Deep Thought Thursday: Consultant Ethics

Is it my job, as an art-marketing consultant, to tell a potential client that he or she might not have the talent they need to succeed in a certain area?

I’ve always thought this wasn’t my job and have steered clear of it–leaving the art-making and technique critiques to someone else. But am I doing a disservice to people? Is it unethical to take their money and encourage them to promote this work vigorously if I don’t think it can make the cut? (Remember: I see a lot of art. I know the competition out there.)

Sometimes I’m able to discourage them from going off in another direction and focus on work I think is stronger. It’s great when I can do this. But what if they feel very strongly?

I recently tweeted about this, but I think it’s worthy of a blog post. And I could sure use your words of wisdom.

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24 thoughts on “Deep Thought Thursday: Consultant Ethics”

  1. Perhaps your job to say they don’t have the presistance, but not to say they don’t have the talent. Many things pass as talent today and it is persistance that got them there IMO in many instances. I believe that if “art” is coming through, someone (or perhaps many someones) is looking for it – and you don’t know where the artist will go from where they are now, which is only a snapshot. Passion for creating grows with the creator. Passion can always find a way.

  2. Wow, Alyson… I’ve run into this very same thought whenever I’ve taught an art marketing seminar. When I see someone who is gung-ho on building a successful art career, but their work is obviously not going to help them in that pursuit, I do feel awful about teaching them to market an inferior product. The only way I’ve gotten around this is to carefully explain what various markets are currently selling, and that collectors are seeing a lot of great work and are becoming savvy collectors. There’s no room for mediocrity in our “product”. We can not fool collectors into thinking our work is great if the quality is in fact poor. If an artist has a decent sized body of work and has tried to sell it at various venues without success – ie outdoor shows, it could be that their work is not good enough to compete in that market place. An artist needs to do some research to see who is selling in that venue and then honestly evaluate their work in the light of works that are connecting with buyers. Long answer … I know… but I hear ya! Sincerely, Lori

  3. No, I don’t think it’s your job to tell people whether or not they have the talent to succeed. (Is it possible to ever know, really, what another person’s innate potential is?) But… as an artist I’d find it extremely helpful to hear if my portfolio wasn’t measuring up in some key way. There’s gotta be a graceful way to address portfolio deficiencies by making your feedback about the portfolio & not the person. Here’s the type of info I’d find helpful from someone like you… 1. What are the standards in my chosen genre/field? How do I find them out? What’s a good way to assess my own portfolio against those standards? 2. How can I get good, constructive feedback about my work now that I’m no longer an art student? It can be hard to get honest feedback from family and friends and informal critique groups are often a hit or miss experience. What do you think works in a critique setting and what doesn’t? 3. How can I do better work? Do I need more education? If so, what kind? What do I need to know & what’s available to me?

  4. Honest feedback is important. As a bead artist I love getting feedback– even if it’s negative. Also I know that I can listen or ignore– and honestly– more often than no, I ignore. I’m doing what I love and that’s the important thing for me. By the time someone hires a consultant I think they’re past believeing they’re not talented enough to succeed, so I don’t see the usein your telling them that. I’d just guide to the best suited methods and markets for them.

  5. Maybe when you first take on a new artist client, you could have them fill out a questionnaire. Make one of the questions whether they want feedback about their work. That way, they’ve asked for it (or not). That said, it seems to me there’s a market for almost anything, even some pretty awful stuff!

  6. Marjorie Cunningham

    I’m sure there are artists who are now famous who have been told in the past that they weren’t talented enough. And I’m sure those artists are very glad they didn’t listen! Encourage them, lead them, advise them.

  7. Perhaps you can steer an artist to a new direction or toward instruction, and maybe even say you don’t think the desire is there, but I’m not sure that ‘talent’ nor even skill is necessary. In a Jackson gallery last week, I saw two paintings of a similar small size, one a landscape by Conrad Schwering, hung next to one another. The other was of a burro under a pack saddle. I think most of us would say that Schwering had the skill and talent to project a convincing and vital landscape. The other fellow had obviously never seen a burro up close. He had problems with color and tone dynamics, and the pack and its contents were not well rendered for perspective nor even practicality. The landscape behind the burro had little to offer. I judged it the work of an advanced amateur who would not go far. Here’s the thing: The Schwering was priced at $9000 and the other at $6000, meaning that the other artist is established, has a following (and maybe is dead, I don’t know), and the gallery expected to sell the work. BTW, in another gallery, I encountered, for the first time, the work of Jean Richardson ( ). Now there is an artist who knows horse and landscape and can project them both well and mightily.

