A look at the recent history of how artists have gotten by without starving, and why the future looks bright if you want to sell your art.
Change is Here to Stay
By Lori Woodward
The History of Galleries
Forty years ago, there was only a fraction of the number of existing commercial galleries, compared to the number that has proliferated in the last twenty years. For example, when Clark Hulings, a young artist at the time, approached Grand Central Gallery in New York City for representation, he was turned down multiple times, until one day when he took new work in for the owner to evaluate. His paintings were propped against the wall, and the owner was about to give him the typical “You’re not ready yet” speech. Then a collector happened in and wanted to buy one of his paintings. Well, that did it! Hulings began to be represented by that gallery.
In the 1950s and ’60s, there were very few galleries in the United States, and they were difficult to “get into.” I believe that the closure of a large percentage of galleries in the last five years indicates that the consignment system is returning to a few stable galleries, more like the situation from the 1950s through the ’70s.
The Art-Buying Bubble
Since the 1990s, not only was there a proliferation of galleries but also of capable artists. Access to quality art education has never been easier to obtain. Hundreds of workshops and art schools have popped up since the mid-1990s, giving aspiring artists access to art education for any medium or style they want to learn. In addition to art workshops and classes, the publication of art instruction books became commonplace.
Because quality art education has been easier to obtain in recent decades, today we have a proliferation of excellent artists, and the “bar of excellence” is constantly rising. Recently, I judged a national competition, and I was astounded by the number of highly professional paintings. On the first pass, I selected 162 out of 800 submissions that I thought had merit. It was extremely difficult to narrow the finalists down to 11 winners.
Supply and Demand
Just as a major correction occasionally occurs in the stock market, the art market had its own correction after 2008. When money was flowing and the housing market flourished, art sales reached an all-time high, and the art buying bubble enabled many more artists to make a living than in past decades. I personally know artists who sold entire walls of their art at gallery openings; some sold works right out of the box before they even reached the gallery wall.
For many artists, that spending spree ended by the summer of 2010. I’ve heard of some artists who regularly sold enough of their art to make annual six-figure incomes during the boom. These same artists experienced such a drop in sales at their galleries, that they were lucky to sell more than ten thousand dollars worth of paintings in 2011.
Even worse, during the art-buying boom, many galleries quadrupled the prices of emerging artists because their sales flourished no matter how many times the prices were raised. In some cases, the higher-priced work sold more quickly, but when the buying bubble burst, painting prices that rose too quickly began to fall, and collectors started asking for discounts. A ten percent discount at galleries has become the norm.
But there’s good news. By the spring of 2012, many artists working with galleries were reporting that sales had picked up, especially for their larger works. However, because art galleries continue to close, it’s important that artists create multiple streams of income. I advise making a plan that will work even if all your galleries close. Some of that plan might include some form of passive income, through the sales of books, e-books, or reproductions. All the most famous artists have passive income. In a way it’s an insurance policy—it’s always there in case you reach the point where for some reason you can no longer paint. Plus, someone else can take over a business that includes passive income.
Standing Out in the Crowd
As more and more artists work on building a following for their work, it becomes increasingly difficult to make that work stand out in the crowd. The trick is to find your “peeps,” or more explicitly, your potential collectors. If you’re just getting started selling your work, start with prices that are high enough to allow for a profit after all your expenses and/or gallery commissions are paid. As your collector base grows, you can safely raise your prices by 10 percent or so each year that you sell more than 75 percent of your works.
Just because the number of professional artists selling their work has grown exponentially, that shouldn’t, and doesn’t, mean that you can’t make a living from the sale of your work. In fact, there are many more artists making a decent living from the sale of their art than ever before, but these sales are not necessarily by working with galleries.
Remember, there are many levels of collectors who shop in a variety of price ranges and styles, and for different reasons. It’s your job as a small business owner to find which crowd of collectors has a taste for your work, and at what price point. Then make a plan to reach those collectors on a regular basis with images of your work. Fortunately, with the advent of internet sales, reaching and cultivating collectors is easier than ever.
Enter the Internet
The internet has changed the way the world buys and sells almost everything. Big box stores for books, music, and even small appliances and cameras have closed their doors for good.
I heard a statistic that said for each item purchased today, 97 percent of those purchases began with an online search. Online stores, such as Amazon, also have the advantage of listing reviews for any item.
Today, storefronts are digital, and while it might seem that original artwork needs to be seen in real life, it isn’t actually working that way. Have you gone to an art opening lately? The participating artists show up to the reception, but most of the collectors use their phones to buy a painting they saw online or in a magazine advertisement. The majority of art is acquired with a phone call or email. Afterward, the art is shipped to the collector. That is unless the show’s paintings are sold “by draw” or the event is an auction where collectors need to be physically present to bid on artwork.
Art is a Do-it-Yourself Business
Unless you’re already a top-selling artist, you’re going to need to learn how to promote your work, build a following, and run your business on your own—whether you work with galleries or not. As galleries across the nation continue to close, those still in business are reluctant to take on additional artists. Even good artists with excellent resumes are finding it difficult to get gallery representation. I’ve heard about several artists who have abandoned the gallery system after several of their galleries closed. They are now selling work on their own.
