Last night I met with five of the 17 million artists who currently need to sell more of their art.
Two of my visitors came originally from a sales background. Two were young and disliked the subject of selling but were eager to get on with it. The other one had read a lot and taken courses — online, on the phone and in person. These courses included art marketing, eBay sales, art blogging, display advertising, selling yourself and your art, the business of art, licensing art, portfolio building, CV writing, direct selling without a gallery, use of art consultants, corporate art sales, generating buzz and PR, working with museums, art fairs and biennales, Tweeting and Facebooking, finding private patrons, approaching and developing relationships with commercial galleries.
This lady was a walking encyclopedia of art entrepreneurship who hadn’t sold one of her paintings in seven months. We could’ve spent the whole evening listening to her.
All of them felt selling was key to a happy life. While it might be hard for some of our readers to swallow, they thought cash flow would probably make creativity flow.
I quoted an old friend: “Paintings are sold when they’re painted, not when they’re sold.” This brought out some shouting. My thought was that all the suits on Madison Avenue couldn’t sell substandard art. It was pointed out to me that a sliced cow with enough bull will get someone to call it art and another to pay for it.
One of the sales guys put in that he had sold used cars that weren’t going to run more than a couple of blocks, and that he felt bad about it. Everybody agreed it’s best to feel good. The other sales guy let it drop that he had more paintings than the Louvre. He said he had made them, they were good paintings and everybody, including his wife, thought they were good paintings, and he was entitled to sell them.
Everyone left with more questions than they brought. Maybe you can answer some of them. Which is better — feeling good or getting good? What is good? Has everything already been done? Does it matter? What courses should monetarily artists take? How much of the current art-poverty is due to the current recession — or does the current poverty have something to do with sliced cows?
PS: “Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons.” (Woody Allen)
Esoterica: In times of poverty, get-rich-quick systems abound. “Take it easy,” I put in. “Why not just take the time to make what you think is better art?” With all the talk about marketing I wasn’t even sure painting was worth mentioning. “A conversation,” said Ambrose Bierce, “is a vocal competition in which the one who is catching his breath is called the listener.” I cleaned up my studio. It’s a nice quiet place.
Creating for joy
by Carl Richards, Cape Cod, MA, USA
All the courses in the world will not teach you how to be at peace with yourself, which is, I believe, the ultimate quest. William Manchester put it nicely when he said that a man’s task is to find himself, and if he fails in this, it doesn’t much matter what else he finds. Japanese Zen master Hakuin (1686-1768) put it another way: “Not knowing how near the truth is, we seek it far away.” An artist is one who creates art. A salesman is one who sells things. They are not the same. Create the best art you are capable of creating, because you must, and for the joy and satisfaction of creating it. The rest will take care of itself.
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Time to upgrade quality
by Terry Gay Puckett, San Antonio, TX, USA
I am not exactly undiscovered. I have sold a lot of art, but I don’t consider myself famous. And things are slow right now. The general public is not in an art-buying mood while the economy is tanking. But there are always exceptions to this, and art lovers who are ready to take the plunge and invest. Sometimes we get lucky. I think that this is a good time to work on upgrading the quality of my art, exhibit when possible, clean up my studio, and think positively. About workshops: Some of the big workshop names are selling art products and putting on dog and pony shows. Most of these don’t do much for me. I am trying to develop a genuine style that is authentic, regardless of sales or acceptance. I also am also leery of “How to sell your art” workshops. It costs a lot less to buy a book about it and read the parts that are helpful.
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The Jack White method
by Donald L. Smith, Macon, MO, USA
Concerning your recent thoughts about “The plight of the undiscovered artist” I would like to share artist and author Jack White. I don’t know if you’ve read his books or not, but he has written 4 or 5 books about marketing art. Magic of Selling Art is his first book and I think it is a Must Read for all artists wanting to “make it” as an artist. His formula is easy. It takes a lot of hard work, determination, and perseverance. The book is well written and full of great ideas on how to sell art. Jack says, “Art doesn’t sell itself, it has to be sold.” Even poor art can be sold, but not for big dollars. Start off with low prices; your patrons are paying you to learn to paint better. As your quality improves, so will your prices.
