It came up to me several times recently. Gallery owners and store managers ask if I have any masterpiece to show or for sale. I tell them honestly that I don’t have masterpieces, because everything I make is on an iPad.
It is the norm, as far as I can see, that many artists still produce masterpieces, show them in a gallery or online, in order to gain following or find a buyer. If it is displayed in a gallery, the gallery owner will seek out for people who will pay for the art, because the real business purpose of a gallery is to connect potential buyers with the art and make money on commission when the artwork is sold. With technology becoming cheaper and easier to use, now any artist can just pay $10 a month create an online gallery on Squarespace.com. If the artist does marketing right, he or she will attract the buyer to the online gallery and even process the sale online, without paying high commission to the gallery.
In my view, the masterpieces model is why starving artist exists, because the masterpiece business model is time-consuming and super risky.
It takes a lot of time and energy to produce a masterpiece, and if no one buys it, the result of that time and energy is put on hold. Some masterpieces never got sold, some are sold for a mediocre price because the artist needed the money to survive.
First, let’s take a look at how this masterpiece business model started. It turns out that in the 16th, 17th century when productivity was low, it was a luxury to have free time to appreciate art. Owning and collecting art, therefore, became a symbol of status. It was to say that
“Look, I am so well off that I don’t need to worry about feeding my family or the leaking hole on my roof that I can spend time looking at beautiful paintings AND have extra money to own them, and then hang them in my home among other paintings. “
In the old days, people who have extra resources expected to be treated as so, the rest of the industry caught on. Gallery owners were creating a luxury experience to match the status quo of their customers. Why buying art in a gallery involved expensive campaign and a dress code? Because the buyers want to feel their social status being verified in such settings.
Time has changed, artists don’t necessarily have to go through a gallery to sell their work. We know what that means to gallery owners, but that does that mean to artists?
Having all the modern convenience have a few very important implications for artists today.
- It is cheaper than ever to display and produce your work, connect with your audience, and sell your creation without a physical gallery.
- Buyers have unlimited options. Buyers today can go through the portfolios of many artists, choose who they like, who to follow/unfollow, all within a few clicks.
- The risky masterpiece business model is no longer the only way to survive and succeed for artists. It has never been the only way, but we didn’t have the technology and the online network to help us do that.
The business model that works today
For the first time ever, an artist can create something quickly and cheaply, share it online, and sell it without even meeting with the customer. Mockup tools and prototype factories can help artists sell a product before they have the actual product in hand. Did you get that? Some artists are marketing and collecting cash for products they don’t have – myself included.
Artists need to move fast, create mini pieces, not masterpieces, test the market, improve, test again until our work reaches the smallest viable market. The smallest viable market means enough people to buy so you can continue producing without getting in debt.
This approach, I called it the Bite Size Model significantly lowers the risk for artists today. If no one buys your works, it is okay, you didn’t spend much time on it. Go back, improve, and try again. As opposed to spending weeks or even months to create a masterpiece and then find out no one wants it.
Printing used to cost more than manual work. Twenty years ago, you couldn’t make products with your design on it without a lot of cash in hand and connection. Today, you can put your original design on a T-shirt for less than $10, and you can turn around to sell that T-shirt for $30 or more.
The Bite Size Model also greatly improves cash flow. If you find something sells, find out why, improve, create variants or side products. Sell more. There are more people that you can convince to buy a $20 print of your art than people who will pay hundreds even thousands to buy your original piece. Low cost is the majority. Don’t overlook something because it is small and insignificant. If you see a lot of it, it can make you rich, or at least keeps you alive so you can continue to create.
I was at a marketplace with other artists who were trying to sell masterpieces. I was selling print posters of my art for $12 a piece. 50 units were sold out in one morning and I spent the rest of the day socializing. Those who sell masterpieces sit there all day waiting for the buyer who may or may not show up. We may end up making the say, but the quality of our days was different. I enjoyed hearing the sound of cash register every two minutes, it was music to my ear. Every time I hear the cha-ching sound, my emotional burden became lighter. As opposed to the artists who sell masterpiece, their blood pressure rises each second passes.
Finally, I want to remind artists out there, especially those who are starting out. The title artist is still cool, but not as cool as before. You got talent? Awesome. Just remember what Anorld Swasneger once said
Work like hell, and advertise. You work your ass off, and then you let the world know about your work.Arnold Schwarzenegger, 2018
A successful artist needs to process two very important assets: talents and the ability to sell.
Arnold Schwarzenegger said that. George Lois also said that in his famous book: Damn Good Advice (For People With Talent!)
Artists still need to create masterpieces. The process of creating masterpieces is transforming (I know I said earlier that I don’t produce masterpieces, so how do I know?). I do produce masterpieces, I just never put them up for sale or show. While creating masterpieces transforms an artist’s to a better artist in many ways, the timeline needs to be adjusted, especially if you rely on selling your art for a living.
While art is timeless but the practice of being an artist is not. As artists, we need to understand that we have been offered to us in the world we live in, and how to take advantage of it.
Keep making art.