Collective Wisdom | What to do With Older, Unsold Artwork

I’m not sure why, but I’ve recently received a lot of questions from artists wondering what to do with older unsold artwork (Spring cleaning, perhaps?).  Storing old artwork can become a huge challenge, especially for artists who have built up hundreds works over the years. Studio space is at a premium, and every square inch that is taken up in storage, is a square inch that’s not available as work space. I have a number of different suggestions of possible approaches to dealing with older work, their benefits and challenges, and then I would like to encourage you to share your experience with older work. Together, hopefully we can find the perfect solution to the older work challenge!

Idea #1 – Rotate Older Work Into Your Current Inventory

Sometimes older work didn’t sell, not because there was something wrong with it, but because it simply didn’t wasn’t in the right place at the right time to get a buyer. I’ve sold many works that were created years prior to the sale. For artists whose work is consistent over the years in terms of style, technique and quality, recirculating art can be a viable option. The older work can be shown in galleries or at shows or art festivals, and, as long as the work doesn’t have a date on it, no one may even realize the work is older.

The work might need to be touched up, and it may need a new frame, but refreshing your older work in this way allows you to leverage your existing work to bulk up your inventory.

The Problems with This Approach

If your work has changed significantly since the older work was created, it may not be possible to show it with your newer work. In this case, introducing older work may make your body of work feel inconsistent, or it may call into question the quality of your newer work.

Many artists pass through significant changes in style and format, and for those artists, it’s not feasible to reintroduce the older work.

You would also want to avoid sending a piece to a gallery that has already had the work, unless they expressly requested the piece back (unlikely), or unless the work was significantly modified.

Idea #2 – Repurpose the Materials to Create New Art

I’ve known of many artists who take old canvases and paint an entirely new painting over the top of an older work. Some of these pieces are totally new compositions, while some are significant modifications of the older imagery. I’ve seen abstract artists who will let glimpses of the old work show through as texture in the new piece. I’ve also known of sculptors who have melted down an old piece to cast a new work (not recommended in most cases).

The Problems with This Approach

Not all art materials lend themselves to being reused, and sometimes the effort it takes to prepare used materials isn’t worth the effort.

Idea #3 – Offer the Art for Sale at Dramatically Reduced Prices on Your Website or at Shows

Some artists will offer older work in a “bargain bin” at their open studio event, or at a show. The price may be significantly reduced in order to help the work sell more quickly. I’ve heard of artists offering older work at 50%-70% off the original retail price.

The Problems with This Approach

Deep discount sales of this kind present several problems. First, the old work can be a distraction from your new work. The pricing of the older work can also be a distraction. The bargain art may make your regularly priced work seem expensive and prevent sales – not the desired outcome at all!

Idea #4 – Hold a Studio Sale

Another idea is to hold a kind of art yard-sale at your studio. The sale may target existing customers, or it may be an opportunity for friends and neighbors to acquire your art at prices more suited to their income.

The Problems with This Approach

If you target existing customers you risk training them that they shouldn’t buy your current work, but should instead wait for your work to age and for the price to decrease.

Even if you aren’t targeting existing customers, this approach may not work well. Your neighbors may feel that even at a greatly reduced price, the work is still too expensive, or they may feel they don’t want to spend their hard-earned money on your rejects.

Idea # 5 – Donate the Work to Charity

Some charities hold art-related auctions or sales. Your donations give them a potential source of fund-raising.

The Problems with This Approach

Charity fundraisers can actually be a good source to build relationships with influential people in your community. A silent auction bidder may eventually turn into a collector. With that in mind, it’s a good idea to put your best artistic foot forward instead of presenting older work.

Another problem with this approach is that most events will only be interested in taking a piece or two per event, not a good way to dispose of a large body of unsold work.

Finally, the other huge disappointment in donating work to charity is that you can’t deduct the value of the artwork from your tax bill. You can only deduct the value of the materials, but most of you are already taking a deduction for those materials, so the net effect is that you get no deduction for the donation. This is inexcusable, and the congress should definitely amend the law to allow artists to take more of a deduction for donations, but until that happens, you are going to be donating out the goodness of your heart.

Idea #6 – Give the Work to Family Members or Friends

Many of your family members or friends would love to have a piece of your work, and they’re unlikely to look a gift painting in the mouth . . .

The Problems with This Approach

If you are particularly prolific, you may eventually overwhelm friends and family with too much art.

Idea #7 – Bonfire

I remember an experience early in my career when I was working in a large gallery. An artist was in town from out of state and brought in several new pieces. The owner of the gallery indicated that it would be a good idea for the artist to remove several older works from inventory.

The young artist agreed, and pleasantly removed the older pieces, work on masonite panels, from their frames. One by one, he snapped the paintings in half over his knee, destroying them. My co-workers and I were mystified, perhaps even horrified, at the destruction, but the artist felt that if the work hadn’t sold, it must not be any good.

In the end, I suppose that if you feel your studio space is worth more than the work, or that it would take to much effort to dispose of the work in any other way, destruction is certainly an option.

The Problems with This Approach

It seems like a travesty that the destroyed work will never be enjoyed.

Bigger Issues

If all, or most of your work is piling up in your studio, you don’t have a storage problem, you have a marketing problem! If you are producing work far faster than it sells, it’s time for you to shift your energy away from production and towards marketing. It’s time to find gallery representation, or to participate in more shows and develop a collector list.

What Have You Done With Older Work?

Share your thoughts and experiences about what to do with older work, or ask questions about the topic in the comments below. Your input is invaluable – thanks!

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