Art Marketing Minute: My War Against the Term “Emerging Artist”

In my interactions in the art world, I frequently hear artists refer to themselves as “emerging”. This used to be even more common as the term seemed to take on trend status, but it is still pretty common.

The term “emerging artist” originally indicated an artist who was still in the early stages of his or her career but was beginning to build a reputation. As originally defined, an “emerging” artist may have caught the attention of an art critic and may have received some media attention, but hadn’t established a strong base of sales or collectors and may not have gallery representation.

The term was soon picked up by savvy art marketers who used the phrase to indicate that a particular artist was currently producing work that was a great value because, though the artist is certainly going somewhere, they haven’t arrived yet and their work is priced accordingly.

Over time, however, the phrase has become overused. Eventually almost every artist who hadn’t yet achieved fame and fortune seemed to adopt the label, and, in my experience the term has become a meaningless catch all used by artists and galleries. Artists want to capitalize on their inexperience by using the term to signal art buyers that they will get a good deal.

I would argue that this isn’t a great approach to marketing. I discourage you from using the term in your marketing efforts.

Think about what you are saying to a potential buyer if you label yourself as an “emerging artist.”

“I don’t have much experience.”

“My talent is still developing.”

“My art isn’t as good as established artists.”

It’s that last message that I find particularly troubling. Would you want an “emerging” brain surgeon to perform an operation on you? Would you want to take a trip on a flight with an “emerging” pilot? Why should an art buyer acquire artwork by an artist who isn’t a master of her craft?

I find that many artists, whether they use the term “emerging artist” or not, look for ways to excuse something in the quality of their work. They feel inadequate as they look at the art market and see the many well-established artists already out there selling their work.  They feel intimidated when gallery owners or buyers look at their work critically and judge it against the work of these “more established” artists. I can completely understand why an artist would be tempted to say, “cut me some slack, I’m new at this!”

I want to let you in on a little secret though, almost every artist you see out there feels the same way about their art that you do about your work – insecure, unconfident, scared. If they appear more confident it’s only because they’ve put on a brave face and projected that confidence. In other words, you should fake it til you make it!

The art business is very much about perception. Rather than spending a moment trying to excuse yourself for not being as well-established or skilled as you could be, I would encourage you to spend more time establishing yourself. When talking to gallery owners or collectors, and when writing your bio, keep the focus on your experience, your talent and your unique, creative voice. You may not feel confident, but if you act confident, people will believe you. Your work will sell, and pretty soon you won’t have to act anymore.

The art business is no place for humility – share your successes, emphasize your triumphs, and toot your horn. You can do this without sounding like a braggart or coming across as arrogant. You can believe in yourself and your talent without feeling superior to those around you.

I encourage you to work toward projecting confidence in your art business. Think about the way you talk about yourself and your art – and refine your marketing and sales efforts to focus on your experience and success, rather than your inexperience.

I know that together, we can stamp out the term “emerging artist”!

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60 Comments

  1. what a great post to start 2015! On December 12th of 2014 I have just gone full time artist and it feels amazing. I have made a couple of sales, with commissions and shows in the pipeline for this year. I will refer to this post often to make sure I don’t fall into the depths of “emerging artist” despair! Thank you Jason!

  2. Jason, once again you shed light on such an important aspect of being an artist. In thhe Chicago market being “emerging” often connotates that you are edgy or unpredictable or uncollected yet.

    I have never considered myself “emerging” because I felt, as you describe, discounted by it. I think it is an unhealthy term as the materials, techniques, and time are just as much for the new artist as the one with a large collection base.

    I think the trickier situation is where education and craft fit into the mix when being a professional artist. Along the same example you gave regarding a physician…does education factor in? Would you pay as much for work from someone who operates as a craft or hobby?

    Happy New Year!

