What Should an Artist do With a Lifetime of Unsold Artwork?

Over the last several weeks I’ve had two people approach me, either in the gallery or via email, asking what they should do with a large inventory of unsold work. In one case, the question came from an artist in her nineties:

I was never a business person of any kind, never being able to promote my art or pursue galleries in hopes of getting them to represent me. The exhibitions I had both in the U.S. and abroad ( I had shows in Austria, Germany and Belgium) came about either by my winning first prize in juried art shows (which meant one-person shows) or by being “discovered” by someone who believed in my art and arranged an exhibition for me. Now it is too late for me with your help to try to overcome my shyness and/or aversion to the business part of art and start afresh. Being well into my nineties my problem has become one that up to now I never found addressed anywhere: What does one do with a large body of work at the end of one’s life other than giving away for free one’s most treasured work to friends who would enjoy them? What to do with the bulk of the remaining paintings? What are your thoughts on this?

In another case a man who lost his wife to illness last year approached me asking how he might share his wife’s unsold work with art lovers.

In the first case I would say that it is never too late to begin promoting and selling your work, grandma moses was selling art right up until her passing at the age of 101. Having said that though, we have to acknowledge that not all of us are Grandma Moses, and that there may come a time where it is no longer the artist’s desire to chase after sales, or it may simply not be possible to achieve success in that pursuit.

The second case, when the artist has passed away, poses an even more difficult challenge. There’s a general misperception among the public that once an artist dies, his or her work becomes instantly more valuable and sellable. Unless the artist was well-known and well-established, this typically is not the case.

So what is an artist to do when marketing no longer seems desirable or feasible? What’s an artist’s family to do when the artist passes away?

I’m afraid that I’ve only had middling responses to these questions. I see the wisdom in passing as much of the work on to the people who will appreciate it the most – friends or family – but it’s often the case that this would only take care of the disposition of a small amount of the total available work. What to do with the remainder?

Ebay? An auction? A community sale? Donation? Bonfire?

What Would You Suggest?

What have you seen artists do when they are retiring from the professional pursuit of their art? What have you observed artists’ families doing to disperse excess inventory? Share your observations, experiences and ideas in the comments below.

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