10 Steps to Start a Successful Art Business

By Padraig McCaul in Art Business Advice > General Art Advice

My philosophy for building a long-term, successful art business combines three things—a little business planning, a whole lot of marketing, and most importantly, the ability to create work that resonates with people.

And so, in the time-honored tradition of business and marketing consultants, I would like to share 10 simple steps (why is it always 10?) that I try to live by, and would highly recommend:

1. Create great work

This is where it all starts. Without good work, you can’t expect to create a successful career or business. You need to be very clear about what it is you are making, and who you are making it for.

2. Get to know your target market

Once you understand your work and what you have to offer, it’s time to start finding the right market for it.

As with every other business, you need to find out as much as you can about who might want to buy your art—locally, nationally, and internationally. You need to stay in touch with new developments in the art industry, how the economy in various places is affecting art buyers, etc.

Here are some questions you should be asking yourself:

  • How big is your potential market?
  • Who is buying art?
  • Who is selling art?
  • Who is your competition (i.e., producing similar work) and what sort of prices are they getting for their work?
  • Who do you want your audience to be?
  • Where does your work fit in the broader art marketplace?
  • What type of spaces do you want your work to be seen in?

3. Get to know your marketplace

I define the “art marketplace” as anywhere your work can be placed in public view. These can be broken into 3 distinct groups:

Public exhibition spaces

Public art galleries, museums, libraries, open submission competitions, etc.

Commercial gallery spaces

These can range from local framing galleries up to international galleries.

Direct access spaces (Physical or Digital)

These are anywhere people can come to you directly to see your work, such as your studio, art fairs, your portfolio site, your Instagram page, etc.

The more you know about your market and your marketplace, the better off you’ll be when making decisions about creating and showing your work.

4. Develop a simple business plan

“A what? I’m an artist, I’ve never done a business plan!”

Well now is the time to start. . . and it can be as simple as answering a few questions. After all, where do you want to be in 1, 3, and 5 years?

Having a clear vision for your future will help you create goals and stay focused in the long run.

Write down your answers to the following questions:

  1. What do you expect to earn from your work over the next 12 months?
  2. In what months will the money come in?
  3. How will you manage during months when nothing is coming in?
  4. How much work will you need to sell to meet your income goals?
  5. How much work will you need to make to sell that amount? (If you can sell 50% of what you make you are doing well. . . but that means you need to make twice as much as you hope to sell!)

Some of these questions aren’t so easy to answer. But for any artist hoping to make a living from their work, these questions need to be answered and answered honestly.

5. Regularly review your business plan

Think of your business plan as a map, and refer to it now and then to make sure you are still on course.

For example, if you had planned for a certain income coming in the first 3 months of the year and it doesn’t come in then you have to find a way of making that up in the remaining 9 months.

The fact that you had a plan in the first place means that you can react quickly when things don’t look like they are going all well as you had hoped.

At the end of every year I do a complete review of my business plan—i.e., my annual cashflow projections—and use this to help create the next year’s plan.

6. Create fans by creating opportunities

At some point, you’ll need customers, but first, you’ll need fans. . . and you create fans by generating as many opportunities as possible for people to view your work. Of course, fans come in many shapes and sizes:


These are people who simply like your work and may never be in a position to invest in it. But they will champion it! Instagram is one of the best ways to create new admirers.

Art community fans

Here are people in a position to help progress your career, e.g., media, curators, major collectors, or other artists.

Future customers

These start as fans, but at some point will invest in your work. It could be in 6 months, it could be 2 years, but they have already committed in their minds to buy your work at some point in the future.

Actual customers (collectors)

Customers are simply people who make such a connection with your work that they are willing to invest in it. In the art world, they’re known as collectors.

No matter what type of fan a person is, they all have to start at the same place—seeing your work via the opportunities you have created.

If you ever stop creating those opportunities, your business, and your career will simply die away. Creating new, ongoing opportunities may be the single most important thing you can do, other than creating the work itself.

