To sell or show?


Dear Artist,

Yesterday, I received a note from Florida painter Carol Cain: “I’m in a dilemma. I’d like to enter a regional contest with my best and latest, but at the same time I would like to sell the same paintings at the gallery that I exhibit in. Which would be more important to you?”

Thanks, Carol. A lot of this decision has to do with the geographic area you live in, the nature of the juried exhibit, and your relationship with your dealer. In some areas competitive juried exhibitions can be prestigious affairs that benefit an artist’s career. Dealers may encourage this sort of exposure — it surprises me that in Florida you can’t do both at the same time. But maybe the exhibition operators stipulated “no sold paintings.” Beyond that, the golden rule is to always try to be hung in good company. It’s often possible to check to see what kind of artwork, and what volume, is being entered before you commit. In other words, try to make an executive decision.

Compared to delivering works to a commercial gallery, entering juried shows can be loaded with rigamarole. They often want you to frame, pay fees, fill out forms, deliver and take away at specific times, as well as endure the possible ignominy of rejection. Many accomplished artists and Highly sensitive persons don’t like juried shows because they interfere with normal creative flow. Some artists just don’t have the time. You also need to keep in mind that your brilliance may be neutralized by the close proximity of competitors. While undiscovered artists can suddenly be pulled from the crowd and appreciated by a wider public at juried shows — and even get a boost to their careers — artists can also get the stigma of “not good enough for a gallery.” Again, each geographic area has its own attitudes.

You’re lucky that you have a choice. Many artists don’t. If push comes to shove, I’d side with the dealers. They go to work for you every day. They are guardians of your values. They share your magic with others. Dealer-artist loyalty is one of the fun things in life — and while the cards may be slightly stacked on the dealer’s side, those angels make it possible for artists to go thither and yon and do their thing. A dealer must be a fair-minded believer. An artist, as well as keeping a keen eye on quality, must be a worker. When the symbiosis works, it’s a partnership of the highest order. It’s worth honouring.

Best regards,


PS: “It takes a long time and great expense to build up the name of an artist and if one of his paintings suddenly appears at a low price at an exhibition especially, then the build up may be endangered.” (Max Stern, art dealer)

Esoterica: As it is with artists, there’s no one right way to be an art dealer. Some educate, others intimidate, still others supplicate. One of my favourite dealers is a totally committed, art-loving person who has the unusual habit of uncontrollable wiggling when she gets excited about the work she is showing. Customers seem to pick up on this energy and frequently express themselves with their wallets. It’s an extreme case of body language. She doesn’t say much — she just wiggles. If she had coins around her waist, they would jingle. To see it happening is to realize that art dealing is an art in itself.


Competition ‘crap shoot’
by Diane Overmyer, USA


oil on canvas
by Diane Overmyer

Your letter came just at the right time for me. Last fall I sold more paintings than I have sold in my entire career. As good as is it to be selling really well, it does create the problem of having to continue to replenish the inventory of work. Now I am faced with having to decide how to divide my depleted older stock and my new work between shows and possibly a new gallery.

Several of the pieces I sold last year were through art competitions. For some, like the piece attached with this letter, I was given 100% of the price of the painting. But one show not only took their normal commission rate, they also attached another 10% discount for the purchase awards. Of course the additional 10% came solely out of the artist’s pay. The entry fees also can really add up and rejections are always a possibility, but at this early stage in my career I feel the exposure is very important. Any way you look at it though, entering competitions can be a real “crap shoot”!


It’s about the most eyeballs
by Clint Watson

As a former art dealer (who has been known to wiggle with excitement about a great work of art), I would encourage artists to place their artwork in the venue that has the most “eyeballs.” Ultimately, it’s about getting your work seen by as many people as possible. I feel that those of you who are blessed with “the gift” have a responsibility to show your work to as many of us “ungifted” as possible. Sometimes the viewer can be more moved by a painting than the painter.

If the contest will show your work to more people than would see your work during the same time period at your dealer, then do it. In fact, if the contest is a prestigious one but gets little viewer traffic, then you might do it anyway. After all, different people will see the work at the contest and the works can always go to the dealer if they don’t sell. Again, more people will have seen your work.


Appreciate your dealers
by Karoll Dalyce Brinton, Sherwood Park, AB, Canada


“Autumn Sunrise”
original painting
by Karoll Dalyce Brinton

Many people don’t appreciate the commissions that dealers charge for selling our art. One has only to be in the role of the dealer for a few days or weeks to appreciate them. Can you imagine how little we would create if we thought we could do a better job and run our own show (assuming our dealers aren’t giving us enough promotion or “air time”)? I have five wonderful dealers and they earn every penny they charge. I can focus completely on what I do best, which is to bask in the joy of color and composition.

