6 Business Practices For Artists To Emulate From the Life of Georgia O’Keeffe
by Thea Fiore-Bloom, PhD
The gavel smacked down sharply to close lot 11 at Sotheby’s last November, when Georgia O’Keeffe’s painting Jimson Weed (White Flower No. 1) sold at auction for $44.4 million dollars. The amount paid shattered (tripled actually), all previous records for a woman’s work of art. Why this price now?
“The real question to ask is, why hasn’t it happened before now?” said Roxana Robinson (www.roxanarobinson.com), 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.”
Why has Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) been so admired by women? Because 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 happened to help her in business.
“I decided to accept as true my own thinking.”–Georgia O’Keeffe
O’Keeffe’s North Star Was Dedication to Her Artistic Vision
O’Keeffe had stellar art dealers throughout much of life. But she was also a quick study when it came to business. O’Keeffe 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.
O’Keefe’s 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 long time 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 (www.hunterdphilp.com) author of Full Bloom: The Art and Life of Georgia O’Keefee.
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.
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 (www.coachingforartists.com) said:“O’Keeffe was such a role model in showing us that believing in yourself is the most important thing for 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.”
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.
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 benefited from being part of an artistic community of painters and photographers who inspired and helped one another personally and professionally. Gallery owners are now often flooded with ill-fitting inquiries sent to them via email and social media. This old school practice can help 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 (marthaotero.com). “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.”
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 (achingly old school, but it pleasantly 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, who inspire you and are generous types (not jealous or competitive), and 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 some day in the future, and you’ll get in that way.”
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 Abiqui (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. 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.
Don’t Suffer Fools Lightly
O’Keeffe was not as much of a recluse as people think; she just chose her friends carefully and declined interviews and social engagements with people she did not know, did not respect or whom she suspected of being invasive or snarky. When you have a blistering work ethic like O’Keeffe did, time away from the studio (or desert in her case), was precious and not to be squandered.
“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.” (www.finearttips.com/2010/07/5-common-traits-of-successful-artists/).
O’Keeffe’s success was further supported by 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 (www.time.com/12670/8-things-the-worlds-most-successful-people-all-have-in-common/).
O’Keeffe had miles of grit. One spring day in 1961 O’Keeffe delivered a painting to Edith Halpert’s Downtown Gallery in NYC where she was going to have a show: “Upon seeing what O’Keeffe had brought, Halpert sighed, ‘Oh Georgia, is that another flower?’ The artist snapped, ‘No, it’s my ass!’ (Full Bloom, 480).”
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. If increasing your own regard for your art, improves your art, but not your art business–you still deserve a laurel wreath. Because as O’Keeffe said:
“Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant, there is no such thing– Making your unknown known is the important thing […].”
Further Reading On Georgia O’Keeffe
Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Website (www.okeeffemuseum.org).
Lisle, Laurie. Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O’Keeffe. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980. Super accessible and fun. Though it was written a while back, it is one of my favorite books on the artist. Great choice to give any friends who like O’Keeffe, or love the southwest or Japanese cultural aesthetics. .
O’Keeffe, Georgia. Georgia O’Keeffe. New York: Viking P, 1976.
Drohojowska-Philp, Hunter. Full Bloom: The Art and Life of Georgia O’Keeffe. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004.
Peters, Sarah Whitaker. Becoming O’Keeffe: The Early Years. New York: Abbeville P, 1991.
Robinson, Roxana. Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life. Lebanon, NH: University P of New England, 1989.Well researched and well written bio. Great for professional artists and art history buffs.
Saltz, Jerry. “Out of the Erotic Jungle: The Whitney’s Retrospective Rescues Georgia O’Keeffe From Sex and Flowers.” New York Magazine. 20 Sept. 2009. <http://nymag.com/arts/art/reviews/59249/>.
Turner, Elizabeth Hutton, and Marjorie P. Balge-Crozier. Georgia O’Keeffe: The Poetry of Things. New Haven: Yale UP, 1999. Esoteric, scholarly and good for those who are obsessed with the role objects, like rocks, had in O’Keeffe’s art.
Udall, Sharyn Rohlfsen. Carr, O’Keeffe, Kahlo: Places of Their Own. New Haven: Yale UP, 2000. Fascinating comparison of three great painters. Many people will be familiar with O’Keeffe and Kahlo but not as many have had the pleasure of studying the life and art of the masterful Emily Carr.
*This article originally appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of Professional Artist Magazine and won the 2016 Charlie Award for Magazine Journalism.
This post is dedicated to my art buddy Gale Nienhuis, who despite the fact that we live in different cities for 18 years now, has mentally been by my side the whole time, sharing the adventure of seeking information and taking inspiration from the lives of women artists— from Hildegarde of Bingen to Beatrice Wood. Thanks Gale!
What inspires you about O’Keeffe? Would love to hear your comments below.