Persistence | How We Overcame the Odds and Critical Challenges to Build a Successful Art Business

Over the last several weeks, I’ve had several conversations with artists who were feeling despondent about their business prospects. Though each had a different set of specific challenges, the general sentiment could be summed up in this blog post comment:

It seems like there are a 1000 artists for every buyer and that you need to know the secret password or have a key to the clubhouse to reach the few collectors that there are. Would love gallery representation but they are few and far between especially when you live 120 miles from the nearest big city. I have read Jason’s book and I follow his posts but I still feel I need the secret formula to get on the inside. How does an artist keep from getting discouraged and continue to keep striving for that larger audience?

Phil

I suspect that with a little reflection and self-honesty we can all identify with Phil at some level. It often seems like things just won’t go our direction.

I can understand Phil’s sentiment on several levels. First, I work with many artists who are right in the thick of the struggle. They’re working extremely hard to create great art and to find buyers, but just aren’t generating the sales they need to in order to make their business profitable.

More importantly, though, I can empathize with Phil because I’ve been in the same position myself with my business. Without boring you with too many details, let me briefly share some of the struggles my wife Carrie and I have faced as we worked to turn Xanadu Gallery into a successful business.

Many of you already know the basic outlines of my story after having followed the blog or having read my book, but let me begin by hitting the highlights of our story.

I’ve been in the gallery business for over 20 years. I began by working in a large, western art gallery in Scottsdale while still a teenager. I literally started at the bottom of the business, working in the backroom of the gallery shipping and installing art, and running errands for the owner of the gallery. Over the years, I worked my way up to a sales position.

Carie and I just after opening the gallery. Young, hopeful, more than a bit naive, and with far less grey hair!
Carie and I just after opening the gallery. Young, hopeful, more than a bit naive, and with far less grey hair!

After I married Carrie, we decided that we wanted to have our own gallery. Part of this desire was that we had a great love for art and wanted to try our hand at showing work that was a little different from the other art being shown in Arizona.

We also thought that there was the potential to make a good income for our growing family. I started in the business in the mid 1990’s when there was a huge boom in the art market. The dot-com millionaires were buying a lot of art, as were the oil barons and business executives. It seemed like all one had to do was put up a sign, hang some art on the wall and start reaping the profits.

Unfortunately, our timing wasn’t great. We opened our gallery on Tuesday, September 11th, 2001, and at literally the same moment, the world fell apart. Not only was that fateful day in the fall of 2001 the dawn of the war on terror, it roughly coincided with the bursting of the dot-com bubble. The easy money in the art business dried up, and the party was over. Just as we were opening, many galleries closed.

Starting any business is incredibly hard, but in the ten years after we opened, we also faced the advent of artists selling directly to customers on the internet, and the largest financial crisis of the last 70 years. Just thinking about it as I write this makes me feel weary!

It would be easy to say “but we survived – all you have to do is hang on!” but saying that would be glossing over the huge sacrifices we had to make and the struggles that we faced.

These struggles and sacrifices are far enough in the past now that I feel I can share a few of them without suffering a mental breakdown. I want to share the struggles, but also what I learned from them in the hopes that it might help you with whatever challenges you are currently facing.

Do Whatever it Takes to Make it Through

As we struggled to get Xanadu Gallery off the ground, we built great relationships with art buyers and collectors and had some great sales. Unfortunately, in the beginning, the sales were sporadic. For the first few years it seemed as if no matter how hard we worked and how many sales we generated, our expenses outpaced our revenue. We quickly burned through our meager savings, racked up credit card debt and took out home equity and bank loans. We borrowed money from family members across the continent.

We thought that if we just kept at it, eventually we would get over the break-even point and start to realize a profit. As the years went on, however, it seemed as if the hole was only getting deeper. We were in a slow spiral where debt was paying for debt.

At one point during those years, my truck’s transmission went out. There was simply no way to pay for the repairs. So, I rode the city bus to get to the gallery. I had hoped that this would be a temporary situation, and it was; I only rode the bus every day for three years! I would have to rent a U-Haul or borrow a vehicle to deliver art to clients.

