John T. Unger is one of the few — an artist who makes a living from his work, without the traditional gallery system.
He also didn’t win a fat grant, or find a rich benefactor. Instead, over years of disciplined work, he found a way to create art that satisfied him creatively while also finding a home with happy buyers. And he’s creatively used the web as a way to find more of those buyers, and get his work into more homes and businesses.
John hasn’t done a podcast interview in quite some time, preferring to spend his time on his work (both the creative and business sides), so I’m really pleased he was willing to join us for this one.
One word of warning: We conducted this interview by phone, so the sound quality is workable but not studio-quality.
In this 33-minute episode, John and I talked about:
- How to deal with the problem that the world doesn’t “need” your art
- The ever-evolving nature of John’s business
- The benefits of seeing the business side of art as your “day job”
- The eternal question for artists of selling out vs. making a living
- When and why to actively seek out boredom
- The advice he gives to younger artists and musicians who are just starting out
Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work. ~ Gustave Flaubert
The Show Notes
- If you haven’t listened to Part 1, you can find it here.
- John T. Unger’s studio site
- Art Heroes Radio, John’s podcast archives about the business of art
- The artist Charles Culver
- Books by Austin Kleon, including Steal Like an Artist
- You can follow John on Twitter @johntunger
Business and Marketing for Artists and Creative Workers, Part Two
Voiceover: This is Rainmaker.FM, a digital marketing podcast network. It’s built on the Rainmaker Platform, which empowers you to build your own digital marketing and sales platform. Start your free 14-day trial at RainmakerPlatform.com.
Sonia Simone: Greetings, superfriends! My name is Sonia Simone, and these are the Confessions of a Pink-Haired Marketer. For those who don’t know me yet, I am a co-founder and the chief content officer for Copyblogger Media.
I’m also a champion of running your business and your life according to your own rules. As long as you don’t lie and you don’t hurt people, this podcast is your official pink permission slip to run your business or your career exactly the way you think you should.
This week, I am picking up again my conversation with John T. Unger about marketing for creative products and creative individuals.
Let’s dive back into that conversation.
John on the Value of Lasting Art, Life without Hacks, and Creating for the Future
Sonia Simone: We tell different kinds of stories, but there is that big story piece of the brain that is always hungry. Maybe more so now that we are in a Home Depot world, that we are in a world of mass story, mass production, that there is a longing. I think that is a big part of what artists do sell, is a longing for a recording artist that’s not auto-tuned and a sculpture that’s made by somebody’s hands.
John T. Unger: Yeah, again, I’ve got people who are like, “But I could go buy a fire pit at Home Depot for $100.” I’m like, “You absolutely can. Not this, though.”
Sonia Simone: Right. Yeah.
John T. Unger: It’s only going to last for a year or two. Over a couple of decades, you’ll have spent as much as you would if you buy this. It’s funny because I only just learned what auto-tune was actually a few days ago, and I was so freaking appalled. I thought it was something slightly different. I spent the whole next morning thinking, as much as digital media has made it possible for me to make a living in a way that would have been a lot harder to do if I was shackled to a local economy in a gallery system.
Sonia Simone: Yeah.
John T. Unger: As much as that’s the case, I very much have a longing for a time when everything was analog, and if you wanted to make something, you had to be good at something to do it.
Sonia Simone: Yeah.
John T. Unger: I’m learning piano right now, and there is just no freaking way to cheat.
Sonia Simone: Right, right. There’s no hack.
John T. Unger: I’m trying to play Professor Longhair tunes that are really complicated a year after starting, and of course, it’s incredibly frustrating. You should probably play for 10 years first, but that’s not how I do things. It’s frustrating, but there’s no way to cheat. You just have to keep banging your hands on the keys until you get the right sound.
Sonia Simone: Yeah.
John T. Unger: There’s something about that that’s so much more satisfying and real. I mean, the piano I play is a digital keyboard.
Sonia Simone: That’s the great paradox.
John T. Unger: Yeah.
