Groundbreaking Insights on Creative Professionals

Hook—Hack—Health: A Successful Art Business is a Balancing Act

When I work with artists, they ask a lot of different questions about career development and business growth, but many of these can be boiled down to one essential inquiry: “What does it take to run an art business effectively?” My answer is the same one I give to our Accelerator Fellows and the artists who attend our Art-Business Conference: Hook—Hack—Health.

Your Hook: What Makes Your Art Your Art

Rosa Bonheur by Anna Klumpke
Rosa Bonheur by Anna Klumpke, who later became Bonheur’s companion

Your hook is your unique message—the idea you communicate through your work. It’s the reason you became an artist in the first place. If you’re thinking, “I just create my art but I’m not trying to communicate anything to anyone,” think again.

If that were really true, would you be putting in all that time in the studio, and then working well into the night to market your art on social media, send e-newsletters to potential buyers, reach out to curators and gallerists, apply for grants and commissions, create and manage your website, and do all of the many other tasks that go into becoming a successful artist-entrepreneur? No, you wouldn’t. Not for very long, anyway.

Art Business Conference

If there’s no point of view—no brand story—behind what you create, why not build a nice life for yourself doing something easier and more lucrative instead, and simply create art as a hobby on the weekends? Without a compelling reason for putting in all that work, you’re better off making your living in some other, more stable way.

True artists make the effort because they have something to say. That’s your hook. You just have to find a clear and cogent way of articulating that hook—for your audience and yourself.

Your Hack: How You Bust Through the Wall

Okay, so you’ve figured out your hook, you’re creating art that communicates your unique message, and you’re able to articulate what that is. That’s terrific, but it’s not enough. A message is only as powerful as your ability to share it with your intended audience. How do you get your art out into the world where it can be seen, appreciated, and purchased? As a professional artist, you’re obligated to figure that out. Otherwise, you’ve failed at the mission you were put on this planet to fulfill.

The Horse Fair by Rosa Bonheur
The Horse Fair by Rosa Bonheur

A hack helps you knock down the walls that keep your art from reaching a wider arena. It can take many forms—from deploying your extraordinary mastery of a technique, to packaging your unique perspective in a way that taps into the zeitgeist—but ultimately it’s a way of raising your profile and setting yourself apart from the pack to accelerate your career.

Take the example of the artist Rosa Bonheur, a 19th century French realist painter. Her hack was capitalizing on subsidiary rights, selling not only her extraordinary originals but also marketing engravings of those pieces. Her hack was a true innovation back then, which helped her reach a large audience and earned her a comfortable living as an independent artist—an extraordinary feat for a woman in that time period.

Your Health: Maintain a Stable Foundation

As a human being, you need good health to live and reach your fullest potential. The same is true of your business. To survive financially as an artist and enable the long-term growth of your career, you must have a strong foundation upon which to build. The economic health of your business is what makes it possible for you to continue creating your art, communicating your message, and reaching the widest possible audience.

A Balancing Act

Like so many things in life, running an art business effectively is a balancing act. You need to juggle your hook, hack, and health simultaneously. That means respecting your art and not bending too far from your message, or your work will no longer reflect who you are as an artist.

But it also requires flexibility, if you hope to have career longevity. If you do exactly and only what is best for you, the health of your business will likely suffer, and you won’t be able to support your creative expression. There’s a market out there, and you must meet it somewhere along the continuum. You have to communicate your message and deploy the right hack to grow your audience and generate the kind of income that will allow you to continue doing the work you were born to do.

To learn more about managing your art career, sign up for one of our upcoming Art-Business Conferences. You can also access our full library of art-business courses by joining CHF’s Digital Campus at the Member level or higher.

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AvatarElizabeth Hulings
Elizabeth Hulings is the Executive Director of the Clark Hulings Fund for Visual Artists, and a principal of the business-strategy consulting firm Counterpoise, where she has worked with startups, nonprofits large and small, multi-national corporations, and sole proprietors--including artists of all stripes. Before launching Counterpoise in 2001, Elizabeth lived through five Fortune-500 mergers at the predecessors of Citigroup, Cendant, and Verizon Communications. She also honed her skills at several nonprofit organizations including the International Development Exchange, The Management Center/Opportunity Knocks, and Human Rights Watch.

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