Artists often need help knowing how to sell art. People with creative minds don’t usually have marketing skills — when was the last time you met a writer or painter who was also an expert in self-promotion?
If you want to know how to sell art, you need to start with a basic understanding of how art is bought and sold. Once upon a time, an artist could depend on a system of patronage or an appointment from a member of a royal family in order to pay the rent. These days, there’s no such thing as a court composer. Want to know how to sell art?
How Art Sells
There is very little art sold at the upper levels of the art world without the help of an art consultant, artist’s agent, or an art dealer. Sure, artists sell their work privately to friends all the time, people sell their art on the Internet using Etsy and other direct marketing sites, and there’s always the small gallery sales and unknown artist purchases — but if you are trying to break into the world of Serious Art, you’ll probably need to pay one of these entities (by the hour) for their services. The life of an artist would be easier without having to depend on these outside parties for support, and if you can make a living selling your art at the farmer’s markets and sidewalk shows, more power to you. But when it comes to valuable modern art, selling your work on your own is not going to get the job done.
How much should you charge for your art? What is the actual value of your art versus the investment value? What payment methods do you accept and how do you know that someone is really going to pay you? What the hell is escrow? You have a million questions and the last thing you need to do right now is concentrate on anything besides your art. Knowing how to sell art is not your field — you’re the artist.
Contacting a Dealer
In general, you should never contact a representative in the art world to sell your work. They’ll come to you.
Convincing an outside person (an agent or dealer) to show and potentially sell your art involves more work than simply asking that person to do so. If that were the case, you could email scanned images of your art to any Joe Blow and get an appraisal — it doesn’t work that way. Artists spend money they should spend on supplies “promoting” their art on the Internet, but the truth is that no representative or agent is going to look at a website and decide you need their representation. A good artist’s agent wants to know more about the artist — who the artist is, how they work, what the capabilities of the artist are, the veracity of the work, etc. Imagine trying to get a job by opening a website and inviting bosses to hire you by clicking on your link.
The most important part of a representative’s job as far as the artist is concerned is establishing a value for your work and communicating that value to buyers. You, the artist, don’t know the first thing about how to sell art, and the art buyers will prey on that weakness, paying you far less than investment value and spreading the word about the cheapo artist flooding the market with small buy-ins.
How does an agent or artist representative demonstrate that your work is valuable? The dealer or agent starts out by giving out information about you and your art to the dealers — the rep knows how to sell to their customers, so they know what facts to highlight and what to hide. Agents also keep a profile of where your work is displayed, where it has sold and for how much cash, and your history of providing the kind of quality work that art buyers want. A question for artists — would you know what to say to an art buyer if they approached you at a show or gallery opening? The answer is probably a loud and emphatic “No.” Representatives do know, and they do the work for you.
Why You Should Pay A Representative
Just like you make art for a living, art galleries, artist reps, and agents do their work to pay the bills. Just because you’re the “artist” doesn’t mean people should bow and scrape before your mighty talent — if a representative can’t make money on your art, they won’t sell it. Artist’s representatives don’t want to work a 9 – 5 job any more than you do, so they work long and hard to make sure that each piece of art they move shows a profit and is a good investment for themselves first and for the artist second, every time.
As an artist, you probably went to art school or worked as an apprentice in some form in your field — these lessons don’t go far enough in teaching artists how to sell art. Putting together a portfolio of art? No problem. Firing clay and glass and splashing paint on canvas? You got it covered. But when it comes time to turn your work into money, you’re at a loss. This isn’t your fault as an artist.
There will probably come a time when you understand the art world — after you have a few sales under your belt and you’ve observed the process from a distance. Art expertise, like any business venture, doesn’t come from nowhere. How do you decide when your work is ready to leave the studio? How do you present your art to buyers and dealers? It remains a mystery until you’ve done it a few times, that’s the great Catch-22 of the art world. If you invested thousands of dollars in an art school education, paying another two or three hundred dollars for proper representation shouldn’t be asking too much.
What makes people buy art? Hell if I know. I can tell you that as an artist, if you want to sell your art, learning how to promote, show, and explain your art to representation is more important than contacting buyers or dealers on your own. Figure out how to convince someone that your art is a good investment, then you can choose whether or not to spend more of your time investing in an education in art marketing.