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.

Starving to Successful

StSBookSHave you always wondered what it takes to show your work in galleries? Is your work being seen by qualified collectors?

In his Amazon.com best-selling book, Xanadu Gallery owner Jason Horejs shares insights gained over a life-time in the art business.

Learn more and order today.

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About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of Dad was an Artist | A Survivor's Story and best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of reddotblog.com, and founder of ARTsala. 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. Connect with Jason on Facebook

23 Comments

  1. As an artist you have to work blind. In that you just do your art and let the chips fall where they may irrespective of profit or loss.

    In a 1979 interview entitled Inside New York’s Art World, artist Louise Nevelson said: “I think that when someone is willing to live and die for something…that means it is in the genes.” That pretty much sums up the sacrifices that many an artist will go through in order to do their art – they are willing to live and die for their art. Whether painter, draftsman, photographer, writer, musician, sculptor, actor or poet – artists use their art as a way to see, interpret and make sense of their world.

  2. Awesome post! Thank you for your honesty, and for sharing your story. (By the way, I’m enjoying your new book, “Dad Was An Artist.”) Sometimes, we just need to hear what others are going through to know that we are not alone. I happen to have “made it through the storm” several times, and expect to hit high seas on occasion in the future. It’s what life is all about. If it were always easy sailing, we’d be pretty bored. I love my art career, and am so grateful for the support I receive. Thank you, Jason! I wasn’t going to respond, but then read this story on a friend’s FB page. It seems to be a theme for me today. I don’t “push” politics or religion in my life. Each of us has a right to choose what we believe, and I respect that. But I can’t resist sharing this:

    The The song “It Is Well With My Soul” was written by a successful Christian lawyer Heratio Spafford. His only son died at age 4 in 1871. In 1872, the great Chicago fire wiped out his vast estate, made from a successful legal career. In 1873 he sent his wife & 4 daughters over to Europe on a summer trip on the ill fated SS Ville du Havre. Since he had a lot of work to do, he planned to follow them later. The Ship sank and he lost his 4 daughters with the wife being the only survivor. She sent him a famous telegram which simply read, “SAVED ALONE….” On his return home, his Law firm was burned down and the insurance company refused to pay him. They said “It’s an Act of God”. He had no money to pay for his house and no work, he also lost his house. Then while sitting and thinking what’s happening to him, being a spiritual person, he wrote a song – “Whatever, my Lord, You have taught me to say – It is well, it is well with my soul”.

    My dear friend, a good attitude will determine your altitude. When you look at your life, career, job or family life, what do you say? Do you praise God? Do you blame the devil? A good attitude towards God makes Him move on your behalf. Just sit down and say, “Today, God, it is well with my soul, I am thankful I had a peaceful sleep, I am thankful I am alive with possibilities, I am thankful I have a roof over me, I am thankful I have a job, I am thankful that I have Family and Friends. Above all, I am thankful that I have the Lord Jesus Christ on my side.” Be blessed and don’t be envious or shocked when others are prospering because you don’t know what they have been through to get there (test, trials and tribulation) so thank God for what you have. “Little is much when God is in it. It Is Well With My Soul!” Touch someone’s life with this message. If God is for us, who can be against us?

    1. Thanks for sharing this story after reading Jason’s story – and I’m so honored that he shared it with us. In these times when “political correctness” is working its way into every aspect of our lives we must hang on to our faith or it will drive us crazy. We have been given a gift to create art and I am grateful each time I pick up my brush for that gift. So I would say to Phil and others — keep creating so your gift can be shared and that can be in many ways — not just sales.

      Last evening on our weekly call to our grandchildren (who live far away) my granddaughter’s first question to me was Grandma what did you paint this week — she is 7 years old! You can’t put a value on that for what will come for her in future years, but just knowing she is looking forward to seeing the next piece will lift my spirits and get me painting. I had sent 3 of my latest in an email earlier in the week and she critiqued why she liked one in particular. Thank you Lord!

  3. Thanks for sharing Jason. I’m an artist with a different business that has gone through all sorts of experiences. I share some of yours, together with what I have learned from them. What keeps me going is the stimulus – sometimes born out of desperation! – to keep on expanding and reinventing what I do, how I do it, even who I consider myself to be. Always learning, always doing something differently, if not completely originally. All the best for your future!

