Self-promotion for Artists: More than a Necessary Evil [Article]

Visual Arts Journal

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This article was originally written for Visual Arts Journal, magazine for the School of Visual Arts. Part of my role there, as Director of Communications, was to foster a PR mind-set in students, faculty, and staff through presentations, teaching (as a guest lecturer in several classes), and articles in school publications.

Self-Promotion for Artists: More Than a Necessary Evil

If a tree falls in the forest and no one writes a press release about it, does it make a sound? By the same token, if an artist creates a work and no one else experiences it, does it have any artistic impact? Is it a viable creation? The act of creation guarantees only that a work will come into existence, but this is an incomplete equation without the presence of an audience.

Whenever you hear an artist say that he/she creates “just for myself,” don’t believe it. Everyone knows that the audience isn’t secondary to the artistic process–it’s a crucial, necessary component. An audience, however, does not come into being on its own; there’s an intermediary step between creating art and the formation of an audience. That step is promotion.

Many artists regard self-promotion as a base activity, at odds with the creative process. In the extreme, they see it as dubious and sleazy, a mercenary endeavor that can only corrupt the purity of their vision. At best, it is a necessary evil that is divorced from the real business of making art.

This attitude is increasingly unrealistic and burdened with the quaint notion of the artist as a gifted exile in a pristine realm, completely insulated from the world at large. More importantly, this attitude can be fatal to artists’ careers and may preclude them from realizing even the most basic level of success.

Artists that are not established, rarely have the luxury of being able to completely entrust all of their promotional needs to a specialist. So, if an artist does not promote him/herself then this necessary task will go undone, in which case it is likely that the work, no matter how good it is, will not find an audience. Artists must “get their hands dirty” and lay some of the groundwork required for initiating their own careers.


Basic tactics of self-promotion can be learned, but artists need to be motivated to learn them. A preliminary step toward motivation is to abandon anti-promotion attitudes and realize that art promotion, if done correctly, is hardly the same as peddling consumer goods. It can be an enriching experience; it doesn’t have to be painful or artless.

Another factor that might move artists to embrace self-promotion is the realization that it is essentially a means of shaping their destiny; everything a creative person does with regard to their work reflects upon their future.

Promotion means interacting with the public, producing a friction between the interior world that initiates a creative work and the exterior world. This friction gives promotion a frisson of tension and excitement; its consequences are unpredictable, and no matter how carefully it is planned, no one really knows where it will actually lead or precisely what its effects will be. It may open other opportunities or reveal undreamed of possibilities. Or it may backfire and reveal harsh truths.

An artist must capitalize on the results, whatever they may be, and adapt to the destiny they reveal, just as he/she does in the course of his/her artistic life. Self-promotion is taking your fate in your own hands; it is an active, deliberate effort to make a mark and impose your creative vision on the world.

Artistic creation and effective promotion are not mutually exclusive. Some of the same qualities that make good art–such as clarity, insight, and directness–are those involved in good promotion. The artist who is good at self-promotion is generally one who can put some of those same qualities into the service of amplifying the work and expanding its audience; the promotion will be successful because it evokes the power of the art and hints at its further pleasures and revelations.

The choices an artist makes in how he promotes himself often have a major impact on how his work is perceived. These choices are driven by the artist’s intent: Is he more interested in cultivating an audience or a market? Is it more about the art or the money? Not all methods of promotion are created equal, and certain approaches correspond to certain goals.

Promotion is a framework for the artist’s oeuvre, and promotional decisions have an importance that may be equal to artistic decisions. For better or worse, the effort an artist devotes to marketing may determine success or failure, and whether the art can bloom in an environment clouded by issues that have nothing to do with art. In a culture of saturation, with an art world reflecting those values, the work that stands out may be that which deflects some of the vulgarity, while still being promoted intentionally. In other words, the most effective art promotion may be aggressive, but avoid the hard sell. Promotion that doesn’t seem like promotion is a path to achieving the sort of mystique barred to those whose work is considered too commercial (or even worse, dull).


Promotion needn’t be a purely functional aspect of one’s creative output; it has dimensions that go well beyond the mundane activities involved in assembling promotional materials, getting the word out about exhibitions, etc. In the best of circumstances, it can also help define and enrich the art and the artist. For example, the artist statement, a fundamental promotional tool, is also a means of exploring biographical elements in an artist’s work and bringing to light influences and ideas that add texture to the work.

Press interviews and profiles can also help add layers of meaning to the work and life of an artist. While the media is often seen by artists as simply a vehicle for enhancing their reputation and increasing their audience, it also functions as a forum for ideas and a means of establishing a context for their art. Interviews and artist statements, among other tactics, have the capacity to serve double duty for artists, promoting their art and defining it. If approached with the same care and seriousness as the art per se, these tactics may come to be seen by the audience and/or critics as important components of an artist’s entire body of work.

Promotion needn’t be a purely functional aspect of one’s creative output; it has dimensions that go well beyond standard tactics like creating a promo card, assembling a mailing list, posting online about exhibitions, etc. In the best of circumstances, it can also help define and enrich the art and the artist. For example, the artist statement, a fundamental promotional tool, is also a means of exploring biographical elements in an artist’s work, and bringing to light influences and ideas that add texture to the work.

Interviews and other press coverage can also help add layers of meaning to the work and life of an artist. While artists often see the media as simply a vehicle for increasing their exposure, it also serves as a forum for their ideas, and a means for giving context to their art. Artist statements, viral videos, and other tactics can work double duty for artists, both promoting and defining their art. If approached with a similar care and seriousness as the art per se, these tactics may come to be seen by the audience and/or critics as important components of an artist’s entire body of work.


Self-Promotion Is Self-Discovery

Self-promotion is not just about selling your work, it’s also about selling yourself. This requires an artist to delve into some basic questions about herself: Who am I? Where am I from? What image of myself do I want to project? The answers to these questions have deep relevance to the work itself, and show how one’s persona, promotion, and aesthetic are intertwined.

For most artists, self-promotion is never less than a challenge; it means presenting and explaining their work to others. It takes discipline and clarity to do it well, and definitely confidence to sustain the effort. Such an exercise, though, can be invaluable, allowing the artist to see firsthand how others perceive their work, and learn surprising new things about it themselves. Self-promotion may thus be a route to artistic discovery.

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