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selling art

Over the last several weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know a lot of artists on Twitter.  Many of our conversations have centered around selling art.  Unfortunately, social media is not the best place to sell art or get answers.  Visual artists are a unique breed and while generic marketing advice is sometimes helpful, it doesn’t address the specifics of the art business.

Consequently, I’m going to start a series of posts that will touch on some of things I’ve learned about selling art. Feel free to comment, share, and follow along as I delve into this topic. If selling art doesn’t interest you and is not why you visit this blog, don’t worry. I’ll keep posting on other topics in between.

Selling Your Art is not as hard as you think.

When I first made the decision to become a full time artist, I was blessed to have a friend who had been doing it successfully for years. She gave me some important advice at the beginning that made a real difference in my success. To qualify that success, I’m talking real dollars — enough to support my family and put my kids through private school.  Some of things I learned might help you get where you want to go.

The first piece of advice she gave was, “If you can’t make it good, make it big.  If you can’t make it big, make it red.”

I laughed.  Hard.  But it turns out, she was right.  Hmmmm.  This advice rocks the sensibilities of most artists and yet it is valuable because it takes us out of our artist heads and into the minds of our clients. The following are some other things I learned.

Lesson 1:  Be a professional

Yes, you’ve heard it, and I will say it again.  Pay a photographer to shoot your work. You won’t get into shows with shabby images. The most important shot is your booth shot, or group shot, because it demonstrates your body of work and your professionalism.

In addition, make sure your work is really finished.  By this, I mean take the time to respect your potential clients. Hanging mechanisms, appropriate pedestals, quality frames, etc. make the difference between a sale and missing the mortgage payment. If you don’t invest in your work, why would anyone else?

Lesson 2: Be yourself and tell your story

The first outdoor show I attended scared me to death. I dressed to the nines and made satin curtains for my booth that billowed gently in a breeze. When the show opened, I sat inside and politely greeted passers-by.  “Good morning, nice day isn’t?” Or, “Enjoying the weather?” The customers smiled at me and kept walking.

At this point in time, I was broke, the sole support of my three children, and heavily invested.  If I didn’t sell my work, I was bankrupt. As luck would have it, an art shark waited until 7 am the day after the show ended to call me. I agreed to sell two small bronzes and a life sized, abstract steel piece for $2,000 (far less than the actual cost of making them) but it was enough to get me to the next show.

A few months later, humbled and still mostly broke, I did a show in Breckenridge, CO. It was supposed to be cold that weekend and I had only brought cold weather clothes. There was a surprise heatwave and the only clothes I had with me were cutoff, denim shorts and a tattered tee-shirt — work clothes.  I couldn’t afford to shop the pricey boutiques, nor did I have the time. So I wore what I had.

I sold more work at that show than any prior and it blew my mind. In retrospect, I was comfortable, in my body, and not picking at unfamiliar straps or tight waistbands. I moved easily and engaged more directly. Fully me, I was present and not trying to impress.  Instead of holding myself back, I engaged and talked about my work, telling the stories that had inspired me to make it.

People loved the stories!  

Often, buyers are drawn to work, but don’t feel comfortable buying it because they don’t trust their own reaction to it. Nobody wants to be laughed at by more knowledgeable people. When I told stories about my life in relation to the work I produced, they identified with the subject matter and the execution. Then, when they bought it, they had a story to tell themselves and a way to justify their own, emotional reaction to the work. Powerful stuff.

As I got better at telling my stories, I sold more work. A lot more work. Ultimately, I realized that art buyers aren’t just collecting objects, they are collecting me. Moral of the story, be yourself, be comfortable, and engage with stories about your life your buyers can relate to and apply to their own lives.

Upcoming posts will go into more detail about storytelling, pricing, and finding your market.  

How about you?  Do you tell stories about your work?  Let me know in the comments and don’t forget to follow the blog to get future posts.