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Prosperity and Posterity in the Art World: Can Artists have Both?

A question that particularly vexes visual artists (especially those who produce art prints) is whether to create art for commercial success or to attempt to build a museum-bound legacy.

You may have thought something like this yourself: "If I try to make art so people will buy it, am I selling out?" Or, "If I try to make art for the ages, can I live off it now?"

Perhaps compounding the problem is that visual artists have the ability to wrest more control of their careers than most creative types, like actors, writers, and musicians.

How so? Artists with drive and wherewithal can self-publish their work; effectively and independently guiding their careers in the process. Other creative talents are far more reliant on a host of agents, managers and decision makers to help them along.

Of course, it’s not that simple for artists. No artist is going to get into any museum without having some powerful ally to champion them. Few, if any, become successful as print artists without a good support staff. And the more successful a self-published artist becomes, the more likely they’ll find themselves on the outs with the critics and curators—gatekeepers of museums, public opinion, and even art history itself.

In addition, visual artists are the only creative types required by arcane marketing tactics to limit their income by limiting the number of reproductions they print from their original works.

This practice grew out of physical and financial limitations imposed by old printmaking techniques that meant only a certain number of quality images were able to be produced. Now in the age of digital printing, those constraints no longer apply, but art marketers still believe they need limited editions to effectively sell fine art prints.

I say, have the courage and audacity to rid the industry of this practice and take the lid off earnings for artists selling digital or offset prints once and for all.

A photographer recently said he expects his prints of the same images to get better over time. His reason? He’ll be constantly improving his printing techniques; and software, inks, substrates and printers will improve in the coming years as well.

This makes sense to me. It reverses the concept that the first prints in an edition will be the best. That alone is a reason not to limit digital prints.

You know, back in the days when rock ‘n’ roll was still relevant, the idea of a band having a corporate sponsor for a tour was one way to get uncool with their fans fast. But somewhere along the way, bands were co-opted by the money, taking the chance that their fans would understand.

Now Rolling Stones and virtually every other top recording act have tours sponsored by beer companies and credit cards. Neil Young with his then controversial 1988 hit, This Note’s For You , famously satirized the change in attitude toward corporate sponsors:

"Ain’t singin’ for Pepsi
Ain’t singin’ for Coke
I don’t sing for nobody
Makes me look like a joke."

Still, the rock bands that have given over to the power of corporate dollars were right: their fans forgave them for taking the dough. And it was more than just money that drove the decision for many rock acts. They also found that getting radio airtime was increasingly hard, and that corporate sponsorship and advertising became another channel to expose their music to fans.

Ultimately, I think most fans knew in their heart of hearts they wouldn’t turn down millions either so they begrudgingly forgave them.

Yet, when visual artists seemingly "mismanage" their careers by becoming too commercial, they can be assured the art world muckamucks and many collectors will shun them. How did this happen? How is this fair?

A Los Angeles Times Magazine article on the very successful artist Yuroz detailed the problem in a 4,100-word article titled, "Never Mind the High Praise. How About a Little Ink? His Work Is Priced as High as $150,000. He’s Been Commissioned to Paint by the U.N. But There’s No Place in the World of Fine Art for Yuroz and Others Like Him."

The gist of that 2002 article (which is still available from the Times’ archives for a small fee) is that Yuroz stayed too long at Artexpo, the long running consumer/tradeshow held each spring at the Jacob Javits Center in Manhattan.

Over the years, Yuroz has made a fabulous income; but the article says because of that, the fine art community ostracizes him. So Yuroz’ dreams of art immortality are dashed as he realizes his art will not be collected by the best museums.

If it’s any consolation, the gatekeepers to "fine art heaven" are notoriously capricious and fickle—Yuroz might have slaved away in obscure poverty and still not made the right impression on the art community.

There’s really no getting away from the fact that success in business is part of being a successful artist. But artists can and should make up their own mind as to what success means to them and then try to attain it.

For many, success is being able to consistently sell one’s work for increasing prices. Competitions and prizes all add luster to a career, but having a viable growing body of interested collectors willing to pay to own one’s art is tremendous validation that I believe goes beyond ribbons, prizes and accolades.

If that’s how you feel, fine art prints may help in more ways than one. Calvin Goodman stated in his superb Art Marketing Handbook that he disdained posters as a practical means for an artist’s career until he saw how Arthur Secunda (the brilliant painter, colorist and collage artist) managed to have both a top tier gallery career and still have his work produced and sold by Haddad’s Fine Arts, a poster publisher.

According to Secunda, his reproductions did not make him wealthy but it did help pay for studio costs in California and France—and he also believed it helped him gain a wider recognition for his work.

The bottom line is this: as an artist, if you are selective and effective in how you market yourself and your work, you can have it all, both prosperity and posterity. So, why not strive to do both?

There’s no romance or nobility in being a starving artist. Focus on prosperity with flair, dignity, and style—with a dash of luck your reputation will precede you into posterity.

Barney Davey is the author of How to Profit from the Art Print Market and an art marketing consultant. To read more, visit his blog, Art Print Issues.

*Note: this post may contain affiliate links*

I don't sign my paintings. At least, not on the front. Most artists do, I know, but in the last few years I've pretty much decided not to. It's not just an eccentric whim, either; I have my reasons and I'll get to them in a bit. But first, here are a few reasons why artists DO sign their work.

1. Artistic tradition

For centuries (millennia, even) artists have signed their art.. . . read more

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