    1. Great follow-up question Catie – how much does education matter. I’m going to do a post on this in the future, but the short answer is that with art, the proof of your skill, talent and experience is immediately visible in the artwork you are producing. Unlike a doctor or pilot, where the only thing I can build my faith on is the person’s education and experience, I can see how good you are by simply looking at your work. I don’t need to ask how much education an artist has had, though I sometimes do out of curiosity.

      I’ve run into very well educated artists whose work doesn’t excite me, and, conversely, I’ve encountered art by artists who have very little education and are doing spectacular work.

      I encourage artists to pursue an education insofar as it will help them achieve their vision for their work, but not just for the sake of getting an education.

      1. I was told when I was at the Minneapolis College of Art/Design,” if you don’t have a BFA degree, you will not be taken seriously and be able to receive art grants”. Is it true that a BFA will open more doors in the art world? I graduated in 1985 from MCAD. I am glad I got the education, but I found other “atelier” artists dismissing my education as irellivant.

        1. I have learned that a pile of degrees does not measure your art work. I know artists who get grants all the time who are self taught or learned from numerous classes and workshops. It is not their degrees but how well they write and present their case and show experiences that will land grants. I have several degrees, and I never mention them. People are more interested in YOU and your work and how well you present your product.

      2. Thank you for your comment Jason. I was a director of a show several years ago, where student and professional artists were invited to participate. Many professional artists wanted their portfolios with biographies and a CV in plain view to proclaim their education, achievements, awards and who they are in this art world. I didn’t want the student artists to feel belittled by their lack of bragging rites, so I asked all who were submitting work to simply submit their work and nothing else. It was an exhibition, not a sale. Some of the professional artists felt slighted by my request, but I asked them if their expertise wouldn’t show in their work. “Let your work speak for itself in telling the viewer how excellent your skill is and the measure of your talent.” I loved the show!! I loved the response of the viewer!! All they saw was the work.

        1. Thanks Rena, you made my day. You have no idea just how much you may have helped those folks, I was involved in a local exhibit that didn’t feel that way, and a number of artist were asked to donate their works ( including myself) and yet they turned right around and purchased artwork from so called professionals. I can’t tell you how many just threw their hands up in the air. How are these ,coming up and rising artist going to get their heads out of the water if they are constantly put down simply because they weren’t allotted the privilege of a university or proclaimed as professionals. Thank you for giving both the viewers and the artist an equal opportunity to enjoy the art!

      3. These are great points.

        I am a lifelong artist, now working as a full time artist and the education I have pursued includes the areas that I have an interest or would like to explore (I have a broad scope of genres).

        I have considered doing a post grad degree in Arts, (and decided that part of the exciting part of my art is the experimentation I undertake at times exploring different mediums so decided against it) but have had colleagues tell me that it would be a mistake and that I would undo all the ground work that I have done to establish myself….I do wonder though, if it would help more doors open for my art practice…I think the struggle at times is working out positive ways to promote and describe yourself. I look forward to reading your post Jason – Happy New Year! ~K

      4. Hi Jason, I am irritated by the term, ’emerging artist’. I have been an artist and still am, for 50 years. The fact I don’t have many commercial galleries selling my work does not make me an,’emerging artist’. I think it connotes that one is just out of art college and has no experience. I have been an art-lecturer and had a few exhibitions and sold work around the world but I am not well known as tend to be a bit of a hermit who doesn’t like attention, but I still sell art after all these decades. Emerging artist I am not; I do commissions and am established but not in the way those who put up these labels, consider to be ‘established’. I like what someone said that I am simply an artist, end of story. Thank you for your very enlightening blog. June

  3. Well said! I’m not emerging, contemporary or abstract…I’m an artist, plain and simple.
    I have a full time corporate job to make ends meet, but nobody needs to know that either! Don’t judge me by my education, full time/part time status or my exhibition history. Judge me by the quality of the art I make.

  4. Thank you Jason for the bonus follow up answer. I appreciate your insight. I also believe education is good to.produce long lasting archival work. Looking forward to your next post. Happy New Year!