Sonia Simone: We’re all using all these. The whole ‘maker’ culture is all very digitally connected to one another. So you go to a place and you make a thing out of wood with a tool, then you connect with your friend who lives in Norway or Kuala Lumpur, and you send him a picture of it digitally.
John T. Unger: It’s interesting. I think you just have to find your balance with that sort of stuff.
Sonia Simone: Yeah, I agree.
John T. Unger: I’ve been pulling back a lot more from social media these days because I’m like, “Instead of looking at what’s viral today, I might rather read a book. Or look at a piece of art that’s 5,000 years old and think about that.” I think there’s a place to be more grounded in the physical.
I guess I’ve just been thinking a lot about the difference between something that goes viral for a couple of days and is seen millions of times versus something like a mosaic from Pompeii, which has been seen more times than that by now and will still be here tomorrow. I think a lot about creating for the future, making things that will last and will still speak to people about something that’s a deeper story than this week’s obsession or outrage … or celebrity.
Sonia Simone: Yeah, I realized a little while ago, and I put it into a podcast, that outrage is like the meth of the Internet. It’s really cheap. It’s really readily available. It’s really toxic. But it’s got a lot of energy attached to it.
John T. Unger: Yeah, it does. I believe I Retweeted that when you said it. I thought that was a really analogy. It’s just funny because it’s so pervasive right now. That’s really where I’m like, “Okay, maybe I need to step away from today’s topic of outrage and just really think about things that matter more and pursue those things.” Or, maybe just a longer term view of, “Okay, if what you’re mad about is actually a problem, what could you do about it long term?”
Sonia Simone: Right. That’s the thing. There are things that are bona fide outrageous that I think is absolutely worth standing up and talking about, but it gets lost in the sea of people angry at each other about what kind of carbs they eat and stuff like that. Could we get some kind of recognition that some things matter more than others? I think that’s Internet heresy, though.
John T. Unger: I think it’s a good grounding for making work that will sell, as I was talking about. Well, let me reverse that. The stuff that sells for gazillions of dollars in auctions right now is very of the moment and very fashionable. But there’s no guarantee that it’s really going to matter down the road, right?
Sonia Simone: Yep.
Surviving Your Story as an Artist
John T. Unger: We don’t know yet. Maybe it will, and maybe it won’t. We don’t know. But at the same time, things like a Picasso or Van Gogh or whatever, those are going to stick around. Unlikely they’ll go too far out of fashion for reasons that are deeper than just an idea or a fashion.
Sonia Simone: Yeah. In a lot of ways, they survived their stories. They were accompanied by a story about where art was going, what was new, what was old-fashioned. That’s great and good, but both of those artists really transcended and outlived the stories that were being told about what art was supposed to be in that period. Of course, poor old Van Gogh never got to really enjoy any of it, but Picasso did.
John T. Unger: Picasso did okay.
Sonia Simone: And, frankly, probably worked it beautifully.
John T. Unger: Oh yeah. He was a consummate salesman, really. It’s like, prior to him, I don’t think anybody had made money on that scale with art except maybe Michelangelo.
Sonia Simone: Who was another very smart businessman.
John T. Unger: Yeah. He was — and a very inventive person who had more going than just the ability to paint or sculpt.
Sonia Simone: Yep. Let me talk a little bit about — and I’m not saying maybe these would be things that don’t ever work for anyone — but have you tried some things to market your art that just didn’t fit? They were not good for you?
Finding the Right Fit to Market Your Art (and John’s Journey to Get There)
John T. Unger: Dozens of times. I remember when we first had our first big copy catalog of firebowls. They were like “Well, if you’re so creative of an artist, why don’t you make something else then?” That’s a valid question, except that I’ve made thousands of other things and a lot of them sold, but none of them in quantity. A lot of them were one-offs. Some of them were series.
I used to make masks out of shovel blades, because it fit. It’s face-shaped. People really liked those, but about the most you could expect to sell them for was $75.00 or $100.00. In a lot of ways, they were harder to do than the firebowls from a commercial perspective. When I was doing it because they were fun to make, they were great. To do them as a business thing, is not so good.
