To License or Not to License? That Is the Question...

To License or Not to License? That Is the Question…

To license or not to license?”
It seems to be one of the eternal questions of emerging and established artists alike, as well as agents, consultants, gallery owners and art dealers. The licensing industry is by no means new, and there have been a number of artists—Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Jim Shore, Paul Brent, Mary Engelbreit and Thomas Kinkade among them—who have been able to expand their reach and impact by licensing their work to be printed on a variety of merchandise.
The idea of earning money for one’s artwork by means other than just selling originals or limited-edition prints is a compelling one. After all, a popular writer, upon finishing a book, will send that book to a publisher to be printed, at which point it could sell millions of copies around the globe. (Not to mention spawn a movie and other merchandise.) So how do you, as an artist, give your work that same trajectory?
The impressions and understanding of art licensing—even among those who are successfully established in their careers—are frequently out of focus when compared to the realities of today’s global economy and retail marketplace. Therefore, any discussion about art licensing should begin with a simple question: How does the business of art licensing work?
If you have a hunch that your art or the art of someone you represent would be perfect for calendars, mugs, puzzles, stationery, T-shirts, toys, games and various other consumer products, here are the basics of what you need to know in order to better understand—and possibly participate in—this potentially lucrative arts sector.

Know What’s Out There
What’s selling at retail stores? Is there a particular design that’s popular? If so, is it by an artist you recognize? Get to the mall, look through every store and familiarize yourself with the designs and artwork being sold. Research, research, research. Scour the Internet to find out which designs and artwork are popular in the vast world of cyberspace. Look at everything: Apparel (women’s, men’s, kid’s), gifts and collectibles, stationery and greeting cards, games, toys, puzzles, home furnishings, textiles and holiday merchandise. (And make that all holidays, not just Christmas.)

Know Who You Are and How You Work
Are you an open-minded, expansive thinker who relishes input from others, is excited when your creativity is enhanced by new ideas and loves the idea of commercializing your art? Or do you prefer to create art simply to satisfy your own creative spirit? If it’s the latter, art licensing might not be for you, since the process is all about stepping into a larger arena and embracing the challenges as well as the rewards.
Furthermore, answer each of these questions honestly: Do you enjoy working with clients on projects? Do you like promoting yourself and your artwork by calling and e-mailing people? Do you ask for input on your work and then act on the direction you are given? Are you business-minded and financially astute? Do you possess enough legal savvy to protect your intellectual property?
If the answer to most of these questions is “No, not really,” you should either rethink licensing as an appropriate choice for you or enlist the help of a someone more business-savvy.

Know If Your Art Fits
While licensing might be a great way to maximize revenue from a single piece of work, pursuing that path requires both a business strategy and a significant portfolio, not to mention time and patience. You need to know going in that your style is in sync with the kind of artwork that fits the marketplace. Can your artwork be easily photographed and transferred to digital formats with great results? Are you ready to listen to client requests and work quickly to generate more artwork when necessary? Are you excellent at meeting deadlines?

Self-Representation vs. Hiring an Agent
So you’re interested in getting into art licensing, but you don’t know where to start. Maybe you want to create, but you don’t want to handle the business end of things. Or maybe you don’t know where to begin when it comes to contacting the right people. If handling everything has you excited, then get going. But if you don’t want to go it alone, then a licensing agent might be exactly what you need. Remember, you can always change your plan later.

The Who, What, Where and How of Licensing
How and where can you meet potential licensees or establish connections with agents? Start by going to the key art licensing trade shows and organizations; a few of the big ones to seek out are SURTEX, the National Stationery Show, the Licensing International Expo and the Craft & Hobby Association. While there, find out what’s being shown by publishers, agents and artists. This is also a great opportunity to meet with licensing agents and art publishers. Be sure to bring a sample of work from your portfolio.
An important bit of trade show etiquette to remember is that you should try to set up appointments beforehand. If the person you want to speak with isn’t available for a meeting, leave your card or brochure, and ask for his or hers in return, then be sure to follow up.
When it comes to breaking into art licensing, the key word is “research.” Even if you can’t attend the shows, or if you want to get a head start before meeting with agents and publishers, there are plenty of resources you can call upon to learn more about licensing. Visit Websites like or; talk to artists you know who have already made the plunge; call on the services of a coach; read magazines, newsletters and blogs devoted to licensing ( and are two recommended ones); tune in to tele-seminars like those held by or the International Licensing Industry Merchandisers’ Association or become active in online licensing groups, like those found on LinkedIn. Be an empty sponge; gather information from everywhere.
Being successful at licensing one’s art takes hard work and patience, but by using these guidelines as a starting point, you can be well on your way to sharing the joy and creativity of your artwork with the world. ABN

With a career that spans 30 years, ABN Contributing Editor Linda Mariano is a leader in marketing, brand management, e-commerce and promotion initiatives. Through her company, LM² Art Marketing & Licensing (, Mariano brings her years of experience to help artists and art industry leaders set and achieve high goals. She can be reached at



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