  5. The other concept that you may want to tackle is the recent article in “The Atlantic” calling artists: Creative Entrepreneurs. Even though may sound accurate at some level I still feel art is a vocation and a God given talent. I totally admire your insight on the issue of Emerging Artist which seems a total conundrum that an artist may get into.

  6. I felt throughout your comments that artists shouldn’t be the ones describing themselves in this manner. Only an outside observer can look at and label an artist as “emerging”. That’s almost like describing oneself as “world renowned” except that the artist can justify that sort of comment.

  7. Hi, Jason,
    Thank you for your post on “emerging artist.” You clarified the confusing term as I never quite understood where I’d belong. Now, there is one less thing to worry about as 2015 has just begun. With all good wishes for an inspiring New Year!

  8. Great analysis of the term “emerging artist” . Another one that irritates me is the term “one to watch”. In the past 20 years or so I have seen dozens of “ones to watch” totally disappear from the art scene.

  9. Thank yo

    Thank you for sharing such wonderful words. You are absolutely correct, those words are spoken by many artist I know including myself. It is a difficult thing to have confidence in your work as an artist. Funny thing I was a Real Estate Broker for 20 years and I don’t recall ever saying to my clients that I was an emerging Realtor, I don’t think I would have made many sales if I did. No one wants to purchase a $500,000 dollar home from an inexperience realtor without confidence. The same goes for artist. people may know that you are new at it but you have to show confidence in your work.

  10. Fantastic read!!! Couldn’t agree more. i am an artist. Period. Even before I was selling work on a regular basis I ACTED like I did! I had to believe in me before I could expect any one else to believe in me…let alone INVEST in me! I make it a habit to avoid using any words to describe my career that create a space for self doubt! Thanks for sharing!!!

  11. I am a dissenting voice about this. I think the term “emerging artist” is actually flattering in a way that is truthful, hopeful and potentially more helpful than not. Yes, it acknowledges that the artist is not yet well-known but it also suggests that their trajectory is upwards. Climb onto this launching rocket while you still can! Just because the artist is not yet well known doesn’t ipso facto mean the work is inferior. Moreover, Jason’s point that using the term for a doctor or pilot would be negative is irrelevant because the comparison is faulty. Those are not professions where novelty and innovation are prized. “Emerging artist” suggests the possibility of something new and exciting, while also having the aura of being affordable with the possibility of greater future value. Most people like to feel as though they are getting a “deal” whether they really are or not. The term “emerging artist” offers the potential for that.

    1. Thank you for the input Don. I see the logic of what you are saying, but my experience selling art for over 20 years has taught me that most buyers are seeking reassurance rather than adventure when it comes to buying art. I have found that my job when promoting, marketing and selling for an artist is to provide evidence to indicate that the artist is well-loved by collectors and that their work is highly sought after.

      This doesn’t mean that I only work with well-established artists, but rather that I put a great deal of effort into helping artists craft an image that assures potential buyers that they are well-established (whether they are or not in objective terms).

      If your work is exciting and innovative, buyers will see that without you having to slap a label on yourself and then deal with the pitfalls of that label.

      1. I appreciate your experience with this and I understand that most buyers need reassurance when buying. People know what they like but aren’t confident that their opinions about art are sufficiently sophisticated that they won’t make a “mistake.” But I am still surprised that the term “emerging artist” has such a negative spin in your mind. To me, labeling an artist as “emerging” is not relegating them to the first rung of the ladder. To me the term connotes that this artist has now begun to stick out among the crowd and is someone to watch – and perhaps to collect at prices that are going to go up. It means they already have some recognition which is why they have begun to “emerge” from obscurity. “Emerging artist” is the second rung of the ladder, not the first.

        You know vastly more about this topic than I do, Jason. I am just expressing how I feel when I refer to myself as an emerging artist. I feel like I am boasting a little bit. In reality, you would say I am actually being self-defeating. Good to know.

