Taking something that you love to do and making it a money-making endeavor fundamentally changes your relationship to it and will require way more from you than you think. If that is something you want to do, it’s worthwhile to ask yourself: “am I really ready for that?"
I started hanging my work in local galleries and public spaces many years ago, but it wasn't until I officially formed my current business and started selling my work at art festivals in 2011 that I truly began to understand the above statement.
I remember my excitement entering that first art festival in my hometown. I had an inexpensive canopy that had been bought on Craigslist, some homemade display walls, and a collection of framed work from my gallery and coffee shop appearances along with some new metal prints. And, of course, high hopes for a big weekend.
I ended up doing pretty well too. At least, pretty well for my standards at that time. I finished the weekend having sold over $1,000 of my own art, and that felt really good. It was more money from my artwork in a single weekend than I had made from gallery appearances for many years prior. I thought to myself that I had really found the ticket. At the conclusion of that festival, I promptly applied and got accepted into two more for the summer.
The next one, in a fairly affluent area, was a sure bet to be just as good or better than my first, or so I thought. About midway through Saturday of that second festival, which was set up in an asphalt parking lot in the heat of July, with no customers walking through, I had the realization that perhaps it was not simply as easy as just getting myself accepted into an art festival and watching the money come in. Not all festivals are created equal.
The third festival that year was on a beautiful September weekend. The weather was much nicer, with slightly better sales, but still not sufficient to make a profit. But at this point, I had already formed an LLC, gotten business insurance, a sales tax license, bought a canopy, spent money having work printed, and bought a utility trailer to transport my stuff. I was in too deep to stop now. So, I licked my wounds, regrouped, and the following spring, began planning the summer shows I would apply for. And thus began my career selling my work as art. It’s been a wild ride, both gratifying and frustrating, and ultimately humbling. Here are some lessons I have learned along the way.
Build relationships with other artists: one of the things I’ve learned along the way is to make friends among my peers. Some of my best artist friends are other photographers. Even though we are competitors in a sense, we are also kindred spirits. I have gotten a great deal of encouragement and useful input from these people and not just other photographers, but artists of all kinds. Plus, if I concentrate on developing my own style and look and don't worry so much about what other people are doing, it's much less of a problem.
Give up my ego: no matter how talented and capable I think that I am, there are lots of other talented and very capable photographers out there that I'm competing with for spots in the better art festivals. I can’t afford to let my ego get bruised if I don't make it in. I just learn what I can from people who are further along in the journey and keep believing in myself and keep shooting the things that are most inspiring and important to me. That's what will make it fulfilling, and ultimately, that passion will show through to my customers.
Have thick skin: if I post an image on social media, I only see the likes, and I don't see how many people just pass it by. When I have my work on display in a public space, I get to see all of the people who stroll on by my booth without giving it a second glance, or even worse, go cruising through my booth making some dismissive comment about my prices and walk on. It can be disheartening at times, especially when there are not many sales being made, but I have found that staying upbeat about who I am and what I do is crucial.
Be willing to be where I am: at some point, I had to realize that I am where I am. I may not have the fancy double booth or gigantic prints that some of the other photographers do, but I was and I am learning and developing my work and presentation as I go. I’m a long way from where I started, and I’m learning what fits my style
You never know for sure what people will like: I've experienced many times hanging up work that I personally really like, maybe for technical reasons or the personal challenge of getting that shot, and having it receive a pretty lukewarm response. On the other hand, sometimes, images that I think are just ok are the ones that people are really drawn to and want to buy. I've learned to not argue with that and give people what they like.
Don't take a bad show personally: on those long weekends where people just aren't buying my stuff, it can be really hard to remind myself that it doesn't necessarily mean that I need to hang it all up (metaphorically). It's just that, for whatever reason, this crowd is just not connecting with my work. Sometimes, the only thing to do is to pack up my stuff and look forward to the next show.
Don't compare myself to others: what constitutes a good show for me might only be a barely break-even show for someone else. I do best when I don't worry about how well other people are doing and just focus on what I'm doing and what I need.
These are just a few of the lessons that I've learned along the way as I've endeavored to sell my work as art. I think there are valuable lessons here for me not only as a photographer but for life in general.