  8. Hi Alyson, once when I was a very young artist (and my work was not very good) I tried to get into art school. The guy who interviewed me had no qualms telling me my work was not good enough and that I should pursue another career. I was devastated and heartbroken, but thankfully I kept painting. Two years later I did get into a (better) art school and now I’m selling my work on a regular basis as you know. Imagine if I had taken his advice! I would suggest that if you see an artist who needs to improve more that you stress the importance of studio time and perhaps talking more art classes, make sure they are still learning. I’d suggest local shows and more art courses, life drawing etc. Things that will help them build up their skills. But don’t ever say they don’t have what it takes, because who knows where their art could be in a few years. Hope that helps!

  9. Hi Alyson: Boy this is a big can of worms. I’ve taught both art marketing and painting classes so it’s a different ball of wax in these two different spheres. That being said, as many of the comments posted here have noted, in my opinion, talent isn’t always tangible. Nor does it always take talent to make a living as an artist. Who said, “It’s 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration”? I forget, but I think that sums it up. As the recent Sotheby’s auction of Damien Hirst’s work shows, it’s not always about talent but showmanship, savvy marketing and ingenuity. Ingenuity is not always the same as talent either. As I tell my students, for every artist who paints, there is someone who wants to see it. Now you just have to find them. To sum up, I’m always honest in my critiques and give a way to correct whatever I see as a shortcoming. However, I do also say that bottom line, it’s the artist’s perogative to tell me to take a walk and take my opinions with me. If an artist is passionate about something that goes a long way towards filling in that intangible “talent” thingie. And it beats sharks in formaldehyde!

  10. We don’t help anyone by telling them something they might want to hear. I hate the phrase “there is no such thing as bad art”, simply because it isn’t true. Two words: Tough love. It is necessary in order to help people further their skills and talents, and even get them moving in the right direction.

  11. Most artists who have been painting and sharing work with others in a variety of venues have come to realize that all judges of exhibits are different and will judge the work they see differently. That being said I believe it is would be a valuable part of your service to offer suggestions to clients who want it about what might improve their body of work and how to present it to gallery owners, clients etc.— or perhaps when appropriate, even to strengthen their portfolio while continuing to practice and improve their skills by exhibiting in local shows. Which venues to pursue to highlight their current area of strength, etc. The fact that you see many types of art and such a wide range of art would provide clients with the comfort that while you are still human and subject to human opinions, likes and variences…. you have credibility. Often I find, however, that people hear what they want to hear anyway.

  12. I think the key qualifier in your question is “in a certain area.” And time is another qualifier. That narrows things down a lot. I think you can avoid passing judgement on the talent by considering the area they are targeting and helping them look at how realistic it might be for them to succeed there right now. I believe that most of the time you can provide valuable service to people, “earn your keep” with integrity, without shutting them down. I also believe that you have to do things as they feel right to you – and that may be “tough love” for some, a more elastic approach for others.

  13. Nicole Strasburg

    A friend’s grandmother once said, “there is a butt for every seat”. As a painter who has done the coffee shops, the restaurants, the outdoor markets and now galleries, I have seen a lot of mediocre work thrive in the market place. I’ve also seen some amazing painters struggle to sell or find representation. So often it comes down to tenacity (not talent). How willing are you to find your audience. That being said, is it really appropriate for anyone to tell you whether or not you’re work is saleable? Perhaps the work isn’t ready for a four star gallery but appropriate for a coffee shop. As a marketing person I would think that it would be better to guide the artist to the venues best suited to where the work is at rather than judge if the talent is there. No one can determine the growth or potential of how a painter/artist might evolve. It’s amazing how much change can occur within two bodies of work. It truly can depend on how much mileage is put in at the easel. If you’re struggling with something to say to an artist who’s work seems inferior the best possible advice (from my own viewpoint) is to tell them to make a lot of work… from quantity quality often emerges.

