by Seyhr Qayum

There’s a highly prevalent misconception regarding the “Business” of art amongst the general masses, which is that art has no business considering itself “Business”

– at least not business with a capital “B.” The artist at an early age realizes that his or her unique selling point is an ability that not many people have, the ability to see the world in a relatively unusual way, the ability to respond to what he or she sees, not verbally or textually, but sensually. It just so happens though that somewhere along the way, somebody decided that this ability goes well with an exaggerated bohemian lifestyle, and that image in turns functions well when hand in hand with having limited business acumen.

The result is that many artists will now proudly claim that they have no patience or understanding for the financial aspect of their work. You’ll hear them say that they can’t network well, that they’re incapable of promoting themselves. The more the “misfit” image that society and the Artist together cultivate, is adopted, the more artists begin to feel like true artists – true to the bohemian lifestyle, above the mundane, and less bothered with the “business-y” side of things.

I don’t for a second deny that artists are inherently “strange,” at best. We’re so used to seeing things differently, that we have a difficult time accepting that there’s only one way to do things. We hone our ability to think outside the box, for a living. We tend to feel things with a burning intensity that most other people would brush aside. We have no problem leaving the house in our studio clothes, wearing flip flops to work, being perfectly groomed one day and an absolute mess the other. I know that it’s difficult to network and promote yourself, it’s taxing to be pushy and shamelessly extol your virtues, it’s embarrassing to ask for money or to price your art a certain way, it isn’t easy to say no when people shamelessly ask you for free art work, ignoring that your art is your source of livelihood; your job. I consistently undersell myself at every art opening, I repeatedly inadvertently undervalue my art.

The fact of the matter however is that our shared idiosyncrasies are as particular to us as any other professions’ “typical traits” are particular to them. An artist roaming the streets in studio clothes is as particular to and therefore ordinary in the art world, as a banker wearing a suit and bragging about how many hours he or she just clocked in, is to the world of banking. Art is as much of a mainstream profession as any other, and while the general “arty” traits and tendencies don’t intersect with other professions much, at the end of the day, there is nothing about the art world that renders it impossible for artists to understand or partake in basic “business.” I need to train myself to promote myself and my art as much as any other young entrepreneur needs to. Artists don’t often think of themselves in terms of being “self-employed;” were more artists to understand this fact, they’d realize that the trials of networking and marketing are not specific to them in the fashion that they’ve been thinking, but that in actuality, there’s no difference between them and let’s say, a fresh graduate running a start-up.

The production and sale of art work is the artist’s source of income. A lot of young artists graduate from art school – which by the by, is not cheap to attend, and then instead of becoming full-time artists, they take up full-time jobs at ad agencies, production houses and studios and sometimes even in the corporate sector. There’s this fear of seeing everybody’s warnings about you never earning anything through your art, coming true – a fear so pressing that you can’t push it to the back-burner like you did four years ago when you applied to art school. A fear that you preemptively try to address by getting a job that the rest of society understands. You tell yourself that you’ll paint over the weekend, but let’s

face it, you never do. When an artist manages to separate him or herself from the insecurity that drives them to find a regular job, when he or she accepts the responsibility of living and working as an artist, they find that networking and mingling at art openings, exchanging cards with curators and gallery owners and running insufferable self-promoting social media campaigns is as integral to them paying their bills as it is to anybody.

So once you accept that art doesn’t exist in a realm entirely removed from the practices generally associated with “business-y” things, you have to ask yourself that big, dubious question – who is your target audience? Who are you producing art for, and why? How and what are you basing this market analysis on? I found these thoughts running through my head a couple of days ago, as I attended the opening of a group show that I was participating in at the National Art Gallery in Islamabad. Having already seen the work that was going up in the exhibition a few days earlier, while installing my own work, I could focus my attention on the visitors instead. I noticed a distinct difference between the pieces that artists gravitated to and appreciated - the paintings or sculptures that they understood, and the work that the general non-artist public found appealing. The average person focused on safe landscapes, big abstracts, easily accessible narrative paintings. I noticed that in contrast, the artist community tended to crowd around the unusual pieces, the slightly less didactic ones. It made me wonder, who as artists, we choose to make work for – what makes more strategic, financial sense?

The general public wants aesthetically pleasing work – and understandably so. When was the last time anybody decided to hang up heavy duty political statements behind their living room couch? And it’s lawyers and doctors and engineers etc., who have the luxury to spend on art. But art critics don’t usually disguise themselves as the general public – that’s not where you’re going to get your reviews from, that’s not where you’re going to get the coverage you need that’s going to establish your name in the art world. So how do you establish yourself in the art world then?

The art world, especially with the help of the internet and the convenience of air travel, has seen more or less everything. One of the first things my professors told us at art school was that if you’re looking for an idea or concept that hasn’t been addressed before – stop; it doesn’t exist and you’re not going to find it. Take whatever you do have instead and run with it. As an artist in the 21st century, your art is merely a variation of a concept that has been tackled in a billion different ways before; it’s your job to bank on lightning never striking in the same place twice, and hoping that your own personal twist on the matter is what gains your piece the Exclusivity-Approved stamp you’re looking for. The way to get recognized in the art world is to push the boundaries of whatever you’re working with – use your materials in a new way to illustrate a detailed aspect of a certain concept. Other artists and art critics will “ooh and ahh,” galleries will contact you to put together exhibitions that everybody will attend but nobody will buy anything from. People will talk about you and if you’ve really managed to nail it, you’ll be the trending story on Facebook for a full minute and a half before somebody posts a picture of their lunch or their cat.

If you keep at it, selling nothing but exhibiting everywhere for a while, big international art galleries and fairs will sponsor you and promote your art, and that’s when you start making money. However nobody really knows how long this process takes, and there’s no way to know if it’ll every really be profitable. There’s a really good chance that you spend your 20’s pulling publicity stunts that eventually amount to nothing. But if by some stroke of luck, you manage to make it – then you’re made.

The ideal scenario for any artist fully intending to eat, breathe, and live art, would be for the two realms of audiences to intersect. If you can manage to make commercial, aesthetically pleasing art – art that hotels and corporate offices want to invest in heavily because it doesn’t make a controversial statement but emphasizes how “cultured” the procurers are – art that simultaneously pushes boundaries and raises questions and eyebrows alike in the art world, then you’ve found the Golden Ticket to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Unfortunately for most artists though, and true to Roald Dahl’s legacy, there aren’t too many of those tickets out there – as the art world continues to evolve, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to strike that kind of balance, for only the “bizarre” can raise questions, but the bizarre doesn’t go too well with the average person’s dining room furniture.

A lot of artists, while believing that the responsibility they’ve undertaken professionally doesn’t extend to promoting themselves and selling and producing the way other businesses operate, make the mistake of not asking themselves the basic and simple question that forms the very foundation of any economic activity – who am I making art for? What sort of artist do I want to be? Am I seeking instant financial gratification or am I saving up for a rainy day? Asking yourself this question has the power to determine the manner in which your career will progress, and how the world will come to view you. It can impact not only what your art looks like, but simply put, how often you can treat yourself to a three course meal at the new Thai restaurant that’s opened up in town. 


Seyhr Qayum is a professional artist who holds a BFA in Painting, and a minor in Art History from Boston University. She now works for the National College of Arts in Rawalpindi.