Forging Relationships, Finding a Career

The art world has been turned on its head, and no one quite knows what to do about it.  Long-time gallerists tell stories of mythic proportions about the days when they could not keep art on the walls. With more and more people buying art online and in alternative venues, many traditional galleries cannot keep their doors open. 

Career photographers talk about the days when career photographers existed – when a person could support him/herself on his/her art and a photographer valued his/her work and would not dare give it away for the glory of a photo credit. 

Up-and-coming photographers lament the digital era where everyone with an SLR (or better yet, an iPhone) calls themselves a photographer and layers and filters can turn the dullest images into something . . . special.  

Nostalgia is easier than change.  Routine is more comfortable than innovation.

And yet, the truth is that we have the tools to take this upside-down art world and own it.  The internet has leveled the playing field for everyone and may the best photographers and galleries win.  We can take things into our own hands, and we can create our careers.  Gone are the days of sending slides to galleries and waiting for the call that would signal the start of something.  Anyone with talent, creativity and ambition can start their own fire, from the bottom up.

So rise up.  Take your career by the reigns and thoughtfully and purposefully develop a plan to get you where you want to go.  Tighten your work, develop your brand, strategically launch your project, and identify and attract your target collectors.

Make your mark on the world.

A sampling of artist promotional materials. 

A sampling of artist promotional materials. 

Defining Your Work

After you have made the work, you need to be able to get the swirl of elusive ideas and concepts that make sense in your own head out and organized in a concrete, meaningful way.  We all know what we are trying to say with our images, but many of us have a very difficult time communicating those thoughts to others.

As an artist you need to be able to talk about your work. You are the best advocate for your photography, so make sure you do the images justice. The process of writing a statement, while considered painful by most photographers, is a great exercise in organizing your thoughts and making sure the ideas you are trying to express are actually represented in the work.  Being able to confidently and succinctly write and speak about your work is no easy feat, but it is as important as having strong images.  If you cannot sell yourself and your work to a gallerist, how is that gallerist going to sell it to a collector?  People want to feel your passion and hear your thoughtfulness.  They want to be moved.

Practice as much as you possibly can, and then practice more.  Speak out loud about your work – to yourself, to your peers, to anyone who will listen. You must be comfortable talking about your work, and you must be able to explain it in a compelling way.

Most people’s photography is so close to their hearts and minds that it is incredibly difficult to step back and explain it to fresh eyes.  It is deeply personal, and just showing the images can make a photographer feel vulnerable and exposed.  Still, you have to be able to sell it.  Practice.  It is the only way.

Once you can succinctly tell someone what your work is about, use that information to develop your brand. Creating consistent branding across your website, social media, and marketing materials raises your level of professionalism and sends a strong message that you are thoughtful and dedicated about your work.  In this field, as in all things in life, the way you present yourself both in person and otherwise impacts whether or not people want to work with you and to what extent. 

Identifying Your Audience

Every artist has a unique path. Every body of work has a unique path. The path is determined both by your vision/goals for your work and the target audience for the photography. Who is most likely to appreciate your images? How can you best reach this person? What are your obstacles to connecting with this audience?

Not all work is easily salable.  While the plastic bag typology you have created with all of your heart and soul speaks to you on every level, a lot of commercial galleries may find the images hard to sell to collectors.  That is not to say there is not an audience for this work – that audience just may not be best reached through a commercial gallery.  The same holds true for most subjects.  It may also be the case that your photography is not at the level – technical, sophistication, subject – that commercial galleries are seeking.  Again, that does not mean there are not people who would really connect with your images and want to become collectors of your work.  It just means the gallery system may not be the best fit for you right now.

Be honest with yourself and try to look at your work with some perspective.  If you feel that your work is a bit more challenging or less commercial than most galleries would be interested in exhibiting, your best bet may be to seek out non-commercial venues.  Typical non-commercial venues include non-profit galleries or photography centers, museums, and university galleries.  Depending on your subject, you may find a great fit at a non-profit organization building or university department building where the art would resonate with the people who regularly walk the halls.

Again, think about the person who would most respond to your work.  Does your art have an environmental bent?  Is it feminine or issue-oriented?  Now, think about an organization or non-profit in your community whose membership would respond to your work and consider partnering up to hold an event, exhibition, or fundraiser.  For example, if your work deals with the landscape of a certain geographical area, partner with a conservation group to hold a fundraiser that features your work.  You could offer to raffle a photograph and give a percentage of sales to the group.  They will work with you to plan the event and get their membership to attend, giving you the opportunity to get your work in front of a roomful of your target collectors.  The goodwill you will generate will build loyalty, and the altruism will generate sales. 

Examples of groups to partner with, depending on the type of work you make, includeconservation groups (environmental), Junior League/women’s business organizations (feminine), garden club/botanical garden/nature center (nature photography), children’s non-profit/PTA (family themes), medical charity or cause (figure work).  There is a way to connect most bodies of work to a group of target collectors, it is just a matter of digging deep and working out the most effective, creative, and meaningful angle.

If your photography has commercial appeal, there may be exhibition opportunities at commercial galleries.  The galleries will expect your images to look impeccable and your presentation to be professional.  Cheap frames are unacceptable and do nothing to elevate your work or your brand.  Cutting corners may save money in the short term, but artists who prepare for long-term success are more likely to achieve it.

Connecting With Your Advocates

All artists want to know what they can do to sell more work.  Here is the answer: keep in touch with the people who already support you.

Cultivating the relationships you already have is the easiest and most important thing you can do to grow your audience.  As a collector, you can have one of two experiences: you can buy an image and hang it on the wall, or you can buy an image, hang it on the wall, and know that you have helped support the artist that created it and have an ongoing relationship with him or her.  If you were the collector, which would you prefer?  Which artist would you be more likely to buy work from again?  Which artist would you want to continue to support and introduce to others?

Artists should be reaching out to their collectors and supporters at least twice per year, and it should be in a personal way.  While email newsletters are important to keep a wider audience up to date on your work and successes, your core supporters should also receive a hand-written note, a very small print or postcard with your newest image, or even a (gasp!) phone call.  Do not underestimate the power of the personal connection.  After all, it’s what drew these people to your work in the first place – they saw your image and felt a personal connection to it and, by extension, to you. You have the opportunity to build the relationship beyond being merely transactional. Collectors are not just a bank account - they are people who appreciate and are interested in what you have to say with your work.  That initial connection through the work can be the start of a meaningful collector-artist relationship.


Know how to talk about your work and with whom you should be talking to about it. Being able to pitch your images to the people who will most appreciate them and developing meaningful, ongoing relationships with them is the foundation for a successful life in art.  If you can talk about your work in a way that really connects someone to the photographs you have made, keep that connection working for you and watch the chain reaction.

This article was first published in Issue 2 of Don't Take Pictures.

Jennifer Schwartz is the creator and director of Crusade for Art, a non-profit organization whose mission is to help artists create demand for their work.