It’s sort of a Catch-22, in that artists need to have a consistent body of work, a strong following, and a sales history for a gallery to take them on. That’s why many artists are skipping the “middleman” and running their businesses completely on their own. With easy and inexpensive access to website development and by posting on social media platforms, artists have many avenues to reach collectors and believe me, hundreds of artists are using these to make a living.
Even art galleries are changing the way they sell to collectors. Some, like Brigham Galleries in Massachusetts, have moved their business model to online shows. Other gallery owners have closed their arts district locations and store inventory at their homes.
Adele Earnshaw has had a successful career selling her large oil paintings at galleries in the Southwest. When the economy dwindled, her gallery sales did as well, so she decided that instead of getting a non-art job to “pay the bills,” she offered small 4×4, unframed paintings of birds from her website for a reasonable price. While some of her artist friends found part-time work at non-art businesses to make ends meet, Adele found that with two hours of painting, she could make as much as her friends did by working all day. She reported that she sold 100 percent of these small paintings—allowing her to easily make ends meet until gallery sales picked up.
Likewise, Qiang Huang, an artist who sells larger paintings through brick-and-mortar galleries, began selling smaller, unframed works through an organization called Daily Paintworks, headed by Carol Marine. In the depth of the recession, Qiang sold 100 percent of his small paintings, thereby allowing him to quit his full-time job as a physicist. Interestingly, some avid collectors who bought his smaller paintings then purchased his larger works from his galleries. These collectors bought his small works so that they could experience Qiang’s work in real life, and then they called the gallery for his larger paintings.
Another way that artists supplement their gallery sales is by offering commissioned work. Landscape artists offer larger versions of their studies and small paintings—perhaps at a custom size and format to fit in a client’s home or office.
Others offer wall murals. One artist friend of mine is now involved in art for the city of Tucson. Her designs are seen on bridges and downtown walkways. She previously taught art in the school system and worked with galleries in the Southwest.
On Using Social Media to Sell Your Art
I have experienced exponential growth in my visibility as an artist, teacher, and consultant, as a result of using social media. Online exhibits of my work, with links to my writing and art instruction tutorials, have given me amazing results. For example, one of the blogs I wrote in 2009 about pricing artwork is still the number one most-read blog post for that online community.
By 2004, I stopped selling through galleries and began to sell my work directly. Many of those sales came from my “artist in residence” stays at a luxury B&B in Tucson. I have also sold work directly from my website. And yes, most of these sales were to previous buyers.
The best way for me to reach collectors and get them to buy my work has been through my email newsletter. It takes several years to build a following online, but it can and has been done. I see a handful of artists selling by using links on Facebook, Twitter, their blog, and now Pinterest. The key is to have a direct link from these social networks to where the paintings reside. This can be a link to the page where your work is at a commercial gallery, or to your blog or website. Some artists use eBay auctions to sell their work with links from Facebook and Twitter.
The exciting news: Just because your galleries close and you feel abandoned, doesn’t mean that you can’t make a living as an artist. If you teach, that is a huge plus—this gives you the opportunity to live-stream “pay-for” tutorials. Every six months, it seems that there is a new way to inexpensively post your content online. Again, you will need to build a sufficient following to get folks to hit the “Buy now” button.
On top of that, with PayPal and now Square (www.squareup. com), artists can take credit card payments without having to pay for a vendor’s account with a bank. I use PayPal for buyers from my website, and many artists have the same option from their blogs. At outdoor art fairs, artists can attach a Square device to their 3G iPhone or iPad/tablet and slide a credit card through it. Once the purchase has been made, a receipt is automatically emailed to the buyer. I recently heard a story about how a jewelry artist sold a pair of earrings she was wearing at a restaurant to someone sitting at the next table. She took out her phone and Square, slid the buyer’s card through, and sold the earrings right off her ears!
I completely understand how overwhelming these new changes in technology can be. Just work at becoming accustomed to the fact that the ways you market your work will continually change. Embrace these changes; they actually make it easier to make a living by the sale of your artwork.
The Future Is Bright
I originally wrote the preceding article almost a decade ago. Social media algorithms will continue to evolve, sometimes in our favor, and other times those changes make it more difficult for posts to be seen. Even so, I can say that through social media I’ve been able to introduce my artwork to thousands of folks across the globe, and that would not have been possible in decades past.
I have recently seen the occasional article about how the gallery system is still dying. While it may have seemed that way during the Great Recession, I can confidently report that gallery sales overall have been thriving, especially during the pandemic. More than a few galleries have reported more paintings sold in 2020/21 than they had in any previous year of business. Some of my artist colleagues who sell exclusively through galleries are currently reporting avid sales.
In addition to gallery and website art sales, artists are creating multiple streams of income through online platforms. They are selling educational pre-recorded demonstrations and modules, self-producing print books and reproductions, or building a loyal paying subscriber base using Patreon for consistent monthly income.
While robust economies will come and go, artists now have the power and means to make a continuous income with very little money invested. The key to growing a loyal audience means posting your very best work on social media with links to your website where visitors can subscribe to your email newsletter. No matter how algorithms change with social media platforms, you are the boss of your newsletter. It’s where you have total control of what your subscribers see.
Sure, these new ways of showing and selling work will take time away from creating, and learning the ropes of changing social media platforms is sometimes overwhelming. That said, finding folks who will love and buy your art is truly easier than it’s ever been. For this, I am thankful.
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