Business Tips as Surprising as the Artist Herself
by Thea Fiore-Bloom, PhD
Georgia O’Keeffe was one of the most financially successful artists in American history.
Ever wonder why?
Or how you as an artist could learn from O’Keeffe’s business practices?
Let’s start our search on a rainy day in the winter of 2014 when a gavel smacked down sharply to close lot 11 at Sotheby’s in NYC.
Georgia O’Keeffe’s painting Jimson Weed (White Flower No. 1) just sold for $44.4 million dollars.
The amount paid shattered all previous records for a woman’s work of art.
Why this price now?
“The real question to ask is, why hasn’t it happened before now?” said Roxana Robinson, author of Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life.
Aside from being one of the most important American artists of the twentieth century, O’Keeffe is one of the five most important women in American history, according to women polled in the U.S.,” Robinson said.
Why has Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) been so admired by women?
Because women were, and still are, inspired by O’Keeffe’s art and equally inspired by her daring, lifelong devotion to the adventurous journey of her own mind.
This very same presence of mind that her audience admired, also helped her in business.
O’Keeffe had stellar art dealers throughout much of life. But she was also a quick study when it came to business.
(You’ll find a great link to the best business books for artists on The Charmed Studio’s Mostly Free Resources for Artists page.)
Georgia eventually succeeded in navigating the chaotic waters of the art world on her own in later life, because what propelled her forward was not a desire to please, nor a desire for fortune.
O’Keeffe’s north star was her unwavering dedication to her own artistic vision and her physical connection to, and belief in—her own work.
Her integrity and respect for her own art organically led to what we see today, as intelligent business decisions.
“She [O’Keeffe] supported her own work by buying it back when it came up for sale.
O’Keeffe wasn’t doing that as a marketing scheme to keep the prices up for certain clients, as some dealers in the secondary market do today,” said Robinson (who used to work in the American Painting division of Sotheby’s).
“It was more like: ‘these pictures are part of me, and I want them back. Her self possession was part of her art.”
After her husband and longtime art dealer, Alfred Stieglitz died, O’Keeffe made sure the most significant paintings of hers that he owned went to five respected museums.
That’s one reason the availability of her paintings is limited now. O’Keeffe continued to control her work, through her next agent, the erudite Doris Bry (who she partnered with for 30 years).
They only sold to museums or established collectors who genuinely appreciated the work and would not flip it for profit.
This further fortified her prices.
“She also held back some of her best paintings in order to donate them to museums after her death, to further establish her legacy,” said Hunter Drohojowska-Philp author of Full Bloom: The Art and Life of Georgia O’Keefe.
Many artists may not yet be in the enviable position of pondering how much of their own art to buy back at auction. So what other actions did O’Keeffe take that professional artists at all levels can learn from today?
The following six tips look at how a high regard for your art, may help your art business.
6 Business Tips For Artists from Georgia O’Keeffe
O’Keeffe Business Tip #1
Believe More in Your Own Work as an Artist
“If I had advice for artists based on O’Keeffe’s life it’s this: Increase your awareness of the value of your own work. Stay connected to the ideas that are most valuable to you,” Robinson said.
Artist coach, Dr. Mary Edwards said: “O’Keeffe was such a role model in showing us that believing in yourself is the most important thing for an artist.
And she also showed us that it’s not a simple task; it’s a constant challenge.
O’Keeffe worked through fear, illness, doubt, and a problematic marriage.
If you are an artist, today, especially if you’re an emerging artist, it’s essential to find your singular voice and to give yourself the time to do that.
O’Keeffe showed us that you find your voice through the work.
You will always have doubts and fears and challenges but keep doing the work and eventually you will take yourself and your art seriously,” Edwards said.
O’Keeffe Business Tip #2
Market Your Art Selectively
Market your art where it will be celebrated, not tolerated.
Research a gallery thoroughly to see if they are a good fit for you. If you look at what is exhibited in a gallery and feel energized, press send.
“If you are going to be focusing on marketing and throwing your ideas out to everyone in the world, it is going to fall on a lot of stony soil,” Robinson said.
“But if you stay focused on the work that you think is most important for you and you stay connected to people who are in that same part of the artistic world—that is going to be your strongest means of connecting. Bring your work to the places that you yourself, feel a deep connection to, and where you think it will be the most valued.”
“O’Keeffe’s focus was on staying connected to her mission. And she connected with somebody who was interested in that same mission, that same field of work and ideas,” said Robinson.
O’Keeffe Business Tip #3
Protect Your Sensitive Side
O’Keeffe developed the skill of relying on her own judgment to assess her art’s quality and efficacy.
To do this she needed to concentrate on hearing herself, so she wisely decided to make people’s praise or condemnation of her work into background noise.
As she put it: “I have already settled it for myself, so flattery and criticism go down the same drain and I am quite free.” This was an amazing feat considering the sexist and personal nature of the criticism launched at her over the years.
Edwards believes that any good artist is good because they are sensitive to the world.
