O’Keeffe’s Business Tips: As Surprising As the Artist Herself
by Thea Fiore-Bloom, PhD
On a rainy winter day in 2014 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 that price then?
“The real question artists need to ask themselves Thea is, why hadn’t it happened before then?” 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 Is Georgia O’Keeffe So Admired By Women?
Before we look at the six tips I just want to quickly go over exactly why Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) has been so admired by women; and why she’s such a great business role model for heart-centered artists like us.
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.
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.
The 6 Best 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.
Want more sales? Your writing is key. Read 5 Secrets To Improve How You Write About Your Art.
Another key to prosperity is devotion to your own health and well being. Check out this post for support on that:
O’Keeffe’s Love Affair With Herbs: Recipes and Gardening Tips from the Artist’s Magical Kitchen Garden.
If you liked this post you might like to read my other posts on O’Keeffe. Or look at these Charmed Studio posts on Dali, Rachel Carson, Alison Saar, Hopper & Matisse, Beatrice Wood, Diane Arbus, Remedios Varo, Beatrix Potter, or Frida Kahlo.
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Shawn Marie Hardy says
I enjoyed reading this. Georgia O’Keeffe was my first “favorite” artist and she is probably the artist I know the most about, having read several books about her. Many years before I went to art school I was making these colorful floral oil pastels on paper and my uncle said they reminded him of her work. She wasn’t familiar to me at the time so I went to the library and found a book on her art. I felt an instant connection, which prompted me to read everything I could find that pertained to her art and her life. That time was such an awakening. I couldn’t think of a better source to get tips from.
The Charmed Studio says
I agree with you, she had so much breath, depth, talent, philosophical wisdom, courage and humor that you can love her at 17 and love her at 70. I keep going back to her for information and inspiration and she never disappoints. Who are you other favorite artists? Enquiring minds want to know.
Shawn Marie Hardy says
I really fed off of what I read in those books because I sought out several other artists who Ms. Okeeffe either knew or was somehow associated with. From there I sought out work by Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, and John Marin, and from there I fell in love with Surrealism. I am particularly drawn to the women surrealists. My list of favorites is so long. Dorothea Tanning, Leonor Fini, Valentine Hugo, Kay Sage, Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, Bridget Bate Tichenor, and Toyen are the lesser-known women from the original surrealist movement who I love the best.
Emily Carr is another artist I have been compared to and I sought her out after being told that a pastel I had done resembled her work–it happened to have the same title of one of her paintings (Clearing) and if you compare them, there is a tree that is almost identical. I had never heard of her before completing that work. I also love Odilon Redon, Joseph Cornell, Yves Tanguy, Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Richard Diebenkorn, and Wayne Thiebaud. Contemporary favorites include Sarah Sze, Thomas Doyle, and Robert Pollard.
The Charmed Studio says
Wow you have some of my favorites on there. I think it was Anais Ninn who first voiced for me the method of investigation of creatives you bring up here. I think she called it circles. In her journals she had these whorls of names of how artists were connected to other artists, writers, musicians, philosophers etc. (as friends, lovers, teachers or inspirations.) So like you when I read a biography of say Leonora Carrington I get see,”Oh she lived in Mexico and had this great friendship with Remedios Varo,and that cool photographer Kati Horna ” and then I can go researching down the rabbit holes/wonderlands of their creative lives. You can never be bored in life that way right, always another path to go down with a creative reward at the end.
You mentioned Carr. I think Emily Carr is an under-sung genius of color. She is well known in Canada but not in the states. Her home museum in BC is on my bucket list. Great book called Carr, O’Keeffe and Kahlo by Sharon Udall, points out some interesting similarities between them. I will look into some of these other surrealists I have never head of like Kay Sage, thanks for your generous reply Shawn!
Shawn Marie Hardy says
Kay Sage was married to Yves Tanguy, so it’s no wonder I love her work–his work really sings to me. Funny that you should mention rabbit holes/wonderlands because one of my favorite art books is called “In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States”, by Ilene Susan Fort. It’s on my favorite art book shelf along with the likes of Emily Carr, Georgia O’Keeffe, Frida, Yves Tanguy, Alexander Calder, Hundertwasser, Kandinsky, Paul McCartney (did you know he is a painter?), and a stunning book called “Otherworldly: Optical Delusions and Small Realities,” by David Revere McFadden–a diorama lover’s dream book.
The Charmed Studio says
Ilene Susan Fort, got it. I love Calder too. I saw his “Circus” museum show back when I was a kid and it really influenced me. I will check out the diorama book as well, thanks Shawn.