Art Expert Interview – Alyson Stanfield: Making Your Art A Career

Alyson Stanfield knows as well as anyone that a career in art can be very difficult to carve out. Just don’t use the phrase “starving artist” around her, she won’t be happy.

“I do not allow the word ‘starving’ to be used ever,” Stanfield said. “Then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and the phrase is such a cliché.”

Like athletes, most artists dream of a time when their passion and their hobby can become their profession. They are held back by the fact that while they love creating art, they don’t know how to turn their art work into something that makes them money. Luckily, Stanfield is here to help with exactly that problem.

After a long career in the world of art museums, Stanfield struck out on her own in 2001 to create her own art consulting business. Nine months later, that art consulting business had changed from selling art to companies, to helping artists with career advice and connections so they can make their art into a career.

Yesterday, Stanfield was gracious enough to let us interview her about her background in art, her career as an art business coach, and her advice to artists thinking about trying their hand at a career in art. Enjoy!

Let’s start with your art background. What is your art background and how did it lead you to this career?

Well, I got my Master’s Degree in Art History from the University of Texas at Austin and then I became a curator and educator at three different museums – the Oklahoma City Museum of Art; the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma; and the Wichita Art Museum. Then, in 2001, I decided that I wanted to choose where I lived, which you can’t really do with museums. So I sold a bunch of stuff, moved into a small apartment in Colorado, and started my own business which became the Art Biz Coach after about nine months.

You said it took nine months before your business became the Art Biz Coach. What was it before? How did it evolve into the Art Biz Coach?

When I first started, my company name was Stanfield Art Associates and it was an art consulting business where I was selling art to companies. Unfortunately, this was right around when Sept. 11th happened, and not many people bought art after that event, especially companies. But my business evolved once artists from my museum life found out what I was doing, and they started coming to me for career advice. These artists wanted an agent, someone else who would do all of the extra work for them. But based on my experience, people in the art world don’t want to deal with agents, so I wouldn’t have been doing the artists any favors by becoming their agents. So instead I decided to teach and coach the artists how to do it themselves.

Your business has become well-known in the art world; explain to me in detail some of the work that you do for your clients when they hire you.

Photo by John Pitman Photography

It depends on the artist and what they are looking for, but there is a variety of things I do well. First of all, I teach classes and workshops. I have one called “Blast Off” and it is all about finding the motivation to make your art a career and helping you get straight with what you want from your art, and it has become one of my most popular classes. I also have a class called “Cultivate Collectors” which is more about the self-promotional, relationship-building, and marketing aspects of the business that are so important for an artist. I also have a class called “Get Organized” which is all about organizing yourself so you can get an effective business up and running.

I also have individual clients who come in and want me to help them work on a marketing plan. When I first started, it was based on a coaching model, but I don’t promote my coaching so much anymore. I was there to sell my individual consultations, but now it has changed and I prefer to work with groups of people.

So as the Art Biz Coach, you have to draw on a lot of past experiences in your teachings. How does your past experience in the art world make you a valuable asset to artists looking to make a career out of their work?

In between getting my undergraduate degree and going to graduate school, I worked for a United States Senator and I worked closely with him so he was able to teach me a lot about relationship-building and making connections. I wouldn’t say I learned about those things from him, but he certainly helped perfect relationship-building for me. That experience is huge in what I do because making a career out of your art work is all about marketing and selling yourself. When I worked for the museum, I learned how to communicate about objects to the general public. So when I work with artists, I strongly emphasize that they need to be able to communicate clearly about their work, because if they can’t, they will look stupid and people who know better will see through it.

You mention the importance of relationship-building when it comes to having a career in art. How is relationship-building important to an artist looking to break in to the industry?

I always say that an artist’s contact list is their number one asset, but they need to know how to use that list. A lot of artist get these names, and put them on their contact list, and then they start sending bulk emails and spamming people and it makes them look bad. I am more interested in helping them build the one-on-one authentic relationship. I teach them to send personalized thank you notes, which are totally brilliant because of how great it is to open up a letter and see a personalized note with art work on it. I really want people to care about other people and stop caring about the marketing methods. I don’t teach sales speak. I am not comfortable with it. But I am comfortable showing someone that I care about them, which is why social media is so great, because you can interact with people and show that you are authentically interested in them.

The networking aspect is especially huge for exhibiting artists because they need to talk to people in person, but even on the Internet, you need to have certain people skills so that people will like you. Artists can’t just stick their heads in the sand and expect that work to be done for them. Even with galleries, you are still also selling yourself to the gallery. If they don’t like you and care about you, then they won’t want to sell your art you can’t stick your head in the sand to do it for you, you still have to sell yourself to a gallery, because if they don’t like you and care about they won’t want to sell your art.

So what sort of artists do you take on as clients?

I tend to have more fine art artists (painters, sketchers, etc.) in my queue, but I take on all different types of artists. I have an opera singer, a harpist, writers, musicians, photographers, jewelers, and other crafts people. The reason I am able to take on all of these different types of artists is because, generally speaking, the marketing and promotional strategies can be applied to any type of art. Those people skills and relationship-building is important no matter what type of artist you are.

In your experience, just how difficult is it really for an artist to make a career from their work?

What artists today need to understand is that it’s easier than ever to be an artist. You don’t need to have a degree to be an artist, but, the fact that you don’t need a degree also means that more people than ever are trying to do it, which makes the competition stiffer.  The artists who succeed in this business are the artists who are willing to take risks, the ones who build those relationships. It’s not going to be easy, because it takes so much hard work. But they will do well if they are excited to take that studio work out and share it with the public.

Also, I think there are a ton of talented artists who shouldn’t try to make a living as an artist. For example, I absolutely love to cook, but if my job was to cook and impress people every day, I would hate it, because it wouldn’t be fun anymore. Some artists have so much fun creating their works in the studio, but once they realize that the business is a grind, they just whine and complain, and those are people who I don’t want to work with.

So what sort of advice would you give to an artist who is just beginning to think about trying to turn their art into a career?

I would say the top thing you need to do is go out and show your work to the public so you can see if that is something you are comfortable with. When you show your work live, you get valuable feedback and experience, and you can see if you like the feedback and experience you get. It might never get easy to hear criticism and feedback like that, so it is really important to see if you can stomach it, because if you can’t, then art careers might not be for you.

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