Stradling the Fine Art and Commercial Art Worlds

1 11 2012

I interviewed Aletta de Wal, who founded Artist Career Training (A.C.T.), about  Fine Artists Vs. Commercial Artists. A.C.T. started in 1996 and since then it has grown from a local coaching practice into a “virtual university” delivering training to artists who want to make a better living making art. She is equal parts artist, educator and entrepreneur. I have worked for several years with Aletta and appreciate her many talents and her sharing these insights. There are great ideas, important realizations and new information for all types of entrepreneurial artists here.

J’net Q: How do fine artists differ from those in more commercial areas, and do you find many who also want to license their work?

All artists have much in common – they use their talent, skill and creativity to interpret a subject, theme or message; produce art on spec and/or accept commissions; and earn income from their work.

Differences arise in the source of inspiration, the purpose for creation, the display of the finished artwork and ownership of copyright.

  • Fine artists inspire themselves. The purpose is emotional – to appreciate the beauty of a person, an object or essence of an idea; stimulate curiosity and reflection; or convey a message. The purchaser chooses where, when and why to display the work. Fine artists retain copyright and may use the work for derivative purposes.
  • Commercial artists draw inspiration from the client for the artwork. The purpose is commercial – to create images that will inspire viewers to purchase objects, services and programs or advocate for a cause. Commercial art is displayed in reproducible media for ads and logos and licensed by manufacturers for use in products. Commercial artists create “work-for-hire” and copyright belongs to the purchaser who may use the work indefinitely. (J’net note: not always, that’s why we learn to license our work!)

I do find many more artists want to license their work these days. The idea of licensing has become more acceptable to fine artists and many commercial artists have often been exposed to the possibilities through their assignments. Less obvious to many artists are the shifts required in thinking about their art, how it may be altered, who is in charge of the final version and how they may need to alter their work habits to meet the demands of licensing.

J’net Q: How can artists wanting to make money from their creations benefit most from your advice?

My role is to advise artists on how to get the life they want from being an artist. The artists I’ve worked with who have been most successful are hard-working, diligent and persistent.

Artists who benefit most from my work with them:

  • Are clear about why they make art and the lifestyle they want in a family, workplace or community;
  • Have a strong body of signature work;
  • Are willing to learn and take action to display their work and run a legal business;
  • Are able and active in developing relationships with viewers, arts professionals and media.

I do not believe one size fits all. Artists deserve to express their creativity not just in their art, but also in the way they run their art business. My approach is personal and hands-on. I am direct about what needs to be done. I provide a path, structure, accountability along with road-tested practical tools and advice. I encourage my clients to do something every day to move their career forward, even if only for 15 minutes.

J’net Q: What advice do you give to artists who want to ‘live’ both in the fine art/gallery world and explore licensing to a broader audience? And conversely, what advice would you give commercial artists who want to explore sales in galleries?

Artists who want to live in both worlds are taking on two distinct business and marketing plans and a double workload.

  • Fine artists who want to do “commercial” work must be prepared to take direction from clients without feeling that their work is “compromised.” If they want to license art they create, the work must have broad, popular appeal and be suited to use in branded advertising and on manufactured products.
  • I’ve worked with many “commercial” artists who want to explore fine art later in life, especially graphic artists whose work pre-dates computerized graphic software. Their path is to soften the lines of their art, find their “voice” and the audience and venues where their work will gain appreciation.

J’net Q: Aside from galleries, what other kinds of venues can artists make money with their art?

Once upon a time in the art world, the pinnacle of pride for artists was to exhibit in a gallery. The fairy tale was that one day you would meet the gallery dealer of your dreams.  This savior from all things marketing would come riding in on a white stallion.

Artists still want to get into galleries. Galleries are still looking for artists who qualify. But how do you qualify? You need experience exhibiting and a track record of sales. And here comes the Catch 22. If you don’t have this experience, how do you get it?

You climb the ladder of places to exhibit your work. The reality of today’s art world is that you can now exhibit your work without shame in a host of alternative spaces. You just have to match your type of art with the location and the people who go there. Here is a starter list of 36:

  • Airports
  • Architects’ Offices
  • Art Fairs & Expos
  • Artist Co-Op Galleries
  • Artist Open Studios
  • Artist Volunteer Organizations
  • Book Stores
  • Cafes
  • Design-Build Portfolios
  • Elevators
  • Furniture Stores
  • Garden Shows
  • Hospitals
  • Interior Design Services
  • Jewelry Stores
  • Kitchen Contractors
  • Libraries
  • Medical Offices
  • Museum Shops
  • Nautical Equipment Rental
  • Online Galleries
  • Personal Care Facilities
  • Private Clubs
  • Public Art Programs & Installations
  • Quilting Stores
  • Rental Galleries
  • Restaurants
  • Retail Stores
  • Sports Clubs
  • Tea Shops
  • University Galleries
  • Vegas Hotel Lobbies
  • Workshops
  • Xylophone Dealers (ok – I’m reaching here!)
  • Yelp
  • Zoo Shops

There are many benefits of showing in alternative spaces:

  • You get exposure for your work to an audience in your own neighborhood. You may already know some of them – but do they know about your art? (And maybe a local gallery will notice you.)
  • You get feedback about your work. You learn what has the most appeal to the audience. You gather testimonials to use in your marketing. And you learn what to change.
  • You don’t have the added expenses of shipping, handling, travel and accommodation. And you can check on your art frequently to make sure it is still there and in good shape.
  • You build relationships with the venue owners and staff. You show them that you are a good community member because you support local business by making their space more attractive at no cost to them.
  • In return, they give you access to their clientele and suppliers. They become part of your informal sales force by talking about you and your art.
  • You build your own mailing list – an asset that always impresses galleries.

J’net Q: What are the five most important tips you can give ‘entrepreneurial’ artists who wants to have a successful business?

  1. Create a “brand” for your art that starts with a signature body of work; business name, logo and domain name that reflect your identity; personal public presentation of your work and accomplishments.
  2. Make connections and build relationships with people who may become viewers, buyers representatives and sources of referral.
  3. Make work as an artist; make plans as entrepreneur; make connections as a business partner.
  4. Take full responsibility for your results; monitor your progress and make indicated adjustments to plans, actions and relationships.
  5. Do what you say; finish what you start; be on time; say please and thank you.



One response

1 11 2012
Rosemarie Adcock

Wow, great article. Good to double-check what is already happening in my own business and remind myself of any details missed. I recall that years ago, pre-digital, the lines were blurred between illustration and fine art, and find it interesting that it still remains so. What I especially appreciate is that it is considered appropriate to exhibit in so many venues. Sometimes the odd places are the most fun to do, and bring in surprising results.

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