Marketing Mondays: Are There Too Many Artists?

On last week's post about the M.F.A. , a commenter asked this question: Are there too many artists?

My kneejerk response: It's not that there are too many artists, but that there are not enough galleries.

Image from Ionarts taken by Mark, at Metro Pictures during Postcards From the Edge

True, the art schools are cranking out artists with B.F.A. degrees. And when those B.F.A.ers can't find galleries or reasonable employment, many go back to school for an M.F.A. Then not only do we have unrepresented artists, we have overqualified unemployment.

But looking more deeply, I think it's valid to assume that not every person who goes to art school will become an artist. Many gallery owners and directors have studied art. The same is true for critics and arts writers; curators (independent and regularly employed); as well as consultants and private dealers. Collectors, too. We operate along a continuum, from the folks who make the art to those who show and sell it, to those to acquire it for their homes, businesses and museums. All of those eyes and brains have gotten an art education, even if they didn't end up as artists.

And not every artist will go after New York gallery representation, or big-city gallery representation, or commercial gallery representation, period. There are many artists who are happily showing in co-op venues or in non-profits or who, while unshown in New York, have solid regional careers. There are artists who run studio/galleries, tyically in summer-resort or winter-vacation areas. There are artists, often academically employed, whose careers revolve around solo (and catalogued) exhibitions in regional museums and academic galleries. Still others fold artmaking into a life lived fully and creatively away from the conventional venues and scenes.

While I think it's true there are more artists than will ever find the kind of representation they want, there are never too many artists. We're resiliant, inventive and entrepreneurial. If we can't find a place for ourselves, we invent one, carve one out, will one into existence. That's my take, anyway.

What about you? Do you think there are too many artists?


Barbara J Carter said...

It's not that there are too many artists, or even that there are too few galleries. The real problem is that there are too few collectors.

Rob Hitzig said...

I agree with Barbara, but I think the larger problem is that too few people buy any significant art at all, let alone collect it. The general public has a perception that art is something that rich people buy and their definition of rich is anyone who has more money than they do. Great art can be found at almost any price point and most people can afford art that they love; but getting people to believe it is something they should own, that would make their lives more enjoyable, rather than the latest SUV, kitchen appliance, or video game is no easy task. Life and culture would really be improved if people just tried to buy just one or two works of art that they thought were special, rather than strive to become the next big collector.

Eva said...

People buy a home and a car and all the rest of it but they still have posters on the wall. Part of the problem is the exclusive culture of the art world. We're having a conversation with ourselves and not reaching out to the people who have homes that could be filled with something besides repros or family pictures. But these same people often do not feel welcome at all in an art gallery and are not exactly encouraged to ask questions. I know plenty of folks who said "Why should I give money to that guy?" Retail stores know you have to work for a conversation and trust.

sra said...

well i mean its such a broad spectrum. you can go to law school but you're not a lawyer if you don't pass the bar. you can go to school for education but you can't teach if you're not certified [well...where that applies at least]. there aren't many qualifiers to being an artist other than the declaration than that is so. [another reason why i think the MFA is so popular - its also a way that people feel that they can validate themselves. but as we all know you don't specifically need any degree to be an artist. being an artist is a risk and right now it seems like one that there are many willing to take it.

i don't think there can be too many artists - by definition. does it seem pretty crowded? yes. can there be too much art? i think more importantly does having a lot of artists then make artists have to be better by competition - or promote the status quo? i'm hoping the former

James Michael Starr said...

Like many artists, I'm constantly working to find a "market" for my art, to get to the point where it pays for itself and to create what might be for me the ideal life, in which the majority of my waking hours are spent making art. Toward that end, I am now represented by two very respectable galleries, one in Dallas and one in Houston, and I devote a sizable part of every week to pushing that aspect of my work further.

But to suggest that there are too many artists because there aren't enough ways for artists to sell their work is to postulate that artists NEED a market in order to make art, and that reduces art itself to a commodity.

I'm not being insincere when I say that I feel genuinely sorry for any artist who has that conviction. I believe they have succumbed to one of an affluent society's biggest pitfalls, to make everything about money and as a result to prostitute themselves in the fullest sense of the word.

