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Being Honest and Realistic as an Artist



Last week we talked about the importance of self reflection.  The process of knowing ourselves well enough to recognize our own weaknesses as well as our strengths, and how to bypass our subconscious mind to always keep control of our lives, not place that control outside ourselves.  This week we’re going to attempt to do something even harder than looking at ourselves in the mirror.  We’re going to be honest about what we see.

Honesty… that may be the most difficult bit of running a creative business.  Consider for a moment that you’ve done all the things we’ve talked about.  You’ve set up your art business seriously, you’ve created strong goals and objectives, you’ve committed to your vision and mission, you’ve faced the fear of failure, and live and breathe your small business every day.  You have faced your secret fears, anxieties, and you can see yourself and your business as clearly as possible.  What happens if you don’t like what you see?  

One of the problems about having a business that is so completely tied to our own lives as creatives is that, at the end of the day, this is still a business.  There are rules and regulations that must be followed, and you must generate a profit to stay afloat.  It is truly important for you to be self reflective, and be your best cheerleader, but it is also inevitable that running any business is going to have drawbacks, setbacks.  We have to be able to look at ourselves and our businesses honestly, and be realistic about what we see.  

Now I’m not retracting anything we’ve discussed before about being positive, being a risk-taker, or being able to self motivate and self reflect.  All of that is true.  What we need to do now is ensure that we can deal honestly with the issues that do arise, and not be either overly critical or pollyannaish.  I can take an example out of our own art career.  We were chugging along, making a living off our photography and video work when we added the fine art branch of our business.  We knew ourselves well enough to know that it would take a while for us to gain recognition in the local art scene, and perhaps longer for us to build a steady collector base for our art.  People knew us as the video guys, not the artist guys.  We were honest about the trajectory of that part of our business, and careful not to throw all of our eggs into that new basket.  After a few years, we began to see a real shift in our income, with fine art providing a growing percentage of our total sales.  But we also saw that we had increased our materials budget eightfold.  When we started our business, we already had purchased video and camera equipment, so we were able to show up at a job site with our existing gear, and shoot a job with no real expense other than gasoline.  When we made the shift to include fine art, we needed specialty papers, a fancy new printer, art supplies, framing supplies, and marketing.  All of those expenses were new to us.  We doubled down on our video work to pay for all of these things, and we noticed that we were in fact seeing a steady uptick in our fine art revenues.  A year ago we held our first solo exhibition of Bogdan’s fine art photography, and sold something like $7,000 in one evening.  It was a huge success.  

You may have guessed what happened about the same time.  Within two weeks of the solo exhibition, the doors to the studio complex closed, and all traffic to our art studios stopped.  Our video work came to a standstill as well, other than some real estate photography we did for model homes… where no one was physically present when we shot the photos.  We looked honestly at our business, and knew we were on borrowed time.  We obtained a grant from the Small Business Administration, which saw us through the worst of the pandemic shut-down.  

As we examined what was happening, we noticed that art businesses that had a strong online presence seemed to be doing much better.  We had just spent the better part of two years establishing ourselves as a studio based fine art team, and had not done much to create an internet presence for our company.  As the months rolled by, we had to take a realistic review of our business model, and consider our options.  

What we saw was that we knew that we were talented enough, and that our artwork would sell.  We also had enough experience to know that we absolutely loved the fine art market, and couldn’t see a path forward without creating art.  We had to be realistic about our finances, about our potential to earn money in a post Covid economy, and what we could control about the situation.  We were certainly disheartened, afraid, and upset about where we had landed, and wanted nothing more than to blame the pandemic for our woes.  My point is that none of that matters when looking at the numbers.  We had a clear set of choices.  We could give up the business and go find jobs… not an option.  Push only the photography and video side of the business, and leave the art production for later… also not an option we were willing to accept.  So we decided to continue the art business, and find other ways to market and fund our expenses for that part of the company.  It’s a bit of a gamble to be honest, but it’s one we’re facing honestly, and re-evaluating constantly.  

Where is your creative business today?  How have you weathered the pandemic economy?  How do you ensure that when you look at yourself, and your business, you’re doing so honestly, and realistically?  It may be that your business has improved during the lock-downs.  Congratulations if it has, but how are you preparing for a new environment as the economy opens back up?  Is your business at risk?

I want to be really clear that I’m not suggesting that a deep dive to look honestly and openly at your business will be easy, or that it will be simple to distinguish between your needs and desires, and those of your creative, freelance business.  I’m also not suggesting that if you do take a long realistic assessment of your risks, that you will come up with the right answers.  We’ve decided to push ahead, and that may turn out to be a terrible plan.  The point is that it is a plan.  We all must create a business environment in which we can make the best decisions possible, with the best data available to us.  And that must mean that we can never, ever, avoid looking deeply and honestly into a mirror, even if we’re unhappy with what we see reflected there.

As part of our own plan to get out into the online world with our art, we’ve started a weekly live Zoom meeting where Bogdan and I present and discuss some of our art.  It’s a half-hour show, every Thursday morning at 11am Central Time.  We’d love to have you join us, though we’ll record the sessions if you can’t make it at that time.  Send me your email address, and we’ll include you on the invitation list.  Or you can always go to my website and sign up for my newsletter.  I’ll add you to both lists if you do.  

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John Bishop Fine Art's "Conversations for Freelance Creatives" is a weekly blog/vlog/podcast that creates a community, a conversation, between creatives in all sorts of fields at all sorts of levels.  We want to discuss what we’re learning, what we’ve experienced, and whom we’ve met in our journey of running a freelance creative business. John Bishop is a visual artist living in Houston, Texas. His work is largely abstract, and explores how to turn mythic, archetypal symbols into individual experiences allowing us to see them in a new way, with fresh eyes. His work can be seen online, or at his studio at Silver Street Studios, 2000 Edwards Street, Studio 108, in Houston.


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