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Start Your Business Entrepreneurs

Q&A With Artist and Innovator Alex Hiam


Alex Hiam is an award-winning painter and photographer with works on display in galleries in New York and Rome as well as online through his newest venture, Amherst Fine Art, which sells antique paintings, drawings, art and photogrpahs. He is also the author of more than 20 books on marketing, creativity and innovation, including "Business Innovation For Dummies" (For Dummies, 2010).

Hiam spoke to BusinessNewsDaily on how artists can build a strong brand for their art and how to avoid marketing oneself right out of business.

[A resource guide to selling art online.]

BusinessNewsDaily: What's the biggest challenge artists face in trying to turn their art into a business?

Alex Hiam: People assume the biggest challenge is marketing your art, and that is a major challenge, but I think the biggest challenge is avoiding the destruction of your art through marketing it. Marketing is traditionally defined as finding a need and filling it. That's not the way to make art! If I did a survey to find out what pictures consumers say they like, then paint to the results of my survey, I won't be doing my art, I'll be bastardizing it. So the artist's challenge is to hold onto their creative convictions and try to educate a market about them, instead of thinking like a car salesman.

In my own career, I became an expert in a number of topics (marketing, branding, business leadership, strategic planning) that utilized my skills as a creative thinker, visual artist, and writer. I still do a lot of work in these areas, but I realized at one point that I had chased success, or it had chased me, so far down that road that I was no longer doing any gallery art or creative writing. My original art had been subsumed by the paying work I learned to do as a pragmatist with a large family to feed. Now I'm seeking more balance by giving a day a week to creative writing and trying to get back into my studio to prepare for a show. It's ironic to think that, when I got out of college, I had all the time in the world to do my art but no way to make money. Now I am pretty good at earning a living but can barely find any time to do my art!

BND: What's the most common error artists make as business people?

A.H.: Artists aren't business people and unfortunately they make a veritable rainbow of business errors, from failing to manage their cash flow tightly, all the way to failing to give enough attention to distribution and sales. However, by far the biggest error (because it concerns the key success factor) is failure to build a consistent, focused, strong name brand.

The artist's name needs to become a well-known brand, first in the art community, then in the broader community through mainstream media coverage and commercialization of examples of their work. Every successful living artist has invested creatively and consistently in their own brand identity, treating it as their most important masterpiece. However, the vast majority of artists neglect their own brand development. As a consequence, nobody knows who they are and if you don't recognize the signature on a painting, it's guaranteed to be worth practically nothing to most collectors.

BND: What's the most rewarding part of making your passion your business?

A.H.: Recognition. By definition, something becomes a business when there are customers for what you produce. If an artist manages to find people who will pay for his or her work (whether it's a painting, a song, or a ticket to a performance), then the public recognition of their work stimulates them to take it to an even higher level.

There are a handful of stories of major artists who created an important body of work despite a lack of public recognition. Emily Dickinson almost singlehandedly invented modern poetry. Vincent van Gogh transformed painting and drawing. Nobody liked their work when they were alive, but they soldiered on, fighting depression and still producing great work. That's not a recipe for most of us. I'd estimate that only one in a ten thousand people are so persistent as to be able to do a large amount of great work without any external encouragement. Even those who can create without any recognition would do far better with it. That's the main reason to leave your studio and go out and market yourself on a regular basis. The business model can be antagonistic to artistic expression, but it does deliver an audience that recognizes the value of the artist's work. That justifies the hassles of wearing your business hat.

BND: Where do artists turn for business support?

A.H.: This is a real problem. There are some books and even some courses now about business for artists, but by and large, the advice offered to artists is not very helpful because it comes out of the traditions of the business school curriculum, which is based on studies of large businesses and what they need. The rules of marketing a new brand of potato chips are entirely wrong for the marketing of an artist or her work! There is a general lack of hard research about what business models and strategies artists should use, so that any advice people give them, while well intentioned, is not likely to be sound.

When I'm asked for business advice by artists, I tell them what I've learned by studying the most successful artists. First, stick to your creative guns and do bold work, even though others will tell you it's too radical and that they don't like it. After a while, the market usually catches up with the leaders and begins to embrace their work. Second, present your own name as a brand, making sure you always show and spell it the same way, and that you consistently put your name out their in association with your best work. Seek out opportunities to make your identity as an artist visible in your own community, and in the corner of the art community in which your work is potentially relevant. Third, spend at least one day a week promoting yourself and your work. Don't hole up for a months working on a new show or composition and being invisible to the outside world. Every week, without fail, stick your head out and do some business-like self-promotion.  Fourth, keep your living expenses very modest, so that you can afford to wait patiently for success.

Beyond those four main strategies, I don't know what else to tell artists. Maybe to find a good gallery, promoter, agent, editor or patron who believes in their work if they can? That's handy if you can manage it, but until someone with business clout discovers you, you need to stick to your guns and build your brand identity and a good body of work all on your own.

BND: What is your passion?

A.H.: This is a great question! Every artist or creative person should ponder it, probably for a long time. I find that my creative instinct takes me from one project to another, sometimes without an externally obvious thread to connect them. I'm currently working on children's picture books and a young adult novel, along with my various bill-paying business writing projects and some teaching at the local university. What's the common focus to all this activity? If I'm not sure, then I won't be able to communicate a clear, focused, strong artist brand to the external world, will I? I find the same issue plagues many of my artistic friends and colleagues.

For me, right now, the focus of my professional work is leadership, with (of course) an emphasis on innovation and creativity. I'm helping to train and develop leaders who can transform our world for the better. I'm passionate about that work but it isn't actually my core artistic passion.

My artistic passion is something that has come out of my home life, not my professional life. I have three daughters ranging in age from one year to eighteen years of age. They are my little princesses, of course. And their interest in princesses (a common theme for all girls, I think), has drawn my creative eye to the topic, too.

Real princesses are great role models for our girls. They are strong leaders who have more power and conviction than most girls, and who, if you look at historical princesses at least, often step up to take responsibility and try to help others.

So, I'm working on children's and young adult books about real princesses. That's my current creative passion. It dovetails with the adult work I do on leadership, but it is very different in expression and uses my creative writing, photography, graphic design and drawing skills as opposed to my business skills. I will begin to present my "princess project" in art exhibits, books, websites and other venues in the coming year. Right now, it's being nurtured safely in my studio. I hope that all the experience I've gotten in the business world will make me good at seeking audiences and building a following for my current creative passion.