What does it mean for artists to market themselves?
Say you’re a painter and your studio (or apartment) is brimming with dozens of your pieces. No one will know about your work—let alone, want to buy it—unless you market it, explained Mara Vlatković, an arts administration professional who specializes in this very topic.
For artists, marketing boils down to strategically getting the word out about your art to an audience, keeping them informed about your practice, and inviting them to exhibitions or other events you’re involved in. That could mean having a nonchalant conversation about your work with friends and acquaintances, posting on Instagram about your latest piece, or sending out an email blast to announce an upcoming group show you’re included in. But where should one begin? And how?
These questions (and many more) are addressed in the newly published second edition of the New York Foundation for the Arts’s artist handbook, The Profitable Artist
. Its chapters address a spectrum of practical topics for working artists, from marketing and managing finances to fundraising and setting prices for art. And, for the first time, NYFA is offering online workshops
to delve into these topics further.
Ahead of her course on marketing for artists in the digital age, we caught up with Vlatković for advice on how artists can get started on developing an audience, and connecting with it.
Hone your voice
Marketing can be very daunting, Vlatković acknowledged, “but if you really think about it as if you were speaking to your closest supporters, and just broaden the audience a little bit, that is essentially what marketing is, in a nutshell.” A good place to start is to practice the way you talk about your work. It’s never too early to learn how to identify what’s unique about your practice and talk about your art, Vlatković said. While artist statements are often recognized as crucial tools, she stressed the importance of being comfortable discussing specific pieces, an upcoming exhibition (and knowing which details to point out), or the inspirations and process behind your work.
Tap your friends for market research
To get a sense of how much your audience might already know about your art, talk to your immediate circle of friends and family, Vlatković advised. Ask them about your work and what they think you’re currently doing in your studio. “If they don’t actually know anything about what you’re doing during all those hours in the studio, that may be a sign that you need to start talking more about it,” she said. “It’s kind of like a mini audience study—market research for starters.”
Use the tools you're comfortable with
Vlatković describes a Venn diagram with three intersecting circles, where one circle represents your comfort zone as an artist, one circle represents marketing tools, and one circle represents where your audience is. The intersection at the center is where you should be concentrating your efforts, she explained.
Let’s say you are very comfortable with writing, she offered; you may choose to start a blog, with studio updates every week. However, if you’re not comfortable with writing, but you can take polished photos of your work and your studio, maybe Instagram is the right tool for you instead.
If you don’t think you have an audience to target, Vlatković notes, think again. “I always disagree with people, even if they’re coming straight out of school, who say ‘I don’t have clients; I don’t have customers [or] an audience.’” If you’re on Facebook, Instagram, or even Snapchat, she explains, you likely have friends and followers. “You might not be thinking of them as an audience, because they’re primarily friends and family, but that’s a great start, and it’s a very safe start,” she said.
Start to connect with them through a few posts per month to talk about your art, an upcoming show, or your thoughts on a certain exhibition, Vlatković suggested. “You can start showing up in your friends’ and family’s online experience as an artist and as an expert in your field.”
Experiment with different types of posts
To get to know your audience and what kinds of posts they’ll respond to on social media, it’s a matter of trial and error, Vlatković said. With social media, you can instantly see what people like and what they respond to, so vary the kinds of posts you’re sharing to see what resonates the most. It doesn’t have to be a matter of posting an image of your work in order to sell it. Vlatković advises taking a broader approach and thinking about all the messages you can be sending as an artist.
“People very often underestimate what they have at their fingertips,” she explained. For example, while an artist may be bored with the surroundings of their studio, it may excite someone who has a 9-to-5 office job. She suggests posts that show works in progress, behind-the-scenes shots of your studio gear and materials (like your paint-splattered jumpsuit or a collection of brushes), or images that illustrate the origins of your work (like a plein air painter sharing images of a landscape where they’re working). “Don’t think that that’s not interesting to people,” Vlatković said.
Make a website (if you haven't already)
Make sure that when a person Googles you, something that accurately represents you shows up. It could be a LinkedIn page, a public Facebook profile, or more importantly, your personal website, which, Vlatković said, “nowadays is almost a given.”
The beauty of having a website is the control over how you as an artist and your work are represented online. “I would encourage personal websites just because you completely own that content and you can manage that content,” Vlatković said. “Otherwise, if people Google you and old articles come up, you can’t control that.”
If if you’re not primed to build a website from scratch, various tools make it easy for you, like Squarespace and WordPress, Vlatković said (there are also various options that are specifically designed for artists
). She noted that your website doesn’t need to be complicated or updated constantly (it could even just be one page), but it should have several key pieces of information: a bio or CV, an artist statement, images of your work, and contact information. Vlatković also suggests including an online form so people can share their names and email addresses so you can build up a database of contacts.
Keep a database of contacts
Especially if you’re starting from scratch, Vlatković suggests creating a database of your contacts with the help of email marketing tools like Constant Contact, MailChimp, and TinyLetter. While you may be able to connect with your contacts on Facebook and other social media platforms, “further down the line, it will be much easier to contact them through email,” Vlatković said.
These email marketing tools—some of which offer free accounts—not only facilitate email blasts, but they can also help you store details about where you met each contact and what you spoke about. “To have people’s contact details is also very useful because not everyone is on Facebook or Instagram, so you might want to have their emails for future reference,” she added.
As mentioned above, you can collect emails from a form on your website, or through meeting new people online or in person, but it’s important to ask their permission before adding them to your newsletter—it’s not just a formality, it’s legally required. If you’re sending out email blasts to your audience, email marketing software is also legally required to ensure that your emails are secure, and that you’re giving contacts the option to unsubscribe at any point.
Be strategic with timing
When it comes to planning out your social media posts, Vlatković recommends tools that can help you pre-schedule posts. This way, you can set aside two or three hours a week to create all of your posts, and then, through software like TweetDeck, Hootsuite, or Buffer, you can schedule them to go up throughout the week.
When it comes to marketing a show or an event you’re involved in, she advises setting up a timeline to keep your audience informed. As soon as you have a confirmed date, make a plan for sending out a series of announcements: You may want to send a save-the-date six weeks in advance, the actual invitation four weeks out, a reminder two weeks later, and perhaps a post on Facebook that shows you prepping for the opening. “There’s nothing worse than it being two days before the show opening, and you realize you completely forgot to tell your entire audience,” she said. “Often, it’s too late 48 hours before.”
Another strategic move—which is sometimes forgotten, Vlatković said—is to send a thank-you note to people for coming to the show or event. “It does leave a lasting impression,” she said. It could be a quick, three-line email to say thank you, and to tell your audience what you have lined up next. “It gives you an opportunity to keep them in the loop about your practice,” Vlatković said.