Business Tips for Artists

Cliff Ennico on

"My husband is a famous artist but isn't really good at the business side of things. I've just retired from a corporate job and want to help him out.

What's the best way to set up a business like this one, and what are some of the things I need to know about to help him?"

Many of my clients are engaged in creative businesses -- artists, photographers, authors and musicians who try to make a living from their work.

When we think of artists, the word "starving" is somewhere nearby. But it doesn't have to be that way. Some artists -- think Vincent van Gogh -- die penniless and unknown, their genius not appreciated until after their death. But others -- think Pablo Picasso -- die rich, famous and beloved. Which way would you rather go?

There are three steps to building a successful arts business.

First, remember it's a business. Whenever you do anything fun or creative and nobody pays you for it, it's called a hobby. Something is a business only if someone pays you for what you do. Before you can call something a business and deduct expenses and losses from your taxes, the IRS requires you to have made money at least three of the previous five years (

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When making art of any kind, it's always a good idea to ask yourself, "Who is going to buy this?" before committing pen to paper (OK, fingers to keyboard) or brush to canvas.

Second, give the customers what they want. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was one of the world's greatest composers. One day, he was approached by a local nobleman who wanted some French horn concertos for his son who had taken a fancy to the instrument. After getting some gold coins in advance, Mozart sat down and wrote four of the best concertos for French horn ever written.

In contrast, Mozart never wrote a concerto for the cello, even though we know (from his surviving correspondence) that he loved the instrument and knew how to play it. Why did Mozart never write a cello concerto? Answer: No rich nobleman with gold ducats in his hand asked him to write one.

Please, don't get me wrong: I'm not suggesting Mozart was a hack. There is no bad Mozart, and most of his works are eternally transcendent. But his catalogue looks the way it does because of the commissions he received, not what he wanted to create.


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