“Smartphones, iPads, and social media are the most significant technological developments to affect and benefit the art world since the invention of the telephone,” leading executive Steven Murphy recently told CNN. As he explained, the rise of accessible internet and the surprising uptick in museum attendance worldwide go hand-in-hand. A previously small and exclusive market has opened up to talented people all over the globe, and it’s changing the way we create, consume, and appreciate art.
Did you know that about 87% of art collectors check Instagram more than twice daily? Whereas most opportunities were once confined to the halls of galleries and museums, artists now make sales and find new customers online. For example, photographer Adrián Cano Franco says 90% of his clients approach him after discovering him on Instagram, where he has amassed well over 100,000 followers.
We reached out to more than a dozen artists of different genres, from filmmakers and photographers to illustrators, designers, and embroiderers, to see how they’ve cultivated online influence and opened up a world of opportunity for themselves, whether it’s through sales or exhibitions or public speaking forums. Read on to learn some of the wisdom they’ve gathered along the way.
Build a career
Teresa Freitas (@teresacfreitas): Bringing something new to the table, while being true to yourself, will help you preserve and grow an online presence. I think it’s important to say that different things work for different people. In general, keeping a consistent and somewhat distinct aesthetic (that seems to be evolving through time) works well.
It’s actually thanks to Instagram that I now have a career as a photographer. I was in college, studying, and working as a graphic designer when things started to take off. Opportunities for travel and work started to come as I continued posting pictures online.
Natalie Byrne (@nataliebyrne): I started posting on Instagram every day during a challenging point in my life. I had finished university and fallen into a depression, and drawing became a type of therapy and a way for me to open up to my friends without words. I found that taking part in Instagram challenges like #inktober or 30-day challenges or even making up my own (#30daysofselflove) was a way to push myself a little every day and commit to making something, even when I didn’t feel like it.
My illustration career was built on Instagram. I guess in some ways, this has always been my dream–doing something that was mine and making work that mattered and made a difference. I never expected to become a full-time illustrator, and I most definitely never expected to make work about periods. I just leaned into the things that scared me, worked on it, and here we are. Posting my work online has given me the confidence to say “yes” to opportunities that scared me, like podcasts, exhibitions, and public speaking.
Morgan Maassen (@morganmaassen): Around the age of sixteen, I was making short films and doing freelance graphic and web design, and I joined the Blogger community to share everything on a curated blog. As the traffic to my website and blog grew, I fell into photography at the age of eighteen and was very open in sharing my discovery and process of my new passion.
I didn’t think to ‘grow’ a career in photography until I started getting emails from brands and magazines asking to use my work or send me on trips. As my career in photography and filmmaking took off, I continuously posted online, engaged in social media, and curated a website and blog with my freshest work and musings.
Promote your work
Kashmir Thompson (@kashmirviii): I sell mostly online, so using Instagram posts and tweets to showcase my work has been lucrative for me. I’ve found that reaching out to people with large platforms has helped me tremendously. I’ll have fashionistas take photos in some of my items in exchange for them being able to keep the items.
I also pay close attention to current events and create works based off of things people are talking about. People are more willing to share my work when it’s based on a topic/event that everyone is conversing about. All of the great opportunities I’ve been afforded (being in various magazines, having Issa Rae wear my clothing on her show Insecure, etc.) have all come to me strictly from the power of my online following. The internet is the new billboard, the new magazine, the new newspaper.
Maggi McDonald (@maggimcdonaldart): I have cultivated my online presence by continuously creating and putting out quality content. I do this by sharing my work across different social media platforms and online galleries. I also write blog posts, do podcast interviews, and collaborate on blog or website features with other creatives.
I have found Instagram instrumental in getting my work in front of a large and engaged audience and driving traffic to my website. Most of my career opportunities and collaborations are as a result of being found online, and Instagram is the number one referral platform for artwork sales and creative opportunities in my business.
