Navigating The Three Stages of a Professional Art Career

By Aletta de Wal in Art Business Advice > General Art Advice

In every profession, you don’t just leapfrog from the bottom to the top—instead, you progress through a series of stages. You learn the ropes in an entry-level job and pay your dues as you climb the ladder.

When I worked in a corporation, I started out as an employee in a team; became the supervisor of that team; then department head; and finally an executive. (Then I escaped it all to make my living from art, but that’s another story. . . )

The corporate path differs slightly from the creative, but there are stages to a professional art career as well. Describing artists as “emerging” “mid-career” or “established” is shorthand for their progress in:

• the quality of art and the size of the body of work
• the development of a signature style
• the evolution of their art business
• the amount of outside attention given to the artwork
• the scope of the audience and market
• the number and dollar value of sales

Some artists dislike these terms, and prefer not to be pigeon-holed as an emerging, mid-career, or established artist. Please don’t interpret the three stages as limiting. I’d rather that you choose to see them as a realistic context for taking certain actions at certain times.

In my opinion, when you know what you can expect at each stage, you can get comfortable with what you have to do. You can take the correct actions at the right time. You can stop being anxious about whether or not you are going far enough fast enough and enjoy the ride.

It’s important to note that being an emerging, mid-career or established artist has nothing to do with how old you are. Many artists in their 60’s have been making art for a lifetime, but haven’t shown or sold any. There are also many artists who have a thriving, established career in their 20’s.

Talent is not the defining factor either. I’ve met many talented artists who never get the attention they could. There are many possible reasons for this. They may:

• be unable to bust the myths holding them back
• not be “driven” enough to progress to the next stage
• prefer to simply make art rather than spend time marketing
• not have the business knowledge to go from hobbyist to professional.
• have other responsibilities and priorities.

Not all artists progress through all three stages. That’s just fine. It’s up to you to decide how far you want to go and what your talents and life circumstances will support.

Let’s take a look at the typical markers of the three stages of a professional art career. The stages do overlap, but you can see where you are right now and what you need to do to get to the next stage.

Emerging artist

Artists in this stage develop their art talents, create their art business foundations, and start to get local notice. They spend most of their time in the studio making art, getting better at making it and making more of it faster.

Emerging artists are sometimes enthralled simply with the “romance” of being an artist. They may be addicted to spending time in the studio creating. Emerging artists may know about the concept of a signature style, but probably don’t have one yet. They still love to experiment too much to settle on one style. Most are still more interested in art production than art marketing, and may be inexperienced about pricing.

Emerging artists tend to do all the work of their business themselves. They are often not yet profit driven. Since there is little income, they must be a Jack (or Jill) of all trades to make everything happen.

Luckily, at this stage the business aspects are fairly light, having mostly to do with tracking income and expenses, building a website, and starting to exhibit and promote on a small scale.

Ideally, this is the stage where an emerging artist discovers their audience. Over time, they will start to build a mailing list of people interested in their work and sales start to happen.

Mid-career artist

Mid-career artists have a growing body of work and have enough art inventory to have several shows a year. They continue to refine and evolve their signature style. They spend more time on marketing their art, but aren’t fully comfortable with the “loss” of studio time.

Mid-career artists are definitely committed to making a living as an artist, whether or not they are doing so. They have business and marketing systems in place. They manage a website, often with e-commerce features so they can market and sell online as well as in person. They work hard to make a profit, with varying degrees of success.

Artists in this stage may struggle with the balance between art production and art marketing. Once they are making some profit, they may hire help for themselves so they can increase their studio time.

Mid-career artists have a well-defined audience and a growing mailing list. They show their art locally, regionally and maybe even nationally. In addition to selling work directly to collectors, mid-career artists often sell multiples as well as originals, have gallery representation and may also license their work.

Mid-career artists are knowledgeable about pricing their art appropriately to their talents and market forces. As their audience grows and markets expand, they build their capacity for sales to committed collectors and through reputable galleries.

Established artist

Established artists have strong, recognizable signature styles with more than one body of work. Their signature style is notable enough that other artists line up to learn from them. They may have studio assistants, but still personally direct creative functions. Their inventory is large enough to supply concurrent shows, as well as sell to their collector base.

Established artists have a strong following, are represented by good galleries and command the professional respect of other artists and art professionals. They have a lengthy and impressive résumé full of accomplishments of merit. Artists who have “made it” have earned national and international acclaim.

Artists in this stage usually make a full-time living from their art, and are being richly rewarded. They have multiple streams of income from their art work and produce steady financial results. Established artists have people helping them with every aspect of the business. They might even have an “art empire” and multiple employees.

Established artists have well-developed pricing strategies. Their work commands top dollar in the art market—and has a reputation for consistently increasing in value.

So now the question is: where are you?

There are many artists who over-estimate the maturation of their work and under-estimate what it takes to build an art business. Those who desire, or expect, unrealistic results too soon often end up disappointed and angry. But this doesn’t need to happen!

Think about it. If you over-extend yourself by spending too much on marketing, or on hiring an assistant when that doesn’t fit your career stage, you’re just wasting your resources. And who needs that?

On the other hand, when you build the necessary foundation for your business, and work steadily, you’ll move your career forward instead of sideways or backwards.

So recognize where you are in your career and do the things that will bring financial success at that stage. Patience is a big part of this process. Then, build success on success.

It’s a simple plan. . . but it can take you farther than you’d ever imagine.


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