7 Tips on How Artists Can Actually Succeed in Business, From Negotiating Contracts to Finding the Right Mentors

Dexter Wimberly and Heather Bhandari share their insights for building a viable art career.

Guests at the 2019 Art World Conference in New York. Photo by Alexa Hoyer, courtesy of the Art World Conference.
Guests at the 2019 Art World Conference in New York. Photo by Alexa Hoyer, courtesy of the Art World Conference.

Pursuing a career in the visual arts is a daunting proposition. There’s a reason that the cliché of the starving artist remains an enduring one: Talent and hard work alone can’t guarantee a sustainable career.

It’s easy to overlook the fact that making art, while a deeply personal pursuit, is also a business, and to succeed professionally requires a certain amount of business know-how. And while art school imparts valuable lessons, it doesn’t necessarily prepare students for the financial realities of everyday life as a working artist navigating the notoriously opaque art market.

That’s why independent curators Dexter Wimberly and Heather Bhandari founded the Art World Conference, a financial literacy and professional development event dedicated to tackling the business side of art, from setting prices to signing contracts to legacy planning.

“Because of our backgrounds and love of artists, we feel uniquely positioned to disseminate information to make the lives of artists and arts professionals more sustainable,” the duo told Artnet News in an email. “We also believe it is a social justice issue: more artists and arts professionals from diverse backgrounds, where there is no financial safety net, need to be able to envision a life-long career in the arts.”

Dexter Wimberly and Heather Bhandari, founders of the Art World Conference. Photo by Alexa Hoyer, courtesy of the Art World Conference.

Heather Bhandari and Dexter Wimberly, founders of the Art World Conference. Photo by Alexa Hoyer, courtesy of the Art World Conference.

Building off the lessons of Bhandari’s book, Art/Work, a professional development guide for artists, the Art World Conference launched in New York last April with speakers like Hyperallergic’s Hrag Vartanian, digital strategist Jiajia Fei, United States Artists CEO Deana Haggag, and marketing and communications strategist Tiana Webb-Evans.

Always envisioned as a multi-city affair, the conference branches out this week to Los Angeles during Frieze. (This will be followed by events in New York and Chicago, timed to Frieze New York in May and Expo Chicago in September, respectively.)

“We hope artists will walk away armed with resources to help them make good choices,” Bhandari and Wimberly said, “and the knowledge that they are running the most interesting businesses out there.”

Ahead of this week’s edition of the Art World Conference, we asked the pair to jointly offer a few financial tips for artists looking to secure their future.

 

Determine What You’re Worth

There are ways to determine value and worth from a market perspective. You can think about the materials you’re using, the production involved in a work, the size, your resume, education, and pricing history, along with the market rate of other artists with similar resumes and work. If you’re pricing time, resources like the W.A.G.E. calculator can help give a ballpark figure to charge. However, it’s much easier said than done because there is social, cultural, and economic currency to consider. Artists are worth more than a produced object, especially now, when many visual artists don’t even produce objects. Because this question is so difficult, it’s a conversation we’ve programmed into our LA conference. The topic is “Sustainability: On Currency, Value, and Solidarity.”

Hrag Vartanian speaks at the 2019 Art World Conference in New York. Photo by Alexa Hoyer, courtesy of the Art World Conference.

Hrag Vartanian speaks at the 2019 Art World Conference in New York. Photo by Alexa Hoyer, courtesy of the Art World Conference.

Realize That You Run a Business

The biggest trap for artists is thinking their practice is not a business. Once artists understand they are, essentially, small business owners, the world opens up to a lot of financial possibilities, resources, and a clarity that’s hard to find when everything you do is considered personal.

We believe that a lot of artists succumb to the stereotypes that artists aren’t good with money, or [that] if an artist is concentrating on the business side of things, the studio is going to suffer. Or that struggle and hardship create good art. Those are all stereotypes that need to be eradicated. Artists are creative thinkers who make something out of nothing every day. They connect with people, fill needs, communicate information, question systems, and inspire. But if they’re told that’s not valuable and they believe it, we, as an art community, will continue to work unpaid and for “exposure.”

 

Manage Expectations Before Signing a Contract

Signing with a gallery should be a two-way street where both sides figure out if it’s a good fit. If the context, audience, community, money, and opportunity expectations are aligned, then the contract should be easy. It should simply outline what’s already been discussed as fair. Numerous conversations and studio visits should lead up to that moment.

That said, all contracts should be reviewed by a lawyer. Artists should refer to books that have sample contracts (to see if theirs is out-of-the-ordinary), and speak to other artists in the gallery before they sign. The more artists share information with each other, the more equitable the contracts will be. Artists should go into every relationship knowing what they want by way of money, context, press, that dreaded word “exposure,” learning, etc. Then they’re in a good position to know what they require from the contract and where there is room to compromise.

 

Don’t Assume You Need an MFA

Every artist needs to figure out if an MFA makes sense for them. Is there something they will gain that they cannot achieve outside of participating in academia? Of course, if an artist wants to teach at the college level, an MFA is required. Outside of that, it is optional. Each person needs to decide for themselves and figure out how that debt will be handled upon graduation.

Because we know many artists choose to get MFAs at institutions that don’t provide significant financial aid or teaching assistantships, we will offer a session on debt management and saving at every conference. One mistake many people (not just artists!) make is thinking that when they’re in debt they cannot yet think about the future or build credit. That’s simply not true.

Banner image for the study "Panic! What Happened to Social Mobility in the Arts?," by Create in association with Goldsmiths, University of London, University of Sheffield, and the London School of Economics

Banner image for the study “Panic! What Happened to Social Mobility in the Arts?,” by Create in association with Goldsmiths, University of London, University of Sheffield, and the London School of Economics
Image: Courtesy Create

Harness Technology to Self-Promote

Websites and social media are integral to an artist’s career. Not having a website or social media account is akin to not having a phone number or email address. Now that the art world is becoming more decentralized, artists are able to connect directly with people online. They are able to share, sell, and even exhibit on their own through their website, Instagram, and other online platforms. While there are surely successful artists doing it without tech, it’s a lot harder to expand your circle without an online presence, especially if you don’t already have institutional support.

 

Pick Your Mentor Wisely

Mentorship is huge and it can come in many forms: former teachers, employers, family members, and even peers. It can come through books and online learning. Mentors can come from inside and outside the art world. We recently heard advice that everyone should have one mentor over 65 years old and one under 25 years old. So much can be learned by those around you who simply think differently. The first step is reframing what you think a mentor should look like, and [then] thinking about what you need and what you can give. Again, it is a two-way street.

 

Don’t Overlook the Boring Stuff

One of the reasons we founded the conference was to have three topics—taxes, legacy planning, and investing—on the minds of artists. Once it’s on their radar, something can be done, resources can be tapped, and progress can be made. One thing artists should know is that you are never too young or too broke to think about these things.

 

The Golden Rule

Separate personal finances from your business finances, however small or large the business is.

The Art World Conference will be held at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 North Sepulveda Boulevard, Los Angeles, California, February 15 and 16, 2020; at New York Law School, 185 West Broadway, New York, May 1–3, 2020; and at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 East Washington Street, Chicago, Illinois September 25–27, 2020.


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