Yesterday, Bill (Bosque) Redondo of Fresno, California, wrote, “I know quite a few artists who are really serious about marketing and selling their art. However, it seems like they are not aggressive enough and I wonder if that might be the reason for their lack of sales? Do artists need to ‘wine and dine’ potential customers or should they trust their art to sell itself?”
Thanks, Bosque. While selling is not the Holy Grail to many artists, the greatest thing that sells art is art. An artist can be a mute, knock-kneed nerd, incompetent in the selection and even pouring of wine, but if his work is exciting, he’s already partying on down to the bank. Sorry, but all this stuff about aggressive marketing is not worth a prayer if the work is substandard.
Artists’ sales are made in their studios — that is, when they make the art. My observation of artists, whether gallery-represented or private sellers, shows them doing best when they are simply on top of their craft. Quality is always in style. There’s no such thing as an undiscovered genius.
Long ago I learned a valuable lesson: Putting work in front of the general public and appearing eager to sell it can be the kiss of death. Better to be in the background, maybe even a mysterious figure, and let yourself be discovered. Artists need to be in their studios or furtively moving around outside with their paintboxes. The idea is to get good, rather than get commercial.
This does not mean that artists should avoid listing potential connections, having discreet and tasteful websites, or, if the opportunity arises, giving well-controlled interviews. Potential connections need only to be alerted when fresh bread comes out of the oven.
Simply put, creative folks need to succumb to the love of process. This spiritual transformation softens poverty and eventually buys success.
Ideally, an artist needs only two things: excellent art, and someone, other than your Mom, who knows it’s excellent. Also, this someone ought to be a dealer (or dealers) — in other words, someone who is in a position to do something about your excellence. That’s the long and short of it, Bosque: no ballyhoo, no wine and dine (no cheese), and no aggression.
PS: “It is astonishing how little one feels poverty when one loves.” (Edward G. Bulwer-Lytton)
Esoterica: We need not act like insurance salesmen with our contracts hanging out. There is a better way, but it takes a student’s mind, hard and repetitious work, and a generous amount of faith in yourself. For artists, keeping the wolf from the door can mean going to your room. Funnily, the money eventually just wanders in. “Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons.” (Woody Allen)
by Leslie Kruzicki, Orange Park, FL, USA
I’m a 50-year-old “born again” artist. I hadn’t done much painting since college until two years ago. I just sold my first painting in over 30 years. It was a small piece, part of a miniature show, and sold for a whopping $40. But I was so excited by the sale. I mean really excited and thrilled that someone liked my painting of a banana enough to buy it. My goal now is to always remember that feeling and yes, hopefully to relive it. Not for the money’s sake, but just to feel the joy of sharing my vision.
Best of the biz
by Rose Moon, Sedona, Arizona, USA
I love how you always bring it back to becoming more accomplished at your craft. I am a shy artist and I don’t make many sales but the people who buy my art feel they cannot live without it. It has meaning for them. I do get my art out there in shows and sometimes in galleries, but I’m a firm believer in getting better at doing it. I met someone recently who was the best con artist I’ve ever met. Lots of people buy his work. I know a rich artist who opened her own gallery and can afford to run all the ads she wants to and people buy it. Another gallery owner serves only the best wine and no food at openings so people will get loaded and buys the less than wonderful art she has to offer. I don’t think any of my buyers will be waking up in the morning wondering what on earth they have done.
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by George R Robertson, Mississauga, ON, Canada
Today’s letter brings to mind a story, undoubtedly apocryphal, about the world famous author who was invited to address a room full of aspiring writers at Hart House on the University of Toronto campus. He strode on to the stage, tapped the microphone and asked, “How many of you want to become writers?” Almost every hand shot up. “Then, why aren’t you at your desk writing?” And with that he left the stage and the building.
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In the public eye
by Cindy Sturla, Winter Springs, FL, USA
From my experience I think it’s absolutely vital to keep in front of the public as much as possible. You never know when someone will come along who absolutely loves your work. Having a website is great, but I think you have to look for opportunities to be out in the public eye. You don’t have to be a salesman, as you said, but your work has to be out there. Fortunately there are so many venues besides galleries to do that. Some Hospitals, restaurants, banks, real estate offices, libraries, and many other places are happy to carry art of local artists. Join a club whose members have a show at a business or other venue. There are so many opportunities out there. You will never be “discovered” if you are not looking for opportunities to show your work.
Beat your own drum
by Barbara Meikle
I’m afraid I’ve had the exact opposite experience that Robert has had, in terms of selling my own work. I took control of my art career by learning how to sell, yes, blatantly promoting myself and my work to people so they would buy it. And buy it they have! I own a gallery now with another successful “aggressive” artist, and I really have little time for artists who wait for that “knight in shining armor” (i.e. the galleries of old) to rescue them from the dragons of poverty and obscurity. You don’t have to be obnoxious to beat your own drum. You must be shrewd, flexible, bold and modest all at once and the collectors (at least in Santa Fe) love to meet the artist. I believe I am doing so well in this economy because I am running the show, not in spite of it. The other key to the story is major studio time, discipline, working hard to make my work better with each painting. I am never satisfied, only happy with a certain passage of color, line or form. Staying hungry doesn’t mean staying poor!