    2. Donald, I couldn’t agree with you more! If a person IS an emerging artist, what’s wrong about being excited about watching them grow and mature from an early point in their career? Nothing, I say. I feel the same way about new musical artists or bands. Even if their lyrics don’t reflect issues going on in my life, I still appreciate it when they can articulate their experiences and perspectives. 🙂

  12. Thank you for this thoughtful post, Jason. It is far too easy to downplay one’s level of skill and experience, fearing that stating labels or accomplishments would come off as bragging. Even the term ‘artist’ can carry such a concern. I still occasionally wrestle with that, feeling that ‘artist’ is a gifted title, meaning it is what others call you but not what you call yourself. I often go with ‘painter’ or ‘wildlife painter’ as those are more descriptive and the same time easier for me to say. Other labels/accomplishments can be difficult, such as ‘award winning’ and ‘internationally collected’, though strangely I am personally more comfortable with the latter than the former.

  13. Thank you Jason for one more concise article that really rings true with me.
    I have always had difficulty with putting limiting labels on people, especially artists. The question has always come up, ” how long does it take to emerge” and if that is the only choice on an art submission, what is the definition? I appreciate your candor and your service to artists and collectors in your honest education. A very Happy New Year to you!

  14. Thanks for the informative article and suggestions. Here’s a related question. I have a full time day job but hope (plan) to transition to full-time photography. At what point can I call myself “a photographer” without sounding ostentatious? On one hand some people make comments like, “they just tack “photography” onto their name and call themselves photographers”. Others say, “if you make photos, you’re a photographer”. What’s your advice on this?

  15. Caire,

    A good question.

    There is, however, a vast difference between the necessity of an education for someone who wants to be a brain surgeon or airline pilot and someone who wants to be an artist.

    Some skills must be learned in a formal setting.

    Some skills can be learned almost anywhere.

    Painting, drawing, and observation skills fall into the latter category.

    Anyone who is passionate about something will spend their time immersed in that subject. They read. They listen. They observe. They do. They see what others are doing and try the things that look hopeful. They keep and hone what works and discard what doesn’t work.

    Education can be good, but it’s my opinion that an art education can carry an artist only so far. Creativity counts for much more and is not something you can learn in a formal class setting most of the time.

  16. Good post Jason. It is easy to find oneself using the term “emerging artist” as a way of bolstering one’s confidence. It does have a sort of upward trending quality about it, and one feels the need to somehow explain to people where one is career-wise. Still, what I’ve found difficult is the idea of where “emerging” ends and what kind of artist one is afterward.

    I suggested to one of the staff at our local arts commission that maybe they could start issuing sashes to “emerging”artists, like Girl Scout sashes. Then give out badges for events along the way — like badges for juried shows, badges for red dots, for first solo show, etc. When an artist gets enough badges, s/he gets promoted to “emerged” artist. But that makes the artist sound like a butterfly. Or miner rescued from a cave in?

    On the whole, I think you are right. Just act confident from the start.

  17. I also never liked the term, “emerging artist.” When I first heard it, I thought it implied a “beginning” artist. It used to be that when people would ask what I did for a living I would reply, “I’m an artist.” However, without some context I would get a follow up question like, “Are you a novelist?” After all, the dictionary defines “artist” as a person who practices any of the various creative arts.

    Then, I started defining myself as a painter—again, without context—which would beg the question, “Do you paint exteriors or interiors?” For a while I would answer, “I paint pictures.” It tells the story clearly and simply, but lacks the highbrow elegance of “I’m an artist.” Now, I answer the question this way: “I’m an artist of distinction that paints pictures for people of discernment.

  18. Great post Jason! I’ve always disliked the term ’emerging artist’ and avoided using it for those very reasons. Plus as an artist not interested in the gallery scene, I felt it was a restrictive label that I would never be able to escape from. I look forward to reading your post on Art Education.

