Don’t run aground on the rocky shore of fate: {or how to build your own lifeboat and survive the art world}

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I’m a great believer that you can shape your own destiny to a large extent. Often it’s the energy you put out into the world that carves the trajectory of your path into the future.

Think about the people you know. There are always some “lucky” buggers that seem to be in the right place at the right time, land the lucky break and deal with things successfully whereas others always seem to miss the opportunity and generally flounder around, getting nowhere.

Is it that the fates look more favourably on the “lucky” person and send a never ending torrent of bad luck on the other? No. Generally and with the exception of uncontrollable circumstances such as illness, bereavement and accident etc, much of our good luck is created by ourselves, by being in the right place at the right time and making the most of the hand that we are dealt.

As in life it is the same in the world of art. You can create your own destiny.

One common and dangerous idea that persists in the art world is that somehow a gallery will discover your art, create your reputation and do all your marketing for you. You don’t have to do anything other than concentrate on making great art.

This myth tells you that you don’t have to bother with all the timesucking marketing business and promotions stuff because one day a gallery will wade in and sort it all out for you. As long as you make great art you don’t need to bother with anything else.

The {fairly annoying} truth

The sad truth is that it’s not all about the art. There are some wonderful painters and artists who never get any kind of recognition and some terrible ones who rise to the upper eshahlons of the art stratosphere. {We can probably all personally think of at least one hugely famous artists who we think “hmmm” when we see their work, right?} So you can spend all your time creating amazing art but it doesn’t guarantee that a gallery will want to represent you or you will achieve the success you want.

A gallery is looking for an artist who already has paid their dues and built their reputation and who they can work with to take on to greater things. They don’t want to have to start from scratch and they will not save you if are floundering in the water.

A gallery will not build your reputation for you. They will only enhance it

Being tossed around on the sea of fate waiting for someone to come to your rescue at some unspecified time in the future is not a great survival plan. However, it is a popular plan that many artists believe is the one which will deliver them safely to the shore of artistic success. This is just TOO IMPORTANT to leave to chance…

Galleries will not throw you a life ring. In other words you have to build your own lifeboat

Isn’t it a much better idea to start building your own lifeboat now, by working to establish your own artistic reputation? That way you are much better equipped to get gallery representation in the future if you want it and to control your own art if you don’t.

So what steps do you need to build on to start your reputation building survival strategy?

Start building

Present yourself and your work professionally.
Invest time {and probably money} in ensuring that yourself and your work are presented in the best way possible. Ensure that photographs of your work are high quality and show it off to its best advantage. It’s no use thinking “people will like the work even if the photos are rubbish”. They won’t be able to see beyond the poor photography.

Make sure your website looks professional. This is many peoples first point of contact with you and your work. They may see your work or hear your name at an event and want to find out more. If they find an unprofessional website {or can’t find your website at all} then that’s it, opportunity missed.

Make sure all your materials {emails, website, business cards etc} present a consistent message. Keep the colours and typefaces the same across everything and establish your brand.

Extend this to yourself. When you attend an art event, make sure you “dress the part”. It may sound silly but choose clothes that convey success rather than “struggling artist”

Network and build connections.
Go to every art event you can find in your local community. Get to know the “faces” that crop up all the time and become involved in the “goings on”. This way you will find out about opportunities for shows and ways to get involved in art projects. This will all help your CV and reputation to grow.

Behave in a professional and businesslike way.
Always remember that a gallery is a business. They aren’t doing it out of the goodness of their hearts to create somewhere nice for people to visit on a Sunday afternoon and drink some wine and look at some nice stuff. Like you they need to make money to survive so they want to deal with artists that they can trust to come up with the goods. They won’t want to have to deal with an artistic temperament or inconsistent reliability. Always deal with galleries in a organised business like manner and convey to them that you take the business of art seriously. This will enhance your reputation as a serious artist.

Build your cv.
Show your work as much as possible to as many people as possible. Both online and offline. Don’t be shy and hide your light under a bushel. Get it out there and see what opportunities arise. This way you are building your CV, line by line, until you have an impressive track record which conveys consistency to a gallery.

Launch your lifeboat

So start building your OWN Reputation now. Don’t wait for someone else to do it for you. Then you will be in a strong position to work with any gallery in the future on an equal footing in a mutually fulfilling manner. You will also be much better positioned to approach galleries for representation and will have the connections to help you do it.

And what if no gallery shows up? It doesn’t matter. You are fully in control of your own lifeboat and confidently steering your own artistic destiny.

Do you believe in taking control yourself or think a gallery should deal with everthing? Tell us what you think in the comments.

Image courtesy of Freddy The Boy under Creative Commons Licence

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7 replies
  1. Franziska San Pedro
    Franziska San Pedro says:


    great point; helps a lot to make a good plan for exposing your artwork to the world. A friend of mine said once: if your mouth is closed your store is closed.
    I love all the comments on your post. How much do I love the internet! When I had my first art expo in 1995, how difficult was it then to get the first comments on my work but here, I can talk to you and all these wonderful people and learn in ways I would have never imagined!
    Opportunities are everywhere, you just have to open your store (mouth),

    Franziska San Pedro

    • Helen Aldous
      Helen Aldous says:

      Franziska. I LOVE that quote… “if your mouth is closed your store is closed” That’s brilliant. You are always your own best advocate

  2. Meltemi
    Meltemi says:

    Build your portfolio…show you are a committed artist. Show that you are prepared to exploit just one medium & one surface to put it on. Make only series of artworks around a common theme.
    Build your website…It show you mean business.
    Now research those art galleries that you can easily get your art to/back from. Now and only now approach the art galleries. Remember they are a business & not any life-support for the meek. AND be prepared for rejection…120 galleries later the best put down I received was “we can’t work together your website is too strong”

  3. Julia
    Julia says:

    This is fantastic, Helen! Up until a couple of years ago, I was guilty of buying into that fine art myth about making my art and then working on getting it into juried and group shows but then calling it a day (but fervently hoping a gallery owner would find it and become hopelessly smitten.) That seems so silly now but that really was my whole “plan.”

    I’m so glad that my timing in life right now puts me at the epicenter of being able to do so much of the “other” part of art through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr, Flickr… Luckily for me I enjoy social networking!

    The entire article was wonderfully helpful and fun, but this was my VERY favorite part, “And what if no gallery shows up? It doesn’t matter. You are fully in control of your own lifeboat and confidently steering your own artistic destiny.”

    Retweeting…thanks for the encouragement. 🙂

    • Helen Aldous
      Helen Aldous says:


      Thanks. So glad you found it encouraging.

      This really is a fabulous time to be an artist. I love the internet and the opportunities it gives us. We would have been amazed to think 15 years ago how we can all communicate about art like this across the globe. Never ceases to blow me away when I think about it 😉

  4. Helen Aldous
    Helen Aldous says:

    Absolutely Monette. I love the quote…
    “It takes 20 years to be an overnight success” – Eddie Cantor

    Also related is the successful artist who doesn’t mention the incredibly rich/well connected/aristocratic spouse/dad. LOL


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