You can’t grow as an artist without feedback, but protect yourself from people who don’t have any rights to criticize, let alone, attack your work.
There are artists for whom Internet feedback is not a good idea period. If you fall into this category, consider closing the open comment sections on your blog or website.
O’Keeffe Business Tip #4
Get Into Your Dream Art Gallery The Old School Way: Build Community
O’Keeffe benefited from being part of an artistic community of painters and photographers who inspired and helped one another personally and professionally.
Over the last few years, gallery owners I’ve interviewed complain they have been flooded with ill-fitting inquiries sent via social media.
The following old school practice can help an artist now more than ever:
“Having a community is far and away the best way to succeed now in the art world,” said art dealer and former gallerist, Martha Otero.
“The relationships between artists are important. I have often exhibited artists at my gallery that were referred to me by artists I already had relationships with.
Blind solicitation doesn’t work well now.
I often see smart artists, who are generous, actually support each other and help each other get into different small galleries and end up being put into group shows, together.”
Practice the Lost Art of Sending Thank You Notes
To form sincere community, cultivate genuine friendships with artists you admire, attend the openings of artists who inspire you.
Send laudatory emails to artists whose work you appreciate.
Send snail mail thank you notes. Yes, it is achingly old school.
But it shocks the heck out of people and they will remember you), take people you could learn from to lunch, or make them lunch, and lastly, give and follow-up on gallery introductions.
“Recently I notice fine artists are getting into good galleries for the following two reasons.
The first is the artists were visible online. But secondly and more interestingly to me: generous artists that were already in galleries gave the up and coming artist, an introduction,” Edwards said.
“It would serve you to talk with artists further down the line than you. Artists who inspire you and are generous types (not jealous or competitive.) Ask them, kindly, to actually sit down with you and give you advice.
Those are the types of artists who will often introduce you to their gallery someday in the future, and you’ll get in that way.”
O’Keeffe Business Tip #5
Be Cruel To Be Kind
It’s not that O’Keeffe never made any so-so art. She did.
But you won’t see any of it —because she threw it out.
“O’Keeffe was quite strict with herself about what artwork of hers was acceptable, and what was not,” Robinson said.
There were pieces she threw out or even had the audacity to take back from others and dispose of.
As the story goes, a long-time resident of Abiquiu (where O’Keeffe lived) once found an O’Keeffe painting atop a big pile at the local dump. He happily tucked it under his arm and went home.
“Most artists could do with a lot more editing,” Otero said.
“When an artist keeps sub-par work around it can affect how they are perceived and what they can be paid for their work.”
“When I go to an artist’s studio who I am doing a show with, I usually see a body of mostly strong, consistent pieces,” Otero said.
“But I find, especially with younger artists, there are usually a few works in there that they would just be better off, not showing.”
Sometimes even great artists, like great writers need a good editor. Try not to be offended if not everything of yours belongs in a show.”
If it feels too daunting or wrong, to destroy sub-par work, edit your website instead.
O’Keeffe didn’t stop at regularly culling her art; she regularly culled people as well.
O’Keeffe Business Tip #6
Don’t Suffer Fools Lightly
O’Keeffe was not as much of a recluse as people think.
She just chose her friends carefully. She also declined interviews and social engagements with people she didn’t know, didn’t respect or whom she suspected of being invasive or snarky.
O’Keeffe had a blistering work ethic. Her painting time was precious.
So O’Keeffe did not squander many hours away from her home studio or the desert (which was her outer studio.)
“Successful artists spend time only with people who are 100% supportive of their art career,” Lori McNee, owner of FineArtTips.com said. “They limit their time and emotional involvement with people who are negative especially about art as a career choice. […] Successful artists do not allow unsupportive people to be an obstacle to their plans for success.”
O’Keeffe bolstered her success with her Wisconsin cowgirl brand of grit.
Time Magazine recently reported that “grit” (also known as perseverance marked by occasional outbursts of sass), is one of the world’s best predictors of a person’s success.
O’Keeffe had miles of grit, as this story from Full Bloom attests.
In the Spring of 1961 O’Keeffe hand-delivered a painting to the Edith Halpert gallery in NYC for her upcoming show.
“Upon seeing what O’Keeffe had brought, Halpert sighed, ‘Oh Georgia, is that another flower?’
The artist snapped, ‘No, it’s my ass!’”
Grit is a factor in resilience.
Resilience allows for faster recovery time from the blows artists encounter.
Getting grittier will help you get back to center faster so you find your unique vision again.
Taking that unique vision seriously is not only good for your art.
It may offer the unintended but lovely boon, of benefiting your art business.
What if you increase your own regard for your art, and your improves your art, but not your art business?
You still deserve a laurel wreath.
Because as Georgia O’Keeffe said:
“Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant, there is no such thing– Making your unknown known is the important thing […].”
(This article was originally published in 2016 by Professional Artist Magazine and won the Charlie Award for Excellence in Magazine Journalism.)
Want more eyeballs on your art? Check out Why Artists Need Holistic SEO and How To Get Started.