  19. There is a valid place for the term “emerging artist”. That is for someone whose work is all about items emerging from something else. It would take a real master to have that as one’s body of work.

  20. I’ve always been bothered by the exhibits that call for “emerging artists”. Sometimes they define how they are using the term and sometimes not. Since I’ve always disliked the term and the ambiguity I’ve never entered one of these shows. Glad to hear I was not alone in my concern about the term. Your thoughts continue to be quite insightful, Jason. Thank you.

  21. I’ve never commented before, but this article really touched me. “You Are Who You Think You Are” has always been one of my favorite quotes. As a successful, experienced illustrator, I was asked (and then hired) to teach an extension class at the above-mentioned MCAD, which I accepted. As an afterthought after I had started (two years of successful classes/satisfied students) I was asked by the college “from where I earned my degree” as the person hiring me had assumed I had one, which I did not. That’s the only time in my life I’ve been asked that question. Had I had the chance at a BFA I would have picked up a lot of the “mechanics” of being an artist, but I was born an artist and always will be one. Eventho’ for years I made my living as a “prostitute of the art field” (as some used to say years ago) I have now achieved a modicum of success as a fine artist; also “award-winning,” “emerging,” and completely “self-taught.” Thank you for the article!

  22. Jason, Thank you for your post. Along with the others I find them both insightful and timely. For what it’s worth, my thoughts are the mere fact that you are pursuing a life as an artist means you have already emerged. Don’t let others put a title on you. Some people or “Artists” boast that they have twenty years of experience. Do they really, or do they just have one year experience repeated twenty times. Don’t listen to the naysayers. Art and Artists play a special role in this world and you have just as much right to be there as anyone else. I’ll leave you with one of my favorite stories. Picasso was sitting alone at a sidewalk café when a wealthy patron noticed him. She stated that she loved his work and would pay anything to have a commissioned piece on the spot. So Picasso opened his sketch book drew an abstract rendering of the woman in a few minutes and presented it to her along with an enormous price tag. To her surprise she liked the work but expressed her disappointment with the price. Picasso took the work back, ripped it up and exclaimed. ” That was not a few minutes, that was a lifetime.”

  23. I have to say that while beautifully written, and while I do very much appreciate the sentiment, I have to take issue with a few points, specifically “Rather than spending a moment trying to excuse yourself for not being as well-established or skilled as you could be, I would encourage you to spend more time establishing yourself. When talking to gallery owners or collectors, and when writing your bio, keep the focus on your experience, your talent and your unique, creative voice.” I don’t feel like I am excusing myself about anything, but the plain truth is that I am a new artist by trade, I spent 25 years working in business and project management and only 4 years ago transitioned to my art practice full-time. During those 25 years, I did creative things, but never picked up a paint brush. I am in-fact an “emerging artist” so keep an eye on me and invest now in what you see and follow to see where it goes and watch the evolution from the beginning (because every artist worth her salt evolves). “I don’t have much experience,” which is true, prior to starting 4 years ago I had majored in printmaking 30+ years ago and took one painting class. This is an exciting time for me with my art, “My talent is still developing,” and I have found a beautiful process that is evolving and improving with every new day. I don’t know how to honestly talk about me and my work and why these galleries haven’t seen my work yet without using these truths.

  24. Just saw the term “emerging” applied to collectors. So maybe the place to be is an emerging artist collected by an emerging collector.

    Guess I will go now to eat my emerging dinner.

  25. Yes, I must agree with Jason. Why the label? Talent is noticeable. In my opinion, the term seems to dismiss the artist’s work. A gallery director at a local college had referred to someone in my circle of acquaintances as an ’emerging artist’, and I felt offended. This director judged our groups art show, and let me know when we spoke that she hadn’t even noticed my painting. I hired her to judge the art show, and I can live with that, but I didn’t believe her comments.
    It sounded as if she meant that our friend was learning her craft and knew nothing about what she was doing. After all, she may be new to her, and not a student at her college, but why would she need to be? This individual has painted their entire life long as myself. She is quite good; she just is not a contemporary artist, which this gallery director loves to promote.
    After the conversation with the director, I felt that there were definitely ulterior motives when she chose the winners of the art show. Without going into further details here regarding the ulterior motives, I will say that the term ’emerging artist’ is not meant to be flattering. Why the comment of ’emerging artist’ regarding her work?

