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Your Inner Circle
It Takes Only a Few People to Make an Art Career
Art Critic Jerry Saltz (@jerrysaltz) was interviewed a few years ago by Vulture Magazine in which he was asked about his rules of making it as an artist: How to be an Artist: 33 rules to take you from clueless amateur to generational talent (or at least help you live life a little more creatively).
I encourage you to read the entire Vulture article, but, for the moment, let’s take a closer look at Saltz’ rule number 22:
Lesson 22: It Takes Only a Few People to Make a Career
Exactly how many? Let’s count.
Dealers? You need only one dealer — someone who believes in you, supports you emotionally, pays you promptly, doesn’t play too many mind games; who’ll be honest with you about your crappy or great art, who does as much as possible to spread your work out there and try to make money from it, too. This dealer doesn’t have to be in New York.
Collectors? You need only five or six collectors who will buy your work from time to time and over the years, who really get what you’re up to, who are willing to go through the ups and downs, who don’t say, “Make them like this.” Each of these six collectors might talk to six other collectors about your work. Even if you have only six collectors, that’s enough for you to make enough money to have enough time to make your work.
Critics? It would be nice to have two or as many as three critics who seem to get what you’re doing. It would be best if these critics were of your generation, not geezers like me.
Curators? It would be nice to have one or two curators of your generation or a little older who would put you in shows from time to time.
That’s it! Twelve people. Surely your crappy art can fake out 12 stupid people! I’ve seen it done with only three or four supporters. I’ve seen it done with one!
I’ve written before about this same idea. The fact is, that it takes a scary small number of “superfans” to make it in the art business. In our Circles of Art Marketing Framework, I call these people your “Inner Circle.” (Our past articles on the Circles Framework are available to paid members, we encourage you to become a paid member for less than $1.50/week).
So let’s talk about your most valuable collectors and supporters, aka your “Inner Circle.”
Your goal with your inner circle is to re-connect with these people personally until they purchase again or promote you to others. And, while not technically a business goal, you will probably become friends with many people that are in your inner circle. By “connect personally”, I mean (mostly) personal texts, emails, phone calls, etc. Not newsletters or other mass broadcasting methods.
You’ve probably heard of Kevin Kelley’s idea of “1000 True Fans:”
To be a successful creator you don’t need millions. You don’t need millions of dollars or millions of customers, millions of clients or millions of fans. To make a living as a craftsperson, photographer, musician, designer, author, animator, app maker, entrepreneur, or inventor you need only a thousand true fans. A true fan is defined as a fan that will buy anything you produce. These diehard fans will drive 200 miles to see you sing; they will buy the hardback and paperback and audible versions of your book; they will purchase your next figurine sight unseen; they will pay for the “best-of” DVD version of your free youtube channel; they will come to your chef’s table once a month. If you have roughly a thousand of true fans like this (also known as super fans), you can make a living — if you are content to make a living but not a fortune.
Kevin’s essay made shockwaves across the Internet as it crystallized, in many creators’ minds, for the first time the following thought: “that’s doable.”
For the first time, creators of all types saw an achievable path to make a living from their art. And moreover, one that did not rely on any gatekeepers’ permission.
But, I'll let you in on a little secret.
In visual art, you don’t even need 1,000 true fans (which I’ll call collectors from here on it). You probably only need 100 and perhaps even less. That’s partially because art, in the form of originals anyway, usually sells for much higher price points, and the fact that art collectors tend to purchase multiple originals of the same artist over time.
It takes a scary small number of the right people to make a substantial number of art sales.
When I was in the gallery business, I remember sold out shows that were sold out to only a dozen or so people. You read that correctly: 12 people could make or break an entire show.
I was one of our gallery's 2 main salespeople. However, I'm also a computer programmer. So one day, I wrote a database query to calculate my total sales for the year. I noticed the same customer names appeared many times. So I re-phrased the query to total the sales by customer. I was shocked. Don't hold me to the exact numbers, but something like 80% of my personal sales were from less than 20 people...not 20% but 20 people.
I had not yet conceived the Circles of Art Marketing or the term “Inner Circle.” But intuitively, I realized, these people were the ones I was the closest to. They were my inner circle. They were the ones who were most interested in what I had to sell and, importantly, they trusted me to help guide them in their art collecting. I was friends with many of them.
I started lavishing a whole lot more attention on those 20 people. My goal with new customers became to determine if they were "worthy" to be in the "top 20". And my sales went up.
Who are your 20 people?
If you know who they are, write them a personal note, pick up the phone, or have a private little get together with them. If you don't know who they are, well, you should, and you've got some work to do.
Those 20 people (and I’m just using 20 as an example now, it could be 10, or 100, or more, or even as few as 5 or 6 as Saltz said in the quote at the top of the article) make up what we are calling your Inner Circle. These are collectors who have purchased multiple pieces from you, or students who have taken numerous classes or workshops from you. These are the people you give the opportunity to purchase your new art first, before anyone else has seen it. For these 20 people, you know their names, their addresses, their phone numbers, what type(s) of your works they like (and are most likely to purchase) and possibly their kids names and their birthdays.
These are the people that you send handwritten notes to, who you text when you have an upcoming show, and who you send personal emails to say, “I just finished this painting, I think it’s up your alley, and I’m showing it to you before anyone else.”
In the Inner Circle you don’t use any automated or bulk marketing methods. If you have an email “newsletter” for these people, it is smaller, more personal and much more exclusive than your regular newsletter. These are people whom you know personally and you communicate with them personally. (Although they are also in your audience so will receive your broader marketing as well).
Maintaining these personal connections with your inner circle is so powerful because one of the things people love, especially in luxury goods, is exclusivity.
And who doesn't want to feel special and part of an exclusive club?
Until Next Time,
PS - This article is an excerpt from my upcoming book, The Sovereign Artist. Paid Sovereign Artist Club members will receive a copy of this book and many of the paid articles we feature are ideas that will be in the book. We encourage you to join the Sovereign Artist Club.