Observations on what makes for successful careers: Epilogue

In earlier articles in this series, I wrote about art careers from the perspective of what I observed in successful artists. Here, I am more subjective, writing about the art business from my own perspective, from my own intuitions. I am less confident here, because there are many models for a gallery business, and these suggestions and observations apply best to my type of gallery. There are lots of other ways to think about the art market.

Jason K. Milburn (left) and Dexter Davis (right) at Davis’s exhibit at William Busta Gallery on Prospect Avenue

Jason K. Milburn (left) and Dexter Davis (right) at Davis’s exhibit at William Busta Gallery on
Prospect Avenue

Approaching a Gallery

  1. Have a website with a resume and images, or have a disk with resume and images. It is ok for the website to be very simple, without bells and whistles. It should include a resume and easy to navigate folders of recent and not-so-recent work. If you’ve had something written about you, links are useful. (And check from time to time to make sure links are up to date.)
  1. Know the gallery.   There are all kinds of galleries which sell all kinds of art.   Simple rule – if you like all the work at a gallery, it may be a good fit for you; if you don’t like any of the work at a gallery, it is not a good fit for you.
  1. Know the gallery director or gallery artists. This might take time. Go to an opening from time to time. Don’t try to set up an appointment or show your work during the opening.
  1. Don’t approach a gallery to get a critique of your work. Do approach a gallery to see if it might be interested in showing your work.
  1. When a gallery accepts a new artist into its mix, it often means it is making a considerable investment of resources. Minimally, this means thousands of dollars. So, think about your approach as an introductory sales call, not a make or break attempt. There are artists who I started to represent 10 or more years after my first studio visit.
  1. “Artist’s Statements” are much more important for grants and non-profit spaces than they are for commercial galleries. If you are as confident in your writing as you are with your art, they can be effective.   In my experience, from my perspective, I have rarely found them useful and often found them detrimental. When writing for a commercial gallery, think about a general audience with an interest in art but not necessarily a college course in art history – think your aunt Edith with a degree in sociology. Or read the iPad text version of NPR morning edition.
  1. Often it takes a growing familiarity, over time, for a gallery to commit to a new artist. If an artist’s work is really new, really fresh, really creative, I usually don’t respond well the first time I see it. I think this is true of other people, as well. New ideas teach new ways of looking at things, and it might take a while to learn how to see differently.
  1. Most galleries need new artists with new work from time to time.
  1. Gallerists and curators are often annoyingly neutral in response to an artist’s work until they make a decision to exhibit.   Then, seemingly out of nowhere, they enthuse so much that it can be embarrassing. One reason is that they do not want to mislead until they are ready to commit. That’s just the way it is.
  1. Everyone is invited to an opening and it is a place to build relationships.   Building relationships takes time. Talk to the artist and gallery director, preferably at a time when they don’t look busy. Talk about the show, rather than your own work. Don’t expect the gallery director to remember anything he says at an opening.
  1. Don’t contact a Gallery Director the week before an opening. Do contact a week or two after an opening.


After a Gallery Contact

  1. If you think the gallery is a good place to show, place the gallery on your contact list. Send cards and/or e-mail announcements of shows.   If the gallery closes, still try to keep up-to-date contact information for your contact. Gallerists have a habit of opening another gallery at a later time, or working as a curator or an art consultant.
  1. Stop by the gallery at least twice a year. Keep up to date about the current gallery mix.
  1. Don’t worry about being ignored a little, and don’t be offended if the gallerist does not recognize you. Keep in mind that for many gallerists, they get more contacts from people wishing to show their work than from people wishing to buy artwork.
  1. Don’t expect your first approach to be successful. A second approach and a third approach after a number of months or a year or two later is a good idea.


The Gallery Show

  1. Have a contact list, e-mail and street addresses.   On the list should be everyone who has ever expressed an interest in your work and anyone who has invested in the narrative of your life – relatives, dentists, school teachers, beauticians, and car mechanics. Your contact list should be at least 100. Keep it up to date. Expand it. Sometimes it is useful to have notes to help you remember why someone is on the list.
  1. Tell everyone you know that you are having a show. Talk about your artwork. Build a buzz.
  1. Write personal notes on announcements.
  1. Sometimes lots of sales take place at an opening, and none afterwards; sometimes no sales take place at an opening and lots of things sell afterwards.
  1. On average, my experience has been that more than half my sales of an artists’ work occur at a time other than during an exhibition.
  1. For a non-profit space, interest in the artist diminishes rapidly after the opening. For commercial spaces with on-going representation of artists, the gallery expects the opening to be the beginning.