  26. As one buyer said, ” he wanted to buy before I became famous. Then when I did, he could say he bought one of my photographs before she was famous.

  27. Question for you…. what if you really are an emerging artist? For example, I graduated with a BFA degree 5 years ago. I am currently involved with a community gallery, but that’s about it. I don’t have much (business) experience although I look at things from time to time to increase my knowledge… but it’s not like I’ve ever had any “art job” or made a living off my art.
    So if I were to apply to a gallery, got interviewed by a book company, etc.. should I be avoiding the term “emerging artist”? Focus on past accomplishments; even if they are few?

    1. Exactly Chi – focus on what you have done and accomplished, and keep working toward accomplishing more. While you may be early in your career, you have an education and five years of experience under your belt.

  28. I never liked that term either and I have never used it. The art org. I am in have thought to have a sale of starving arts. That is a given that people are going to offer you less. I do not participate.

  29. I’m in complete agreement about the need for this term to go away! It HAS become meaningless, and that’s why I paid little attention to it, until I heard it used in an award presentation for an artist who’d been working for 30 years and had accomplished quite a lot. I thought, “how derogatory! I am sure most people don’t have any intent to degrade themselves or anyone else with it, they just use it because it’s trendy.

    Another meaningless term is ‘self taught.’ Who in this day and age is really self taught? Especially when many self taughts are listing that alongside all the classes and workshops they took! I think I’ve met maybe one artist, ever, who really had a legitimate claim to the label, and sadly, because of over use, it is now just a meaningless label, and another apology type term to avoid.

    1. Cindy, I couldn’t disagree with you more. I’m sure what you said (about some artists) is true. But I AM SELF TAUGHT. No classes, no workshops, no anything. My “training” has all been from watching documentaries, reading books, and discussing the artworks at a local museum. BTW, the 1st time I submitted an application to present my art in public, it was accepted. Sure, you can say that anyone could be featured in a small town gallery…but guess what? A millionaire who has his own island bought one of my prints (30 x 40), and a tourist who accidentally walked into the museum by mistake, bought a (20 x 16) BEFORE the museum had the official public reception. If that isn’t emerging, I don’t know what is. If I didn’t have a pesky day job, I could be showing my art in metro areas that actually have a hunger for abstract art. Everyone should call themselves what they think they are. Established artist, emerging artist, or just…artist. 🙂 I also won a print of my winning entry, in a recent photo contest. I donated it to a cancer fundraiser, because I felt it had a wider appeal than my more abstract art, so I thought it had a better chance of helping the cause. 🙂

  30. hmmmmmm, that really makes me rethink. Its only been in my later years that I have had the time to focus on my painting. I have a large enough body of work to consider doing shows so I will definitely rethink the idea of “emerging”. I see your point and will consider this tip as I write a Bio. Thank you.

  31. Superb marketing advice.
    The analogies you use — the “emerging” brain surgeon and “emerging” airline pilot nail the point.

  32. I find the title “emerging artist” relative. Relative to where others think you are in your art career. Recently, I was accepted into a lightly juried show, for charity. My art sold within the first fifteen minutes of the show opening. All art was donated anonymously, and there were artists that showed that command $15,000 down to artists such as myself who have only sold privately one or two pieces. Which brings me to the part I find “relative”; as I go forward…should I enter juried exhibitions with “emerging artists” in the title or not? My experience as an artist matters (I went to college for fine art, but am a dropout, and almost three decades later have started painting and creating again) but to whom? I have no CV to even claim yet. It’s a conflict for me.

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