The Lure of the Art World & The Seeds of Rebellion
The Art World has a seductive lure when you first start out. You start imagining all the amazing success you’ll have….all the work you’ll sell. Flights of fancy are fun. I indulged. However, I also did my ‘homework’ on the business of art. I found a lot of things I didn’t like. A lot. For years I grappled with reconciling what I learned in art school about selling art (which is to say, you don’t sell art), what I was reading on my own, and my own experiences as a former small business owner. The rules of the Art World made no sense, at least not from a business standpoint of an artist. My confusion became frustration, then anger, then depression, then I quit…..but I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at…….
I started exhibiting art in 2008. I had just started art school, at the the ripe old age of 35. My major was technically digital art but most of my art classes were non-digital. Since I was going to be creating lots of physical art, I thought ‘why not figure out how to exhibit art?’ Now, I didn’t think I was actually going to get accepted to an art show. In fact I read a blog post, forwarded to the school by a counselor, that said that one could expect to be rejected at least 50 times before that first acceptance. 50 times?!?! I figured I wouldn’t really have to worry about actually showing work and I did want to understand the process. I’m like that. I like to understand things.
My First Show
Even though I was in art school, I created a few pieces on my own time. I did my ‘homework’ on what was commonly required when entering an art exhibit. My college passed along a ‘Call for Entry’ for a gallery in Charlottesville, VA. I’m from Ohio and hadn’t lived in Virginia all that long. I had no idea where Charlottesville was & didn’t bother to Google it. I was, after all, going to get rejected right? Yeah, about that. I submitted two pieces & both were accepted. Charlottesville, as it turned out, was a a 2+ hour drive from my house. I was accepted though so I didn’t care. I dropped off my work with a big ole smile on my face. I had no idea how to price my pieces….even though I did a lot of homework on the subject. I told the gallery owner I was open to suggestions but gave her prices I thought would work, and she agreed. Awesome! Did I sell them? Nope. I wasn’t expecting to either.
I kept putting my art out there. My work started selling. I even raised my prices once. Then I lowered them. The horror! I broke the cardinal rule of the Art World: Thou Shalt Never LOWER One’s Prices, Thou Shalt Only Raise Them – No Exceptions. I started wondering what, exactly, was the Art World doing for me? Or for any artist? Who were these rules designed to benefit exactly (hint: not artists)? For several years I showed my art while this conflict raged inside of me. A conflict that wanted to sell art, wanted to sell affordable art, and wanted to sell to literally anyone, anytime, anywhere.
Galleries – Expensive but Worth it? Rarely.
The gallery world isn’t really conducive to selling affordable art (or anything really, but that’s a different discussion). I started wondering about the often sky-high commissions galleries wanted me to pay. These big commissions were even paid for showing at a group show that I had to pay just to enter (just for the possibility, not a guarantee, of showing my art). I started doing the math and the numbers weren’t in my favor. They weren’t in any artist’s favor.
Why should I pay 30%, 40%, or more of my selling price to a gallery? What are they doing with this money? I know what the rent on commercial property is and how much commercial utilities are. I also know that most galleries, in large cities, can earn several months worth of rent just off entry fees (confirmed by a gallery owner – as well as basic math). I started wondering about how galleries were spending money, in general, and how they operated.
I ended up with a list of questions, criteria really (although I didn’t know that then): How were they marketing the gallery & what are they doing to bring in clients? Are they still sending out printed postcards (a total waste of time, effort, and money)? Do they even bother with social media more than just once in a blue moon? Does their website look like it was created in 1997? Why do I always see the same people at every opening reception (and the only new faces turn out to be friends/family/neighbors/coworkers of an exhibiting artist)? What were (are) these galleries doing to earn those commissions? Not much. Not. Much. But without galleries how does one sell art?
The Rebellion Begins…..almost
I knew the internet was the solution to the problem of selling art without a gallery, or at least one of them. By selling online, I wouldn’t have to put a huge markup on my work to cover gallery commissions. I wanted to sell art, not have a giant collection of in my house collecting dust. Unlike a lot of artists I know, I also realized that “build it and they will come (buy)” is a stupid movie quote, not a realistic business plan. I had a website but having a website and selling from it are two different things. I personally don’t buy anything from websites that look sketchy, or that make me wonder what will happen if there’s a problem. I realized this was a big downside to selling art directly from you site. So I didn’t. I still don’t.
I thought about doing art fairs, craft shows, and other such venues. Then I ran into the basic problem that I’m an introvert. I’m not good a being around people, or being social even in the general sense. I used to be good at it. Then the opportunity presented itself. I was invited to participate in an arts & craft show at a high school. It was a disaster. I spent several hundred dollars on displays and sold less than $10. I did learn a lot from the experience though…..but mostly that I shouldn’t do those kinds of shows.
Now I sell very well at Artomatic events. Very well. I wouldn’t dream of not doing an Artomatic. What I couldn’t figure out was how to sell art when there wasn’t an Artomatic. Those shows don’t happen very often so figuring this out was really important. Also, what if I move to another state where there isn’t an Artomatic? What do I do then?
I was stuck. Frustrated. Depressed.
A lot of things led to my hiatus. I couldn’t figure out how to sell art without Artomatic. I was terrible at selling at live events. I even started doubting my own creativity. I was crap. My art was crap. Everything was crap. So, in 2013, I just stopped.
Facebook compounded the problem. I was a complete Facebook addict for at least 2 years. I created a ‘Page’ for my studio but never really utilized it properly. Then one day I realized Facebook was contributing nothing good to my life, so I quit. Well, mostly. In order to maintain a Page, you need a personal account. I created a new one under a fake name (so I wouldn’t offend anyone after I told them all I was quitting Facebook). Not long after I stopped making art. I just stopped.