As for juries, it’s all about personal opinions. I enter juried shows to have as a goalpost to keep me focused. I enter them because I want the experience. I enter them because I expect to meet new people and that’s always fun. I suggest you enter competitions for the fun of it, rather than getting marks on your chart. Otherwise, after the dance is over, you will have still had fun, regardless of winning or not.


Adding to your resume
by Lynn Strough, Grand Rapids, MI, USA


“Leaving Pienza”
oil on Panel, 16 x 14 inches
by Lynn Strough

For several years, I did not enter any juried shows, for the very reasons you gave — takes time, costs money, interrupts creative flow, etc. I am fortunate to be represented by 6 different galleries, and didn’t really see a need for those shows. Until I had a solo show at a gallery and tried to get some press coverage in our local paper. One of the first questions the art reviewer asked was, “Have you been in any shows lately? Won any awards?”

She said she needed an “angle” or she couldn’t write up my show. So I entered 2 local juried shows, so I could at least add that to my resume. And I won 1st prize in one, and 2nd prize in the other, which amounted to almost $1000! I had never won any prizes before. That was two years ago – since then I have entered several shows, and though I’d like to say I had a repeat of that success, alas, it isn’t so. I’ve had an equal amount of pieces accepted and rejected, and no more prizes. So every time a show comes up, I debate once again — is it worth it to enter? The gallery owners do appreciate having something new to add to my resume once a year. Otherwise, I think I wouldn’t bother.


Artists on parade
by Brad Greek, Mary Esther, FL, USA

Being a friend of Carol’s as well as a fellow plein air painter with her every week, I would also suggest sticking with the dealer on this one. Even though the show is one of the most prestigious shows we have in this area, it still doesn’t ward many sales from what I’ve seen or heard. Best in show does award a solo show to the artist the following year in the adjoining gallery, so it’s mostly attended by artists that are in the shows.

As in most shows that I enter, which is around 20 a year, the exposure is mostly towards other artists. I love the competition and in theme shows I love the directions they take me in. For me, shows are like the rodeos for us artists to get together and ride our work in the arena amongst the other artists on parade.


Artists preyed upon
by Bill Skuce, Shawnigan Lake, BC, Canada


“Replication of Michelangelo”
Master Piece oil on concrete
by Bill Skuce

Recently I was invited to participate in a two day limited space art exhibition at a place I’d not heard of but it was referred to as an “Extreme B&B hosting an exciting celebration of art and craft at their pristine venue.” It is a new business and this would be its first art show. The “call to artists” explains that the fee of participating is $100.00. I feel that the fee being asked of the artists is wrong. The costs the B&B expects to incur are not, in my opinion, a valid reason for expecting artists to bear them. Even if there was a history of success, which there isn’t, even if the B&B were able to say that at last year’s event there were thousands of people in attendance over the two day period and the percentage of art sales was very high, it would not justify asking even half the amount. Artists should not be preyed upon in this way when asked to participate in an exhibition of art.

In a Central American country where I lived for 17 years, support of the arts is at a commendably high level, venues are excellent, and no fees are asked for participating in exhibitions. It was something of a shock for me to return to lower Vancouver Island and experience a “let’s use the artists” attitude by those planning and promoting art exhibitions.


Personal criteria for shows
by Luann Udell, Keene, NH, USA


Artist with Work

You’re right, I used to enter shows to get more exposure for my work. And also because I wanted to say, with a clear conscience, that I was a “nationally exhibited artist.” It worked. I applied to enough shows and can now say that.

Now, however, I only apply to shows that have one or more of the following criteria:

1) It’s a prestigious show or venue I’d like my work to be seen in.
2) The show is in a regional area I’d like to target.
3) The show is being juried by people (gallery owners, critics, museum curators, etc.) whom I would like to see my work.

Otherwise, there are more effective ways of getting my work out there. Thanks so much for your twice weekly letters! I always learn something new.


Know the judges’ expertise
by Ortrud Tyler, Oak Island, PA, USA


“The White Runabout”
oil painting
by Ortrud Tyler

While not unheard of, this is not a usual dilemma. None of the galleries that I have been associated with, some quite “high-brow” for their area, have ever discouraged my entering shows. Of course the show has to be worth entering. Sure, entering shows is expensive, time consuming and no better than roulette, but if you research the show carefully, know the judges’ expertise and feel comfortable entering, by all means do so.

Our quite small coastal community of Southport, NC, has supported one of the only national juried shows for 20 years plus, up and down the East Coast. We make it a point to get nationally known judges, artists that win a lot of awards themselves, have published books, give workshops and above all are working artists themselves. We have had consistently good results. We regularly have artists entering the show that are themselves nationally known. It is very good to measure yourself against some of the top work in the country.

Let me clarify that researching the judges’ expertise does not mean to paint to their preference. They hardly ever feel complimented by knock-offs of their work. What I mean is, if you paint in a way that the judge is known not to like, don’t enter. I read an editorial of a quite famous portrait artist once who totally rejected abstracts, allowing only that an abstract under-structure is important for a painting, but abstracts as subject just didn’t do it for him. You can bet I would never enter a show he judges. I have no problem with his opinion, but why put yourself through the hassle?


