Emerging artists in the age of digital and social media

Aug 04, 2021

This is a really important question, as the reality is, that even if you do not use any form of social media, the platforms are out there constantly changing the way the world at large is perceived.

For visual artists and designers, social media provides a bridging link between what they do, how this is communicated to an audience, and how it will be “consumed”.

Let’s consider how an emerging artist engages with the world. The very word “emerging” is open to interpretation – it can mean degrees of difference within the gallery system, post-graduate education, the prize, awards and grants world, and within the retail/commercial section of consumer culture. The New York Foundation of the Arts refers to artist and writer Roger White’s definition as “between unknown and overexposed”. Perhaps “between unknown and recognised” might narrow it down a little more. Some artists approve of the label, others object to it because it implies that an artist’s early work may not be “good enough” to collect in a commercial sense. But truth be told, when scrolling Instagram in particular, it assists an artist to “place” themselves in terms of their bio on their page. It gives the reader a starting point when considering the artist’s output. Unlike a web page, which can be difficult to put together as a legitimate document of commercial or critical success when first starting out, a social media page on Instagram can be a document of progress in “real time” where followers can see work actually “emerging”.

The sale of artworks is recorded in real time too – being able to put SOLD! as an edit to a post can generate excitement and value-added interest for the follower. Artists can offer their work for sale on the platform, using the DM (direct message) function as the point of sale. The value of this is that it is immediate. If the work is sold, the artist gets a result, and the follower is alerted to the sale (if the artist chooses to promote it). This acts as an informal way of promoting professional practice – and this point is one that many people look towards when determining an artist’s professional status. Promoting a consistent professional practice is important to an artist’s standing. This does not always equate solely to sale of artworks though. It’s about the way an artist projects their “brand” on social media and other digital platforms.

Some emerging artists find this easier to do when creating a website (once they have a body of work) as there are templates available that can guide the structure of the website. Content specific to the menu structure directs the reader through the artist’s professional profile. As long as the emerging artist is consistent with their content messaging (and really thorough with editing and updating), websites are a useful formal branding tool. It’s at this point that the term “brand” should be discussed. Branding has become a 21stcentury catch word. Everything is branded – it is how consumerism works – especially within a digital/social media context. So, what does it really mean?  How do people know an artist through their brand?

Emptyeasel.com in their Branding 101 for Artists says that an artist’s brand should not be about the artist themselves, but should be about their product – their art. Most importantly, it’s about connecting the artist with their audience (hopefully, a buying audience). Branding is a bit of a juggling act between the artist’s viewpoint and the audience’s interests. Branding helps each to find the other – it’s like matchmaking. The emerging artist should ask themselves “Is there something unique, unexpected or otherwise extraordinary about my artwork that’s worth mentioning to someone?” This question should be answered with a stated purpose or reason for making the artwork. If eventually, through thinking through purpose and reason, the emerging artist can find a simple defining phrase which captures a unique perspective on their artmaking, it can be a very useful tool for fronting a website or leading a bio on a social media page. It should, however, be a phrase that allows the emerging artist to maintain growth as a creative. If the phrase is about the single best thing that an artist does, or a defining life experience that has shaped the artist’s artmaking, this needs to allow for growth through the art itself. Remember that ultimately, the branding is about the art, more than the artist. When someone buys the art, they may say that the artist’s point of view resonates with their way of looking at or living in the world, but ultimately, they have purchased a piece of art that they will view every day. Every day this artwork will reinforce the artist’s visual identity, even as that identity changes and grows as the emerging artis t continues to find their unique voice, moving through their practice as their status changes from “emerging” to “mid-career” and beyond.

Now back to social media – using Instagram is perhaps the best way to illustrate the next points. An Instagram page can be as formal or informal as the emerging artist chooses to make it. But, if the short branding phrase defined in the bio is not matched by each and every post on the page, the purpose of using the platform to promote a consistent professional practice is muddied. This means that the emerging artist’s persona must be projected clearly in each post. Language usage should be consistent, personal content should be minimised, and posted only when it assists with promoting professional practice (use a separate account for everyday life associated with family and friends). Most social media commentators praise the virtue of posting at a consistent time every day or each cycle (this might be every 2ndor 3rdday, weekly, etc). This builds expectation amongst followers. Research hashtags that are consistent with branding and status (#emergingartist) and use them with each post, changing out some for others every few weeks. Use Instagram ‘Story’ to promote a new post (really useful if the posts aren’t daily), or to share other pages that reflect similar visual or ethical values, this offers inclusive credibility. Posting to thank a page for promoting work is another worthwhile strategy.

Commentators say that using Instagram ‘Reels’ is a key to maintaining a higher status with Instagram’s algorithm – however the reels need to be visually good and purposeful. Practise using the Reels function on a personal page before launching it to a potential buying audience. It’s true that followers love to get access to snippets that highlight the ways that artists work. These can be great for engaging an audience with technique and each reel helps the emerging artist to see how their practice is evolving.

For emerging artists who want to expand their identity branding, Instagram TV is another option. Caution needs to be exercised with this though, as it can be a licence for over-exposure and/or excess if the artist doesn’t have a legitimate reason for using it – this needs structure and a script and lots of confident practise to use it in a way that engages audiences through sustained viewing.

Always respond to comments left in posts – do this in a timely manner and in such a way that responses will always be perceived as genuine. There are trolls out there – don’t engage. Block them and move on. It is the artist’s responsibility to maintain the tone of their page.

Get to know photo functions – apply apps that assist with the clarity of the image. Only post what looks composed (really good lighting) and consistent. Artists use close ups to demonstrate technique of surface finish, or to highlight detail. Several slides in the one post can tell a visual story – but the relationship between each slide should be interesting, relevant and not repetitive. Just because there are 10 slides available per post, it doesn’t mean they have to all be used. The Archive function is really useful. As artists progress their brand, visual identity, work output, quality can and should improve. Early posts to the page may no longer be as relevant or work to enhance identity. These should be archived.

Finally, there is a fine line between supportive self-promotion on social media especially, and relentless self-aggrandisement (meaning relentlessly talking oneself up). Emerging artists need to know the difference. The artwork promoted on the page needs to be able at times to speak for itself.

Having written about the value of digital and social media, there is nothing like in-person promotion for an emerging artist. Wherever possible, be seen at gallery openings of artists who support similar values. Join artist groups, sign up to organisations that promote emerging artists’ professional interests. Above all, emerging artists should be proactive. In this fast-paced world no artist can afford to wait to be discovered. Some luck, good fortune and serendipity can happen, but even this sprinkling of chance has a use by date. Grow your own practice and be the richer as an emerging artist for it.

Wendy Muir

Art Eye Deer Teacher