Of course, that may be their choice, but they should know that they are electing to overlay onto a noble gifting a separate and distinct agenda, and that they might be happier with the money to be made as a "commercial" artist, such as a graphic designer. That's the field I labored in for almost 25 years before giving in to a driving inner compulsion to make instead what in our culture we term fine art.

So maybe that's another way to answer your reader's question, since it addresses what one can do that's close to making art while still receiving a predictable income. But we're ignoring art history and the struggle of many gifted artists before us to think that making art should equate to making money. Never before has that been the case.

My expectations for my art "career," and the unmatched joy that I receive from it, were finally settled when I decided that I would make art whether or not it made money.

Rico said...

There are some really insightful and well-stated comments here. I especially enjoyed James' comments about commodity and art.

I don't feel there are too many artists. Even getting a BA or BFA in fine art is no indicator that person will pursue a career in the arts (in fact, most won’t). The previous Marketing Mondays discussion touched on how having an arts education can help you in any career, and I believe this to be true. So majoring in Art or Theatre or Music is a great thing for anyone, regardless of what they end up doing. From the inverse side, many non-art professionals become artists to very successful ends later in life (probably because they are in a better position to sustain themselves). I believe Magritte was a banker; Koons was a stockbroker, just to name two that come immediately to mind.

A life in the arts is a unique and powerful path, often outside of the conventions of what we consider career.

Every playing field is crowded. From professional sports to Law or Medicine, there are more people trying to get a piece of the pie. It is very likely there are too many Bankers. Aside from that everything else is useful.

Because financial success in-and-of-itself is not an adequate measure of an Artist's significance or the validity of their efforts, it is especially difficult to determine how many practicing artists there are, much less how many are successful. Being represented by a gallery, an active exhibition history and letters may in some people's mind give worth to an artist's work, but for every artist who "makes it" to A-list status, a hundred will die unknown, their work lost forever and the world impoverished for it. Some abstain completely from the art world and its games, others just never get a break, while still others pursue the brass ring with every fiber of their being, sometimes, -though certainly not always, at the expense of the work.

Also, because art is more than a career, the question is problematical to begin with.

This comment has been removed by the author.

Too many artists? No. I do believe there aren't enough collectors. I can't tell you how many times someone with plenty of disposable income has gushed to me, "Oh, I love your work; I'm such a fan!" and then they don't appear to have any further interest beyond that. It's discouraging and mystifying that the average person with money to burn will make this statement, and yet he/she seems to always be buying the latest gadget, whatever. Too many people are reluctant to buy original fine art. Too many still perceive art as something for the wealthy elite, the investment collector, the museum- anyone but them. I wonder how this perception can be changed.

chewy said...

There are too many people.

Sheree Rensel said...

This is a question that made me smile. I don't give a rat's ass how many artists there are now, before, or in the future. I know it doesn't mean anything really.

I know for sure I get a gold star for sticking with it. I know all those "too many artists" right now, will not be in the category of "too many" in a very short while. In fact, there will be a bunch of "too many artists" who will fade away into the woodwork over the following years. Then there will be artists like me who keep doing what they do despite the MANY.

I must be in the "too many stubborn artists" category. LOL

Larry said...

To the people who have posted that "there are too few collectors," allow me to share the perspective of someone who earns a decent living but is far from rich.

I have been a museum-goer for 30 years, but it never occurred to me to buy original art until bought my first painting from a local museum for a fairly small sum; it was a piece of American folk art and I think it as accomplished as any of the "naive" art I've seen at the Gina Gallery or the American Folk Art Museum. A couple of years later, I now have a very modest collection of about 15 pieces all bought for very modest prices. I would agree with the gentleman above who said "great art can be found at almost any price point," but it takes perseverance, time, and luck to find outstanding work in the $300-500 range. Just a few months ago, for example, I bought two fantastic drawings for $175 each (framed) from a Chelsea gallery whose show had been reviewed favorably in the Times; personally I don't think these pieces would be out of place at a museum like MoMA and I was amazed that the dealer was selling at these prices.

But then again there are any number of works I see in galleries that are so beyond by means that I couldn't conceive of buying them, and to me $1000 is already a good chunk of money. I had to laugh when attending the "Affordable" Art Fair in New York this past week, where prices top at $10,000, and I thought maybe someone should host a "Truly Affordable Art Fair" for people like me to whom that's a lot of money, though I suppose compared to $30 million for a Picasso everything's relative.

