The RIGHT Way to Approach Artists About Using their Artwork

By Alisa Steady in Art Business Advice > General Art Advice

As an artist, I do a lot of marketing to the outside world. I present my work and my brand in all the familiar channels, like social media and websites geared toward art. Because of that, I field a lot of requests to publish my work in books, magazines, or to use in an article someone is writing.

All of it good. All of it encouraged. However, I do occasionally get requests to use my work that center purely around “The Ask” and benefits the Asker only, leaving the creative provider out in the cold. This generally leaves me with a not-so-friendly feeling.

Unfortunately, this one way “Ask-only” mentality is all too common. So much so, I’ve started wondering if people outside of the creative field assume creative people are horrible business owners. That we, as creative people, have no sense of what business goals look like, or the bottom line for that matter. Or what assigning value to a product even looks like.

Because of those experiences, I think the time has come to re-educate the Asker. It’s up to the Creative (which is you and me) to not back down for fear of being construed as rude, difficult to work with, or even “bitchy” when the Ask ends with “. . . and you’ll get great exposure!” instead of cold hard compensation.

NOTE: It’s always smart to use your discretion for each Ask, even those without compensation. There may be other benefits, for both Creative and Asker, as long as both parties are in mutual alignment, understanding and agreement.

For the sake of saving time for all business owners involved, I propose a new criteria an Asker should follow before approaching a creative business person. . .

This next section is for the Asker:

If you would like to use an artist’s work for a project, it’s not cool to suggest that the use of the artwork will be “free marketing for artist’s work” and leave it at that. Many times those kinds of requests go hand-in-hand with the assumption that the artist will fall all over themselves thanking the Asker for this amazing “opportunity,” because, after all, the Asker is doing the artist a “favor” with this gift of generosity.

My gut reaction to these types of Asks is a quick “No.”

Why? Because it’s simply not okay to approach a Creative with the desire to use their work, and yet expect to provide zero payout or compensation. That is simply a bad way to do business. You do not see people bargaining with the cashier in line at Target, saying, “if you let me take my groceries home for free, I’ll love you forever!”

It’s a poor assumption to think that any kind of artist will jump at the chance to work with you simply because “we all know that artists are starving and throwing out a bread crumb would be a nice thing to do.” Artists have been business owners for as long as business owners have been around. Just because some artists are in the spotlight as being broke depressed geniuses does not make it true for all artists. (Well, the genius part maybe. . .)

Lest we forget, professional artists and all the other professional folks who fall under the creative umbrella are business people, too. We create goals around building said creative businesses, and are striving to attain the highest level of success and excellence just as much as the next professional business person.

So if you’re a potential Asker, don’t click “send” on that email just yet! You may save yourself a lot of embarrassment. Instead, answer the following questions to make sure you’re “Asking” in the right way.

3 questions to answer before you Ask:

1. Have I properly introduced myself to the Creative who I’m interested in working with? (This includes familiarizing yourself with the artist’s websites, Facebook page, Google search results, etc. Basically, it’s five minute of due diligence.)

2. Have I properly explained who I am in this email, what my project is, and why I am approaching Creative about working with me?

3. Have I properly addressed the “partnership” factor of working with said Creative – to show that I’m not just trying to take something, but also offering something of equal value in the transaction?

If you can answer those three basic questions before making contact with a Creative, not only will your email sound more knowledgeable and professional, but you’ll also be much more likely to get a positive response.

Here’s how I know it works:

Recently I was approached by someone who was interested in my artwork. She introduced herself in her email, gave me some background, provided a link to her work, and told me why she was interested in partnering with me to use my work. Because her request and explanation aligned with my vision, branding, and business integrity, I gave her a big whopping “Yes!”

The takeaway?

It’s simply incredibly important to recognize artists and other creative people as valid business people, and to conduct the business of “Asking” with respect and good candor. If you can do that, your Ask may end up leading to a long happy partnership.


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