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 way.

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 back room 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!
Carrie 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-1990s 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 that there were many moments during those hard years when 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 road map 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 o’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 twenty 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!

Acknowledgments

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.

16 Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing your story! I admire your tenacity and honesty. Having worked hard on my art business for many years, I have found that all of the efforts build. In other words, sowing generously means reaping generously. For me it has taken time.

  2. Your story gave me hope. Thank you for sharing your struggles and triumphs of your life. Continue to be an inspiration to all. Again thank you.

  3. I have found it comes in waves – plenty then really sparse with sparse being the most evident. Sometimes I feel as if I’m starting out all over again at 75, but even so there is hope if we just keep going and especially now, I have Jason’s course guiding me.
    When finding gallery representation difficult, I just go on autopilot with my prepared package and know I have not given up!
    And I still have a vibrant and maturing body of work to present!

  4. As an art-based small-business owner I went through all the same struggles Jason did. We are retired now and just yesterday I told my spouse that we did something most other people have never done, we created our life from the ground up. No one else in our families did what we did, in a small town, small state, in a business no one needs (except us ha).

    No one gave us financial support and we watched friends around us be successful, building homes, taking Caribbean vacations, while we drove old cars and drank $2 bottles of wine, for years and years. I went to classes and got a real estate license thinking we had to make some money but never used it. Our business started getting better, finally. We took all available sales classes in our field to learn how to make our photography support us. That helped a lot.

    We are retired now, after a successful career, both financially and internationally award-winning, happy we succeeded but don’t know if the business could have survived 2 years (and counting) of Covid.
    A career as an artist is incredibly hard, we just didn’t want to do anything else.

    Best wishes to all artists trying to make a life with their art.

  5. After 45 years in the art business both as an artist and gallery/publisher/dealer i can relate to what you present. Trusting your vision is tough but must be done to succeed. Some of us just cannot be forever employees, we must follow the unknown and create our own future. There have been times of fabulous wealth and others when a dollar could not be found anywhere. Remember getting to heathrow and having 1 pound in my pocket, i came back to canada 3 weeks later with 30,000! Take the risks and live the journey your own way. richard

  6. I also want to add a heartfelt thank you to you and your family Jason. All your hidden trials and persistence through the years are a great encouragement to me and others.
    My faith has also sustained me throughout all my life – good friends and wonderful husband have been a bedrock of my life too.

  7. Your story is so inspiring. Not only does it apply to artists but to everyone! Life is a journey and sometimes the journey isn’t an easy ride.
    Your faith in yourself, your perseverance and commitment to your beliefs paid off. It’s a great lesson for all of us when things get tough. How bad do we want to succeed?
    I’ve always believed anything is possible.
    Thank you for sharing and being transparent and honest in your struggles.
    I’m beyond impressed.

  8. I recently ran into someone from my glory days in the “Art World”, 1995-2008, and they asked how I was doing. I responded that I just had one of my best years ever. She asked, “what’s your serect.”
    I responded, “I don’t give up, I don’t give in.”

  9. You have an amazing story especially when the Lord put in your life wonderful people who sustain you and help you to grow in all ways!! Love your Mom with a twinkle in her eye and an ability to not only make your gallery a bright spot but also your very talented Dad. Your family had the patience and fortitude to have faith too! Congratulations! well done faithful servant.

  10. My success was not quite as hard earned as Jason’s, but pretty near, and it followed a similar pattern. Just out of college I spent half my life savings and graduation bonus on a stained glass studio in a small Vermont town, which included some hours of assistance, residence, and training from the lady who I bought it from. She was a complete wacked out, bipolar, worst mentor possible and wiped out whatever savings I had left with her management advice. In six months my nest egg went from $20,000 to a few hundred dollars, and I caught probably five years worth of colds and flu in one winter.