The problem is of course that artists deserve to make as good a living as the rest of the world, and if a piece is priced at $5000, of which $2500 goes to the dealer, the artist would have to sell 20 a year to make a modest gross income of $50,000. And yet to a collector earning $50,000 a year, that same $5000 is 10% of his or her annual salary. Complaining that people buy homes or cars is unfair. Shelter and transportation are necessities. After the mortgage, car payment, food, phone, utilities, etc. are paid for, there may not be a lot left over for buying a painting.

Some artists on the other hand have taken the step of selling direct via Etsy, the beholder, and even eBay. For better or worse this eliminates the middle man (the dealer) and can make prices much more affordable. But even so there is still the problem for the would-be collector of taking the first step - overcoming one's fear of galleries, having confidence in one's own eye, and so forth. It took me many years before I even considered buying a piece of art, and oddly enough the catalyst was when I last had my apartment painted and I figured it was time to do something nicer for the walls than another $20 poster from the Met. But I can also understand the attitude of one of my friends who would rather spend $20 on a poster to remind him of all the Van Goghs he saw at a museum than spend $1000 on an original by an artist much less to his liking.

So are there too many artists? I think not. There's always room at the top. But artists who want to sell their work and say there are too few collectors need in my opinion to look at the situation from the perspective of the modestly heeled collector.

Rob Hitzig said...

I think Larry makes some very good points and it is good to hear a perspective from someone who started collecting great modestly priced work, but like Stephanie, I see people all the time who i know are doing better than modest means gushing over modest pieces and not buying. Anyone who can figure out what it takes to get people to get over that threshold of gusher to buyer has a future as a gallery owner.

I do, however, take issue with Larry's friend who thinks they appreciate a $20 Van Gogh poster more than an original work of art. Anyone who starts buying original art will tell you that it is much different living with a one-of-a-kind piece than a reproduction. I love Van Gogh but I can't imagine putting up a poster of his work over an original that speaks to me. This discussion makes me think that maybe there aren't enough artists. Not that everybody should quit their jobs and buy some paints, but if more people spent some time creating art it would give them a better perspective about what art is and why it is special. Living with so much that is mass manufactured, that thousands or millions of other people own, needs to be balanced with one-of-a-kinds or you lose your individuality.

And to anyone who has trouble finding great art under $1000, I think they need to get out of NY, or at least travel more. Great art can be found all over the country/world at great prices. Most artists want to be able to make a living with it but I know many artists who are virtually giving away their work just to have space to put their new work.

Sky Pape said...

Another interesting discussion. It's hard for me to imagine that there could be too many artists, because that somehow implies society would benefit from a cap on creativity. Artists make work in all forms, and at all levels of quality and expertise. I do think many people should reconsider the importance and value of BFA & MFA degrees (when I was in school, joking called Bachelor and Master of F***-all). They could save all that money on school, and use it to collect the work of fellow artists instead! Artists are not infrequently collectors too, I've found, in spite of unpredictable and/or limited income.

I like to think of collecting as more than just ownership of a specific piece. It helps support the continuing creativity of the artist, the viability of the gallery, and reinforces the value of creativity to society.

Keep making art, keep collecting it, keep selling it, and keep talking about it. All good.

leigh wt said...

can a leopard change its' spots? could this be a question like "are there too many salamanders?"? i am not being intentionally rude or facetious but wonder when did the collector complete the other part of the equation and when did the bfa/mfa become the absolute social construct of credibility? i would do my work regardless of the courted customer. i suspect i am naive in all the worst ways and that a machine exists to spew out "artists". don't hate my guts. apologies to all, especially those paying off large school bills.

Joanne Mattera said...


My point is that the MFA is not the absolute social construct of credibility. Some folks agree with me, others don't, but it's an interesting conversation.

As for the collector being "the other part of the equation," if you want to sell your work, the collector IS the other part of the equation. If you don;t care abvout selling, you can leave the collector out of it.

You're not being rude. As artists we operate along an infinite art continuum, balancing the work of the heart (or mind) with the issues of the marketplace. Every artist finds a different spot on the continuum, and a different balance.

mel said...

I love this discussion, and the many points raised. I personally agree that there are too many people-- but perhaps not enough artists! I think that the idea of a single career path is a problem; there are many levels of "success" and being an artist-- just not too many artists become Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst, thankfully.