We sold our house to pay for debts and rented a tiny house for our growing family.

At one point, I took a part-time job working from 5 am to 9:30 am, after which, I would rush to the gallery on the bus to work all day, and often into the evening. That part-time job was the only way I could put food on the table.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that much of what we did in our personal lives in those early years was done out of desperation. But we did what we had to do to survive, and we did survive.

You Have to Believe, Even if Believing Makes Absolutely No Sense

DSC_1671So why did we stick with it? You can believe me that there were many moments during those hard years that I stopped and asked myself if it was all worth it. Every time I asked that question, however, somewhere deep down inside the answer would come. “Yes.”

I believed to my core that I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing. I love owning a gallery. I love working with art lovers and helping artists make their dreams come true. I was never able to imagine myself doing anything else, and so, in spite of the fact that it made absolutely no sense to do so, we kept at it.

Make a Plan

As we worked through the years to build our business, we were always trying to do something new. We always had a plan in the works. We mapped out marketing strategies, we created show schedules, outlines and benchmarks, and we came up with client interaction scripts. I can’t think of any phase of our business where I was just headed into the gallery to sit at my desk and wait for someone to come in the front door, and I still don’t. I have found it incredibly powerful to create a roadmap and then pursue the plan with every ounce of energy I have.

You Have to Work Beyond the Point of Exhaustion

I will sometimes chuckle when I hear a friend complain about an arduous week at the office that required hours of overtime. As a small business owner I wouldn’t have any idea what to do with myself if I were only working a 40 hour week. I have found myself in the gallery hanging a show at 2 0’clock in the morning, and I’ve worked 65 day stretches without taking a day off. In fact, even when I’m not in the gallery, I’m almost always working.

I suspect you feel the same way as an artist, but, tell the truth, can you imagine doing anything else?

Remember, no Matter how Bad it is, it Can Always Get Worse . . .

There were many times along the way that I thought to myself, “this is it, it can’t possibly get any worse than this.” And then it would. I guess that through many of the trials, my belief kept me going, but after a while I simply became numb to the tribulations that seemed to keep piling on.

And there was something deeply liberating about knowing that however bad it got, and even as it went from bad to worse, we could keep going. At some point misfortune no longer holds any power over you.

You also realize:

However Bad it is, It’s not as Bad as You Think it is, And it Will Get Better

DSC_1665At one point, just after the stock market crashed, I looked over our financial situation and realized that things had reached a critical stage. We were behind on our gallery and home rent and bills. Sales had dropped off a cliff with all the news of banks collapsing and impending fiscal crisis. We now had four children ages 8, 5, 2, and 1. I admit it, I flinched, and I realized I better look at the alternatives.

I sat down with a bankruptcy attorney and gave him all the gory details of our financial situation. As I finished explaining, I sat back and expected the attorney to shake his head and tell me what an amazingly awful situation I was in, and how I should be ashamed of myself for making such a mess of things.

Instead, I remember him looking down at my balance sheet and asking, “Has anyone sued you?”

“Well, no,” I said.

“Is your landlord threatening to evict you?”

“No, not yet.”

“Well,” he said, “if I were you I would keep doing what you’re doing. Keep in touch with all of your creditors to let them know what’s happening, and just keep at it!”

This was not the conversation I had been expecting. I’m not sure if he looked across the table and saw something in my eyes that told him I would succeed, or if he looked over my balance sheet and realized there was no money for attorney’s fees, but I would rather believe the former.

I did exactly what he advised, and was able to renegotiate our lease and obtain forbearance from our other creditors.

Walking up to the door of that attorney’s office has to be one of the low points of my life, and yet, within a few short years of that encounter, everything had turned around. Sales picked back up, and we were finally in a position to make a real profit. Things have only improved since then, and, I believe, having passed through all of these difficulties made us both smarter and wiser.

Faith

Finally, I’ve learned that it’s incredibly helpful to feel that, at some level, your success is out of your own hands. I’m never one to mix business and religion, and I don’t care if you believe in an almighty creator, in fate, chaos, or karma, but there are going to be times when you flat out need a miracle or two.

