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Buffalo, Feathers, or Abstract Swirls: How to Use the Art Market to Your Advantage

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.

After identification of the proper audience, the artist must cultivate the relationship. This means artists must familiarize themselves with the basic principles of marketing and promotion. It has been argued that self-promotion is more difficult for contemporary artists of Native American descent due to their historically stronger reliance on community and culture and undesired wish to bring attention to their individual success. If this is indeed true, or if an artist is not comfortable with this skill set, or even if an artist prefers to focus on the art and leave the business elements to someone else, the artist should find assistance. Contemporary Native American artists are creating work that is exciting, dynamic, and innovative. However, there is a lack of training in basic business practices, such as pricing and promotion, negotiation, business and contract law, and arts-oriented legal and accounting procedures, in art schools and other arts-related outlets. This often leaves the artist ill-prepared for working with dealers, galleries, clients, and other stakeholders in the artist's success. According to Margaret Dubin, ''for many, the leap from the regional Indian art market to the national, multicultural art market is extremely difficult, if not impossible.''[4] This lack of preparation can translate into failure for the Native artist and a mistaken notion that self-promotion is bad. On the contrary, utilizing promotion to one's advantage gives a contemporary Native American artist the tools necessary for success. The aforementioned Native American installation artist agreed that a dealer would be of great assistance in selling his art.

As Dr. J.J. Brody pointed out, ''participation in the art market is purely voluntary.”[5] According to a successful Native American playwright, ''[a commission] provides me a lifestyle—it allows me to live.''[6] Who can argue with that? One cannot fault a Native American artist in the Southwest who produces mass-market turquoise and silver jewelry for the Heard Museum Fair and SWAIA's Indian Market. This is an economic decision on his part. Much like a sitcom actor who desires a Broadway role, the artist produces art based on many decisions – including economic ones. Paintings of horses, feathers, and buffalo have a distinct audience, as do paintings of abstract spirals. A market exists for each of these categories and, if the work is excellent, the market will find it.

To place these ideals into real-world perspective, a contemporary Native American basket weaver is able to further his success through these self-promotion building blocks: he sells to museums, which, in turn, provide him a degree of recognition that directly translates into lucrative private commissions. Another example of a curator's ability to further an artist's career is that of a Native American painter who sold two major works to collectors, one internationally, after the canvases were seen in his career retrospective—a retrospective championed by two Native American curators. These sales provide him the resources to maintain a space and have materials to produce his art. Each of these transactions also furthers the pan-Native issue that contemporary Native American art is alive and well.

Yes, the relationship between members of the art market and the artist is unbalanced, but an artist can level the playing field through marketing and self-promotion. By taking the initiative to cultivate these spheres of influence, artists can take control of their careers and enhance their chances for economic self-sufficiency. Increased art sales lead to wider representation, which leads to inclusion in more shows, which leads to press coverage and critical review, which lead to increased sales. Breaking into this art world triumvirate is daunting but attainable. High-quality art can find an appreciative audience. Do not produce art that devalues your artistic integrity—find a receptive audience and convince them that your art is what they want. Who knew they needed a £6.25 million tiger shark7 floating in formaldehyde à la Damien Hirst?

Elizabeth Slocum's unique combination of over 15 years business experience, an MBA and education in the arts, as well as a passion for Native American art, maximizes Elizabeth's ability to provide real results to her clients' success. She can be contacted at


 [1] Burnham, Sophy ''The Art World''

 [2] AM, 2/2005

 [3] New York Times, G1, 3/30/05

 [4] Dubin, Margaret ''Native America Collected''

 [5] Brody, J.J. 1971, Indian Painters and White Patrons

 [6] DHT, 2/2005

 [7] The Daily Telegraph, 12/23/2004



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