Years ago I invented a mood ring that, instead of telling you what mood you were in, it had little emoticons in it. You would swap them out to tell people what mood you were in. It was a brilliant idea.
We had them made out of surgical stainless. They had like a cap that screwed on and off with a glass face — they were beautiful. But to make a profit on them, we had to sell them for $80, and it turned out what they appealed to was kids, not the 20- or 30-somethings that used the Internet like I thought they would.
Sonia Simone: Right.
John T. Unger: And nobody’s going to buy an $80 ring for a kid.
Sonia Simone: Hopefully, right.
John T. Unger: There’s so many things where I’ve tried to design another repeatable product or the flatpack firebowl. I spent $30,000 developing that, and I’ve sold two — so a big net loss. The stability of the firebowls allows me to have the cash to experiment about once a year with something different. But nothing else has really quite been as steady for me as that. Some other experiments were with advertising that really didn’t do anything or …
Sonia Simone: Did you ever do much with a gallery model? Outside of like a site like One Kings Lane, did you ever have your work in a gallery?
The 3 Levels of the Gallery Model (and Why Galleries Aren’t Always a Good Choice)
John T. Unger: Oh yeah. When I started out, that was the only market there was.
Sonia Simone: Right, exactly.
John T. Unger: Actually, really interesting thing I thought of years ago that I like to point out — in the gallery model, right? There are about three different levels. You could be showing work in your studio and be the gallery, and you’re going to get a handful of people come by — but the only work for sale is you.
Or you could put it in a local gallery or a regional gallery, and you’ll get a lot more traffic. It’s people coming to look to buy art, but there are other artists selling there, too. Also, there’s a commission fee. Or you can put it in a gallery district, like SoHo or River North in Chicago or whatever. Now there are a lot of galleries with a whole lot more artists. But it’s a destination, so way more people come. Hypothetically, you’ll do better, but way more competition.
The Internet is exactly the reverse. I make the bulk of my sales through my site where people come looking for me. I make a good number of sales on One Kings Lane or Frontgate, but there’s way more products to buy. They don’t sell as much as my stuff.
Then you’ve got Etsy, where I sell fewer things, but way more people come to Etsy looking for art but I’m lost in the …
The bricks and mortar thing, in the art market, in my opinion, sort of the exact opposite of the Internet. Now that we live in upstate New York, I would like to get more work into the galleries here.
I quit doing it because usually stuff is on consignment. If I sell everything myself, then nothing ships until it’s paid for. I only keep one set of books. People buy it. I make it. When things are on consignment, now I have to keep track of where it all is and whether or not it had sold. That just felt like too much work.
But now that we live in an area where there are a lot of really good galleries, I think it would be work that’s worth doing — where I was not so much in Michigan or when I had to drive to Chicago six hours away to put stuff in a gallery. Maybe in a 50-mile radius we’ll do that.
The last bunch of years I’ve been telling galleries that I won’t do consignment, but if you purchase a minimum order, I’ll give you your discount. I might do consignment again, but only locally. It just doesn’t make sense to spend $200-$300 to ship stuff with no guarantee.
I had a couple of experiences, too, in the early days where good galleries where I had sold work, who had work of mine in stock, closed and never got the work back to me. All of a sudden I’m out thousands of dollars worth of inventory, and I never did recover any of that. It was especially hurtful because the gallery in the instance I’m thinking most about was actually a good friend. And I’m just like, “What the hell?” I mean, “Obviously, your gallery closed. You’re going through some transition and stuff but where’s the … ”
Sonia Simone: Where’s my stuff?
John T. Unger: “Where’s my stuff, and what happened to our trust here?”
The Advantages of an Art Gallery vs. the Gamble of Going Solo as an Artist
John T. Unger: There are a lot of advantages. They’ve got better real estate than you do probably. They’ve got better lighting than you probably do. They’ve got staff.
Sonia Simone: They’ve got great sales people.
John T. Unger: They’ve got press releases.
Sonia Simone: If you’ve got a good gallery, they have some master sales people who, in a lot of cases, can articulate what’s amazing about you maybe better than you can in a lot of cases.