Conclusion

GallerySquareAnd so, going back to the question Phil asked in the beginning of this post, is there a secret formula or magic word that brings success? If there is, I’ve never been lucky enough to find it! There’s nothing easy about the business, and there aren’t any shortcuts.

Of course, in a post like this I can really only scratch the surface of what the last fifteen years have taught me. But I hope this gives you a glimpse of what I’ve found it takes to make it.

Can I promise if you do everything I did that you will succeed? Absolutely not. Failure is not only possible, but even likely whenever you set out to pursue a dream. At no point was our success guaranteed, and for that matter, it still isn’t. I can only hope that 50 years from now I’ll be in a position to write another post like this – and I suspect I’ve only begun to learn the lessons that are still ahead – but what an awesome journey!

Acknowledgements

I would be ungrateful if, after writing a post like this, I didn’t acknowledge the amazing support I have received from everyone in my life.

First, I can’t express enough gratitude for my wife Carrie through all of these years. She has made incredible sacrifices, beyond what a mere mortal could withstand, and has remained a faithful and loving partner.

I would also like to thank my parents, and especially my mother, who stepped in as my gallery director during the financial crisis and worked without pay for a year, and then stayed on and has become an incredible asset to the business. If you’ve had the fortune to meet her, you’ve undoubtedly gotten a sense of her dedication and enthusiasm.

I also thank Carrie’s parents, who have not only been a source of financial help, but also incredible moral support.

I also have to thank the amazing collectors who’ve caught Xanadu’s vision, and the artists who have crafted amazing art that captures the imagination and the heart.

What do you Think?

If you are an artist who has found success through persistence, what advice would you give an artist who is struggling? What have you done that has helped you weather the storms and build a successful career?

If you are an artist who is struggling, what helps you get through the daily struggle?

Tell your story, or share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of reddotblog.com, and founder of the Art Business Academy. Jason has helped thousands of artists prepare themselves to more effectively market their work, build relationships with galleries and collectors, and turn their artistic passion into a viable business.

20 Comments

  1. Thanks for posting this since it is so appropriate for this time when so many people are facing so many challenges. I’m about to write my newsletter for the month and was looking for something to say that might help others during the month. You gave me some wonderful thoughts and hopefully inspiration to continue doing what I love. Thanks Jason

  2. Right now I am struggling with motivation really. I felt like this 30 years ago, so what’s new. I have a day job now, when I didn’t then and learnt in the most painful way that being beholden or vulnerable to the state is no place to be. I don’t have a degree and the most difficult things I encounter are dealing with the snobbery of galleries where it only matters whether or not you have papers or a Name.

    Three years ago, a student of mine very kindly introduced me to the owner of a small gallery in the local Corinthia hotel. He liked my work he said, and a time for an exhibition was agreed.

    So there was the exhibition, a modest sale, but I had to provide some of the wine and snacks myself as the hotel pulled out of doing that. No Name, you see.

    Later on I found out he had been fired, so there would not be a second exhibition, as originally promised. Later again, I found he had left and all the artwork removed, and I was asked to call him. He explained that he still wanted to represent me at his father’s gallery and told me to prepare.

    Then, as I was I deed preparing, he ghosted me. All communications gone. When I visited the gallery, his father told me he had no idea where he was, and I took my work back.

    With Covid19 there is now no life drawing group and, no art bazaars at the local ruin pubs, so the only sales I make are through Print on Demand outlets such as Bubble. I used my quarantine time to edit another project, a series of Tarot cards I once created.

    I took part in several competitions, applied to be part of an online gallery. One online place shows works for five pound a time but a ‘setious’i quiet turned out to be a troll, similar to an earlier scam I received, the sailor on a cruise ship one. According to Google that’s almost as popular as the Nigerian millionaire one.

    I know that the current crisis could bring in different kinds of opportunities but somehow the motivation to create new canvas work is still slow. Creating work still involves labour, techniques, materials, so why should the value of work depend on this sacred Name on high?

