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๐”ธ๐•ฃ๐•– ๐•ช๐• ๐•ฆ ๐•’ โ„™๐•’๐•“๐•๐•  ๐• ๐•ฃ ๐•’ ๐•๐•š๐•Ÿ๐•”๐•–๐•Ÿ๐•ฅ? โ„๐• ๐•จ ๐•“๐•–๐•š๐•Ÿ๐•˜ ๐•’ ๐•”๐•’๐•ฃ๐•–๐•–๐•ฃ ๐•’๐•ฃ๐•ฅ๐•š๐•ค๐•ฅ ๐•ž๐•–๐•’๐•Ÿ๐•ค ๐•“๐•ฆ๐•ค๐•š๐•Ÿ๐•–๐•ค๐•ค.

โ€œSuccess is relative. It is what we can make of the mess we have made of things.โ€ โ€“ TS Eliot

This is no news to anyone who reads my word-ly tribulations, I am not a business person. I have neither instinct nor passion for it. If I could live in a world of unicorns and rainbows where everyone lands a hand and gifts a smile, I would. But itโ€™s not how our society works, now is it? (hello reality, is it me youโ€™re looking for?) If I had to compare myself to another artist in regards to their business approach, I would be a natural Vincent (with a full set of ears) working hard towards being a Pablo (with a lot more hair).ย 

Let me explain.

It is common knowledge that Vincent Van Gogh lived a poor life. Not everyone realizes, however, how the success of his work came to be. He was a man full of mental struggles and artistic obsessions. On most days, he would just frantically paint without any thought for what would become of his work or if it would yield food on the table. He would live his life for the arts unconditionally, to the detriment of everything else. His relationships, his health, his finances. Every ounce and fiber of his body and soul was devoted to his work.ย 

The unconditional and unbiased dedication to art is a beautiful thought. One that most of us creatives wish we could bask into all day and night. What it is not, is a practical one. Van Gogh rarely sold pieces himself, in fact it is said that he only sold one (โ€˜the Red Vineyardโ€™) to Anna Boch, a Belgian art collector and friend, for 400 Francs (about $1000 in todayโ€™s currency).

His younger brother Theo, who was an art dealer, supported him financially and facilitated some sales, but Vincentโ€™s work never garnered much attention or commercial success during his lifetime. Theo wanted to support his brother, but did not seem to truly believe in his talent.ย 

Vincent died in his late thirties. Theo died a year later in his early thirties. leaving behind a wife and young child. Johanna Van Gogh-Bonger found herself a young widow and mother with over 400 pieces of art by Vincent (along with many letters from him to Theo) and no knowledge of the arts or the art market. However, Jo had a feeling and she had determination. She decided not to part with the paintings against multiple recommendations of more โ€˜art savvyโ€™ individuals. Jo then spent time and effort educating herself and carried Vincentโ€™s art to a potential unforeseen by Theo, against a market that was struggling to open itself to the rise of the Impressionists or the early onset of Expressionism. Jo had guts both as a feeling and as courage. Sheโ€™s the one who created the value of Vincentโ€™s art.ย 

At first, she approached art critics who were very negative not only of the work but also of the fact that Jo was a woman. A renowned artist at the time (RR Holst) said of her, she โ€˜is a charming woman, but it irritates me when someone fanatically raves about something they donโ€™t understand.โ€™. She persisted with the help of Vincentโ€™s letters, strongly believing that art and words combined explained his state of mind and approach. She added the context and thought process behind the work making it more authentic.

In a fascinating article about Jo (New York Times, April 2021), Russell Shorto writes:ย 

โ€œJo learned the tricks of the trade โ€” for example, to hold onto the best works but to include them as โ€œon loanโ€ alongside paintings that were for sale in a given show. โ€œShe knew that if you put a few top works on the wall, people will be stimulated to buy the works next to them,โ€ Luijten says. โ€œShe did that all over Europe, in more than 100 shows.โ€ A key to her success, says Martin Bailey, an author of several books on the artist, including โ€œStarry Night: Van Gogh at the Asylum,โ€ was in โ€œselling the works in a controlled way, gradually introducing van Gogh to the public.โ€ For an exhibit in Paris in 1908, for instance, she sent 100 works but stipulated that a quarter of them were not for sale. The dealer begged her to reconsider; she held firm. Bucking her tendency to doubt herself, she proceeded methodically and inexorably, like a general conquering territory.โ€

Even if the point of this article is not Johanna Bonger, I want to acknowledge how a woman seen as ignorant and insignificant to the male dominant art market was smart and combative enough to pursue an incredible instinct. Johanna Van Gogh-Bonger had marketing skills. She relentlessly represented, explained, shared, shown, and wisely sold Vincentโ€™s work. She created interest and demand. Well done, Jo.ย 

Another master whose work is known to all is Pablo Picasso. He was an equally dedicated and talented artist, however, what Picasso had over Van Gogh was business acumen. Indeed, he cultivated his image and reputation, and strategically positioned himself in artistic circles. He maintained relationships with art dealers and collectors and often created demand for his work through limited editions or series. Much like Joโ€™s approach, letโ€™s call it strategic marketing.

He also diversifiedย his income stream with sculpture, prints and occasional stage design which allowed him to appeal to different markets and audiences. He โ€˜collabโ€™edโ€™ ahead of his time, with other artists, designers and others which expanded his creative horizons and provided opportunities for mutual promotions. Picasso also formed partnerships with art dealers and collectors through favorable deals, and was very proactive in protecting his intellectual property rights. He retained ownership of the copyrightย to his artworks, allowing him to benefit financially from reproductions, exhibitions, and licensing agreements. He had entrepreneurial spiritย and a wise management of his artistic career which contributed to his success and enduring legacy.

Both men defined the art of the 20th century, both created art generating millions to this day, although one never benefited from it and the other largely did. One had business fibers, the other did not but had someone who did.ย 

The actual point I am making here, hopefully worth the wait, is that art is beautiful, fulfilling and certainly magical, but should you decide to make it a career, know that art does not fly high without a business counterpart. We have to accept the process of selling ourselves. Talent and artistic dedication alone do not make a successful career. They need a vehicle, a propelling force.

I always proclaim myself as โ€˜all art no businessโ€™. I have learned through the years that it is a cop-out. So this article is for my own benefit as much as whomever needs to hear it. As I am going through the motions of putting together my second exhibit, I have to accept the business side of this career and not only get out of my comfort zone, but settle comfortably in these new digs. The relationships, the sponsors, the flyers, the PR, the press releases, the pricing, the costs, the negotiations, the incentives (pause for eye roll and inhale). In a saturated art market and a struggling economy where art is a luxury, you have to be in for the full ride, heavy traffic, bumps and detours included.ย 

The same way Denzel Washignton said โ€˜Dreams without goals remain dreams.โ€™, the dream of sharing your art with the world, without accepting the business necessities of it, will remain personal expression with wishful thinking. Washingtonโ€™s quote goes on to say โ€˜Goals on the road to achievement cannot be achieved without discipline and consistency. [...] Without commitment, youโ€™ll never start. But more importantly, without consistency, youโ€™ll never finish.โ€™ย 

Like T.S. Eliot, sort out the mess youโ€™ve made of things, then Denzelย them by defining your dreams into concrete goals. Find the road, fill up the gas and ride on with consistency, commitment, smarts and persistence beyond creativity.ย 

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