John T. Unger: For a lot of artists, definitely, right. Then you’ve got people like me who just sweat a paragraph for a year until it’s right, then memorize it. Sure, they’re taking 30 or 50 percent, but that’s covering the costs to do all this stuff you don’t want to do.
If you’re going to do what I did and go solo, then you’ve got to do all that work they were doing. It’s a lot of work. And you’ve got to gamble your money on things like advertising and site design — because it is a gamble in an inverse proportion to how much time you put in and work you actually do. The more work you do, the less of a gamble it is.
Sonia Simone: But then you’re gambling your time.
John T. Unger: Yeah. Gambling time and money. What we’ve done for a long time is we’ve always had a balance where my main income comes from retail over the web. But we had other sites that have sold our stuff, or catalogs, or galleries. It’s always been probably about 80/20 — 80 percent is me, 20 percent is them.
That’s why we’re thinking about maybe just going exclusive and only selling it ourselves. We could actually, hypothetically, lower the price if we didn’t have to give half of everything that sells through another venue to somebody else.
That’s another thing artists need to know. You’ve got to price your stuff before you’ve got a gallery, before you’ve got a sales partner. Before any of that, you’ve got to price your work high enough that, if somebody is taking half, you’re still making a profit.
Sonia Simone: Right.
John’s Advice on Doing Your Books Early On … and Beyond
John T. Unger: One of the first things I did when I was making enough money to actually be legally required to pay taxes — which was not the first couple of years I was an artist. The first couple of years were really bad. But as soon as I had to file taxes, I got a freaking bookkeeper and accountant. They’re not cheap. But (a), it’s such a rarity to make a living in art that I just always fear that I’ll be audited even though our books are really clean. I don’t even take cash money. I’ve got no good way to tell the accountant about it. So I just don’t do it. Checks or credit cards only.
But anyway, get an accountant. Do a P & L statement. You’re allowed to write off an incredible amount of stuff as an artist that you can’t in most businesses. I can write off DVDs because that’s research. If they ever question it, it’s not like I couldn’t show a dozen ways it relates directly to what I do to make a living. It’s a valid expense. Also, I have a cap on how much I’m going to spend for a movie, so it’s not like I’m screwing them.
When you’ve got a couple of years data like that, you can look at exactly how much you brought in the year, exactly what it cost you to make that. You can really, at that point, figure out really where you need to price your work to make a living. You’re really just guessing in the beginning, “I should get paid this much an hour, and my materials cost this.”
But you’re not thinking about your electric bill. You’re not thinking about the floor space that you’re paying for your studio. You’re not thinking about your Internet. There’s so many things that you just can’t really see until you really have good books.
Sonia Simone: Yeah. Well, like the whole feeding yourself and living indoors.
John T. Unger: Yeah. There’s what it takes to run your business and make your art. Then there’s what it takes to live, and hopefully not in a shack. Then there’s where do you actually want to be after that? Do you maybe what to save something for retirement? — which I haven’t done. I guess I’ll have to sell my art collection … if it comes to that. But then again, I don’t really expect to retire. I do what I want to do. Why wouldn’t I keep doing that until I die doing it?
The Murder Horse — and Other Perils of the Artist Life
Sonia Simone: Like the guy who made the big blue horse outside the Denver airport, whose horse fell on him and killed him?
John T. Unger: Oh wow. Is that the one with the creepy red eyes?
Sonia Simone: Yes, exactly. That crazy thing killed a guy.
John T. Unger: Oh my God. I saw that thing, and I thought it was incredibly satanic looking. I didn’t know it was a killer.
Sonia Simone: It is. It killed the guy who made it.
John T. Unger: It’s spooky and cool. I actually like it, but I’m like, “Wow, no wonder its eyes glow.”
Sonia Simone: Yeah, exactly. That thing’s really infused with some dark energy.
John T. Unger: It’s the murder horse.