    Then there is the question of survival again in the next few years. Covid is not going away and I now may not even get enough students from the day job to survive economically.

  3. I’ve known your story for quite a while, but this time the part about faith especially got to me. When I wake up in the morning I just tell myself: I know my art is beautiful and meaningful. I know it inspires people. I know there are people who love it. I know it’s what I was meant to do. So I keep painting, and keep looking for people who want this art in their lives.I guess just keeping going is the act of faith.

  4. Lynda, you sound as if you are coming from a place of feeling emotionally hostaged by the pandemic, which is normal. And as such it can make one feel like ‘what is the point’ and bring up all the crazy negative things that most artists struggle to quiet. Motivation can be hard to find. One thing I find helpful is that I belong to a very small group [there are 3 of us] of artists who get together 1x/month to discuss where we are with our work, critique our work, talk about steps to take to move forward, etc. This helps in the motivation department…no one wants to show up with nothing new to discuss! We’ve helped each other explore strengths we did not realize we had [too close to see sometimes] and push each other into new explorations. It’s a place to be honest, supportive and to stretch with others who understand on a level different kinds of friends do not. If you do not have this, I would suggest reaching out to some of the artists you know and setting up a group, however small or large you feel would be most helpful and productive. Additionally, keep reaching out to show opportunities or try to make your own…starting close to home is good – have a gallery show at your place, invite the community. I recently was amazed to find that people I know did not know that I created art…and as such, just sold a few pieces to those friends who came specifically to see my work. You never know what can happen! In our area so many things are closed, such as galleries, but consider this: if you were homeless, living under a bridge, would you still create art? If the answer is yes, then keep doing it. We all hit times in our lives where we ask our selves all those taunting questions [why bother, what am i going to do, etc]…for the most part, think of it as a gift. If you can’t get a motivation to do what you’ve done, go in a completely different direction. why not?
    Journal. Do ‘morning pages’ [2 pages, front and back, of long-hand writing, first thing in the morning and just write. If you get to a point when you find you don’t know what else to write, write that – fill those pages and amazingly, when you get to the ‘i don’t know what else to write’, that’s when the good stuff happens. get it out], you will find your motivation – it’s there, you just have to make the mental space for it. I hope this helps. Best, Stephanie

    1. Thank you Stephanie.
      Hard to tell if it is just the pandemic, but do miss the life drawing group and the ‘Montmartre’ happenings.
      A small group would be great. There is another place that might be worth sounding out again, if there isn’t a new lockdown. Someone from an art group I was in in the early 90’s has returned to his home town in the UK, but I am in Hungary.
      Will be moving soon and there will be an extra room that might make good studio/gallery space.
      I do know of course it is tough for most people right now.

  5. This is a great article, especially during this strange period we are currently in as a nation. I’ve been down this road before of building a business from scratch and know the intense sacrifices one must make to be successful. So when I started along this journey of building my art business from the ground up, I knew I would have to make more sacrifices if I wanted to be successful. When the road feels like it’s all uphill, you keep moving forward, because if you stop, you just might fall backwards. I don’t let myself get discouraged. I have always believed that God hears our prayers and those little miracles that you look for come in packages you may not expect, and you have to keep an open mind to “see” the path that appears before you. I keep a little quote next to my desk to remind me what I’m working for. I apologize I don’t know who said it. “Don’t miss out on something that could be amazing, just because it could also be difficult.”

    My husband says I’m like the energizer bunny because I keep on running. The word, “can’t” is not in my dictionary and I’m very persistent. I love your story, Jason, and your advice to, keep working through it. Great article. Thanks.

  6. Thanks for the inspiring post, Jason! I keep making art because it makes me happy to immerse myself in a creative pursuit during these surreal times. I have faith that things will improve and that people will crave beauty in their homes they find themselves spending more time in. I’m producing work for some shows on the 20/21 calendar, making some commissions, posting new work on FaceBook, Instagram and my art blog. I’m putting my work out there and when the next opportunity presents itself, I’ll be ready!

