An Artist Should Think Like an Entrepreneur

By Mary Edwards (Career & Life Coach for Artists)

Entrepreneurs are really the artists of the business world.  Small businesses first grow out of someone’s imagination; they all start with an idea.  Successful entrepreneurs approach their work with an open mind and a spirit of experimentation.  Entrepreneurs take risks, invest time and money, and get advice from experts. 

When entrepreneurs seek funding for a start-up, they have the ability to go to venture capitalists.  The questions venture capitalists ask, provide a good framework for artists who are ready to see their art practice through a different lens. 

Before investing in a new business, venture capitalists ask:

  • What is your vision for the business?
  • Who are your customers?  
  • What are your marketing strategies?  
  • How will you measure results?

What is your vision for the business?

Having a vision is a term you understand.  Artists are usually better visionaries than their business counterparts.  Your vision explains the purpose of your art.  It says why it matters, how your work will live in the world outside your studio. 

Here’s a contemporary photographer’s vision:

“I am a visual storyteller, creating images that inspire others to adventure outside and take care of ourselves and our planet.”

The photographer’s vision is the foundation for his business since it expresses his values and intentions.  In order to turn this statement into a business vision, he goes on to describe how his art practice will generate income. 

“Within the next 3 years, grow my photography business into a successful enterprise that expresses my values and brings in $50,000 per year.  Income streams include personal shoots (40%), work with brands (25%), work with magazines (15%), and selling stock images (5%).”

A mid-career painter also began with her personal vision:  “I paint to celebrate daily life, to illuminate the ordinary, to shape the day.”

The business vision followed: 

“Within the next 5 years, grow my practice into a $60,000 art business providing the following products and services:  paintings for sale at galleries and online retail stores (50%); licensing images on products (30%);  creating commissioned works for collectors (20%).

Who is your customer?

Your business vision assumes that you know something about your customers.  Think of them as the audience for your art, your fans or followers, your people.  When venture capitalists ask, “who is your customer?” they are looking for demographic information about the age, gender, income-level, geographical location, and education level of your typical customers.  You may not have all of this information, but take a look at what you do know.

Established artists who have sold a lot of work (and kept records of the buyers) can begin to create a composite picture of their typical customer, called a profile.   What patterns do you notice?  Do you sell mostly to young people?  Are they wealthy established collectors?  Other artists?  Where do they live?  What do they have in common?

Emerging artists who have yet to sell much work can still try to identify their customers.  Among your supporters, even if they are primarily family and friends, who likes your work?  Do they tend to be older, younger, rural, urban? 

If you think you don’t know much about your customers, pay attention at Open Studios and other venues where you are showing your work.  Engage with people, even those who are “just looking.”  Reveal a little about yourself so that you make a personal connection.  You will find out basic information about people who are interested in your work. 
A customer profile helps you know how to reach out to similar people, especially when you understand how they purchase art.  For example, we know that many young people who grew up with technology buy everything online, and don’t hesitate to purchase art in the same way.  If your customers fit this profile, consider selling online and becoming more visible through social media. 

If your customer is an older established collector they probably still buy art through more traditional means.  They tend to have relationships with well-known galleries they trust.  Very wealthy people, on the other hand, often purchase art through art advisors, so you may not be able to connect with them directly.  To get an overview of this audience, consult the annual lists of “100 Top Art Collectors” put out by Fortune Magazine.

The better you know your customer, the more you understand how to market your art.

What is your marketing strategy?

A marketing strategy is a normal part of an entrepreneur’s vocabulary, but what does it mean for an artist?  Think of marketing as the opportunity for your work to become visible to potential buyers.   People who buy art have to see it first, or at least see an image of it.  Keep in mind that in the digital age you need to think about marketing both your work and yourself, your art, and your story.     

These three action steps are part of a basic marketing strategy for an emerging artist:  

  • Build a resume through juried exhibitions at galleries and nonprofit art organizations.
  • Establish connections with local galleries that show emerging artists.
  • Create a simple website.

A mid-career artist trying to get on the radar of the art world might create the following marketing strategy:

  • Use personal/professional networks to get introduced to curators.
  • Have a solo exhibition at a local or regional museum.
  • Raise visibility through an interview in an art magazine.

Each of these strategies leads to a series of actions that will lead you in the right direction, and eliminate detours that waste your time and energy. 

How will you measure results?

Artists who have a clear vision, understand their customers and are following targeted marketing strategies still get uncomfortable when they are asked to measure results.  But if you’re trying to grow your art practice, you need a way to track your progress. 

Entrepreneurs develop specific goals and measurements.  They create spreadsheets with detailed metrics showing how their product or service will penetrate the market.  They need to estimate quarterly results and show a reasonable timeline for success.

Your task is simpler. Think of your art career as a road trip.  Measurements are signposts for a journey that will eventually get you to a new destination.   They help you avoid detours and stay on track.   This is especially important when you are stuck, when you’ve reached a plateau, and don’t know how to move forward.   A good measurement system puts you in motion again.

For example, the mid-career artist who wanted to have a museum show could set up the following goal:   

  • By August 1 submit three proposals to museums who exhibit local artists.

This approach reduces a complex process to a series of action steps.    In order to identify three museums that welcome proposals, you will have to research a lot of museums.   Most people will start by going to museum websites.  Others will look at the resumes of established artists whose work is similar to their own, and identify museums where they have shown.   Others might telephone their local or regional museum and ask questions about how they select artists for their exhibitions. 

These first steps require thought and effort, but learning is built into the process.    As you understand each museum’s mission and purpose, and find out what kinds of exhibitions they typically show, you gradually discover where your work might fit.  

The process gets you out of your own head (where you obsess about whether your work is worthy of a museum show) and into action:  taking the steps that will help you find out.  Measurement systems are most useful when they put you in motion. 
But customer analysis, marketing strategies and measurement systems may still seem like a foreign land.  You may fear that such practices will undermine your creativity.    Where is the magic?  What about intuition?  What happened to the role of serendipity in your art career?  

As it turns out, entrepreneurs are not just left brain people.  They often talk about the opportunity that “came out of nowhere,” the accidental meeting, the sudden insight about a new use for an old product.  These seemingly random happenings are the result of all the hard work that went before. 

Thinking like an entrepreneur combines two ways of being in the world.   You organize and plan and strategize and measure, you control whatever seems to be within your control.  These activities place you on the path that is right for you.  And then you let go, and open yourself up to the random gifts of the universe, the larger forces that will shape your life and career.  

Mary Edwards, Ph.D.

Mary Edwards is a Career & Life Coach for Artists, based in the San Francisco Bay Area.  She works with artists across the United States and all over the world.

Mary has a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan and received her coach training from the College of Executive Coaching.  She brings a unique combination of business knowledge, art world experience, and professional coaching skill to her practice.

To receive Free Tips for Artists (twice a month), visit and click on “Mailing List Sign-Up.”  If you would like to schedule a time to talk, see “Contact Mary.”


Career & Life Coach for Artists


Artists & Photographers

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