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Buffalo, Feathers, or Abstract Swirls: How to Use the Art Market to Your Advantage
by Elizabeth A. Slocum

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Economic self-sufficiency through one's art—the goal of any artist—is enhanced through association with the art market triumvirate: collectors, curators, and critics.  Sales to collectors and museums, inclusion in shows by curators, and positive coverage by critics all enhance an artist's success in the marketplace.  Therefore, it behooves contemporary Native American artists to cultivate relationships with these individuals who can assist in their career.  When artists are able to determine these audiences' motivations, they can use this information to their advantage and increase their level of success and self-sufficiency.  According to Sophy Burnham, ''If you want art world recognition, you must play along with its mercantilism.'' (1) A Native American installation artist agrees and feels ''the most successful artists [Native or not] are twenty-four/seven networkers. Art is a game of admittance and you must be willing to play the game.'' (2)  Successful use of self-promotion affords the artist a wider audience base, which, in turn, provides a higher level of self-esteem and satisfaction.

Let us examine each of these groups and explore their motivations.  Collectors have financial resources and the power to influence museums. Their motivation is to collect artwork of either financial or emotional value. Collectors can also gain prestige in their community through the loan of their collection to a museum and/or an outright gift.  Curators provide prestige, knowledge, influence in the marketplace and access to artists. Their motivation is to be the first to identify an emerging artist or trend and convince a museum board or private collector to strengthen a collection through their recommendations.  Legitimate art critics have influence through their esteemed knowledge and nonbiased criticism.  The motivation of a critic is to be the first to spot a trend or artist and be respected for the articles one authors.

These three components should be approached collectively.  Collectors have the financial assets to purchase work for their personal collection or on behalf of a museum. They also look to curators and/or critics for advice.  Curators and critics need collectors to validate their opinions.  Critics look to collectors and curators to see what themes are occurring in the marketplace. Regardless of whom the artist reaches first, the artist will benefit.  The challenge lies in how to approach these three distinct groups.

First, an artist must identify the right audience.  Numerous collectors of Native American art exist. However, many noteworthy collectors have amassed a collection of traditional objects but no contemporary artworks. An artist can approach these collectors but, according to basic marketing principles, it is much easier to convince someone to purchase art they are already interested in, rather than convince someone to purchase something different from what they already collect.  In what is called customer retention vs. customer acquisition in the business world, artists will have greater success if they identify collectors who care about contemporary art and market their work to this audience.  The same principle could be taken with museums and curators.  Museums exist for every art form, whether art of the quintessential ''buffalo, feathers, and horses'' genre or contemporary abstract art or even emerging art forms such as digital and site-specific installations.  Structured identification of curators associated with the artist's subject matter is the best route. Historically, art critics are more difficult to approach, as mainstream critics do not always view contemporary art produced by Native American artists as on a par with art produced by their non-Native peers.  This may be changing.  A recent New York Times cover article focused on the emergence of non-Western art being treated as art first. (3) Additionally, the number of Native American art critics as well as non-Native critics that critique Native art based on the same values of all other art continues to grow.  It is important to note that a valid critic will not write about an artist's work merely if asked to.  The recommended strategy is to keep one's art in the critic's milieu.  Once the individual and their motivations have been identified, the next step is to reach out and make a connection.

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