  14. Alyson, why not offer a portfolio review/artist critique class/service? The thing I miss most about being on my own is the value from a good critique. If a client signs up for a marketing class, that’s what they’re expecting regardless of the work. To suddenly inject something else is not appropriate. However, those who sign up for “artist breakthrough” programs — if told upfront that such a critique was included — should welcome the chance to have an arts professional evaluate their work. I know for myself, I may have to give up my desire to paint beautiful landscapes simply because I cannot get the type of information or critique that I feel I need to get over this current roadblock. It’s a personal thing for me. I know a lot of ordinary work sells — I work in a gallery and sell some of it — I just want to paint at the highest level I can and am willing to pay for the advice in a specific critique/mentoring environment, not a generalized workshop. just my two cents. If anyone can pull this off, you can.

  15. You do everyone a disservice by not being honest with them. No one is forced to listen to what you have to say. If they are that easily dissuaded from doing what they love because one person tells them they aren’t good enough, then they certainly aren’t good enough to begin with.

  16. When I’m puttering around the house I often will turn on the TV and often find myself on the Home and Garden channel to get ideas for my home as well as spot for color and design trends. There are a ton of shows that are focused specifically on helping home owners sell their homes or increase the value of their homes so that they can get more when they do sell. Just like creating art, we are all able to decorate our homes to match our personal styles. However when we try to sell them, we need to consider what buyers are looking for. The seller needs to understand and accept that if they aren’t able to sell their home (or art) in it’s existing state, some changes need to be made. For an artist that feels strongly about their voice and style, they need to have the patience and endurance to find their audience. For those who are a little impatient and want help in selling their art, they need to be open to hearing what is currently selling, be willing to listen to ideas and try something different. I think the idea of a questionnaire to figure out where their priorities are is a great one. You are good about advertising your strengths and what you can offer, having them provide you with the other side of the equation – what they need, will allow you to tailor your services to give them the most honest and helpful advice.

  17. This sure opened up the gates! I would say that it’s NOT your job as a marketing consultant to tell someone that they might not have the talent to succeed in a certain area. However, if that is your feeling about the person’s abilities, perhaps you can steer them in a direction where you do think they could have some success (as a starting point) As quite a few people have already said–you never know where someone’s persistence, passion & commitment will take them. (Away from the formaldehyde, I hope!)

  18. I would think it a kindness. However, do it gently. Being honest will accomplish one of two things. Either the person will fold and go off to another endeavor or s/he will say, “the heck with her!” and become that much more determined to succeed. Determination being a key ingredient for success (whatever that means).

  19. Yes, I think it’s a consultant’s job to say the work may not cut it in the venues the client my be looking. If they’ve got the $ to hire a consultant, they have to have the backbone to hear the opinion of an experienced critique. If they crumble, then they’l certainly not find success. That said, I think it’s important to say the work is lacking. They may have oodles of talent, but just not showing it in the work they’re currently doing. Understand, too, that consultant may lose client.

  20. Some great comments here, Alyson. It is a very touchy subject for many artists. Being able to see “talent”, to me, seems as likely as having x-ray vision. The distinction is knowing if the art has begun to show strengths, and if the artist has found their voice. I agree with others who suggest offering a portfolio review/critique type class. I don’t feel it’s appropriate to ask for such a thing from gallery owners. If someone could tell me things like which direction seems like a marketable one, or what work seems most marketable, that kind of advice would be like GOLD!!! I’d sign up!

  21. Alyson B. Stanfield

    Due to my travels, I’m late in getting here, but I sure appreciate everyone’s insight. I think the point here was that I thought this person was just going in the wrong direction. Not that he didn’t have talent, but that it was being directed in an area that might not suit him. I also would feel extremely guilty taking money from someone that I didn’t have faith could succeed in his chosen direction.

