Building an Art Business Is a Choice, Not a Sacrifice

In 2000 I had been working in art museums for 10 years and had a great job as a director of education.

And I was miserable.

It wasn't just my job and I won't bore you  with all of the reasons why I was so unhappy. Just believe me that I had reached the low point of my life. 

©2014 Carmen Mariscal, Au fil de l'Eau/ Al filo del agua 1/1. Installation : cut-out photographs (4 black and white and 12 color), mirrors and transparent thread. Photos range from 39.3 x 59 inches to 11.8 x 6.7 cm. With permission by the Bibliothèque Nationale de France BnF. Photographed by Claude Gaspari. Used with permission.
©2014 Carmen Mariscal, Au fil de l'Eau/ Al filo del agua 1/1. Installation : cut-out photographs (4 black and white and 12 color), mirrors and transparent thread. Photos range from 39.3 x 59 inches to 11.8 x 6.7 cm. With permission by the Bibliothèque Nationale de France BnF. Photographed by Claude Gaspari. Used with permission.

I had a choice.

I could keep being miserable, or I could do something about it. I chose the latter. The next year I sold my house and donated many of my belongings. Then I packed up a U-Haul and moved to a small garage apartment in Denver.

I started an art-consulting business and was instantly happier.

I had no steady paycheck, no health insurance, and no idea how to run a business. But I was blissfully happy.

I chose happiness over the security of a museum job.

It was rocky in the beginning, but I started getting requests for help from artists I had known in my museum career and others who found my art-consulting business online. I chose to listen to them.

I could have easily held firm to my original plan, but I made a different choice that has worked out pretty well.

paper bag and mixed media art piece of crumpled brown paper bags with blue and orange accents | on Art Biz Success
©Christie Marks, Bags on Bags Redux. Mixed media and paper bags, 30 x 60 inches.

You have a choice.

We often think that building an art career, especially making a living from your art, requires sacrifice. You might sacrifice:

  • A steady paycheck
  • More time with family
  • Vacation time
  • Free time
  • A big, fat retirement account
  • A house in the country, a yacht, …

But are you really sacrificing these things when you’d rather be making art and sharing your gift with the world? It’s a choice, not a sacrifice.

That still doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Being a successful artist and entrepreneur requires that you make hard choices about how you spend your time.

This discipline piece is opposed to how many artists think of their work: joy, pleasure, and play. Yet, it’s absolutely necessary when you want to earn a living from your art.

©Helen Klebesadel, The Watchers. Watercolor on paper, 22 x 30 inches. Used with permission.
©Helen Klebesadel, The Watchers. Watercolor on paper, 22 x 30 inches. Used with permission.

Life is a series of choices. The choices you make reflect your priorities.

It’s worth reminding yourself that you have choices, and that you have power over your destiny. Are your choices supporting how you want your life to be?

Consider Your Choices

Choose to commit to an art career and business. Or not.

This commitment is something that neither I nor anyone else can provide. It must come from you, and it’s a choice.

Choose to make art. Or not.

Sure, you can spend a couple hours on Instagram in the morning or decide that the laundry has to be done right now. Or … you could make art.

Choose to share your art. Or not.

You might be perfectly fine keeping your art to yourself and enjoying this pleasure. Or, you can decide that you have something that’s worth sharing with others. You are willing to risk the chance that someone might be delighted by what you have made.

Choose to make more professional connections. Or not.

The more people who know who you are and what you offer, the more people there will be to buy your art, show your art, and suggest opportunities. Professional relationships are key to your success.

©2010 Gloria Lamson, Indra’s Net & Harvest of Falls. Mixed media window installation. Used with permission. Link to
©2010 Gloria Lamson, Indra’s Net & Harvest of Falls. Mixed media window installation. Used with permission.

Choose to invest in your art business. Or not.

Turning your art into a business is more than spending money on materials. It’s investing in expert help, coaching, software, a website, and more.

Choose to implement what you’ve learned. Or not.

You can read all of the books you want or take all of the classes you can afford, but they won’t do you one bit of good until you implement what you’ve learned.

If you work really hard at any profession, you might end up with that house in the country or the yacht. But wouldn’t you rather paint or photograph them?

What path do you choose?

This article was originally posted on December 10, 2015. It has been updated with original comments intact.

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25 thoughts on “Building an Art Business Is a Choice, Not a Sacrifice”

  1. But the pilot would probably buy your art!!

    Being a full time artist is a difficult job but I wouldn’t think of doing anything else. I have been a teacher ( nine years in 7-12 and seven years art professor in a junior college) and have also owned my own studio/art supply store for 27 years. All that time I have taken every available minute to paint, study and take classes in order to improve my art and my understanding of it. I don’t know that you can be an successful artist without constant study and classes with those whose expertise exceeds yours. I finally feel like I am just about where I want to be..almost!!