  7. Jason, your post gives me new respect for what gallery owners have all gone through. I had it tough as an artist, but always had a car! Personally, I have gone back to work 5-6 times when business is slow. You, operating a storefront, can’t do that easily. The frugality you and your family practiced was crucial to survival. To other artists, if business craters, get a job, if you can (not easy in a time when millions are suddenly unemployed) . In the meantime, set aside your anxieties and create new stock. Discount all the the doomsayers. Business will come back, eventually.

  8. Never give up your faith in yourself, and never stop creating. Each day offers the opportunity to improve as an artist. When you feel defeated, remind yourself that you are in good company. Most of the great artists of all times, struggled financially. Giving up would simply set you up for much regret down the road, so despite the struggle you have to move forward and remind yourself of why you need to create. It’s part of who you are!

  9. A brief update on the writer of the letter. I’m still here and still painting. And although I lost 70% of the sight in my left eye, I still paint almost everyday. I still love it. I still come close to breaking-even financially every year and I’m as productive as ever. Obviously I paint because I love to and I have to. And if I ever make it out to Arizona, from the cornfields of Illinois, I’ll make sure to stop by and say hello.

  10. Something that most artists do not realize is that small private owned galleries struggle equally as much or more than their artists. Your story is unique yet similar in its basic form to that of many small galleries and most small business ventures. The arts just happens to be tougher than most business concepts to make work. Publishing is a close second.
    After 45 years as a professional artist as well as owning multiple gallery, framing and art distribution enterprises globally i have learned [as have you] to take the kicks and just roll with it.
    Persistence and action in the face of fear are a requirement of the process.
    Most people give up because of what THEY THINK SOMEONE ELSE CONSIDERS ABOUT THEM OR THEIR SITUATION not really what the actual situation is. Most people around you as collectors, supporters, wives, husbands, landlords and even random strangers want to help you succeed and are most likely willing to help you to do that.
    Jason your lesson of persistence and acceptance combined with action came through observing your parents struggle as an artistic household, it was only refined through your business development process.
    I learned that lesson early as well through having a condition similar to elephant man disease which set me apart so that i was forced to learn that others perceptions do not have to limit you. The lessons taught me to see beyond the outward appearances and seek the truth that lies beneath that surface layer of illusion that most people accept blindly as their reality.
    Artists can take their struggles and challenges as opportunities rather than limitations. The choice is theirs alone.

  11. Jason, Your story is one of courage, faith, and belief in the value of what you are doing. Those low points in life are real touchstones for us. If you live long enough, you are bound to have some experiences like this– maybe not as severe as Jason’s, maybe more extreme, but it is life. What helps me is reading and learning about the lives of other creatives, whether an artist, musician, poet, author, dancer, chef, or entrpreneur. The word that sticks out in my mind is persistence. Yet with that persistence has to be a true underlying belief in the worth of what you are doing. Faith in something bigger than yourself is what I need. It helps me when I look at certain factors that might otherwise make me give up and go hide. Knowing that you are not alone is also important. That’s why something like the ArtBusiness Academy is so valuable. It allows me to see and hear other genuinely hard working artists. Thank you.

  12. When you asked us to be honest and ask ourselves if we could imagine doing anything else, I realized that this is why I’ve never given up.

    I came to a point a few years ago when I knew that the drive to create was so deep a part of me that doing anything else, no matter how safe, was just wrong for me. I had just entered a Masters in Reading program when the epiphany came. I knew that if I invested the same energy in creating that I was putting into my education degree, I might actually be able to make art my only career, one from which I would never have to retire.

    The typical game plan to work at a thankless and stressful job my whole life so I could take it easy in my golden years has never appealed to me. I finally got it! Now I’m at the point where I’m starting to get recognized a little. I must say that when I read about your struggles as you opened your gallery, I felt lifted, and a little humbled. Thank you for telling about that. It makes you real. And that, my friend, is why I stick around. It’s why your voice stands out amid the noise.