For two years I did nothing. I couldn’t even walk into my art studio – which is in my basement! I didn’t go into the basement, ever, aside from doing laundry, all because I didn’t want to think about art. I forced myself to go down there once. Then a giant wave of doubt & insecurity crushed me like a bug.
Then it happened…..
Artomatic 2015: End Hiatus
I saw that Artomatic 2015 was going to opening for registration soon. Artomatic, the show I always sell at. I had a studio with art in it. I hate throwing stuff out, it’s so wasteful. “Just one more show, clearance out as much as you can,” is what I told myself. One last hurrah before I just sell off the contents of my studio.
Then orientation day came. The chairman of Artomatic asked veterans to share their experiences to help the newcomers. I babbled something almost incomprehensible. I was mortified and ashamed. For penance I thought I would write something up that made a bit more sense. Even if no one read it, at least I could say I tried. Then people read it. A lot of people.
I was even more mortified. “OMG I’m a shitty writer!! Did that even make any sense?? How the hell did this happen??” It happened because I tagged the show when I shared the article to my Facebook Page. I never realized people actually paid attention to those things. They do. So I wrote two more articles. Seemed like the thing to do….even if I am a shitty writer.
Artomatic 2015 was a success. I sold far more art than I thought I would. People were thanking me left & right for my articles. I had no idea (& still don’t) how to respond to people. Internally I’m so grateful that something I did actually helped someone. Showing that externally is something I literally have no idea how to do & have it seem genuine. But I try.
In any event, I talked to a man at length about my articles. He encourages me to keep writing, to start a blog, to develop courses, to help other artists become better at selling art. Could I really do that? It’s been almost 8 months and I’m still wondering if I can – but I am here and I am writing another blog post.
The Rebellion Begins
After the show ended, I really started thinking about what I knew about selling art. On one hand, not much. One the other hand, a lot. I started a blog. I decided I needed to focus my creative efforts. I decided to retire several themes and mediums. I decided to relaunch myself as an artist. I started with my brand. What is it? Why is it different? How can I make it better? I redid all of my graphics. I redid my entire website (twice).
I began to research and reflect – which is ongoing. I researched everything I could about social media marketing, actual marketing, SEO, website optimization, selling strategies, you name it. I reflected on my life. I used to be a damn good sales person in my early 20s. What did that teach me? I’ve had my hand in marketing efforts for many companies over the years. What did I learn? I’ve owned my own nonprofit education center where I served as the Director of the Arts & Cultural. What experiences did that give me? I owned my own brick & mortar gift shop. What did I learn doing that? AND, most importantly, can any of that be applied to selling art without the Art World?
Yes. Yes it can.
Screw the Art World – I Sell Art
That brings us to now. Selling art without the Art World can be done. I’ve seen many artists selling the hell out of their work online. I follow a store on Etsy where a single artist has sold over 3,000 works of art. This means it sure as hell can be done. It takes a hell of a lot of time, effort, and energy to do so – just like it does when you build a regular business. Do you need galleries? Nope. That doesn’t mean I never show in them, it just means I’ve become super selective.
Think about that. I, the artist, am selective about the galleries I’m willing to work with. Ha! Yes I’m talking about ‘casual galleries,’ not high-end galleries but that doesn’t matter. I’m focused on selling work. Specifically I’m focused on selling affordable work – to anyone, not just “Collectors” (people known to the art world who add value to an artist’s work mere by owning a piece because they’re special like that). Galleries have to prove, through their actions, that they are really committed to selling art in the 21st century. I view galleries as a partner. If my partner isn’t carrying their weight, they’re not my partner anymore.
Sales, Marketing, & Social Media
Sales is a game of numbers. I learned that as a sales person. If 50 people walk through the proverbial door & you only talk to 10, the chances that you’ll sell to one is pretty small. If you talk to all 50, your chances of selling is much higher. This is how I approach social media. The more followers I have, the more chances I will have to make a sale. Sounds easy right? Not even a little.
Social media is a key part of my new strategy BUT it takes a lot of time, effort, and dedication. Each social media service has its own set of rules & guidelines – and I’m talking about official policy. For example, the strategies you apply to Facebook don’t work on Twitter or Instagram, or vise versa. On Twitter, the rule of thumb (generally speaking) is ‘if I follow you, you follow me back.’ That doesn’t work on Instagram or Facebook. Hashtags are king on Twitter & Instagram. Facebook, well, you can technically use them but I’ve never seen much increase in traffic when I do. The point is that I aside time to learn about social media regularly. It changes frequently and I need to change with it or I’m wasting my time.
Outside of social media, I need to hunt down every opportunity – no matter how much disdain the traditional Art World has for said opportunity. This means thinking ‘outside the box’ by doing things like contacting realtors, cafes, restaurants, publishing houses & self published authors (to do book covers), magazines, art fairs, conventions, etc. If there’s an opportunity to put art on a wall – even if that wall has never had art on it – I need to find a way to get my art on that wall. This means I have to be as creative outside of my studio as I am in it.
Will I Succeed at Selling Art Without the Art World?
I do know that I refuse to allow anyone else to dictate to me how I run MY business. I refuse to follow rules that remove price control, that tell me how or where I can and cannot show art, and that try to make me feel bad for selling art. This is MY business.
Selling Art Without the Art World is possible. Only time will tell if it’s possible for me to do it. But I’m going to work my ass off and I’ll tell you everything I learn along the way – good or bad. Yes, if I fail, you’ll know about it. In detail.