Create new opportunities
Finn Beales (@finn): I recommend building a solid website and posting regularly around the subject of photography (or your chosen medium) on social media–whether that’s your own images on Instagram or topics relating to photography (or the arts) on Twitter. Giving back to people online in some shape or form absolutely helps.
In late 2018, I created a critically acclaimed photography workshop delivered to thousands of students online. I’ve just returned from a fascinating job in Greece where I was shooting a series of stories after an invitation from one of my workshop participants. There is no way this would have happened had I not released my course online.
Osborne Macharia (@osborne_macharia): Personally, I feel that being active on just one to three digital/social media platforms can help. It’s important to be able to monitor and pay close attention to your brand, and that can be difficult if you’re on every single social platform. I have received unexpected commercial assignments from all over the world just through my online portfolio and social media presence.
Tiffany Ford (@atoffany): I found that having a consistent flow of work (from quick doodles to big projects) helped vouch for my ability to do a lot of work for different kinds of jobs. The most unexpected opportunity that came out of posting my art on social media was getting my first job in the animation industry! I was a student when I was hired full time at a big animation studio, and I was contacted based on work the directors saw on my Tumblr.
Connect with followers
Adrián Cano Franco (@adriancanolo): More than what you do, I’ve come to realize that people want to know who you are, what inspires you, and why you do it. I always recommend telling a story. It’s not only about beautiful images and great technique. When I started posting content on Instagram, I shot my photos with an iPhone 4, and people loved it because it was creative and told a story.
I also put quality over quantity. Even though a lot of people will tell you that you have to be really active in social media, I find it more useful to be thoughtful about what you post online. Make every post count.
Frank Moth (@frankmoth): We try to be active on our social media as much as our schedule allows us. When we post on social media, we follow some guidelines. First, we present our latest and most popular work. We also make use of hashtags that are relevant to the work posted, and we repost stories of our art “in the wild” from people who tag us. Finally, we are honest, humble, and thankful for everything we post. We are sometimes late to respond to comments, but we read every single one of them.
Jessica Jungbauer (@jessicajungbauer): Focusing on the “social” in social media was very important to me from the beginning–not only posting photos but also replying to comments and engaging with other people’s content. I cultivated many online friendships this way. Having a niche from the very beginning (in my case, food, and travel) was also a big help. By sharing photos of recent travels and shoots for articles, people–and also potential clients–instantly see what kind of work I’m doing.
Jessica So Ren Tang (@jessicasorentang): I’ve noticed that posting consistently helps increase activity and engagement. Answering questions, chatting with others, posting tips, and sharing my experiments have gotten me to where I am today. It’s because of Instagram that I’ve been invited to show at galleries, which led to creating relationships with gallery directors and curators, which led to more shows. Along the way, a few writers/magazines reached out and featured my work, which also increased the activity on my account.
Sarah K. Benning (@sarahkbenning): For me, in order to maintain a healthy relationship with Instagram and the internet at large, it’s important to set boundaries and treat it as a job. Obviously, managing social media accounts as an artist doesn’t take precedence over creating good work. That is always the top priority, but I set some time aside each day to document my studio activities and interact with people within my Instagram community. This digital time and work are folded into my routine.
Dave Krugman (@dave.krugman): For me, the most effective way to maintain an online following is to make real-world connections. After all, it’s “social” media- your online presence is a reflection of the network of people you have built over the years. Those relationships need to be fostered in real life, not just online.
Keeping active online can help you peripherally maintain connections and even meet new people, but one face-to-face experience creates a bond that is way harder to break than a relationship that exists only online. Being active online (and off) has made my career.
Meg Abbott (@facesidontknow): The majority of my sales come through Instagram (from people following the link to my website), and I’d say it’s about 50/50 when it comes to DMs versus formal emails. Instagram also gives me great insight into what people respond best to. That’s always really interesting, but there is definitely a danger of reacting too much to this and letting it influence your creative flow. I try not to let that happen too much.
Interested in learning more about how to build the creative career of your dreams? Check out Emma Gannon’s new class on how to uncover your purpose, passion and path, now on Skillshare.
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