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Several years ago, I did a big show in Ann Arbor, Michigan. People were bused in from the tri-state area and the streets were a river of people. My booth was next to an artist from Texas. He made cute paintings of farm houses, trees, and pears, each mounted in his signature frame. First to admit his work wasn’t high art, he enjoyed making and selling it.

We had a good time chatting until the judges came around and the show began. Then, this artist worked harder than he had ever worked in his life. Not only did he take best of show in category, he made more than $30,000 in three days selling $200 – $600 pieces.

Meanwhile, I worked as hard as I’ve ever worked to close three sales. Two of these sales required driving to a neighboring state after hours. I met one buyer and her designer in her bathroom at midnight.  Needless to say, I was perplexed and exhausted.

I puzzled over this show for a long time. Then, in a different state, at a different show, I met up with this artist again. This time, I did $30,000 in sales and he had a zero show.

What happened?

Nothing. Michigan preferred more conservative works. Oklahoma liked contemporary abstract. My intensely crafted outpouring of soul means nothing to people who like cute pears. Conversely, people who resonate strongly with my style are not going to buy his. It’s all about the market.

If you can make it, I promise there are people in the world who want to buy it. You just have to find them.

Unfortunately, the art market is changing rapidly. Last year, 90% of my sales were commissions and many were from prior collectors. The days of impulse buying are mostly gone. Collectors want a direct relationship with artists and objects that mean something to them personally. In this climate, collectors are once again becoming patrons.

So what are artists to do if they don’t have many patrons?

Those who have worked for years to cultivate relationships beyond the exchange of dollars for art are doing okay. Some are still having success generating new interest in their work at street fairs and art festivals, though these have also seen a decline. In addition, fairs are expensive and there is no guarantee that showing up will generate sales. Most often, galleries don’t share client lists even when they go out of business and leave you hanging (If you can, negotiate for this in your contract. It’s only fair.)

Now is the time to reinvent ourselves, our businesses, and our expectations. This doesn’t mean ditching the work you love to make something currently in fashion. It means digging deep, reaching wide, and taking risks. It also means building meaningful relationships with potential buyers and others in the business. Most importantly, it means looking for new channels to sell your work. It’s a long road, but the sooner you get started, the sooner you get where you want to go.

In the last post, I mentioned an artist who is hosting auction parties every month at his studio. Other innovative examples of creating markets include the storefront art model and community exhibit spaces like the one I run outside Santa Fe.  Both take advantage of otherwise empty retail space to promote art and artists and simultaneously drive traffic to commercial districts.  It’s a win-win.

Here are some other tips that might help:

1. The Art Fair Sourcebook evaluates street fairs across the country based on artist sales. It’s a great resource even if you are not doing shows because it helps identify the style of work a population is most likely to buy. The owner of the company is an artist himself and I have consistently found his evaluations to be on target.

2. Engage in social media and talk to artists around the country or the globe.  They know what sells in their market.

3. Develop your own market by building a mailing list of people interested in your work, blogging, and utilizing social media to develop long lasting relationships with art buyers. Facebook has groups for art collectors.  Join one, don’t shout, and engage in the dialog. If you don’t have a website or a blog, get one. WordPress, and others like it, are free and easy to use. Follow blogs by other artists and people in the business of art. More importantly, follow art buyers as they tweet, blog, and share their recent purchases through sites like Tumblr and Pinterest. Get to know them before you invite them to look at your work.

4.  Reach out to your past collectors just to say hi. They love to know what you’re up to, but they also love to be part of your life. Think about it, for all the cynical jokes about buying art to match the sofa, your collectors are actually buying you — your voice, passion, and unique expression. If they can, they will buy from you again. If they can’t they will at least be a fan and promote you to their friends.  A few months ago, a couple came to town and wanted to meet me.  Friends of theirs had commissioned a sculpture last year. Since then, unbeknownst to me, they had been looking at my work. I recently completed a commission for them.

5. Build an installation portfolio and show it as often as you can.  Seeing your work in actual locations helps people to make a buying decision. Even if you don’t have many sales yet, photograph your art in real places so people can see it in context.  Take a look at the photos below to get a sense of what I’m talking about.

intallation example copy

6. Establish yourself as an expert in your area. Often libraries, art centers, local museums, and other venues are happy to have artists give talks on their process, the history of their media, etc.  Come up with some things you can talk about and approach them. Then, when you’ve got a talk scheduled, write a press release and notify the local media. Don’t forget to invite everyone you know.

7. When you’ve had a success, share it. People love to hear when things go right. The more they hear, the more seriously you are taken as an artist. That often generates increased sales.

8. Find the right audience. If you paint pictures of your global travels, approach your local travel store for a show. If you photograph flowers, approach the master gardeners in your area and invite them to have you photograph their private gardens (for a fee, of course). If you are doing equestrian art, approach your local tack store and see if they will hang some of work on commission. Be creative. You’re an artist.

9. Be passionate about what you do. Passion sells faster than anything else. Don’t minimize your excitement about a new piece, but as I mentioned in a previous post, know your story. What we have in common has more power than what sets us apart.  Artists speak to the universal or scream, unheard, into a void.

10. Price your work to sell. It will not gain value collecting dust in your studio. In reality, most art declines in value over time, so stop trying to be the next Van Gogh (who died a pauper, by the way).

A woman participating in a show at our exhibit space was dead broke. She had lost her job in recession, her unemployment benefits were about to run out, and she was desperate. Never-the-less, she priced her 24″ x 36″ paintings at $6,000 each (note, this was her first show). I asked her what she was thinking and she said the works would sell for that on Canyon Road. True, but we weren’t on Canyon Road and she didn’t have any track record. After some discussion, she re-priced the works at $1,100 each. During the opening, she sold three. Mortgage paid and children fed, there was enough left over to buy canvases.

In the next post, I’ll talk more about pricing. Stay tuned and, as always, please share your thoughts and questions in the comment section below.