I want to talk about art associations.
Well, especially art associations, but also art organizations and art communities of all kinds. Things that claim to be important for networking.
Before I get into why I think they are “bad for your business” (as the title of this article indicates I’ll be getting into) I want to preface this potentially-controversial article with a bit of a disclaimer.
If you are trying to sell exclusively through galleries (or almost exclusively through galleries), prices for your original works average more than $10,000, or you have certain target markets… then these organizations are likely to be good for your business. Because your business is all about who you know.
But most artists who read this blog are trying to sell a lot of their art directly to the customers that will hang it on their walls. And it’s these art businesses that I’m speaking to today who are wasting time and energy with these organizations.
When you join an organization like, and I’m totally making this up of course, The International Association of Finger Painters – what typically happens?
First you have to apply. This application might have a fee. The leaders in the fingerpainting association look at your application and deem you worthy (lucky you! Not everyone gets accepted!). You pay your dues, which usually aren’t too high but you do have to pay the whole year at once.
So far you might have spent $50 and two hours looking into the association and submitting your application.
And in exchange, you’re now a member of TIAFP! Hooray!
But your membership is probably an entry-level membership until you’ve participated in some of their events. TIAFP might not give you upper-level membership until you’ve been a member for a full year and your work has been juried into at least one TIAFP-sponsored show. Some associations have stricter rules.
So your benefits at entry-level might be lower application fees for TIAFP-sponsored shows, being on their email list, and being listed in the annual catalog alongside thousands of other names.
Until you are an upper-level member, you probably aren’t allowed to market yourself as a member of TIAFP either.
If you make it through the entry-level membership and request to become an upper-level member, you get more benefits. But it’s also harder to get accepted. You may find yourself stuck at entry-level for many years.
If you do become an upper-level member, you may not have to pay application fees at all for TIAFP-sponsored shows, your name would be more prominent in their catalog and in other spots where they list members, and you can now use the TIAFP logo and name when you are marketing your artwork.
THIS IS WHEN MOST ARTISTS THINK THEY’LL FINALLY MEET OTHER WELL-KNOWN ARTISTS AND MAJOR PLAYERS IN THE ART WORLD.
But those dreams fall flat because there aren’t many networking events for TIAFP and those they have are all in NYC or Paris or Berlin and TIAFP is such an old-fashioned organization that they barely have a working website much less online communities for you to interact with members.
That’s the most common outcome I see when an artist joins an art association.
Of course not all art communities are like that. Let’s have another example!
Say you go on Facebook and you find a neat little group called Finger Painters Anonymous (again, I’m choosing names that aren’t actual organizations – promise!) and request to join.
So far you might have spent $0 and 5 minutes searching for the group, reading the About section, and asking to join.
In a couple hours, the admin for the group accepts your request and you’re in!
You write a quick post telling everyone who you are and sharing some photos of your art along with a link to your website. And the comments are rolling in!
It’s great! Lots of your fellow FPA’ers are complimenting you on your art and welcoming you to the group. And so you start looking at their posts and their websites and artwork.
After a few days, you feel like you’re making friends. These other artists get your love of fingerpainting and it’s so nice to have a place to ask everyone what prices you should put on your artwork.
But then you quickly realize you’re spending more than an hour almost every day hanging out in FPA. And you know what? When you think about it, the advice they gave you about your website was all over the place and a lot of it conflicted with what you heard on that podcast.
The danger, though, is that many artists don’t realize all that time they are spending or all the bad advice they’re being given.
Last example! Let’s say you join a local co-op, Finger Painters of Raleigh. They don’t have a physical gallery space to maintain, but they do pop-up shows around town twice quarterly.
Your commitment might be $10 monthly in dues, attending the monthly meeting at least 8 months out of the year, having your art in at least 2 shows each year, and helping prep for a minimum of 3 events or shows each year.
You attend the first meeting to check it out and pay your $10 for the month.
The next month you do the same thing because the people you met at the first monthly meeting seemed so nice and you just know this is going to be the break you need to make loads of sales, if you just make these friends and get in all the shows.
So far you might have spent $20 and 3 hours finding FPR, contacting them to find out how to join, attending your first two meetings, and chatting with the other members afterward.
Then the real work starts.
You’re given responsibilities for the next show to organize the drop off of the work and label all of the pieces. Another member is supposed to help you but she flakes because her day job gets busy. You spend a total of 13 hours communicating with the artists & the host space, being there while artists drop off their work, getting supplies, and labeling all of the pieces.
BUT IT’S ABOUT TO PAY OFF, RIGHT?
Sadly, it probably doesn’t. The show goes off smoothly but only two pieces sell and neither of them was yours.
THESE SORTS OF SITUATIONS HAPPEN ALL THE TIME TO HARD-WORKING, EXCITED, AND TALENTED ARTISTS.
See most artists are looking for credibility and joining an art community of some sort makes them feel more credible. It makes them feel like they’ve been given that stamp of approval they covet.
And the other thing they want is a magic bullet – that one thing they can start doing that will suddenly have customers beating down their doors to buy their artwork. And that? That’s something that doesn’t exist.
THERE’S NO ONE THING THAT TAKES YOU FROM THE OCCASIONAL SALE TO A SUCCESSFUL AND CONSISTENTLY-PROFITABLE ART BUSINESS.
It’s a well-thought-out system of things customized just for you, your art, and your target market that will take you from the occasional sale to a successful and consistently-profitable art business.
Sure, sometimes an art community is actually helpful! And you might be that exception – the one who finds an art community that brings you lots of customers.
That’s why I hesitated to say that they were “bad” for your business. Because they don’t have to be. Sometimes they work out well, though rarely. And sometimes they’re a wash – you don’t see any results, but it’s not that big a deal, right?
The reason it’s a big deal to not get results is not about the art community you joined at all. It’s about what you weren’t doing with that time and money.
That $10 every month didn’t get spent on adding autoresponder capability in your email marketing provider.
That two hours applying didn’t get spent on contact a few magazines so you can get seen by a whole new crowd of potentially-perfect customers.
When you run an art business, or any business, whenever you say “yes” to something you have to be thinking about what else you’re saying “no” to as a result because you can’t spend that time and money on other things.
So something harmless like joining an art community can actually mean the difference between getting on The Jealous Curator and staying disappointedly stuck wondering why no one buys your art.
This is a pretty negative article and I really don’t like to write ones like this, so I want to leave it on a high note.
HERE’S WHAT YOU CAN DO INSTEAD OF POURING TIME AND MONEY INTO ART COMMUNITIES.
Put your energy into public relations (getting the media to talk about you) and email marketing.
I consistently see those two things making a bigger impact on art businesses than anything else.
But they work in tandem. Neither works very well on its own. So if you start doing one, make sure you start doing the other.