1. Artist Career
  2. Career Development

Pursuing fine art as a career: 15 Milestones you should achieve

Portrait of group of authors for Symposia
Symposia Group

Mar 12, 2022

 | Max 


 min read

Woman smiling with an artistic vision working towards art careers
Jump to:

It's no secret that professional artists put in a lot of hard work to achieve success. It would help if you hit many milestones along the way, and it's important not to rush things. This article will look at the professional art career and explore the different milestones you need to achieve long-term. Let's get started.

What is great art, and who has the authority to determine it? In today's market, with more and more contemporary artists working in various media and disciplines, evaluating work based on traditional artistic talents and craftsmanship may not be enough.

Grow your career with Symposia

What makes an art career successful?

What does it take to become a successful artist? What's the typical artistic career path? There is no one answer to this question, but a few things are essential for any professional artist to achieve to navigate their career as an artist.

The role of tastemakers in the art ecosystem

Art market experts; are individuals and organizations that can guide viewers, enthusiasts, and collectors in understanding the context and significance of contemporary art today. These experts are referred to as "tastemakers" since they significantly influence our view of modern art today and its cultural and economic value.

The Endorsement Process

What does the art market consider to be a successful outcome? How is the reputation of an artist established? How is the cultural and economic value created in a market dominated by personal preferences? To address these issues, we would need to return to our earlier concept of the art market ecosystem with its many 'tastemakers' and different individuals' function throughout an artist's career.

The three phases of art careers

We've divided the artist's market evolution into three phases (formation, expansion, and consolidation) and plotted these potential occurrences on two axes of cultural and economic value. While we recognize that there is no right or wrong way to pursue an art career, this sequence only represents a commonly taken path.  

The first phase, Formation

This phase typically starts when an artist graduates from fine arts school, though many other entry points classify an artist as emerging. Developing a relationship with a top incubator gallery is a critical milestone in this phase. This period broadly represents more cultural value than economic value for the artist.

Milestones in this phase:

  1. Art school
  2. Thesis & group shows
  3. Incubator gallery & solo shows
  4. Review of a solo show
  5. Domestic / Local fair
  6. Local collector interest
art teacher talking about art careers

Art school

While art school isn't required for artists, we classify studying art and earning an art degree of at least a bachelor's level at a credited institution as the most likely entry point into successful career paths. For reference, formal education is relatively high for many artists as 95% of the top 500 artists have a degree. 32% have a bachelor's degree, 60% have one or multiple master's degrees, and 3% have a Ph.D.

Where you attend is not as important as the location; New York and London are the top hubs for fine artists today. Getting a visual art bachelor's degree will help catapult your professional success and will help you develop a network of professionals in the art world.

An art professor, for example, can be an experienced mentor for you and help you find professional opportunities. Furthermore, an art education will give you the skills to start making art and help you understand how the art world works.

Wherever you go, or if you choose to skip this step and be a self-taught artist, it is vital to surround yourself with like-minded emerging artists, develop your artistic voice and gain exposure to great art and culture.

Thesis & group shows

This is when many new fine artists seek to solidify their identity into a single show and begin building a public profile and reputation for themselves.

Artists often are invited by their peers to participate in a group show. However, they represent an important endorsement from other artists and are the best way to increase your network and experience to enter the next milestone. There's more cultural art value than the economic value in them.

Incubator gallery & solo shows

Representation by a small gallery: This is the most crucial step in the formation period. Most importantly, developing a relationship with an "incubator gallery" - those with a particular focus on cultivating new artistic talents.

60% of the top 500 fine artists are still represented by or have a working relationship with their incubator gallery.

First commercial solo show: This solidifies your importance to the art community and is the best way to increase your status and credibility. It signals that you are serious about your career and that a gallery believes in your potential.

an art business of art careers

Review of a solo show

A positive review in a high visibility publication opens the door for more career paths and enters the global art market ecosystem.

