Of the many marketing strategies, one in particular takes courage. Both of my sons have fish tanks, and I think of it every time I visit their houses. In almost every marketing scenario you will be a big fish in a little pond, or a little fish in a big pond. Of course, how you define big and little will change how useful this metaphor is for you, but bear with me.
Think about whether you are the big fish, like you hopefully are at your own show openings, where your job is to market to people who are familiar with you. How is this different from the times when you are the little fish, just trying to get the attention of people you’ve never interacted with?
Can we better manage the environments we market in? Conventional wisdom would have us stay with what works. Little ponds are safe and predictable. But if we take risks and strive for the seemingly impossible, what is there to lose? If the cost is not prohibitive, what is holding us back? Are we afraid to swim with the sharks because it might hurt? Fair enough.
Most artists begin by building a business around their local art scene. These are the countywide art fairs, and shows that cater to artists and collectors in your community. Some of us rent a community center or speak to the vineyard owners, schools, 55 and over active adult communities, etc. We create our own art shows with small groups of other entrepreneurs. We run ads in neighborhood newsletters to solicit commissions. These are all fabulous strategies for growing a following.
Then, many of us get brave. We decide to be a little fish in a big pond. We enter international shows and strive for signature status in prestigious societies. We take risks and some pay off. Many of us give up trying and retreat back to what we know.
Maybe a more conservative approach is to mix it up with a little of both. But as we grow in our skills and followers, it’s tempting to lean into the local art experiences. That’s where we win the most awards, we don’t have shipping costs, we can meet our collectors at the coffee shop for discussions about commissions.
If this works for you, then great! There are many, many artists who live out very fulfilling careers by focusing on their local art scene. There are no right or wrong places to sell your art and share your talents.
However… if you’ve never tried, or if you’ve tried and given up on entering the worldwide art scene, could it serve you to jump into the bigger pond? It is so easy to dismiss or overlook the opportunities that seem like more work and less sales potential when you are comfortable where you are. It takes an aggressive strategy to devote energy to juried sales venues when you have only a small chance of being accepted.
I can share with you the adventures I have experienced because I routinely market and reach out to art circles I am not an obvious choice for. Here are just a few of those times when I was a brave little fish in a big pond and didn’t get eaten.
1. I am going out to sea on a cutter with the U.S. Coast Guard! I have no military background whatsoever.
I was invited to be an artist in residency on a military deployment. I am gathering reference materials for artworks that tell the stories of the service men and women in the coast guard. My paintings will be juried into the government collection, hopefully.
If I had not applied to be juried into the Coast Guard Art Program, I never would have had this opportunity. There are no cash awards in COGAP. In fact, your art becomes part of the public domain and you give away your copyright, something we are all trained to never do. It’s a big pond. But, is this not the BEST artist residency EVER?! And it is rare, even for COGAP artists, to be invited out to sea on deployments. So, I’m feeling doubly blessed.
2. I am currently and diligently spending 30 hours per week studying an art curriculum. Dozens of the artists I admire have graduated from this art academy. I should work my way through it all in about 4 years. Because I reached out to this amazing group of artists from around the world, I am now a part of the peer group associated with the school. I value their advice and friendship. These relationships have already had a huge impact on my art skills. I could easily have continued on my own. Hanging out with such accomplished artists in their bigger pond was intimidating at first. But, really good things are happening because of this commitment.
3. There are two groups of 3 artists each that I do traveling exhibitions with. Over the last ten years, we have had successful shows with many museums and art centers around the country, and Japan. For both groups, we are scheduled through 2023 and are lining up bookings for 2024/25 right now.
Have you thought to approach venues for a traveling art show? Honestly, it’s hard to predict which venues will be more profitable. Some of the smallest end up with more sales and opportunities than the larger, more established museums. We work to create relations with all types of retail locations, and it has enriched our art journeys beyond measure. It takes energy and guts to do this.
4. The biggest commission of my life so far happened because three solo shows I had at galleries were homage to the masters shows. For exhibitions in NC, SC and VA, I painted works that were my spin on famous paintings. I took a chance at my version of Starry Night being alongside an image of Van Gogh’s. I painted the girl without the pearl earring and one in a red hat too. Instead of Vitruvian Man, I painted my vitruvian son. These quirky nods to master works caught the eye of a design firm in London. They commissioned me to paint 11 original works for a five star hotel in Boston! If I’d stuck to my usual safe series of glass still life paintings that sell well, I never would have created the homage to the masters pieces.
5. I have no desire to ride a horse. Frankly, they scare me. The last time I was on one it tried to kill me. I love what majestic creatures they are though. I have attended a few photo shoots with horses, cowboys, and Native Americans. I did this simply because I have lived my whole life east of the Mississippi. Western art enchants me, and I wanted to be a little fish in a big pond. This part of my art journey is still developing, but so far I have made so many new friends in the world of western art. As a result, I am going to be in an art show at a restaurant in Oklahoma, I am in a juried society of women artists of the west, and I suddenly want to paint more horses, bison and wildlife.
None of these experiences were scripted. I couldn’t have predicted all the good things they would precipitate if I’d tried. I didn’t swim into bigger ponds because I expected a better return on my investment of time and money. The easy thing would be to continue doing what I know works. I would stay at home and paint the subjects I know I can sell in the nearest coffee shop. That would be wonderful. Maybe I will settle down and do just that one day. But right now, I am having a blast traveling and exploring this big world. I’m doing some local art events, but the majority of what I do is not local. I get more rejections from shows than acceptances. I apply to about 15 venues for our traveling shows for every one that actually happens. My dreams scare me a little. That’s my marketing strategy… for now.