How to make a lifelong career as an artist

Stone sculptor Michael Binkley, 2010.  Photo by Kevin Grey.

What does it take to be a successful artist?  Is it pure talent, marketing skill, or knowing the right people.  Last July I celebrated my 30th year as a professional artist.  Looking back and reflecting, I marvel that I have been able to live solely on my vocation as a sculptor.  Here I will describe how I think it happened, and if any of what I have to say is useful to anyone, that would make me happy.

 

Approaching art as a business

 From the outset, I approached my art as not only a calling but a business - - I had to make a living at it.  It was a calling and it still is.  I couldn’t keep doing it if it were just a job. But it is also a job, and it is the only one I have.  Making and selling art is a business, and I have had to approach it that way.

That my sculpting is a business has meant many things to me over the years.  It has meant hard work and tenacity, for example, and fully accepting that there is no free lunch.  I had to spend at least five full days a week carving stone, often more, and I had to sell them. I was too busy making and selling art to have much time to talk about it with other artists.  I do talk about art, but mainly with patrons and potential patrons. Those conversations are fascinating, and I love them.  I get to learn what people value in art, what art they already have, what they like about my sculptures, and other things just as useful.  They get to learn anything that interests them, including how I make my sculpture, how I approach commissions, and things like that.  It delights both of us when as a result of our conversations, they go home with one of my sculptures.

Foregoing the middleman

 From 1981 to 1990, I experimented with commercial galleries and high-end gift stores.  I bounced from agent to agent, looking for someone I could trust to promote my work and sell it as they claimed they could.  After almost ten years, it was clear that for me at least, dealing with agents on a consignment basis did not generate enough income to make a living.  I realize that gallery representation does work for many artists, but it didn’t work for me. I believe one key is that the agent must be passionate about the individual artist’s work for the relationship to be successful. I realized it would be my own passion for my work that would have to sell it.

In 1986 I met my wife Michelle, and since then we have formed a good balance of life - a partnership in the business of art as well as in our personal lives.  As the marketing director of our gallery, Michelle’s natural ability to generate marketing ideas has created many wonderful opportunities to promote my art. Over time, we have honed the marketing strategy of selling my sculptures directly to patrons, without the traditional “middleman.”

Dancers.  Limestone. Michael Binkley.  Photo by Michelle Binkley.

   We have exhibited in art trade fairs in Vancouver and Toronto, spent years exhibiting at a day table at the Lonsdale Quay Market in North Vancouver, and participated in group shows at local community galleries.  But producing our own exhibitions has been by far the most effective method for promoting and selling my work.  We have done this on cruise ships, through a very successful series of exhibitions in a rented space on Granville Island, and through annual exhibitions in our own gallery and sculpture garden, which is also our home and my studio.

  

In 1997, we were able to build a beautiful dedicated gallery onto the front of our house and develop a sculpture garden in the front yard.  At the rear of the property is my studio.  From a business perspective, this is our brick-and-mortar location where my patrons can come to view my constantly changing collection of sculptures by appointment, and where we host my annual exhibitions.  Having our place of business so closely associated with our home presents unique opportunities for me to develop a personal relationship with patrons, and for them to develop a personal relationship with me.  We discuss my art and how and where I create it.  Just as importantly, we discuss their love of art and their desire to own it. This kind of opportunity simply isn’t available, at least to this extent, through conventional commercial gallery representation.

More in Methods of Creation

Something I Admire about Surgeons

Something I admire about surgeons, dentists, deep sea divers and astronauts is their ability to perform sensitive, technically demanding work wearing gloves.  Working with gloves is a serious...

To Build a Fire

Sculptor Lee Gass reflects on Jack London's short story To Build a Fire and some childhood mistakes in the mountains in relation to his daily ritual of building a fire in his stove on Quadra Island.

Formats for community building and dialogue

Bee biologist, university administrator, writer, and Experiments collaborator Mark Winston reflects on the limitations of disciplinary formats imposed by tradition. Using two very different kinds of
Speak up about this article on Facebook or Twitter. Do this by liking Vancouver Observer on Facebook or following us @Vanobserver on Twitter. We'd love to hear from you.