Domestic / Local fair

Local fairs are an essential milestone that you should not skip; they are the most likely predictor of consecutive milestones. They are the ideal place to reach a broad audience and gain the interest of local collectors and more prominent regional galleries.

They are also a great way to meet many artists at a similar stage of their journey, which further expands your network.

Local collector interest

The final step of the formation period and critical step for any creative to make a living is to have collectors in your region know who you are and be interested in your work.

Collectors are generally more interested in acquiring works by artists in their region. They are the ones showing up to your shows, visiting your studio, and talking with galleries about you and your work. This takes time by consistently producing quality work and developing relationships. You can often start to shift to practicing full-time after this milestone.

Grow your career with Symposia
No items found.

Among the Top 500 artists, more than half (53%) have had group or solo shows at one or several top-tier museum institutions (such as MoMA, Tate, Whitney, SMAK, Guggenheim, MOCA, SFMOMA, etc.)

The second Phase: Expansion

With greater international exposure, 44% of the top 500 artists had institutional (museum) solo exhibitions in more than one continent, demonstrating the professional artist's stature and awareness.

When the star has a following and excitement over their work, they are likely to have a commercial gallery in other countries come on board. The artist is expected to be represented by galleries in various vital markets such as New York, London, Paris, and Hong Kong.

This is also frequently when an artist is represented by a more established gallery (typically in addition to, rather than replacing, the original incubator gallery). 48% of the Top 500 artists had their first auction sale during this phase of their career.

In this period, the artist develops their market reach by receiving curator interest and invites to international group shows. At this point, they may start increasing their market presence. This phase features 48% of the artists in our study who experienced their first auction sale. This stage is characterized by an even distribution of cultural and economic development, and it often determines an artist's long-term career trajectory.

Milestones in this phase:

  1. Curator interest & International group exhibition
  2. Prestigious artist prize
  3. International collector interest
  4. Established gallery
  5. Major collectors
  6. Int'l museum solo show

Curator interest & International group exhibition

Curators are the entry point to this phase, as they are the tastemakers of undiscovered fine artists with long-term potential. To achieve this milestone, it's crucial to establish and build relationships with local curators and art professionals in your region.

An international group exhibition is critical to moving forward and entering the global market. These opportunities may present themselves, though you likely will need to develop relationships with international studio artists and exhibition spaces to be invited to show your work abroad.

Prestigious artist prize

Art awards are an important institutional endorsement to establish a presence in the global market.

Since they are created to recognize achievement, not potential, it's essential to choose carefully which opportunities you say yes to at this point. Think about how your decisions may shape your reputation as a creative and your cultural contributions to the art world.

Many fine artists who win these prizes often have the consecutive milestones come naturally. The international exposure it brings you is likely to spark interest in your work among international collectors.

art careers of art business

International collector interest

An essential milestone for entry into the larger market is to attract collectors outside of your region. This shows that you are on the stage of the global market. There is more significant potential for interest in your work with greater exposure.

As your work is collected internationally, you are more likely to see established galleries interested in representing you.

Finding an established gallery

57% of the fine artists in our study are represented by established art dealers with a long track record, participation in major international art fairs, and a stable roster of influential fine artists. A blue-chip art gallery represents just 7%.

Established galleries play a critical role in supporting, managing, and building an artist's journey, both in terms of connecting with art museum curators and bolstering the commercial market by building relationships with collectors and other galleries.

New York, London, Berlin, Paris, and Hong Kong are the top art gallery centers.

Getting noticed by major collectors

Prominent art collectors are vital to influencing other collectors to buy your work and push the value of your pieces higher. They are likely to buy early as soon as established art galleries represent you, wanting to get in early on your artwork's investment potential, which in turn increases your economic value.

At this milestone, an artist's reputation will start to grow exponentially, as it then becomes a question of not how much you sell your work for but who acquires it.

Having an international museum solo show

The critical milestone of cultural achievement marks the end of this phase.