    Somehow though I still wanted to be a stained glass artist and took any jobs I could via word of mouth, cleaning houses, shoveling snow, sanding puzzle boxes. Then a ”miracle” happened. Harold who owned the roadside attraction style gallery down the road and also hated that lady I bought the business from, had heard about me and adopted me as his “art son”. He displayed my already finished pieces and suggested things to make that would likely sell, and they did. By the following summer I was healthy again and at least had $1000 in savings. By the following winter I had taken the plunge to see if I could get through a whole year just from art sales, and succeeded. I’m still doing it full time and amazingly working with glass has somehow not lost its excitement either.

    The “secret formula” that Phil asks about lies mostly in universal ingredients which vary in amount and different versions you hear. You have read those that Jason gives most credit to, and now I will share mine that I have said to myself often.

    Maintaining health is the highest value, from which all others, including mental health, are directly or indirectly derived from. Especially to go to the dentist once or twice a year.

    As long as I haven’t ended up in a hospital or jail today, all is not lost.

    If people know you are putting up an honest struggle they will come out of the woodwork to lend a helping hand and give you leeway if you need more time or money.

    For all practical purposes we no longer have to worry about wild beasts or invading tribes, and in this country not very much about famines or weather either, so therefore nearly all the difficulties we face are some version of dealing with other humans.

    Word of mouth is a powerful thing and has a very long track record of success.

    No matter what you choose, if it’s worth a damn it will be a lot of work for a while, with a sprinkling of both lucky breaks and setbacks. Mine were either unexpected sales, breakages, or bad check writers who were obvious con artists.

    If you have to borrow money or repay a debt do it as soon as you can, by the end of the day even.

    Successful people quietly do or figure out how, the rest protest about what’s keeping them and who’s excluding them from it. We owe them nothing.

    There actually are some self help books that DO work.

    If you are successful long enough you reach a “radiation point” where you know business will come in due time, exactly when or from where becomes less and less a concern.

  11. THank you Jason for being courageous in telling your story. I’m sure rehashing it can be difficult but you make a story worth reading out of it.
    Low points are lessons to be learned. They might not be obvious.
    I’ve had a few.
    Two in particular and short.
    I was 2 courses away from my graduate degree. I had been released from my teaching job in the most devastating way that insured I would not be employed anywhere else. No money coming in, no job prospects, newly married, a thesis half done, courses to register for wit no way to pay.
    I went to my grad advisor with the intent to withdraw from school, and chalk the art ed degree up to a mistake.
    “Sit here and don’t move,” is what he said, “I’ll be right back.”
    He and his colleague (another of my undergrad professors) took me to lunch though I resisted.
    I was brow-beaten with questions and their stories. (Both had had very difficult times with their degrees.
    None of us, it turned out were homeless and they insisted I was smart enough and how dare I call them liars for saying so.
    I finished the thesis, got the degree and re-entered the profession with the required certificates.
    Quitting, it turned out was pre-mature. Getting another pair of eyes on your situation is necessary when you are looking up from the ground.
    2nd story shorter.
    Again, out of work, now with a daughter in tow. Financial crunch time. We sat at the kitchen table and reviewed expenses and income and how to make the gap as small as possible. I needed work, but we also needed a hard look at what we were spending money on.
    “Art Supplies” was on the list. The question was this, “If you didn’t make any art what would happen?”
    My answer was simple, “I would probably die.” We both let that sink in. I know we budgeted something but whatever it was, it was a commitment we both made. After this, I went into town with my wife (who had a job, and she asked me what I was going to do. “I said, I will have a job at the end of the day.” I did. It was minimal but it was an income and I had something to look forward to.
    Do what you have to do to keep yourself alive.

  12. Just re-read this article. I am struck by how I jumped at the chance to connect with you, Jason.
    First, via the Starving-Successful book.
    Second the ABA course. Word to all- “TAKE THE COURSE.”,
    Third, how my mind is re-wired.
    Why Jason Horejs?
    Because he has been in the dust and mire where we feel we are.
    He does not preach platitudes from mountain top, nor does he say. Do it my way.
    Rather, “What you propose to do is very risky but let’s figure it out.”
    And we do.

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