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Commercial Success

By Humboldt Magnussen

In my undergrad I had a professor who would raid her bookshelves before class and fill up a cart of art books that we could flip through if we wanted a break from painting. This is how I was introduced to General Idea and Carolee Schneemann, artists who have been very influential to my art practice. However, the most influential conversation with that professor happened when she showed her own work, and discussed her career. She had decided from an early point she didn’t want to show in commercial spaces and instead chose to only show in artist run centers and museums. The reason being she didn’t want her work to be influenced by the market, or to have a gallerist pressure her to make salable work. She later explained that she missed some opportunities because of this choice, but it was a guiding force for her that her audience was in public institutions.
At that time in my own art career I was still suffering a hangover from my time making very commercial paintings of flowers and bridges, and had an off putting experience with another commercial space. I felt very driven by money and competitive with my twin brother, who at the time was making buckets of cash in the welding trades, but the work I was making for sale was not my brightest or most innovative. I decided I was going to follow my painting professor’s path and look for spaces that were not driven by the sale of work. I showed my work a bit, and generally tried a lot of new things, experimented and I made a lot of work that I couldn’t even give away. I was in school, right? That was what I was supposed to do, and it was very freeing.
I took a very particular path and undervalued my work, gave it away, or sold it to friends. In my mind at the time you had to decide on one of two paths: 1) make commercial work and sell it in commercial spaces or 2) make whatever you wanted and don’t sell it.
Now looking back I realize that I was so wrong. Paths don’t necessarily exist, and you can make good work and still sell it. Or make terrible work and sell it, or make fantastic work and never sell it. The thing to remember is that whether your work sells or not, is not the only gauge to determine the real value or worth of your work. There are a lot of practices that are difficult to sell and may not always fit an economic model, such as video, interventions, works made by a collective, or performance pieces. It is difficult because sometimes you feel like success shouldn’t be measured in dollar signs but money is something that is more tangible and can be easily measured.
I have a difficult time understanding money and how to make money in an art practice. There are a lot of questions I have trouble answering, for example what should you price your work at? Where should you show? Should you give away your work? Should you sell your work online? Here are the things I have learned. Do not undervalue your work. If you don’t know how much your work is worth, get an outside source’s opinion. I find my insecurities climb to the surface when I am pricing work, but finding the appropriate price is essential. Make work with different price points – some accessible work perhaps in the form of a multiple, with other larger more precious works that might be worth more. Do not give too much work away for nothing instead think about levels of reciprocity. If a person has helped you out, thanking them with work is awesome and a great gesture, but if you hand out your work like it’s a free sample at Costco you might find that people will treat it that way. You have to make sure that for everything that you commit to, you are getting something out of it in return that will help you in the future, otherwise, your time, energy, and art was exchanged for zero dollars and zero positive outcomes. Finding appropriate spaces to sell your work is the most challenging, I have been in real tight situations and have uploaded work to Facebook and tried to sell it that way, and while this works sometimes often it is never for very much money.
Some artistic practices need gallery representation in order to sell the work, and trying to sell it yourself is difficult because you probably do not have access to the names of collectors. When I was showing in commercial galleries the pressure was insane and I personally felt obligated to sell out the show, and if that didn’t happen I felt responsible. Sometimes this kind of pressure can be too much to handle. What it comes down to is that it is important to find a good gallery that is really committed to your work and your future whether you sell a lot of work or not. Being bruised from my commercial gallery experience had a lasting effect, which pushed me to avoid commercial spaces. I felt like if my art wasn’t for sale then there was less of a chance of failing. Being afraid of the business side of art did not do me any favours, so in the future I hope to find spaces and people that support my work financially. It’s important to strike up a balance and to choose to walk on multiple paths at the same time in order to ensure that you can sell work, but not sell out.