Institutional endorsement, such as an inclusion in an art museum group exhibition and, more importantly, a solo show, is typically one of the most important and potentially pivotal events in an artist's journey and can significantly elevate an artist's status.

The artist is now receiving recognition on an international level and has established credibility with other curators or art museum directors outside their region.

Considerations for the expansion phase

The key during this phase is to continue producing outstanding work to attract a balance of both collectors and institutions, which will tangentially expand your economic and cultural value in the global market.

As you gain international exposure and become a well-known fine artist in more than one continent, art opportunities will come rushing in. However, it's important to remember that this phase is also the make or break period of an artist's long-term success.

While there is no time scale, this sequence represents the critical milestones an artist should experience to expand their studio practice.

Group at networking events about art history

The third phase: Consolidation

In the final stage of an artist's professional career, consolidation is typically characterized by stabilization. The professional achievements are already established in this phase, and they're at a point where they can be considered a master of their craft.

They may have also developed relationships with brand ambassadors who help promote their work, which allows them to reach new collectors while maintaining relationships with previous ones.

Milestones in this phase:

  1. Auction debut
  2. Consistent commercial & 
museum exhibition activity
  3. Consistent auction market activity

An artist's initial auction debut

48% of the established artists in our study saw their first art auction sale before turning 40. 92% of all the works at auction are valued at less than $50k.

While auctions may seem like improbable feats far off in the distance, the reality is that once you become an essential figure to the market and your works are acquired by significant collectors; you likely will see your work sold at auction.

Maintaining consistent commercial & museum exhibition activity

Artists need consistent exposure in different contexts to maintain relevance, whether commercial gallery shows or museum exhibitions.

One or more commercial galleries represent nearly all artists in our study (98%) and 64% by more than one. 29% are represented by their incubator gallery in addition to established galleries. As for institutional activity, 53% have had a group or solo show at one or several top-tier museums. 44% had solo shows in more than one continent.

Maintaining consistent auction market activity

Auctions provide cultural relevance and often solidify an artist's legacy into the art canon. They may be elitist, but they drive much of the art market and build the economic value of an artist. Keep evolving and producing great works, staying true to yourself throughout your career; the market will take notice and keep collecting your work.

Research note: The gender ratio of the artists in our study is 46% women, yet of the artists with more than 25 pieces appearing at auction, only 15% were women.

Considerations for the consolidation phase

It's important to remember that while these milestones seem improbable, they are more common than many think. Every career path in the arts is different, but we hope this clarifies the standard route towards peak cultural and economic value.

With consistency, dedication, and elevating your artwork to new heights throughout your career, you too can achieve commercial and cultural success.

Woman working on her technical skills for an art business

Conclusion and considerations in the art world

It's crucial to keep your motivation throughout your career as an artist. Maintaining motivation can be difficult, especially when you're starting and don't see a lot of success. More often than not, success comes as a tidal wave that slowly builds with a sudden burst of action. It's important to remember why you became an artist in the first place and to find ways to stay motivated during tough times.

One way to maintain focus is to find inspiration in other artists who have achieved success. Reading about their journeys and hearing their advice can help keep you inspired and motivated to continue working hard at your art. Another way to stay motivated is to set realistic goals and celebrate every art accomplishment, no matter how small. Doing so will help you stay positive and focused on your career goals.

  1. To find success when pursuing a career in fine art, it is essential to set goals and strive to achieve these milestones along the way.
  2. An artist should reach milestones on the way to professional and cultural success.
  3. Achieving long-term success as an artist requires consistency in producing work and dedication to their craft.
  4. It is essential for artists to stay focused and motivated throughout their careers by finding inspiration in other successful artists and celebrating every accomplishment, no matter how small.
Have a website? Turn Visitors into Buyers with Kade.AI
Symposia is transitioning to Kade. A human-like AI to provide detailed answers to visitors questions and increases sales by advocating on your behalf.