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by Jerry Spangler, Deltaville, Virginia
I think I’m an aggressive artist. Even though I’m retired, I paint every day, I do art shows and Farmers markets just about every week, I sell prints and cutting boards of my art as well as my originals. The cutting boards are made of tempered glass; a picture of my painting is mounted on the bottom using heat and presser… I email pictures of new paintings from my web site every week. When things are slow I go out and paint river houses, farm houses, and boats, then I go knock on their door and show them the painting — 4 out of 5 times I’ll sell it. For the last two years, galleries have not been selling as much. I thought you would like to know how one aggressive artist works.
by Jennie McBride, Grant, AL, USA
My husband Jim is a metal sculptor. We’ve been on the show circuit for almost two years now and we’ve gotten every random piece of advice any artist was willing to impart. And we tried most of it. One photographer said you can’t ask questions like “Are you enjoying the show?” to a potential customer, because all that requires is a one word answer. Advice in magazines also encourages immediate interaction with a potential buyer. In two years, we’ve tried it all. But what seems to work best is Jim’s innate nature of staying in the background and only coming to the customer who seems interested. They buy his work because it is different, because of the form, because of the passion and/or humor in the piece. They buy a piece called Contemplation because it speaks to them. They buy the violin player because they enjoy music. I don’t consider Jim a salesman, and neither does he. But his quiet ways give buyers confidence and the quality of his work is what they want. Artists are not insurance salesmen. Their product is a piece of themselves.
Location, location, location
by Patricia Riley, La Paz, Mexico
I have been painting for close to 40 years. I have been trying to market my work for about 30 years. I occasionally sold a painting over the years. In my present location I have only had sales and shows in the last four years after a friend encouraged me to ask for a show at the local theater which has a lobby gallery. Before that, few of my acquaintances even knew I painted. Since that show I have had a number of other one-person, two-person or group shows. I have sold a few paintings; a couple a year. Usually the smaller, less expensive ones. I could conclude from your words that I am just not good enough yet and I think you may be partly correct. Good work sells itself, but it does not sell in a location without many buyers or buyers with any money. Part of the job of selling art is to find a location where it will be seen, appreciated and purchased by a large number of people. My town just isn’t the place. The successful artists of my city market their work in a resort town 135 miles away and manage to make some sort of living. It’s just part of the reality of where we live.
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Meeting the artist
by Claudia Roulier, Idledale, CO, USA
I disagree to some extent; you assume that aggressive means being a car salesman. While the work speaks for itself, people like meeting the artist and having that person able to articulate about his art. I believe that you don’t have to be the best in your field. In the end, as long as the product is good it’s who knows you that often pushes success. This could be defined as aggressive (as in getting your name out there).
by Brad Greek, Mary Esther, FL, USA
I agree to some points that you’ve mentioned. I feel that artists can be the best seller of their own work, however, if for no other reason than the buyer gets to meet the artist and be able to ask questions about the work. Sure it’s great to find a dealer who’s excited about your work and has an outlet for your work. But we all know how few and far between they are. Not to mention the closures of a lot of those outlets. I’m seeing more and more galleries joining forces, artists getting together and doing a sort of co-op. Personally I’m not in favor of co-ops, but they seem to be working out in this economy. More work for the artist, having to pull shifts at the gallery, but again, getting a chance to meet the buyers. I’m in an outside gallery; we display all work outside. It’s in a high foot-traffic area with a lot of vacationers and locals alike. It’s mostly seasonal, but I believe this is a great structure for selling artwork. For me, painting on location, en plein-air, demonstrations attracts attention, attention attracts interest, interest attracts desire, desire attracts action, action makes sales. I’m growing in this economy.
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Taking time to talk
by Jean McLaren, Gabriola Island, BC, Canada
I live on an island with about 4000 residents so l know lots of people and in the summer we have lots of tourists and family visiting family. Our Art Group which meets twice a week to paint had its annual show last weekend and I still feel that in a situation like this with 20 plus people showing their work you have to be there. I do not promote my work per se but when someone seems to be hovering over my work, I usually walk over and ask them if they have any questions about my methods. I do abstract with a lot of layering, using alcohol to rub back the colours and using gel for surface interest. People are very interested and often buy because I took the time to talk to them. This method works for me as I sold several paintings. I started painting at age 70 and am now 82 and still enjoy every minute I paint and am always looking for new and better ways to learn more.
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Bit of both
by Elsha Leventis, Toronto, ON, Canada
As in any other field, we have all heard of artists who have made it big, if only for a while, by being audacious. Walking naked down University Avenue, for instance (one promoter even suggested doing that!). There are some dealers who like to be courted long and hard — they seem to take perverse pleasure in recounting how an artist visited them 90 times before being accepted.
My experience is that you need a bit of both — you need to spend time in your studio honing your craft, developing your own voice, and producing a body of work, but also need to put yourself out there because no one will knock on your studio door unless they know you have a studio. I am always amazed at how many artists tell me they avoid entering prestigious shows because of the cost — yet being there could take their career on new paths.
Talk about art
by Danielle Lawrence, Taos, NM, USA
I don’t “hustle” my art but I do show up, greet the public, enjoy the contacts and “sit my booth” at local and national art fairs. Yes, street fairs! I have a number of galleries who sell fairly well for me, but I find it’s also important to present the work myself. Good to get positive feedback — inspiring. Even smaller, less impressive art fairs I do well in. People say, “Thanks for being here, it’s great to see quality work.” My work is unique and high quality, so is my genuine appreciation of the customer! I notice the artists who hide in the back of their booths do not sell well. It’s a delicate balance, being present and knowing when to say something, when not to!
What do you think? (Also a customer favorite)
Is this the first time you have seen my work? (Usually the answer is yes… get them saying yes!)
Which one is your favorite?
Keeping the focus on the work is important… so easy to digress and talk about their dog, where they are from, where you are from… (I answer briefly and then say what a great place Taos is for creating art… back on track.
Cotton Candy Afternoon
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