Navigating the Art World: Top 20 Tips for Emerging Artists from Paul Kotakis (’06)

Paul Kotakis graduated from SMFA with his BFA in 2006. Currently, he operates under PÁIDIA Arts and consults with both private and corporate clients, including, of course, the SMFA Art Sale this past year.

The journey through the art world is unique for every artist, and while there’s no magic formula for success, there are strategies that can help you pave your own path. Drawing from my years of experience in fundraising for the arts, running art sales and auctions, and working with countless artists and patrons of the arts, here are 20 tips that could guide you as you move forward in your artistic career.

  1. Embrace Your Path: There is no one-size-fits-all solution in art. Success can take many forms, whether it’s a solo show at a prestigious museum or sustaining yourself through your art alone. Define what “making it” means to you and remember, your personality and approach are unique; let them guide you.
  2. Take Baby Steps: Always dream big but remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day. Have both long-term and short-term goals. Figure out what are the small steps you can take now to get to the big goal later. Slow and steady wins the race.
  3. Consistency Breeds Success: Develop good habits and stick to them. The steadiness of your work habits can set the foundation for steady growth.
  4. Be Easy to Work With: Your demeanor can make or break opportunities. Being confident, yet cooperative and responsive, makes you someone people want to work with.
  5. Show Up: Go to openings, talks, and your peers’ events. The art world is as much about being seen as it is about seeing.
  6. Prepare and Follow-up: Do your homework before going to art events. Find out what you can about the curator, gallerist, and artists. Know what they look like so you can spot them across the room. And always follow up with new contacts on social media afterward. Just a simple friend request or follow can often be enough.
  7. Value Small Interactions: Building relationships takes time. Lots of small touchpoints eventually lead to deeper and more meaningful relationships. A simple hello or congratulations at an opening, or a like or comment on social. It all adds up in the end.
  8. The Art World is like Dating: Not every gallery, museum, or curator that seems desirable is the right fit for you. Don’t be blinded by the good looks and end up in a bad relationship. Ensure that it feels right before pursuing a partnership.
  9. Seek and Offer Assistance: Don’t hesitate to ask for help when needed and be generous with your assistance to others. This builds deep and lasting connections.
  10. You Are Not Who You Used to be or Who You Will be in the Future: Every person you look up to now was in a similar spot as you at some point. Stay in touch with classmates and colleagues. They are your most immediate and often most valuable connections. You will all go on to pursue your own paths and you never know how you can help each other.
  11. You Are the Company that you Keep: Surround yourself with people who are productive and inspire you to be the same.
  12. Leverage Your Connections: Utilize your network to bridge the gap between you and someone you wish to meet. A mutual acquaintance can provide a warm introduction.
  13. Showcase Your Professionalism: Take pride in how you present your work; it reflects how seriously you take your art and how others should perceive it.
  14. There’s Always a ‘Next Best’ Piece: Don’t cling to your latest work or overprice it. Let it go and create more. Your craft will only improve with each creation.
  15. Live Within Your Means: Financial freedom allows you to create authentically, not just for saleability. Every dollar you don’t spend on unnecessary things is money you don’t have to earn elsewhere.
  16. Discover Your Market: If your work isn’t selling, perhaps you haven’t found the right audience yet. Keep searching for your niche, it might not be the local gallery you’ve had a crush on for years.
  17. You Can’t Win if You Don’t Play: Keep applying for grants, residencies, and prizes. Persistence is key. You miss all the shots you don’t take.
  18. Pricing Strategy: Start reasonably with your pricing. It’s better to get the work out there and in people’s homes than to having it pile up under your bed. When demand starts to outweigh supply, then your prices can grow. It’s easier to increase prices over time than to lower them.
  19. The Day Job Dilemma: It’s okay to have a day job. The stability it provides can relieve pressure, allowing you to create more freely.
  20. None of it Matters if You Don’t Have The Work: Networking and marketing are pointless without a solid body of work. Prioritize creation. At the end of the day, if an opportunity comes up and you don’t have the work then you may miss out.

Remember that your art career is a marathon, not a sprint. Take these tips as signposts along your journey, and don’t forget to enjoy the process of creating and sharing your vision with the world.

By Katie Sullivan
Katie Sullivan Assistant Director