  2. At the moment i am really feeling the challenge of trying to gain customers and i felt disheartened by the behaviour of a local art organiser.
    In August this year i applied for a space on the art trail for spring 2016 and in October i queued for 2 hours in the cold along with other artists to pay for a stand in the xmas open art fair. Two weeks before the xmas fair one of the organisers used the type of.questions i had emailed her to apply for the featured artist without my permission and excluded me from the featursd artist page. When i politely asked her why she had done both she took to facebook and got everyone in that group to bombard me with hateful messages and a week before the show returned my money.
    By a stroke of luck that week i was contacted by a local artist who shardd my bad experience. We met up and she gave me the name of another venue happening that same week. It was so much better because it was indoors there was music refreshments and affluent people milling about. I geeeted everyone who came by and i stood at the side of my table. I sold 3 pavks of xmas cards and as i was thinking about packing up when a well heeled man enquired about me doing a commission. I got his details and am waiting for a response. I was also given the name of a woman who arranges exhibitions in and out of area.
    I am 100% committed to my business and i recognize the things i havent been doing in my marketing. After this i am going to make some systems to implement those things.

  3. I sacrificed my lifetime choosing family and career, house, car over my art. Well, that didn’t go so well, now choosing the art career. It’s so much harder to start out when you are in your 60’s and I regret not doing it when I was young. You don’t have the innocence to bring to the work you had as a kid. Your work is tainted by a life time of playing it safe that you have to unpack. But I’m choosing it now, to the disparagement of my entire family. I saw a cartoon once that said “everyone will tell you how painful it is to choose an art career but no one will tell you how painful it is not to choose it.”

    1. Barbara: I am so sorry you don’t have the support of your family. You may not have the innocence, but you have a rich tapestry of experience. Neither is better than the other.

      Keep up the good work!

  4. I too started late in the art field. I sacrificed my time with family, career as a meeting planning and friends. When I turned 55 I started thinking what are my plans when I retire from planning meetings/conferences. Thanks t my grandkids I found my niech and have been painting on silk for framed art, scarves and wraps for 5 years now. I am now 60 and needing to find the time to do more of painting and marketing before I retire from the meeting planning career.

  5. Barbara Talbott, your work is beautiful and unique. Congratulations for accomplishing so much, regardless of how you got here. I, too, got started late, 15 years ago, after two previous careers. But I do bring more focus and determination to the table than if I had started right out of highschool.

  6. Oh, this is really speaking to me. I’m finding myself at a crossroads with my art. After my most successful year last year, 2015 has fallen flat and so have my spirits. I have been working with a business mentor and I’m wondering if it’s a good fit anymore. I feel the need to change up my art but I’m worried if that’s really the problem or not. It’s sooo hard to recommit to your art biz once you’ve been so beat up! So this all speaks to me… Or not!

  7. Choosing Art is not a sacrifice if that’s what you are really passionate about, there is a difference about doing something you like than something you can’t live without it.
    I learned it takes time, effort, research and so much discipline to get to the point you can see the light on the end of the tunnel, it is all worth it, go for it!

  8. I feel very lucky to be an artist, to be so involved in what I love to do. I don’t make very much money at it and have always had to squeeze it in between paying work and other obligations, but I can’t imagine a life without doing it.

  9. Steven Sweeney said he couldn’t get the comments to work (hope that hasn’t happened to anyone else). He wanted to add this:

    I decided last February, on the afternoon of a day in the office cubicle that started as any other, to choose an uncertain regret over a certain one. The latter would be to wish, late in life, that I’d taken advantage of both my keen interest in and intensive training in drawing and painting. The former “regret” includes walking away from the bi-weekly paycheck, the health and retirement benefits, the relative certainty of knowing what I would be “doing” each day for work. I moved all my living room furniture to the eastern 1/3 of the space and converted the other 2/3 to a painting studio–daylight lighting system, blackout drapes, easels, a year’s supply of paints, medium, canvas, boards, brushes and frames. I had given my corporate employer six months’ notice, so that I could properly train my replacement. In the 10 weeks now since “retirement,” I’ve spent 80% of my days dealing with other folks’ problems (serious, not trifling), but the word is getting out that there are times when I won’t pick up the phone or reply to your email, because I’m in my studio. It’s not a fun little pastime, it’s my new vocation, my job, my work. I will likely miff relatives and lose contact with some friends over this. So be it. Last night I designed and printed new business cards.

    I’ve joined a group of like-minded folks (Outdoor Painters of Minnesota) and will join many of them near the Canadian-Minnesota border in late January to paint plein air winter scenes for a week. (About this, a gallery owner, a plein air painter himself, remarked just yesterday, “You’re crazy.”) But most importantly, I know that I need to spend a year building up an inventory of high-quality work, to evidence my abilities as well as my intentions. I see countless paintings every day that are “better” than what I currently produce, and yet they remain unsold. This doesn’t deter me. I’ve sold paintings in the past, and will do it again. I have to work smarter than I did before. Prints and note cards I’ve produced from my paintings remain very popular, but I need to source economical vendors of the materials. Yes, I’m feeling a financial pinch already, which simply means I have to move on changing my priorities. In short, I can’t do it all at once, but I can do something every day, and “something every day” is the difference between do or do not. Lastly, DVDs, books, workshops and classes provide information and inspiration, but until I’m pushing paint around on canvas or board with my own hands using my own materials and talents, I’m no artist. Whether I regret the changes I’ve made in the past 9 months is largely up to me. I can have the attitude about it that I choose. So far, so good.
    – Steven Sweeney

  10. Alyson –
    Extremely successful artists can have yachts and country homes. Damien Hirst is worth more than $350 million. Choosing to be an artist does not have to limit your financial success.
    Susan Judy

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