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Painting in the niche
by Popo Flanigan, Naples, FL, USA
I think the trick is to have a niche, a recognizable style, and the ability to get people involved in your career. Keep up with them, do public venues (tent shows and plein air events, donate, give out post cards with your images (very inexpensive at Vista print). Tell them the story of why you painted it, how you painted it, where, etc. At times, I take photos at the varied stages, and give them to the buyer. I try to keep in touch with them and even invite them (some of them) for casual salad and pizza nights at my home. You have to paint, paint, paint as well as schmooze, schmooze, schmooze… if they want me to deliver in 15 minutes, I am there… but I Love what I do and just got the opportunity to do it full time in 2006, when I retired from my retail fine jewelry store… My Dad wouldn’t let me go to art school. (I went to secretarial school.)
The current lower standards
by Mike Barr, Adelaide, South Australia
Where I live, a number of lower-end galleries have or are about to close down. Most Rotary or other community shows are down in sales and it is miraculous to sell for over $1000 at these places. A brief look at the sales of the higher-end galleries shows a down-turn in sales there, too!
It is the subject of much soul-searching for artists who have come to expect their work to sell.
I am coming to believe that there is so much work around that does not tip the scales in the direction of excellence. There is a glut of the ordinary because every man and his dog claim to be an artist. I die a thousand deaths when I hear the all-too-familiar words at the opening of an annual community show to the effect that the paintings on show this year are of a much higher standard that last year. In reality 90% or more of the work is ordinary, even from accomplished artists. It has been said there is no truth in advertising and I reckon that goes for the art world, too.
I feel in myself that I need to strive more to produce works that have that extra something. Somehow I tend to forget this goal when I am at the easel, but then it really shows when the paintings are on display. As a rule, all the ‘better’ works I have produced have sold. I wonder how many other artists have found this? If so, the solution is too easy — paint better!
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Valuable marketing group
by Rachel Wilson, Flagstaff, AZ, USA
What a madhouse the current art market is! Your column captured the essence of so many discussions about marketing that I’ve heard or been part of. I actually belong to a small “marketing group” of friends (two painters, one writer, one blacksmith, one textile artist). We share problems, what we know of new technologies, local art gossip, our hopeful plans, good news and disasters. It’s a great support group, but the only marketing skill that the group really believes works is to keep on keeping on with projects and production. And I should have mentioned, we laugh a lot. Which brings me to the real point of this letter — the Ambrose Bierce quote was perfect, a real “laugh out loud.”
Not so valuable group
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
I recently joined a forum of artists using my medium. After a week I need to un-join. When I read the comments, I feel like I am exposed to a virus of female neediness laced with occasional fits of male frustration and ego. Reading this post brings much of the same feelings. I feel that the theory of selling needs to be tested with the actual practice of selling. The Internet abounds with the theory of making money. Many of the theorists make a good living passing on their theory to the impoverished. I’m reminded of the country song about ‘too much talk and not enough action.’ An artist needs to be always selling — selling themselves to others and to themselves. If you aren’t convinced, no one else will be, either. Selling, like painting, has to come from within. Your product is you and you need to be an expert at that product. If you are motivated, you will paint more and better paintings and learn how to sell those paintings. Action creates results and destinies. As the great theorist Charles Darwin suggested, the best will survive and pass on their practices.
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Dreams finally fulfilled
by Delores Hamilton, Cary, NC, USA
I can’t figure out why my work sells. I don’t actively market it, except for occasionally posting a photo on Facebook or in notes to you. I don’t have a blog or a Web site and don’t do craft shows. My only solo show resulted in ten art quilts being sold, eight to people I know. Unlike many of you, I didn’t have the courage or the marketing skills, not to mention talent, to try to make it as a full-time artist (plus, I detest paperwork). As a single mother with two children, I felt I had to have medical benefits and a guaranteed income, some of which I used to take many art classes. Now, as a retiree with a pension and Social Security, I can jump into my studio (AKA my house) and finally fulfill my dream of being an artist, while I continue to take classes.
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Answering the questions
by Linda Thoman, GA, USA
1. Which is better — feeling good or getting good? I would choose getting good, since I think art is a communication for the ages of humanity — feelings are temporary.
2. What is good? — For the artist, a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. For humanity and the art-aware public, a sense that makes the art valuable in some way.
3. Has everything already been done? No. Keep working.
4. Does it matter? It doesn’t matter if it matters or not. Don’t let it interfere with something you want or feel you need to do. Keep working.