As far as collecting art goes (and I do collect, though I am not "rich"), I can't think of any better way to spend $$, aside from making my own work or traveling. And I get the same feelings from it: excitement, euphoria, mild-to-mid obsession, gratitude, etc. Collecting art is sometimes a sacrifice, but so are many things one could buy.

Anonymous said...

I'm the Anonymous who posted the original comment "are there too many artists?"that Joanne thought worthy of this post I believe it has proven worthy.

What is of interest are the comments that assumed I meant something negative; or was suggesting there should be a limit on numbers of artists, or exclusions; or even that I asked the question because I personally believed there are too many artists (I don't). My question also had nothing to do with money. I had been following the previous post, and the thought/question came to me - that's all.

There's a saying "Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers." (for PC, substitute woman or person for man).

It's a big art world with many levels to exist on. An artist can find a niche, place, audience. It takes work, luck, making connections, etc. You have to decide where you want to exist, and also be realistic in gauging if you can get there.

I like that on this blog, Joanne is always clear (and outspoken) about about the arts, being an artist, and blogging about relevant topics - and I have no reasons to be complimenting her other than its the truth.


Larry said...

"What is of interest are the comments that assumed I meant something negative; or was suggesting there should be a limit on numbers of artists, or exclusions; or even that I asked the question because I personally believed there are too many artists (I don't)."

Not at all to any of the above.

"My question also had nothing to do with money."

If an artist is content to produce work solely out of a felt need to make art, then it does not. But if the artist intends to make a living (full- or part-time) by his or her art, then money inevitably becomes a factor — with all the messy corollaries of gallery representation, pricing, profit margins, dealer percentages, discounts, installment plans, and so forth.

Joanne Mattera said...

Outspoken? Moi?
Wait until the post on vanity galleries . . .

Diana said...

As one who teaches and occasionally works in the metier of my BFA, comics, I'm certainly familiar with the pragmatic realities of a glutted market, in commercial art, gallery and museum art, mass produced art and arts teaching and criticism.
However, that's no reason to stop. Perseverance is all anyone can do, in any discipline. While the stakes are different for us than they are for, say, a pilot or a surgeon, success, while hardly solely determined by perseverance, will never happen without it.
After my BFA, I spent a year unemployed, then stumbled into teaching at college level. Nine years and a Master's in Liberal Studies later, I find myself pursing a PhD program, working on a book, and spending very little time in the studio. Now and then I regret that, but I know the studio waits for me, patiently, like a good friend.
And we renew our acquaintance very quickly when it happens.
Robert Fripp speaks of how everyone has their own instrument. Turns out mine is teaching, and every now and then I accompany it with studio work.
I can live with that, provided I can live ON that!

Rico said...

I wanted to briefly respond to the comments about collectors and affordability.

My wife is a professor, so most of our social group are also professors (translation: no money!). A few have approached me about wanting to buy work, but always preface it by saying they can't afford it. I tell them they can! I work with clients to whom I sell directly. I let them make payments, I discount, I do whatever I can because it is so gratifying to have work in someone's home when I know they truly love it. My point is this; every $50 or $100 a month helps! Any income coming in enables artists to continue painting (or whatever medium) and that's all most of us want, -to be able to do what we do. So while $1000 may rightfully seem like a big chunk of change, $100/mo for something you'll live with forever is not so bad. Never be afraid to ask!

To the artists who complain that people never ask/offer to buy, I would ask if the artist offers to sell? Do you pursue leads? Do you build relationships with potential collectors? We like to think people will buy our work based solely on its own merit, but the reality is that people often buy art because they like the artist. Some onus of responsibility falls on us as artists to make collectors, create our audience. This isn't the part we like or that comes naturally, but it is part of the larger career process.

Nancy Natale said...

In all this conversation I didn't see anyone mentioning open studios. These occasions provide the opportunity for artists to meet potential collectors and engage in dialogue about the value of purchasing original works of art. I'm not a wild fan of open studios because they're often a lot of work for artists and just an afternoon's entertainment for visitors, but the subject of "regular people" not valuing original art or visualizing themselves owning art, has been on my mind recently. If I do another open studio, I think I will make a real effort to reach out to people on this subject.