Sonia Simone: But there’s somebody, you know, he died …
John T. Unger: Just using the phrase “murder a horse” the other day for some reason, that’s funny. I’ve got six stitches in my hand right now because of a stunt in the studio. The first 10 years or so I think I got stitches about annually. It’s been five years, so I figure I’m doing pretty good actually.
Sonia Simone: Yeah. You’re lucky you didn’t have like five years’ worth all at once.
John T. Unger: Oh God. It’s not like a horrible injury, but it does take me out of the studio for a week.
More Advice from John for Younger Artists and Musicians Just Starting Out
Sonia Simone: Yep, yep. You and I met face-to-face at South by Southwest. Let’s say you’re at South by — and I don’t know if you still go — and some lovely 18-year-old, passionate artist comes up to you and says, “John, what advice would you give me about being an artist?” Do you ever give advice to those folks, and if so, what would it be?
John T. Unger: Yeah, of course I do. I had a site called Art Heroes Radio where most of the advice that I would ever give is contained in somewhere around 25 interview podcasts I did for a year or two. I really enjoyed that, but I thought that maybe I would do the same kind of thing that Kleon is doing — do a podcast, write a book, etc. I used to speak at conferences like South by or Chris Guillebeau’s thing, and I realized that I feel my time is better spent doing the art and all of that.
I’m actually really glad that I did not become a go-to business guru for artists. This is the first interview that I’ve done on this topic in three or four years.
Sonia Simone: Yeah, I know. Thank you, thank you.
John T. Unger: It’s just because I like you. All the things that we’ve already talked about, of course. One piece of advice Kleon has that’s really good that I have not observed — my overhead is insanely high because of the materials I chose to use — but if you can keep a low overhead, that makes it a lot easier in the beginning.
Like our old house, the mortgage on three buildings and two and a half acres was just under $300.00 a month. But you get what you pay for — he says as a very loaded cautionary tale.
Sonia Simone: Right, yeah.
John T. Unger: Not have neighbors and a cultural desert.
Sonia Simone: I love minimalism. I love that model, but I think that maybe not enough people are talking about there are some costs to cutting it that bare. So you have to decide if you’re willing to pay the cost or not. Sometimes the answer is yes, and sometimes it isn’t.
John T. Unger: Yeah. In your 20s or you’re got an 18-year-old artist, it’s like, “Sure, move to a really dicey neighborhood. Get some cheap print. Work your ass off. See what you can do.” But I’m closer to 50 than 40. I don’t actually know. I try not to know. Somewhere in the next two to five years, I’ll be 50. I’m frankly too old to do that anymore. It’s fun when you’re little … closer to the ground, and you bounce back faster.
You maybe want to plan for that. I didn’t. It took me a long time to get out of that. There’s probably some PTSD associated with some of that at this point. It was avoidable, entirely avoidable. Maybe instead of quitting your job and going full bore, you want to get a job that leaves you enough energy to work.
One thing that drove me when I was younger was, like I said before, everybody was like, “Oh, you’ll never make a living as an artist.” That just enraged me. So going and spending 10 hours a day, counting commute to work, and then working another 10 hours in the studio every freaking day, and having very little social life, and like four hours of sleep at night, and all of that — that was a lot easier when I was angry enough and had something to prove. You know?
Sonia Simone: Yes.
John T. Unger: But the flip side is once you’ve found a way to be more successful, you don’t have to work 18 or 20 hours a day anymore. I’ve gotten to where all of the business stuff is efficient enough. None of it is automated. It’s surprising how there’s always something that’s an exceptional issue — happens a lot with shipping, where you’ve solved that problem, but here’s a guy that lives at the top of a mountain. The truck can’t get to it. What are you going to do about it?
Or somebody who left for Europe for six months the day they placed an order that needs to be signed for. Stuff like that. So you can never quite automate everything. You always have to be involved personally. I’ve done things like hire assistants for whatever, and in the end, I found that a lot of the time it was just easier to do it myself. I hate to say that. Even with really competent people. Because I knew what I wanted and how I wanted it.