  4. I think what all artists want to know is if it’s possible at some point to make their art business successful enough to earn a living. There are many versions of a “successful business” and determining what you need to satisfy your living standards will determine your version of success. I’m faced with putting two kids through college right now and as successful as my art business has been I’m not sure it will be enough going forward. So I’ll look for ways to supplement. A part time gallery job, teaching, etc. Regardless I’ll find something the fills my creative well so when I do get into the studio I’m ready to get some good painting time in. Even if an artist has to step away from their business for a few years to get though a particular financial phase the good news is your never not an artist. You can come back to it anytime your ready.

  5. I’m at a point where I don’t need to sell my art to stay alive. Which is a blessing in one way but it’s also hard to keep motivated when my own walls are filling up. I have been doing some local shows and heard good feedback. I did back out of a co-op gallery that wasn’t generating sales which felt healthy. Still a work in progress in the selling department.

  6. It is soooo encouraging and inspirational when reading about others trials, challenges and successes. It seems like the harder it is to get where you want to get, the better it will be when you get there. I agree with the comment from above, paint, do your art, share it with the world and let the chips fall where they may. With persistence and a worthy cause, good things are sure to follow. Thank you for your story. It gives me hope.

  7. I’m still painting, still working hard and close to breaking even financially. Fortunately, I am now retired and remarried and both have been great for my outlook. As my wife remodels each room in our house with one of my paintings as the central focus, it gives me renewed hope and vision. And every time I have a new exhibit open I reach new people and I set up every weekend at the local market and sell prints and cards of my paintings, I find I am reaching many people old and new. Keeping it fun is a major goal and breaking even is my secondary goal. If I ever have the big break thru, I’ll let you know.
    Thanks, Phil

  8. I read this on my laptop as I waited for my smart phone to update. It got to me emotionally as I can identify with your story. It’s no fun running a business as an artist. I wish I could just paint and that’s all I had to do. In the past 3 months I haven’t had time to run my business, I had to take time off to move after ten years at one house. I sit here thinking of my first step in getting back to it. That is to write a newsletter. I reflect back on what keeps me going after 20 years. To me it’s the joy of creating or even planning a painting in my head. My imagination and ability to project a visual image in the next painting is a catalyst to lift my spirits. All day long I think what I can paint next, sometimes I get very excited and that builds a momentum to keep going. Another thing that keeps me optimistic is that I will lay down and meditate about my art and the collectors that buy it. Only for ten to fifteen minutes. Somehow visualizing the mere act of an art purchase puts it out there in the Universe. If you believe in the metaphysical, it can have powerful benefits in your life. When I get an email that a painting has sold from a gallery or a former customer of mine contacts me for a painting, it give me more faith to keep going. I know I am doing what I was supposed to be doing in this life.

  9. Jason, I have read this post several times and it always inspires me. I also have a vision that drives me and even when it doesn’t look like it’s going so well financially, I think about my vision and because I believe in it so strongly, it motivates me again. I love what I am doing, making art and having a small business (studio/gallery) that other artists, our local small town residents, and clients seem to have a connection to, and so new ideas keep popping up!
    Thank you for all the great posts!

  10. Hi, Jason! Thanks for this great post! And bravo for all of your perseverance and sticking with your dream! I think that’s what matters!

    I started out at the age of 22 making animation films then went on a few years later to being an illustrator. I worked freelance for major newspapers and magazines, design companies and ad agencies. This realm of so called “commercial” art also has many ups and downs. In recessions even big corporations cut budgets and art is always the first thing to go. That said I carried on for 30 years and put my two kids through college.

    I now make paintings and sell some but it isn’t as lucrative or as easy as being an illustrator. I also write books, teach and coach people in their creative lives. Having multiple streams of income helps and they are all related to my passion—art and nurturing people on their creative journeys.

    One thing I learned is to keep all avenues of income open. It’s okay to do multiple things for money and not to put all eggs in one basket. In the hard times I learned to ask the universe for EXACTLY what I needed and trust that it would come. It did though not always in the form I anticipated. I’m always making art and having other streams of income related to art gives me the freedom to make what I want. Just my approach! No regrets!!

