Steve Strauss headshotQ: “Bro – Every time I try and sell my art, I get that I am a better artist than salesperson. But you are great at the business stuff. Why don’t you start to rep me?”



A: I get this question from a pal of mine every few years. He is indeed a very talented photographer, and it is equally true that he is more artist than entrepreneur. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time or contacts to “rep him,” but it did get me to thinking . . .

Just how does an artist turn their art into a business?

To answer that question, I contacted a woman who is not only a very talented artist herself, but also one of the country’s leading experts on the subject of art licensing. Indeed, like her popular website,, Tara Reed is a rich resource of information on how artists can take their creativity and art and turn them into a profitable venture.

Tara is uniquely qualified to help other artists on their business journey, but as it turns out, she didn’t plan on creating a successful art business when she got her Bachelors in marketing, because “I didn’t think it was really a viable option.” But a few years later, a friend of hers invited her to an art licensing show and voila! a new career was born.

So just what is art licensing? When you go into a store and see some towels or linens or mugs or whatever with some cool design on them, it is highly likely that the manufacturer licensed those designs from an independent artist. Every time a piece gets sold, the artist makes a commission. How cool is that?

It should also be clear that, while a great option for many an artist, an art licensing business is also not for everyone. “Art licensing is a mix of corporate business and art, so if an artist does not like businesses, this path is probably not for them.” When you license your art to a big corporate entity that also means that:

  • You will have to start to deal with contracts.
  • You may have to be willing to change your art for the sake of the product. “The purpose of the deal is to have your art help sell the product and not the other way around, so if you want to license your art for commerce, you will sometimes have to re-work your stuff to make it work for the product.” “Personally,” she says, “I like sharing in the success or failure of a product.”
  • You will likely not get paid for at least a year, as that is the minimum amount of time it takes the company to do the deal, put the art on the product, get orders, ship the product, and receive their receivables. The artist gets paid after that.
  • You will need to be highly organized to keep track of the different deals, licensees, etc.

There are a few ways to get started in the business of art, but the affable Tara Reed says that generally, the process looks like this:

1. “Understand what the business is before you get started”: “You will need to meet quick deadlines, there will be demands on your time, and (as mentioned) you must have a willingness to modify your art when necessary.”

2. Have a portfolio ready to go: Reed says that you must have at least 100 pieces that are ready to show people, and/or 20 collections.

3. Look for an agent: You can Google the term “art licensing agent” or, better, find a list of them on her blog. An agent will rep you to manufacturers and take a cut.

4. Go to a show: In the alternative, without an agent, you can still rep yourself. Tara says that there are three main shows a year that you should check out:

  • Surtex – Always in May in New York
  • The Licensing Expo – “Broader in scope, more about brands and branding.” This happens in Las Vegas in June
  • The Craft and Hobby Association event in Southern California in January

At these shows, you will meet manufacturers who are looking to buy and license art for their products.

5. Get a deal: “You may get a small advance, or not. It depends. Deals are usually for two years or less, and royalty rates range from 1% to 8%, typically.”

So to all of my artist friends out there, starving and otherwise, take it from the pro, Tara Reed. There is a better way. Get out there and license your art!


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About the Author(s)

Steve Strauss

Steve Strauss is one of the world’s leading entrepreneurship and small business experts. He has been seen on CNN, CNBC, The O’Reilly Factor, and his column, Ask an Expert, appears weekly on

USA TODAY Senior Small Business Columnist and Best-Selling Author