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I’m heading to the studio in a little while and, though I dread the ensuing backache, I’m looking forward to it. Having spent the last twenty years pursuing sculpture with a vengeance, it’s been hard to step away. I miss the daily wrestling with something as big, or bigger, than myself, the smell of burning metal, and the almost mystical contemplation of a work in progress. For years, I defined myself by the work I did — not just sculpting, but sculpting in steel.

These days, I’m sculpting words more often than metal, and that’s good.  My injury has forced me to take a hard look at my definitions of self and what it means to be creative.

What does all this have to do with selling your art?  Everything.

In the last few posts, I’ve talked about storytelling and how it is essential if you want to engage a buyer at a deep level (read turn potential buyers into life long collectors).

Today, I promised to address the quote I didn’t have time to get to yesterday. For those of you who missed that post, this is the quote:

“Anyone else ever feel the business side of being an artist sometimes gets in the way of creativity? I need to find an agent/gallery.”  — taken from a Twitter thread.

Everything I do is creative. From walking the dogs to cleaning the house, writing a blog to creating a sculpture, working on a novel or a relationship. Creativity is in every fiber of my being. It is also in every fiber of yours, if you allow it to be.  This does not mean all my creative endeavors are successful or even aesthetic — just look in my kitchen cabinets — but when you apply your creativity to otherwise mundane chores, sparks fly and movement happens.  This is good because without it, your work will not find the audience it deserves.

Unfortunately, contracting with an agent or a gallery doesn’t mean you will sell any more art. Representation only guarantees your work will hang on a wall outside your studio. That is not to say you can’t get lucky, or that an agent or gallery is not going to sell your work, but it is likely that if you are not already working on selling it yourself, nothing will change when you do find representation.

Artists have to sell their own work.  They have to sell it to the public, agents, and galleries.  No one can effectively represent you if you have not given them what they need to do a good job.

So are you ready for a gallery or agent?

Here’s a check list.

1.  Is your work priced appropriately? Some artists price works according to their own relationship with it. I knew a guy who hung an unfinished collage in a group show at our exhibit space and priced it at $1.5 million. Another piece of his was priced at $600.  Hmmm. This is a great example of artist ego hurting artist sales.  His collage contained some of his childhood photos, but he wasn’t sure he could part with them, so he set a price that he could live with. In the process, he guaranteed he wouldn’t sell them.

Pricing work is a challenge, but it is critical to your success. I recommend a formula of height x width x $ figure. The dollar figure needs to reflect your true expenses, the commission a gallery or agent will take, and the profit you need to make. I price my sculptures at $4.25 x square inch, while my paintings are priced at $2 per square inch. This makes me competitive and guarantees that while I won’t make a killing, I can make a decent living. In reality, if I priced higher, I would sell less work.

Additionally, you need to keep your prices consistent. Don’t sell a piece in California for less than you would sell it in Santa Fe. I promise, you don’t want to do this.  Even if there is no commission to be paid to  a gallery or an agent, you have invested to promote your work and taken on the role of a gallery. In all the years I chose not to be represented by a gallery, my costs were at least the same, or higher, than the commission galleries charged. Travel, promotional materials, web development, etc. consumed up to 60% of my revenue. Be fair and realistic or no gallery will want to represent you.

Finally, price according to the media you work with and take into consideration that your attempt to sell a $400 framed photograph at a gallery whose monthly overhead is in excess of $10,000 will fail. They can’t justify the wall space, so you need to be creative if you are working in a media that sells at this price point (more on this later).

2.  Have you prepared your sales tools?  Yes, that’s your job. An artist statement, bio, and professionally photographed body of work are essential. No gallery can sell your work without them. Artists tend to think of each piece as its own, unique, thing.  It’s not. Just like an author or musician, artists need fans. Can you imagine Bonnie Raitt deciding to go punk on her new album without telling you? Or Stephen King switching to romance all of a sudden? People would be really upset. This does not mean you should not continue to explore and try new things, it just means that you need to develop one polished body of work at a time. Then your style can evolve and/or you can introduce a new body of work to excite your existing base and attract new collectors.

When writing your statement, don’t use art speak. Everyone hates it. Would you buy something from a gallery if the representative told you that the work (a landscape of New Mexico) was a transcendental journey into self and universe via the metaphysical train of soul and god? Probably not. You probably wouldn’t even buy it if it were an abstract. It might mean that to the artist, but I guarantee it won’t mean that to the potential buyer or gallery.

You also don’t want to give a generic bio as in, “I moved to New Mexico in 1979 for the beautiful light, sky, and mountains.” Yeah, you and and everyone else. These statements generate this response. “Who cares?”

I haven’t learned anything about you, your process, or your work with either of these approaches. Be real. As in, “Each of my works begins with a question usually related to my life.  Using geometric shapes and organic forms, I create a dialog in the works to examine myths, roles, and human relationships. The organic forms represent the emotional aspect of my question while the geometric shapes represent the intellectual component,” is one example. Then, when someone has read your statement and is looking at your work, they are more likely to have an Ah Ha moment. That’s what you’re after. Your goal, in spite of the hype, is not to baffle or confuse. It is to have your expression understood.

3.  Are you ready to be a business partner?  Because that is what you are as soon as you sign with an agent or a gallery. They are not taking you on to make your life easier. They are taking you on to make money. If you are not a good partner, they won’t sell your work. It’s like a marriage. Can you imagine the tension, hostility, and resentment you would experience if your spouse expected you to do all the domestic work, plus your regular job, so he or she could self-indulge on a transcendental journey? My response to that spouse, “Glad your levitating, but the F***ing dishes still need to get done.” On the flip side, you could do the metaphorical dishes together while listening to your favorite Bonnie Raitt goes punk album and talking about the beautiful, New Mexico sky.

Your job in the partnership is to:

  • A) Produce a consistent amount of product (yes, at this point it is product) so that the store shelves are never bare.  For most artists, this is somewhere between 40 and 100 works per year (not counting prints, miniatures, etc.)
  • B) Help the gallery to sell your work by being present, attending openings (even when they’re not your own) and assisting in any way you can.
  • C) Marketing through social media, developing relationships with local press, and creating a mailing list of your own. Use these tools and relationships to regularly remind people of what you are doing and where you are showing.  Additionally, you need to bring collectors or potential buyers into the gallery. On this note NEVER undercut your gallery by selling work at a discount out of your studio. You might make a fast buck, but your reputation as a professional is finished.

These are the basics, beyond the steps I assume you already know (portfolio, evaluating good fits for your work, etc.)

So what does all of this have to do with being creative? Art is the process of relationship. Through it we discover and share ourselves. Apply this to the marketing aspect of being artist and relish the relationships that develop, the skills you acquire, and the knowledge you glean. Everything in life feeds our creative expression or, conversely, blocks it. Think of out of the box ways to sell your work. One artist I know has a monthly auction at his studio. He sets a minimum bid on all the works, throws a party, and invites everyone he knows. It’s working for him. Not only is he making a living, he gets to make his art full time. That, I think, is the dream.

Now, it’s off to the studio for me. In upcoming posts I will share other creative marketing ideas, as well as delve deeper into pricing and promotion.

Please share your questions and thoughts.