Here are some opportunities I have created in the past 3 months:

  • Gave a business card to my Insurance Broker (today!)
  • Took out exhibition space at an art fair which 8000 people attended over 3 days
  • Was featured in 6 Christmas group exhibitions in December
  • Held an open studio day in December
  • Posted new images to my Facebook account
  • Ran a marketing seminar for other artists
  • Updated my website with new images and new content
  • Set up an account with Linkedin and joined several groups
  • Gave a business card to a journalist friend of a friend that I met in January
  • Booked a solo exhibition for April
  • Commissioned an online video documentary for my website
  • Created some slideshows of my work and posted them on YouTube
  • Gave a business card to the manager of a new arts center in Dublin
  • Sold 25 paintings (the best opportunities you can create are through your paying customers)

How many opportunities can you create this month?

7. Make it easy for your fans to “connect” with you.

If someone sees your work for the first time—due to one of the many opportunities you have created—and decides that they like what they see, then there is a good chance that they will be interested in seeing more.

These days, that means having an engaging, professional website that people can visit at their leisure.

Ideally, this is your website with a section for news and updates—one that offers a rich and rewarding experience to the viewer.

Social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram are also useful places to show your work but they don’t necessarily offer the same professional experience to the viewer.

All of the opportunities you create up to this point have one simple objective—to drive people to your website.

I didn’t always think this way. . . until about 12 months ago I judged the success (or failure) of a year by the number of pieces I sold and the number of new contacts I was able to add to my mailing list.

These two “facts” were easy to quantify and measure. I could also get a good feel for the general reaction to my work by talking to my galleries or meeting potential customers myself at the art fairs.

But what I wasn’t measuring was the number of people that visited my website.

That all changed when I set up Google Analytics. All at once, I started seeing that I had a steady stream of daily visits coming from Ireland and worldwide, and I was averaging 10 visits a day, with about 2500 visits in the past year.

I was amazed. People were going online and either searching for me or else typing my website name in directly. It made me realize just how important my website was. It’s my “shop window,” my connection point to 2500 people every year!

This changed my entire way of thinking about my website—and from then on I began to explore ways of making it more personal, more engaging, and more rewarding for the viewer.

NOTE: If you don’t have an art website (or your current website isn’t easy to use) there are many options available to you. EmptyEasel’s Simple Artist Websites is one such option.

8. Wait for “connections” to turn into customers

In my experience, if you can get people to connect with your work—get them “hooked”—then it can be just a question of having patience. At some point, they are very likely to invest in you. It could be a $100 print, it could be a $1000 painting, or it could be a place in one of your workshops. The challenge is to create something that someone just can’t walk away from!

I sold 2 paintings this week to a collector that saw my work for the first time about 2 years ago at an art fair. She was very taken by some of my work and let me know before she left. She had connected with it, she had seen something in it that made her stop and want to find out more. All I did was take her contact details and give her one of my cards.

Throughout the intervening two years, she came to some more of my exhibitions and would regularly visit my website to see what I was working on. Last week she emailed me to say that she wanted to come to the studio to buy something. And so I sold 2 paintings. The sale took two years to happen but the connection was made the very first time I met her at the art fair.

9. Nurture your customers

Your customers, your clients, your collectors—the people who invest in your work and your career—are the most important people you will deal with.

Put your customers first, not the galleries, not the media, not the art community—and let them know they are your top priority. As with all businesses your existing customers are where most of your new business will come from, whether through new sales, recommendations, the championing of your work, or just introducing your work to new people.

Whenever possible, offer special discounts, private previews of upcoming shows, studio visits, etc. Keep your customers updated on your plans and successes.

10. Go back to step 1 and repeat all 10 steps

Being a professional artist is a never-ending cycle.

Always create good work, continually review your market and marketplace to see where you want to be in the coming months, write down a business plan that will allow you to meet your goals for the year, and never stop making opportunities that will bring people to see your work.

Eventually, the opportunities you create will turn into connections, and then into sales, and then into repeat customers. It’s not always simple or easy, but it works!

Special thanks to Padraig McCaul for sharing this article! To learn more about Padraig and his art, please visit his website.


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