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How to Measure Success as an Artist

Last year I spent a lot of time struggling over creating realistic goals and objectives in my art business, because I felt like I was stretching ideas and strategies in an awkward way. I don't mean to suggest that as an artist I don't need goals and objectives, but rather that I didn't feel completely comfortable that I was measuring the right things. It just didn't feel right. So I set myself the goal of understanding why I felt that I was trying to put a square peg in a round hole when planning my art career. If you'd like to go back and watch the video from last year, you can see in on YouTube

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I think the main obstacle I faced was my unwillingness to assign the same measures for success to my creative life. Think about it. If you're running a shop selling buttons, a big measure for you success would be the money you make from those sales. Makes sense. And the company that sells more buttons is considered to be more successful than those who sell fewer. Again, makes sense to me. And further, if a button store sells little to no buttons, it's hard to imagine that store as having any success at all.

Apply the same notion now to art. Can you be successful as an artist and not make money? Well, yes. I think we can all point to numerous examples of artists who are remarkably talented, who do great work, and yet they're not making money... at least not while they're alive. So if you're measuring your success as a creative, it's easy to miss the measures that matter most in our field.

I tried to approach the problem in a different way. I decided to create a list of 5 living artists that I admired, and then associate one word to each. Why did I admire each artist? The hope was that if I could identify real-life examples of creatives I found inspirational, that might help me identify what I considered success to look like. I realize that this list may be different for each of us, but that's ok.

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The first artist on my list is John Ross Palmer. When I think of John, I think of someone who is completely dedicated to his art, and his art career. John never stops creating, marketing, networking, and building and maintaining a loyal base of collectors. For John, I wrote the word Determination.

The second artist I considered was Stephan van Kuyk. Stephan is an artist working out of Berlin, and the word I wrote for him was: Fearless. Stephan does all sorts of projects, and seems to me to be unstoppable. He's not fool-hearted, but seems unwilling to take no for an answer. I admire that a lot.

The third word I wrote down was Skill. I thought of a local artist here in Houston, Zack Williams, who is one of those amazing artists with so much talent it's almost intimidating. Of course, Zack is completely approachable, but the detail and the amount of planning and concentration he puts into a piece totally inspires me to get better and better at my craft.

To me, JJ Baker is one of those artists that seems to be totally Authentic. He is the quintessential painter. He has loads of talent, is always evolving and trying new things, he's always working, covered in paint splatters, and is the kindest most sincere person you'd ever want to meet. On open studio days, he'll have a box of art that you can just take for free. I would love to be as genuine and authentic as JJ.

Finally I wrote the name Gerhard Richter. While I don't personally know him, he is an artist I greatly admire and emulate. I love the fact that he has expertise in multiple media, and that his long career has brought him a well deserved sense of Fame. So my last word, Fame, is not about stardom, but simply to be recognized, in this lifetime, for a life well lived, and an art career well appreciated.

So there's my list. Yours will look different. Determination; fearlessness; skill; authenticity; and fame. Those five words have now become part of my mission, and part of my artist statement. But can they serve as measures for success in my art career? I think they can.

Determination covers all of the business problems, and market issues I must navigate. That includes earning enough to put food on the table, paying for supplies, and maintaining marketing and such. It's keeping records, paying taxes, and sending out newsletters. If I am truly determined, it seems like I will see success in this area. Just as the button shop can fail for lack of sales, I can fail for a lack of determination. You've got to want it.

My second measure is fearlessness. That may seem very similar to the first, but the distinction I make here is having the willingness to face any adversary. I can be doggedly persistent and determined, but afraid to try something new or to take risks. In my world, that may mean approaching the gallery and academic art world, or perhaps finding novel ways to reach collectors, or try new mediums. It certainly has meant putting myself out there on social media, YouTube, podcasting, and blogging. You guys scare me to death! If I can add fearlessness to my skillset, I am much better poised for success.

The third quality is all about becoming a better painter, illustrator, photographer, and writer. This is the quality control aspect of my business, and the professional development piece. Skill is what keeps me learning, evolving, and ultimately what will propel me to the next level. Skill, backed by determination and fearlessness is an indispensable tool for my success as a creative entrepreneur.

The last two qualities to me are inseparable; authenticity and fame. A huge measure of success for any creative is fame. Do people know you and your work? Are you revered and respected? People love a success story, particularly when creativity is involved. But one thing that can kill fame, is a lack of authenticity. As a creative, I must be real. If I am perceived to be fake, or a charlatan, success is impossible. Inauthentic people may make a news cycle, but how many great art forgers do we remember?

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So how do we as creative professionals measure success? Please don't fool yourself into thinking that sales figures, likes and followers, or YouTube subscriptions are the measure, because they're not. These things are important. They are the data that inform larger rubrics. It would be foolish to spend all your time chasing Instagram followers and not improve your artistic skills and knowledge, but it would be equally foolish to sit in a studio painting and hope that someone will walk through the door and discover you.

By the way, if you'd like to see the work of my list of heroes, here are their contacts: John Ross Palmer: Stephan van Kuyk: Zachary J. Williams: JJ Baker: Gerhard Richter:

“Art Life Blog” 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. Bogdan is a videographer and fine art photographer who constantly seeks to stretch the boundaries of traditional photographic work, with the added flare of his artistic eye.  Both artists’ work can be seen online, or at their studios at Silver Street Studios, 2000 Edwards Street, in Houston.

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