get a comment on your Instagram post like “Great work! DM us if you want to be featured!” and then when you message them, they copy and past a price list for post costs? I can’t even count how many times I’ve seen that. I wrote a whole blog post on it.
Art sharing accounts are everywhere. They aren’t all the same, but 95% of the time, I say don’t pay for an account to share your art posts or videos. There are plenty of accounts that will do it for free and get you more exposure.
You may also hear from people trying to help you gain followers by offering bot services that will automatically like and follow other accounts, or you can even buy followers for your accounts. Avoid these services! They don’t care about helping you grow your following to make art sales. They want to collect your money and they will inflate your social accounts with meaningless likes and followers that likely won’t to translate to real sales in return. Having 100k or even 1m followers means nothing if they are all bot accounts that won’t engage with you.
This list isn’t complete (I didn’t even touch on overpriced art schools!), but you get the idea. I held off writing this post for a while, because I didn’t want it to sound like everyone is trying to screw over artists, but when you are desperate to reach a dream, it’s easy to make illogical decisions and fall for a sketchy sales pitch.
I’m not saying to avoid all of the situations I outlined above. There’s always potential for exposure, sales, and networking at any event you do or any opportunity that you find. Sometimes you do in fact have to spend money to make money. Sometimes working for free will give you great experience while you are figuring out who you are as an artist. Crappy craft fairs can be great experience for first time sellers and can give you practice interacting with your audience. There’s more to be gained than money from everything you experience in the art world, but when money is precious, I want you to avoid squandering it.
I want you to be aware of how you may not benefit from whatever you’re paying for. I know it feels good when opportunities knock on your door, but sometimes the universe isn’t rewarding you with a gift. Sometimes, that knock at your door is the sound of a paper shredder that you can throw your money into.
My main point is don’t let your dreams blind you. Always evaluate the pros and cons of an opportunity and don’t be afraid to declare your worth. You deserve more than exposure for the work you do, and new opportunities will always present themselves.
Thanks for reading!
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