Struggle leads to proficiency
by Nora Sallows, OH, USA


“Kyle with Cat”
oil on canvas board
by Nora Sallows

I have a problem similar to Carol’s. I would love to enter some of my work in shows. But I am not in a position where I have the luxury of waiting for my paintings to sell at a gallery. I haven’t been able to acquire gallery representation, so to support myself I paint, list at an on-line auction, and sell. There have been a few instances when I have held back and not listed some really good paintings, hoping I could hold on to them and enter them in a show. But I ended up listing them anyway because I needed cash. It is a struggle to stay ahead and I find myself painting as fast as I can just to stay afloat. Not that this is a terrible thing, because it does seem to lead to proficiency, at least for me.



Marketing your own work
by John Ferrie, Vancouver, BC, Canada


“Forward I”
original painting
by John Ferrie

You are overlooking a crucial thing that a lot of artists are doing these days — marketing their own work. Galleries are a business and nothing more than a stepping stone between the artist and the buyer. While they can sell your work and sometimes make an artist rich and famous, it usually takes five years to cement a relationship and get the name out. Galleries also have a coral of usually 25 artists and they will sell anything to make a sale. Most artists that I know who have “made it” have been with three galleries and have the battle scars to show for it.

I have a new exhibition titled “Forward” that opens at an independent gallery space on April 6th. I have not only painted a very strong collection, but I have been marketing and promoting my show for months. I have previewed much of the collection on my website, hit the media and got some great exposure; I have massed a rather large mailing list and have sent out invitations. I am in all the local gallery listings. But art lovers do not mean art buyers. I have hand selected several clients that I have found over the years. I have met each of them for coffee and passed them 20 of my cards and asked them to give them to people who they think would be a buyer. (If I gave them 50 cards, they might end up in the back seat of the car.) I have found that a lot of artists are moving in this new and uncharted direction.


Value of storytelling for artists
by Brian Jones, Cortaro, AZ, USA


original painting
by Brian Jones

Marketing my work centers on developing relationships with buyers; relationships begin with storytelling. At an opening, or even on the web I suppose, I don’t have time to discuss each work to every guest. To address this issue I prepare a brochure that can be handed out at an opening. It briefly exposes the story of each work, the inspiration, techniques, and even amusing anecdotes behind the painting. The brochure separates the possible collectors from the lookers, allowing me and the dealer to focus our limited energy on interested buyers. Artists must let our inner storyteller out in our marketing. Storytelling is how we remember. A great book that discusses this and other future trends is A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink.


Packing up and travelling for shows
by Theresa Bayer, Austin, TX, USA


“Crow Fall”
watercolour and India ink
by Theresa Bayer

I did shows for too many years to tell — with paintings and sculpture. At the same time I had work in galleries. The galleries didn’t mind my doing shows as long as I kept the retail prices the same. You have to be part nomad to really enjoy doing shows because you’re going to do a lot of packing up and travelling around. Hopefully if you’ve done well at the show, there won’t be too much packing up when it is over.

Booth displays over the years have been growing more and more sophisticated. Nowadays that means high dollar overhead in addition to travel and booth fees. Back in the 1980s in the USA you could have a minimal booth with a card table and an umbrella and still sell, but not any more. If you want to be noticed and attract people into your booth you need have to have a nice display — panels, nice tables that don’t require table cloths, etc. This also means you have to either rent or own a vehicle large enough to haul all this stuff around.

I still do the odd show occasionally — and have a lot of great memories from doing shows. You make a lot of friends doing them.


Subscribers stand out in crowd
by Jane Morris, Cobble Hill, BC, Canada

What you have created with your letter is astounding. Those multitudes of readers around the world reading twice a week all those ideas, thoughts, tidbits of your personal life. Wow. What I think is the greatest part of what you have created is the personal feeling for the reader to think about what they can do with all the information you dole out. I used to find it very overwhelming. So much information to try and digest, learn, just think about. It seemed that I would not be finished Tuesday’s and Thursday’s would be looking at me. I am learning a lot. I just attended a big gallery opening and there was such a buzz in the whole place. Artists and guests were interacting. There was an undertone that you have started.





Sacra di San Michele

oil painting on canvas
by Massimo Beltramo, Italy


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2006.

That includes Catherine Rogers Jonsson of Lidkoping, Sweden who wrote, “To my knowledge, there are no regional juried shows worth risking the relationship with your gallery. If the juried show isn’t the Whitney Biennial or some national or international venue, then forget it.”

And also Dave Wilson of White Rock, BC, Canada who wrote, “I need an art competition like I need wheels on my easel! One good thing about flogging a dead horse: it’s always there and it doesn’t squirm.”




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