    All the best to all the artists out there! A good life!

  11. The way I got where I am, which is sort of nowhere except that I am still making, selling and teaching art, is by not giving up. I live in one of the poorest and least educated counties in California, which seems like a foolish choice of location for a luxury like art. The support of my husband (regular paycheck and insurance) is what kept me from having to take a second job much more than 5-6 times since ’93. Often I have thought that it is time to get real and get a real job. Usually when I hit this low point and pray for guidance, something happens to encourage me to continue. I believe God has designed me for this career, and I trust in Him rather than in myself.

    Thank you, Jason, for sharing your story. Your book was honest without being whiny; you and your family’s resilience is commendable.

  12. Everyone can manifest whatever we want! This is the brain science that has been around for awhile, however it is NOT PUBLISHED. Once you find it online, then it rapidly disappears. However, there are some WISE writers taking the information, and getting it published so others can learn it. We don’t know how our mind work. Our minds cannot really focus on the future, they can only see what is HERE NOW, (brain science) so we can program our minds to say things like I HAVE TONS more MONEY than I can spend, or I am a MILLIONAIRE from sales from art, RIGHT NOW..This may sound like a lie to ourselves, but this is how our MINDS WORK! Then our minds begin to MANIFEST what we have just programed it to manifest. Our parents, grandparents, etc, did not have access to this brain science. They passed on what their parents TAUGHT THEM about money. If our parents argued about money, or struggled to make ends meet, most children will grow up with poverty consciousness, live an unfulfilled life, and then pass this programming onto their children, and then an entire society has poverty consciousness. Some of us BREAK AWAY from this, like Tony Robbins, after they do a LOT of reprogramming their minds. It is our MINDSETS that are creating our lives. We have to DEPROGRAM FIRST, all the old ideas from our childhood. THEN PROGRAM POSITIVITY over the removed negative MINDSET. A NEW MINDSET of ABUNDANT PROSPERITY will eventually manifest, if we are intense, continuous until victory….See Christie Marie Sheldon on You Tube….
    See Marisa Peer, on Abundance training, voted best therapist in England…You Tube…

  13. Dear Jason,

    I am in the struggle but when I see what you and others have gone through. my struggles are light. I really appreciate your creative vision, hard work and persistent effort and in the end your triumph and success. I have read your books and attended your classes and the wisdom from all your experience is a light and inspiration to others.
    Thank you for sharing!

  14. I am in that place you talk about right now. I’m wondering what my meaning in life is. I’ve been making art since I was a teenager, actually even longer as I used to collect rocks and pieces of wood in my doll carriage and go into the woods and build cities. My college and graduate school was about art and finally a masters in Art Therapy which I worked at for a number of years. Once retired, I went straight back to my studio to create sculpture. In the city I live in, sculpture is almost impossible to sell. My gallery has closed and I don’t know if it will reopen. i hope desperately it will since I’ve had some success there. I apply to shows and gotten, took time with a consultant, applied to numerous galleries both online and free standing and nothing happens. I’m 77 years old so I’ve been making art for over 50 years and sold very little. Finally, I’ve decided I make art because I love creating, but feel depressed at not getting any recognition.

  15. Hi Jason, I found your blog through your post on superpowers. This is the second article of yours that I have read and I really enjoy your perspective! Thank you for putting your ideas out here, and all the hard work you have done supporting artists. Your passion for this really shows!

    I don’t normally comment on blogs like this but you asked directly, and I thought it might be fun to answer. At first, I didn’t want to actually- I thought “ that question is not for me, I am not a successful artist, “ then I realized that was baloney!! I haven’t yet built a successful career with my art, but I am working on it, and being in the beginning stages is no excuse for calling myself ‘not successful.’

    My advice to others in my situation is “Don’t worry if you don’t think you are good enough, just do the work and keep going. Keep building your habits and keep trying new things.” I could go on, but it’s time to get back to working on my art 🙂

  16. Thank you for sharing your story Jason. It’s funny how you read about someone else’s struggle, the day that you feel like giving up. It has reminded me that giving up is the reason for failure. Head down, forge ahead!

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