  13. Jason, your story is both heart-wrenching and encouraging. I read your first book, and thought, as I was reading it, that our journey had some striking similarities. Though you had some incredibly difficult times, you had a family who believed in you, and that’s like a lifeboat in a raging storm. Through your sharing your story, I feel that you do have a heart for the artists you represent, and for the collectors, as well- wanting to do the very best you can for both. Thank you for sharing your struggles. I’m glad you pushed forward and didn’t become embittered by them. I do believe in miracles, and sometimes we have to walk close to the fire before we see that there was a miracle. The old saying, hind sight is 20/20 can be true, but a little of life’s soot has made me appreciate the blessings.

  14. This is the same thing I have struggled with for years now. My art doesn’t seem to sell. I have so many comments that I’m such a wonderful artist, and yet my home is filled with my work. I certainly have been wondering what the magic formula is. Years ago when I first started, I was able to sell my pieces. I also opened an art and frame shop, which did very well. Then I had children and took quite a few years off. In 2015, I came back into art and it seemed things had changed. I’ve paid for courses to help me with my business and it seems none of the advice ever works. Lately I decided that because I HAVE to create art as it’s such a big part of me, I’ll let the chips fall where they may. I will still put it out there for sale but I cannot spend all of my time worry about it selling. I do work hard at selling and producing work and will continue to do so. Thanks for your vision for artists and all the help you give. I appreciate it.

  15. Jason,
    Thank you for sharing your past struggles with us. I stopped working in art for over 31 years while I worked in an entirely different career to support our nation’s department of defense. Once I retired and got over the illness that lead to it earlier than planned, I was at last free to start my lifelong dream of being an artist in 2016. I took a couple of painting classes in acrylics and oils. My first public showing of my art in 2017 was terrifying for me! I felt so vulnerable. I’ve now shown in that same show now for several years, selling one painting. In fact, everyone who sees my work says they love it – but I’ve sold a total of 5 paintings ever, and given two away. I was juried into my cooperative gallery in January 2019 and have shown my work there since – having one of the mentioned sales there. My small income has been from note cards, coasters and such. My work takes up two spaces so I pay for two and have only had a profit one month out of the past 18. However, I love being at the gallery, working my days there, interacting with the other artists and the public and I just keep on painting. I’ve struggled with the WHY question – why doesn’t my art sell if everyone thinks it is so nice? How long can I afford to pay rent and not receive enough to cover it (thank goodness for people who buy the note cards for $3 each). So, what is wrong? Is it my subject matter? My pricing? The wrong gallery, because we are a tourist destination and many out of town/state visitors pass through?
    I don’t know – but like artist Clara above, the word Can’t has long been removed from my vocabulary and I rarely quit anything or give up. I keep painting because I love to paint for the challenges to myself and I keep offering it up for others because I want to share what I create with them. It would be nice to at least cover my rent – but to be honest, I will stay at the gallery until I face such serious financial hardship that I can’t. Being on a fixed retirement income that isn’t a large amount, I don’t have a lot of money to spare on this but I like that I am no longer afraid to be vulnerable about showing my work (or at least less so) and ever hopeful that things will turn around. I’m listening to weekly webinars on zoom and your online critiques and more for encouragement and ideas.
    To be honest, I would miss my paintings if I sold them, so just as soon as I have them photographed correctly, I will offer online prints now through a print on demand capability. With our gallery going to an online presence in an expanded way and having an artstorefront website which will have this capability, as well offering original works of art, perhaps things will turn around. I can’t say that I have collectors yet, more like many admirers – but I have not reached that point where I feel like giving up. Yes, it’s confusing and a little disappointing, but more from a financial standpoint – I love the art world and always have. I’ve decided to be true to myself, keep doing the art that I enjoy creating in the way that I enjoy and continuing to improve my skills. I try not to compete with other artists in my mind, but to be inspired by those whose skills I recognize as being superior. I don’t believe in going backwards in life, so for the moment, I just keep going forward. I have faith that what is meant to be will happen at the time it’s supposed to. This is the place I feel I belong in the world and the place that I want to be. Thank you for your encouragement which comes to my inbox in many forms – you are doing good things for other artists, probably far beyond what you are eve cognizant of. I appreciate it.

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