Pricing Works of Art

  1. Low prices are just about the most attractive selling point for an emerging artist.
  1. As the price of art rises and rises, there are fewer and fewer possible buyers. (This is true for just about everything – think of automobiles, houses, and clothing.)
  1. The most that most people will pay for a work of art is roughly their monthly rent or mortgage payment.
  1. Unless you reach a national or international market, most people who buy art are people with ordinary incomes. The median household income in the United States is about $60,000.
  1. It is much easier to raise than to lower prices.
  1. When comparing your prices with other artists, look at sales, not the listed price. There are a lot of things offered for sale which find no buyers.
  1. For an emerging artist, it is much better to sell things and get them out of the studio than to get the best possible price. Every person that purchases your work becomes an advocate for your work.
  1. Keep prices constant, whether selling from your studio or through a gallery. If you sell for less from your studio, word gets around and people will buy from your studio and not from exhibitions. If your exhibitions don’t sell, there’s less motivation for a gallerist to schedule.


Who Buys Art?

  1. People who like art tend to be people with intellectual lives.   There is not necessarily a correlation between an intellectual life and ample discretionary income to buy art.
  1. People who buy art tend to be people who have agency in their employment.   This group includes doctors, educators, people who own their own businesses (whether Corporation Presidents or self-employed accountants), lawyers, and retired people. Middle managers, not so much.
  1. People buy different things at different times of their lives (for example, buyers of IKEA furniture diminish dramatically after age 34). For art, the best years for buyers is after major furniture purchases – after their mid 40s; the very best years are after their children have graduated from college and before they have down-sized – between early 50s and mid 60s.
  1. Art buyers tend to be most interested in work that speaks most directly to them. In most cases, this is the art of their own generation. Often artists sell best between their early 50s and mid 60s. This is a challenge for younger artists.


Some of the Things that a Gallerist Thinks About

I have always realized that there were really good artists that created work that did not appeal to me, and, similarly, that there were artists that created work that did appeal to me that did not meet my critical demands.   The work that I did choose to show was both – work that I believed was extraordinary and that also had a substantial personal appeal. Still, there were many artists who I wanted to show, but did not invite to join the gallery. These are some of the possible reasons:

  1. Not enough work. I preferred to show artists who produced a reasonable amount of work from a regular studio practice. I tended to avoid artists who needed the deadline of a show to make almost any work at all. In my experience, it is necessary for artists to work almost every day in order to produce their best work.
  1. Prices are too high. For the work which is created, prices were higher than I judged the audience for the work will support. I don’t like to discuss pricing with artists who I have not committed to exhibit. So, while I mentioned the pricing issue, I did not argue it. And then I would not chose to present their work.
  1. Artwork has characteristics which make it unsalable. For example, works on paper which are too big to frame; work in ceramic or glass which are too fragile and will likely break under usual domestic conditions; work which the artist declines to sign; paintings which are too big for a house.
  1. Artwork conflicts with the work of another artist in the gallery mix. Could be too much alike; could be just too distracting.
  1. There is subject matter or approaches that I just did not respond to very well. I was more likely to respond well to work with maps or sailboats and less likely to respond well to work with dogs or babies.


The Decision

Once in a great while I decided to show an artist’s work at first contact, but more often the decision took months or years. Sometimes I was interested in the artist’s work, but their current body of work was not right for me, and then that changed; sometimes I did not really understand the artist’s work and then that changed. For me, the decision was not about one show, but an expectation to show the artist’s work many times over many years. The contacts that I had with artists before deciding to show their work was a little like dating. Eventually there was either a proposal or a drifting away. I rarely said “no” – I only said “yes” or “thank you.”



This Epilogue follows William Busta’s series of articles based on lectures he presented at art schools and universities in Northeast Ohio over the past 25 years. William Busta ran his eponymous gallery in locations around Cleveland for 26 years. During that time he was recognized as the top dealer of contemporary art of the region, presenting hundreds of exhibits by artists including Don Harvey, Dexter Davis, Hildur Ásgeirsdóttir Jónsson, Douglas Max Utter, Christi Birchfield, Darius Steward, Brinsley Tyrell, and Derek Hess. Busta won the Cleveland Arts Prize in 2014. As he says, “The series is not so much advice, as what I observed that most successful artists did.” Titles in the series are: Make Art (Spring, 2017), Know Art (Summer, 2017)  Show Up (Fall, 2017), and Keep In Touch (Winter, 2017-2018.