  22. Hi Alyson, Boy, this subject hits close to home for lots of folks! Let me offer my two cents, and hopefully, it will give you some information you can use to work on the problem. I have been a mentor and trained coach over the last few years and work in an entirely different field, that of Purchasing, but I think the tools we share can be effective in any type of situation. My simple thoughts: First off, I agree with many of your responders that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. I look at the work of many accepted and renowned artists and frankly don’t necessarily see “it” the way others do. The talent may be there, but the work just doesn’t pluck my strings like it does for others. So, while there may not be a buyer or market for everything, many artists that we would possibly judge as not up to prime time, can find audiences with persistence and drive, etc. (A prime example is Low Brow or Pop Surrealism. Who woulda thought it? From cars and t-shirts to five and six figure paintings and waiting lists. Good for those cats.) That is where I see your dilemma, and boy can I identify with it. You want to let someone know their work won’t stand up to the competition, because you see what they will be facing, and at the time you see it, you know they would be swimming upstream against a stiff current. Maybe a tact you could take would be to let the artist bring you a portfolio of their best few works and then after looking at them, have them do a self critique. They could go over what they think was done well or needs improvement, as they see it. You might then encourage working on their self identified weak points, as well as interjecting some reinforcement for the good points, in order to let them improve their overall product. They could also tell you where they would rank their work in regards to the accepted artists in that field. See if they feel there is direct competition with established artists, or do they think they are moving in a different direction, and saying something totally different than the mainstream. If they feel they must take the direct competition route, you now have some basis to help make their work stronger, if not, you can adjust your help to creating or going after new markets. I guess it’s almost psychoanalysis, but my starting point now is to find where someone feels they are and what direction they think they want to take, before I attempt to offer guidance to get there. In the past, I have taken action based on my assumptions and found that my “filter” was another color completely from my customer’s. I was moving the subject in a direction they didn’t intend, but since I was the mentor, they went with it, feeling I had all the answers. I later realized that I should have identified and asked the right questions, and then, we work together to find the proper direction. In my field, there are many paths, personalities and biases that must be navigated. I am now finding out that this is true also for the art world, as I strive to market my works. Is it misleading not to tell them you don’t think they are up to the competition? I don’t think that is totally relevant in the long run. If it is true, people will figure that out over time, or get better at their passion. I personally really feel your role (and mine) is to point them in the best possible direction(s), after helping them figure out what they really want to do. What they give you in feedback mixed with your expertise of the markets determines and reinforces the direction they should take. This is what I would want you to do for me, were I the customer. I was critiqued in a national magazine last year on a portrait of a race car driver that I submitted. I was told to study anatomy, yada yada, yada, when what I was really looking for was; how was my technique, my color use and values. Both of us had different expectations. Good advice? Probably, but not an answer to my (unasked) questions, and since I’m not going to study anatomy, I tossed it. By the way, there was nowhere to ask the questions in the submission, so the expert critiquing my work had no idea what feedback I was looking for. Lastly, I’m reminded of something that one of my art mentors stresses. He says, “Name five or more great artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries”. I answer Monet, Manet, Cassals, Picasso, Renoir, Lautrec, etc. Then he says “now, to make it easy, name just one art critic from the same era”. An aha moment for me! Hope this wasn’t too long or too preachy. I could go on for pages with this and similar subjects, but since these are free observations (I hate saying advice); toss ‘em if they ain’t right. LOL dp boling MCT, FCN

  23. Very interesting post and the comments show you really hit a nerve! I think I would frame the question in terms of readiness to put the work out into the world vs talent. I noticed in my painting workshops that there are some who are not “there” yet in terms of their work but are very anxious to start the marketing part of the process. Often these are people who actually feel more comfortable in this arena (perhaps because of a past or current business background). They will spend hours on marketing but only pick up a brush once a week or so. I think it makes sense to encourage people to be ready before they spend a lot of time or money on marketing.

  24. It is difficult to answer this question. My personal experience is that I am still betting on my despite the fact that I have closed many doors. The ‘experts’ told me that no, especially in the beginning of my career. If the artist has passion and believe in yourself you do not stop anything. On the other hand nobody has all the information to know whether that artist is going to succeed or not, time will tell. Having said all this I would prefer an expert to tell me what you think about my work and my steps as a route to success, because for that you consult, then the decision to follow that advice or not, it’s just me.

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Get a transcript of episode 182 of The Art Biz (Rethinking Mailing Lists for Artists) followed by a 3-page worksheet to evaluate the overall health and usage of the 3 types of artist lists.

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