Joanne, is open studios another topic? I'm sure everyone has plenty of opinions on and stories about them. Are they worth doing or just another instance of artists doing the heavy lifting?

Joanne Mattera said...

Rico, your comment about reaching out to collectors and, Nancy, your coments about open studios are two good options for unrepresented artists. There are gallery versions of these, too. More galleries than you realize offer payment plans--though typically for two or three larger payments. And the gallery version of an "open studio" is the art fair--not an exact analog, but a way to raise a gallery's profile in the art community and ideally make some money, too.

I can do a post on Open Studios later on this summer. Thanks for the suggestion.

Anonymous said...

Rico made some good points - I always offer to work out payment plans with anyone who expresses interest in my work (as do the galleries I show with).

If someone really connects with a certain piece of my work, and wants to buy it, but has limited funds, if possible, I'll sell it for the lower price (because I know it's appreciated, and the piece will have a good home). The other way i handle it is to offer something else from my inventory that fits their price range.

Larry said: "...it takes perseverance, time, and luck to find outstanding work in the $300-500 range." He's right, and it can be done, and i compliment him on putting in the work - but he should also acknowledge the effect the "low price" he pays ultimately has on those artists. They are not making enough money at a Chelsea gallery, if it's taking the minimum 50% split. If the artists are young, and/or just starting careers, it's more acceptable, but as they gain exposure and experience and the value/prices of their work rises, will he still buy their work?

Any artist who's serious, renting a studio, building their career should know what their costs/overhead are, and add it (including the gallery commissions, framing, etc.) into their price. It's the only way they will be able to survive.

Joanne, consider a post about pricing - not that there's a magic formula, but maybe you could give offer some guidelines based on your experience.

Anon. 1

Larry said...

"Larry said: '...it takes perseverance, time, and luck to find outstanding work in the $300-500 range.' He's right, and it can be done, and i compliment him on putting in the work - but he should also acknowledge the effect the "low price" he pays ultimately has on those artists. They are not making enough money at a Chelsea gallery, if it's taking the minimum 50% split. If the artists are young, and/or just starting careers, it's more acceptable, but as they gain exposure and experience and the value/prices of their work rises, will he still buy their work?"

I have never disputed pricing at a gallery. I don't ask for discounts, though I don't refuse them if offered. The $300-500 prices I am talking about have been the asking prices at the galleries or online venues I have bought from, so if these prices are "low," they're low because the artist or gallery has set them low.

I have three basic criteria for buying a piece of art: do I like or love it, is it suitable for my home, and can I afford it. If any of these isn't true, I have to pass the piece by.

Rico above mentions installments. These are the best possible incentives I can think of for someone with modest means, especially as galleries don't impose finance charges! I right now have an agreement with an artist (selling direct via the Internet) that I will pay her four installments, and on completion she will send me her painting. Only problem is, a lot of galleries won't accept more than 2-3 installments. I see a lot of work I would pay $2000 for if I could pay $200 a month. But I can have met only one gallerist who has been willing to accept similar terms. A $2000+ piece will still be beyond my means if I have to pay in 2-3 installments.

Larry said...

Bear in mind too that art fairs, the arrangement is usually cash-and-carry, so unless you have all the cash, forget about carrying.

Joanne Mattera said...

Anon asked for a post on pricing. I did one not too long ago:


Nancy Charak said...

As a member of the A.R.C. womens' art cooperative in Chicago, I'd get telephone inquiries asking if there was a dress code, a gate charge. There's not enough of an art public. What's wrong is that our potential customers and public are intimidated by the blockbuster mentality of the big venues. The Art Institute of Chicago has been contemplating charging $18 up from $12!

James Michael Starr said...

Nancy Charak's comment, including her statement, "There's not enough of an art public," is one I would love to see explored further on this site. Tell me if it already has.

Even here in Dallas (or should I say, "as you might expect in Dallas"?!), I get the same questions from some of my friends when I have a gallery show, like "how much is admittance?" I tell them it's black tie. Just kidding.

On the one hand, I'm flattered that I create something (Art) which people might so revere they'd expect to have to pay to view it. But I'm more concerned about what it may also indicate, that they perceive the art world as so elitist. And I wonder if it's because we've taken advantage of the high esteem with which art is held, and further, ridden it to the degree that we're now alienated from a segment of our audience –– thus shooting ourselves in the foot, because audience is an essential part of the reason for making art in the first place.

