D.C. Portraitist Breaks the Starving-Artist Mold

By Thomas Heath
Sunday, July 5, 2009

Parents of art students, take heart.

Annette Polan of Northwest Washington is no struggling artist. Last year, the 60-something pocketed a cool $200,000 for painting people's portraits.

It is the kind of job I wouldn't mind having. She's her own boss (fits me, as I have an authority problem), comes and goes as she pleases, works from home, travels, meets famous people, and makes a nice living.

But it is just as hard as you think. Clients don't float in through the window.

"People who think that a career in the arts is all about feeling good won't do very well," said Polan, who was born in West Virginia and studied art at Hollins College and at various art schools afterward. "It's a profession and requires the same criteria for success any profession does. As in anything, drive is at least as important as talent."

Like lots of professionals I know, she networks like mad, working the crowd at every dinner party in search of business. She trolls the Kennedy Center, the Phillips Collection and the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Last week, she gave a presentation to a group of young entrepreneurs at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. On Saturday, she attended a symposium at the Phillips.

She belongs to the International Women's Forum, Washington's Cosmos Club and ArtTable (a national networking organization for female art professionals), all of which are invitation-only. She also organized the Faces of the Fallen exhibit, for which 250 artists from around the country painted the first 1,327 service members killed in the Iraq war.

"I get out there," she said. "Curators know me. Gallery dealers know me. Other artists know me. There aren't many of us who do what I do."

Polan started doing portraits of her daughter when she was teaching at the Corcoran in her early 30s. She soon started soliciting friends about painting their children's portraits. She charged $75 a painting so she had control over the product and the process.

Her big break came when someone from the American Pharmacists Association in the District contacted the Corcoran in search of a portrait artist for the group's recently deceased president. The museum recommended Polan, who was on the gallery's faculty but was relatively unknown.

Polan didn't know what to charge, so she went to galleries such as Portraits Inc. in New York and Portraits South in North Carolina to get an idea. "Like every other business, you have to study the competition," she said.

Polan charged less than $10,000, which is a fraction of her current rate.

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