Marketing is a dirty word. Building bridges in the art world

I’ve been thinking about writing this for a while, as it’s a bit controversial, but I’ll do it anyway. Marketing is a dirty word. At least, for some of you.

Marketing and art make a funny couple, don’t they? It’s a real love-hate relationship. I’ll tell you a story about something that happened to me around fifteen years ago. It’s a bit of a long one, so grab a cuppa.

Being a trailblazer

Back in 2005, I used to work as communications officer for a contemporary arts centre up in the North east of Scotland. I was doing the PR for very niche, conceptual art exhibitions in an obscure gallery, down a dark alleyway. Bit of a challenge that, if you know Aberdeen. The great thing was though, that each year my boss let me travel down to the amazing annual Arts Marketing Association conferences held somewhere in the UK, which always made me come back buzzing with ideas. I learnt so much in those years, especially as social media hadn’t been around for that long and it was exciting to feel like a real trailblazer.

Photo by Matheus Viana on

Selling your soul to the devil

One Monday, after another one of those conference weekends, I told my boss, who was the director of the art centre, that I wanted to change my job title. “I want to be called Marketing manager from now on”, I said to him, as I was sipping my coffee. My boss looked at me in horror, as if I had just handed him a disgusting handkerchief. “Marketing?” He replied, pulling a dirty face. “Isn’t that for, like, commercial outfits?”

You see, his reaction was not surprising. The word marketing makes most artists cringe to this day, as if they have to sell their soul to the devil, lower the quality of their artistic output, and dumb down their work. Marketing is for money-grabbing big business, not for the humble, not-for-profit arts organisations, funded by public grants and sponsorship.

But what if marketing is nothing more than building bridges between you and your clients? The friendly smile, that pulls them in?

From one-way invitation to a two-way conversation

That is what I felt I had become, when I asked for that change in job title; a bridge builder. I no longer saw the point in sending out random invitations for opening nights, without any idea who is actually on that mailing list. You know, the gorgeous postcard invite, with only the name of the artist on it and some fancy show title, that leaves the audience guessing what’s in it for them. A few dozen guests (often the usual suspects) would then turn up at the event, drink all the wine, glance at the artwork and chat to each other. The weeks after that you’d find a very quiet gallery. Tumbleweed.

Leave your jargon at the door

I knew the days of one-way communication were over. From then on I was actively starting to grow and engage our audience, on social media and in all other marketing, getting to know them, building trust, and lowering the threshold. Yes, you are welcome! Art is for all. I managed to get people excited about forthcoming events, by writing about it in an accessible, engaging way. Dumbing it down? No, just cutting out the mumbo jumbo (or, as they say in the art world, ‘art b*llocks’, but I won’t use that term here!).

Writing for your audience

Yes, I did have some head buts with artists who didn’t like me editing their high brow copy. Some even made me feel I was less intelligent than them, because I wasn’t ‘getting’ it. I have a Masters in Art History, but surely if I wasn’t ‘getting’ it, then how on earth would Joe Bloggs in Aberdeen get excited about visiting? I said:”Who are you writing this to? Your own network or local art lovers who want to know why they should be coming to your show?” Oh, I got a lot of grumbling in those days. Luckily I mostly worked with lovely artists who were happy someone was better at writing promotional copy than they were.

And guess what? More people made that trip down that dark alleyway and into the gallery the following years. We built a buzz around upcoming events on social media and in our invitations that attracted a much younger audience. And I got a promotion not long after. And that change in job title.

I hope you are building some bridges too, wherever you are!

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