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?
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.
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
So 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
At 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.
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.
And 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!
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.