Here’s another thing for artists, too. Like this big commission I just did. It was a huge venue, stagecoach festival, and I only had like 24 hours to do the proposal because it was a real last minute thing that they came to me. This piece shouldn’t have even been possible in the time frame we pulled it off, but impossibility remediation is my specialty, as it says on Twitter in my bio. I figured out a way to make it work.
In the beginning, it’s really tempting to do contests or to do proposals for grants, or public art projects, or that kind of thing. And I’ve done all of that. I’ve applied for every grant worth applying for. I landed some regional grants in Chicago that were nice and helpful in the beginning, but did I get many great grants? No I did not. The competition’s pretty stiff.
But the thing is, proposals, commissions, grants, public art proposals, all of those things, if you do them well enough that you’ve got a shot of landing the gig — a grant can take 100 hours, literally. There is no guarantee you’re going to get paid … at all. In fact, the odds are really, really tiny. I eventually decided that maybe it was better to spend that time making art, or working on the business, or selling art.
I think there’s this fantasy that artists have that they’ll get this great grant or residency, and they’ll be set. Yeah, if you got one of the major grants, odds are you’re pretty well set for a bit. But it’s a lot more of a gamble and a lot more work than you could possibly imagine. Honestly, you’re a lot more likely to be set if you just work hard every day and sell your work.
Sonia Simone: I got to say, that’s not just art. That applies to a whole lot of people.
John T. Unger: Yeah. It’s just that there’s this lottery for these, and a lot of artists think that’s the way to go. I also would caution against art school, for a couple of reasons. One, it’s crazy expensive, and you’re going to come out with a lot of debt. Two, whatever’s in fashion is going to get pretty well rammed down your throat. Yeah, you’re going to learn a lot, but a lot of what would’ve made you uniquely you, might get washed out in the process.
The upside is that art school has tools and machinery that you can’t possibly afford on your own starting out. Maybe you just want to take a couple of classes in that kind of thing or work with another artist who has that as an assistant.
My theory was buy a lot of coffee table art books, and a lot of tools, and a lot of material. Put my money into an education, but deepen what I already cared about, and gave me the tools to make something about it. There’s just so many ways that artists can spend money to try and further their career, but really, buying materials and buying tools is your best bet.
Then things like a really good website. The odds of you doing your own website and having it be brilliant — unless design is a big part of your education and practice, you’re better off getting a pro for it. I really had to suck it up to learn that one too. I thought I was really great because I’d been making designs. I was like, “Oh, I can do this.” At one point in time, I had the Typepads Hacks website, and I knew more about the Typepad platform than anybody who didn’t work there … in the world. And did that on the side, too, for a living.
But all that said, I’d really rather, at this point, not do my own code. There comes a time when it’s, “Where’s my time better spent?” I think that’s the bulk of what I would say to the younger artists. If they’ve enjoyed our conversation and want more ideas I would have that I forgot to mention, the Art Heroes Radio podcast is a good place to look to. It’s no longer being made, though.
Sonia Simone: It still exists.
John T. Unger: Yeah, it still exists. All the episodes are out there. I had so much fun doing it, but it was one of those things, too, where I was like, “I’ll talk on the phone for an hour. How hard can that be? — with somebody really smart. That’s fun.” But I was also producing it, so I had to write show notes and blah, blah. It ended up being like 29 hours of prep for an hour of conversation. That’s a whole work week.
I guess that’s one last piece of advice for artists or anybody. There are buried costs in anything you do. You really aren’t going to see them going in, but you need to sort of periodically access, “Is this still working for us?” You really got to look at that stuff. It is so sneaky.
Sonia Simone: This has just been a total kick, and so much fun. I enjoy talking to John. He’s fun to talk to, as you guys can guess. So I’m glad he said “Yes,” when I said, “Golly, gee, would you ever do my podcast?” I appreciate that very much.
Just to let you guys know that the Confessions of a Pink-Haired Marketer are brought to you by the Rainmaker Platform, the complete website solution for content marketers, and online entrepreneurs, and creative people like you. Find out more and take a free 14-day test drive at Rainmaker.FM/Platform.
John T. Unger, thank you so much for joining us. I really had fun.
Take care, everybody.