by Lori Woodward on 7/6/2011 9:10:55 AM
During past months, I've been doing a bit of research by asking collectors where and how they most enjoy buying artwork. Additionally, I've been casually interviewing professional artists - asking them how their sales are going and where they're selling the most art.
A few trends have emerged, and in a few sentences, I'll share these with you. Since I'm not an art marketing consultant, but rather a professional artist and arts writer, I have no conflict of interest in sharing information that I know is true - whether the current trends are looking bad or good. My only goal is to help artists understand what's happening with art sales and perhaps help them take advantage of art market trends. Yes, the way art is sold and bought has changed significantly in the last 5 years.
Ten years ago, I wrote the chapter on artist websites for Calvin Goodman's Art Marketing Handbook. At the time, few - if any, artists were selling online. Today, artists are selling online from their websites, blogs and even Ebay. Brick and mortar galleries are handling a great deal of sales online, as well. Collectors are buying more and more artwork without having seen it "in real life". Even auctions take bids online or by phone these days. American Art Collector Magazine has a section near the back of each issue showing which paintings were bought, sight unseen, over the phone - solely from gallery advertisements before the show's opening.
OK, now I'll share what I've been hearing from collectors. Some of these collectors are what I think of as lifetime collectors. None of them are multi-millionaires (that I know of), but they consider building a significant art collection one of the joys of their lives. When I asked each how they prefer to acquire new work, they first mentioned museum invitational art events... one time shows where the paintings hang for a month or so and then are returned to the artists. They enjoy attending these shows where they meet the artists and visit with fellow collectors. The only complaint is that many of the paintings are sold by draw - which means names are pulled out of a box - and collectors often "lose-out" when the painting they really wanted goes to the name that was picked.
The great thing about these types of events/shows is that the non-profit museum often takes as little as 25% on the sale. The downside is that it's difficult for artists to get invitations to these events. The list of artists on the roster is what gets the avid collectors to travel to them.
Many art buyers want to meet and get to know the artist, and furthermore, they are interested in knowing why the artist painted the work they would like to purchase. Collectors truly want to know the stories behind their collected treasures. With the internet, these folks can easily get in touch with artists, and sometimes arrange for a studio visit. One collector said he prefers to buy from the artist in the quiet of the studio - even though full retail price is paid. That way he is assurred to get the work he wants without competition from other buyers.
As artists' galleries close, they are left with no recourse but to sell on their own. Many I've interviewed are just waiting for the economy to improve so that gallery sales pick up. However, just like the housing market - art collectors are not in a buying frenzy like they have been in recent years. Some collectors are wanting to "cash-in" on their investment and are selling their acquisitions at the same galleries where these artists are selling new works. Unfortunately, for all involved, these collectors are finding it difficult to re-sell work.
So, where's the good news? Gallery district rents are dropping as they deal with empty space, artists are looking for new venues and getting creative in their marketing efforts, and collectors are saving their purchases for the best art they can afford. Artists are forced to improve on both the quality of their work and and at the same time, get that work in front of art buyers. Instead of paying the traditional 50% commission to a gallery, some artists are doing their own advertising and hiring an administrator to handle sales from their websites. Of course, I'm talking about wildly successful artists who already have the money to invest in magazine ads and a staff.
So that's great for all those big named artists, but what about the middle ones, like us... like me? Here's more good news. If we create a cohesive body of work that rocks and set aside some money to get our work in front of collectors, we no longer need a gallery. It makes me sad to see so many artists vying for gallery representation, when most of the artists I know who are working with galleries are not selling any work from them (at this time). Right now, galleries are not the panacea that artists imagine.
I'm all for galleries that do a great job of representing their artists, have fair contracts, and actually sell the work that's consigned to them. I've worked with many galleries through the years, but I've also sold my work on my own. I do understand how awesome it is to say I work with "so and so - bigtime gallery", but in the end... I've sold more work on my own than any gallery has for me. I like keeping that extra 50% commission and I enjoy the relationships I have with my collectors. It's really not all that difficult to sell art - even for shy artists; just takes a bit of know-how and practice. Recently, I wrote a post on how artists can sell each other's work -- why not? Other artists who don't want to work direcly with collectors might consider hiring a friend, or even a collector who has great administration skills. Hiring someone with writing skills would also be a plus. Either pay them by the hour or else give them a 20% commission on sales.
Some artists are selling better than ever at plein air festivals right now. When the economy drops, plein air paintings sell better. The collectors buy smaller, less expensive works and, as a plus, get to meet with and eat with the artists. Another option I'm checking into right now is setting up my art booth at local farmers' markets in wealthy towns. Last week, I got in touch with an artist who has been selling her work this way. You know, if a group of farmers can get together and sell their goods on the village green once a week, what's to stop several artists from getting together every Wednesday afternoon throughout the summer months to hold a regular art show? Do we really need gatekeepers to organize events?
With all this said, if you are working with a gallery successfully, there's no reason to leave. As my tennis teacher used to say, "If you're winning, don't change a thing; if you're losing, try something different until the tides turn."
So let me leave you with this question: if artists who are working with galleries are not selling much work, and those galleries are not taking on new artists, then why would an artist spend hours building a portfolio to submit to galleries (at this time)? Why not get started selling on your own for far less money and much more profit? Forget the ego thing... being in a top gallery might make you feel good, but it won't necessarily bring you income right now.