5. What courses should monetarily-challenged artists take? Not many artists were born with sufficient funds to support a creative lifestyle. Rather than sell, some use “non-art” jobs to subsist. Art happens, even with incredible odds against it.
6. How much of the current art-poverty is due to the current recession — or does the current poverty have something to do with sliced cows? I think the recession has definitely cooled the market and maybe “culled” (please forgive herd analogy) the art investors… I do think sliced cows may be more difficult to sell this year.
(RG note) Thanks, Linda. And thanks to everyone who took the trouble to answer those questions. There was a fair degree of unanimity to the answers, and we have archived them all for future reference. Here’s another:
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by Pat Spencer, North Bay, ON, Canada
Which is better — feeling good or getting good? Feeling proud of one’s work is more important than selling the something that you will regret, but paying the bills is a problem. Until one can offer for sale an item that makes one proud, earn a living elsewhere.
What is good? I attended a juried show and found that I enjoyed the wide diversity of items on display. Would I buy any one of them? No! I have only so much room on my walls and they are a collection of my art creations and art that I have purchased.
Has everything already been done? No. I keep seeing new ways of looking at scenes and imagining new images that I want to try to create.
Does it matter? An artist wants to paint or create and I like to challenge myself to explore but am finding the time to do so is limited with life’s issues.
What courses should monetarily-challenged artists take? As a retired entrepreneur, I would suggest that each artist read the The EMyth by Michael Gerber. It was one of the most helpful books for deciding where I should spend my energy.
How much of the current art-poverty is due to the current recession — or does the current poverty have something to do with sliced cows? I recently attended a studio tour of local artists. By and large, the work displayed was either shoddy (used glass creations with sharp edges exposed), repetitive themes (multiple flowers or simple landscapes on multiple canvases), lots of clunky rock jewelry etc, the same pottery styles painted with different designs, photos for printing but overall very little that made me go “Wow.” The prices were atmospheric. A small wooden table with a top of crushed glass was uneven on the legs and had multiple sharp edges on the top surface offered for $275. Paintings were not interesting or unique for $400 and more. For me to buy any new art will require that the works of art I have at home be replaced. I have the money but have not seen any art that good. A new purchase will need to help me see some image or thought in a new or fresh way — not repetitions of the same old.
Niche marketing in music
by Carla Ulbrich, Somerset, NJ, USA
The argument is the same amongst musicians. Someone recently made the absurd comment that the inability of an artist to survive financially meant their art wasn’t good enough. Tell it to Van Gogh. And then, they argued further, if that low demand forced people to quit making art, then the smaller remaining pool of artists could raise their prices because supply would be less. That is not how this works. Art, whether it’s music or paintings, is not widgets. But people in the “real” world (corporate world — they think it’s real) often have an even tougher attitude towards artists than we artists do ourselves — and we thought that wasn’t possible!
For musicians, part of the problem is digitizing and the ability to get everything free. It’s so easy to listen to songs on iTunes or satellite radio, or just download them free off some illegal site — why buy it? People like Britney Spears make their money not on their music, but on their perfume line and clothing line. We under-the-radar folks can’t get a perfume deal.
What I have done is choose a niche — a natural, organic-to-me niche. I market myself doing funny medical songs (a subset of my existing work) to medical gatherings — patients, doctors, nurses. I get far more radio interviews and the phone ringing offering me gigs than before. Niche marketing — I believe it is powerful, if it’s authentic. And if I were to tell artists to take one class or read one book on a topic regarding marketing art that would be it.
Enjoy the past comments below for The plight of the undiscovered artist…
Teapot with shallots
oil painting, 11 x 20 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Jeanette Vermeyden-Obbink of Paris, ON, Canada, who wrote, “No fanfare, no great public awareness, but also no interference – but my own struggle to get better at what I do. Does it matter? Not really in the grand scheme of things, but it matters to me to be true to who I am and the gifts given to me.”
And also McKenzie Bass of Merrifield, MN, USA, who wrote, “One of my mentors, who happens to be a multi-millionaire, sat across from me two weeks ago and listened patiently to this poor artist’s woes. Before he left, he said, “I know how you like quotes — part of the reason we enjoy Mr. Genn’s letters. Here is one for you: ‘This above all; to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.’ ” ( Shakespeare)