I'm participating in a local debate (http://renegadebusdallas.com/?p=716/ ) relating to our city's cultural life that may be revealing. Civic leaders, but also some in the arts, are very excited about our burgeoning arts district, a very visible row of buildings along a major highway that skirts downtown Dallas. This handsome strip includes our relatively new Nasher Sculpture Center, highly regarded even beyond Texas, our symphony center, almost-finished opera house and the more established Dallas Museum of Art.

Some see this growing architectural presence as an indication that we're on our way to becoming more metropolitan (Hey look, everybody, we're a big city, all artsy and stuff). I see the good but am also concerned it may represent a kind of chamber-of-commerce, "build it and they will come" attitude.

I think there's a more basic piece still missing. I believe we need not only to build facilities, a home for our arts, but also to nurture our "art appreciation" at the grassroots level, so that all those buildings along the highway are inhabited not just by the socially savvy but also by even more regular folks.

Maybe I'm wrong, and making culture more available through facilities like these is the best way to imbed it in the collective conscience. I don't know.

And perhaps this fundamental problem exists everywhere to a certain degree. The point is, I would like to see art be so approachable, so easily embraced by Dallas' Everyman, that we can all relax a little on the subject. I think that may bring more people to our art museum and our galleries, encourage more people to bring art into their lives, enable us all to accommodate both art that's expensive and art that's cheap, and in general put things in perspective. Win win.

katemiller said...

Great blog, no there cant be too many artists, not now not ever, not until everyone is an artist. The issues of world economy, poverty, racism, colonialism, violence,greed,human abuse and injuustice, starvation and destruction of the earth might all go away if we all could live lives that are dictated by a sincere desire to reach inside, find whats there, and then creatively (artistically)give back.
So that is my idealistic response and I really do believe it but on a more practical,pragmatic basis(something Im accused of not being) I always am looking for good gallery representation and struggling to make a living from making things. I taught public school after getting a BFA, college for the past 12 years after getting an MFA and just lost my job ( "we are a small community college and no longer believe we can justify the existence of a full time art dept.")
so now in my 50s im faced with the time Ive longed for to make art which is exhilerating and the anxiety of no paycheck. Still I preach every day and taught my students and my own kids that following your heart and doing so creatively is the only (one and only) way to experience your precious life. So now ....time to practice what I preach?

Sally Artist said...

Too many not-so-good artists.
Too many wanna'be artists.
Too many copycat artists.
Too many "I could do that" artists.
Too many "I put up a website, do Facebook, Etsy, etc." so that makes me an artist.

Too few buyers of art.

Zie L. said...

Well said Sally!

Lots of junks out there. Many amateurs and wannabes. How many people watches art programs on TV? There is no active public education about great art, instead, all the funds are funneled to fight wars and ridiculous commercial programs. Who really cared about art, when our kids don't even know who Van Gogh is, but ask them what is the latest and the greatest video games, they'll tell you which. How do you expect these people to become art collectors? It must be insane to think so.....

I see more art collectors in China now when there is a sense of cultural appreciation and awareness growing. Just turn on the TV and we all think the Access Hollywood is our form of high art..... Sad....

Anonymous said...

Yes, of course there are too many artists. That's because we don't need the farmers and factory workers like we used to, and there are many more people on earth now. There are also no more rules in art, and everything is accepted as art, so anyone can call themselves an artist and do anything. So yes, duh, there are too many artists. Soon everyone will be an artist, get it?

Root Studio said...

As a full time professional working artists I say YES! So many people are told they can be artists if they want to....whether they have any talent or not....and we are seeing the market absolutely flooded with mediocre and poor artwork in ALL mediums. There are also a glut of so-called "galleries" now that will hang these works....often relying on a "fee to hang" from the artists rather than commission.

Not sure how these people decided they were good enough to show but in this politically correct day and age where anyone can do anything and all promote themselves and their "art" through social media....I guess if you sell a painting for $20 to a friend you can call yourself a professional artist.

To these people....paint away...enjoy it as a hobby....but your insistence on deeming yourself worthy of exhibition is just pulling our whole industry down.

BTW I know there are many who will take offence to my comment but oh well....I say it as I see it.