Collective Wisdom | The Artists who Won’t Go Away While I’m Trying to Sell

On RedDotBlog, we’ve often talked about different scenarios in which you might be trying to sell your work. For many of you the opportunity will come at an open studio event, an art festival or at a gallery opening. I’ve received a number of interesting questions from artists related to the sales process, including this one via email:

This last weekend I had the best day in terms of sales I have ever had at open studio.

This is all great and I want to get your advice on a certain dynamic.

Perhaps you remember the old Saturday Night Live skit called “The Thing that wouldn’t leave” Basically about a friend visiting the house who overstays their welcome.
There are some fellow photographers who visit my open studios to check out my latest work and talk shop. I suppose they are not really customers since they don’t buy work. When I started I didn’t buy work either but now I feel as though it’s good to buy other artists work as it creates good karma. So occasionally my wife and I do buy and collect art. It’s fun!!!

Anyway, these visitors tend to stay longer and I do enjoy talking shop, and am flattered they keep coming back, but I noticed when collectors walk in to the studio they seem to feel they are interrupting. At this point my friends the fellow photographers sort of shut up to watch what happens. Then I feel like I cant connect as well with the customer while my fellow photographer is watching. I feel it is generally not conducive to my making a sale.

On the other hand I find its generally better if someone is in my studio talking and looking vs. me there alone when things are slow. I find if people are walking by and see only me there they tend to think nothing is happening and walk by. When there are a few people shopping it attracts more people. So with this in mind its sort of good to have the thing that wouldn’t leave there so it helps attract more people to the studio.

Carl C

Great question Carl, and I think many artists have run into a similar challenge, whether at an open studio event, at an art festival or during a gallery opening. I run into over-stayers in the gallery almost weekly.

My approach in the gallery is simple. Though I try to extend courtesy and warmth to everyone who visits the gallery, (after all, you never know who is going to turn into a buyer, as you mention), I feel no compunction about interrupting someone mid-sentence to say “Oh, excuse me for a moment, I need to go and say hello to this collector.” I then briskly stride away to greet the customer. Usually, once the over-stayer sees me engaging with the collector, he will continue browsing through the gallery, and, if I become very engaged, may leave before I ever return.

It sounds to me like you don’t necessarily have a problem with the getting away, but rather with the ensuing awkwardness when you have the artist hanging on to every word of the conversation you are trying to have with your customer. This would certainly be a bigger problem in your studio or in a show booth that it is in my gallery, but my suggested approach is the same no matter where you find yourself: ignore everyone except your customer.  I know it can feel awkward to have someone listening and watching what you are doing, but if you act like it isn’t awkward, your customer will very quickly forget about the other artists and you can engage as if you were in an empty studio. This will take some practice on your part, and a conscious effort not to feel self-conscious, but I can tell you from experience that it can be done.

There is often a natural flow in a conversation with a collector. You will greet the customer and introduce yourself, and then invite them to explore your work. Now you can step back and let them look. When you do this (AND THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT!) don’t return to your conversation with the artist. Try and step back to an unoccupied corner of your studio, booth, or gallery. If the artist tries to approach you, wave them off with an “I’ll be with you just as soon as I’m finished,” and then step back over to the customer to tell them about a piece or to ask a question. The artist will get the picture and will either wait or wander off.

I think you are right that it’s good to have some warm bodies in the studio to attract potential buyers in, so I don’t see these artists as a problem, I just feel it’s very important to assert control over the situation in kind but strong way so that your priorities are clear. Hopefully a fellow artist will understand.

You could also try letting these artists know what to expect by explaining when they first come in that you aren’t trying to be rude, but if a customer comes in you are going to focus 100 percent of your attention on the customer.

What Do You Do When You Encounter “the Artist Who Won’t Go Away”?

Have you run into a similar situation with artists who get in the way of sales? What have you done to deal with the situation? What advice would you give to Carl and other artists in a similar scenario? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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36 Comments

  1. I have never been able to manage this adequately. My wife warns me every time before an opening or public occasion to be on guard. It rarely works as it’s so easy to get caught up in the friend-conversation.
    Do I know it’s just plain RUDE? Yes! Do most people recognize what a boor you’re being? Yes, again. Short of tattooing your words on my arm, Jason, I’m trying to commit them to long term habitual memory.
    I’m just thinking about that ubiquitous cell phone (with a timer) as a tool for me. Set the timer at a particular interval and since it is politely on vibrate, you could “check” it at the beginning of the artist-artist conversation to activate the timer. Then, when it goes off, you quickly take a look at it- “Excuse me, I need to respond to this.” And, away you go, finding somewhere else to be at the end of the “interruption.”
    How many people, I wonder, do similar things in those meetings that everyone has to attend that don’t go anywhere?

  2. I usually just wink and say “potential sale, gotta go!” and everyone understands. I am a painter, but I have noticed that some photogs are particularly… “tenacious”.

  3. There may be no ‘perfect’ answer but I hire another artist familiar with my studio, techniques, brands, etc, and she is excellent at reading a situation and talking shop, then excusing herselc to complete sales or welcome new customers.

    1. That is a great idea, it would also work I think to have a spouse, or friend just be aware and run interference when necessary at an opening especially.
      .

  4. Great article, thank you for writing about this. I’ve faced this issue numerous times over the years and have developed a nice but firm way to handle this, as you suggest here. To further your point, I once participated in a small themed, invitation-only show when a very nice couple stopped to look at my work. We were so engrossed in conversation when, to my absolute horror, another participating artist came into my booth to woo the collectors away to his own booth. Away they went as I watched in shock. I just knew a sale was looming with this couple. Yes, I told this artist later how inconsiderate his actions were and how upset I was over losing a highly-potential sale. Sadly, you never know completely what motives another artist has, even when they are your friend.

  5. We have Great Danes. They travel with us, and are a part of our Team. Some days I will have a person who wants to talk Dog. And a prospective client comes by. Some days its like removing cobwebs, to get away. I understand that not everyone wants/can buy art. But, if I don’t make a sale Sometime, I don’t get to feed these beauties. (or us).

    1. Is there any way you can keep the dogs somewhere other than your booth. I know that dogs can be a great conversation starter, but, unfortunately, they can also be a distraction. As you say, the name of the game is sales, and you want to give yourself the optimal chance for creating sales. Try a few shows without the dogs present and see if it has an impact (positive or negative) on your sales. I suspect the impact will be positive. Selling is a delicate process – focus is critical.

  6. I have a different twist on the “artist who won’t go away.” During an art show at a gallery in which I was a featured artist, every time a customer expressed interest in my work and began a conversation with me, another “featured artist” butted in and monopolized the conversation, turning it into all about him and his artwork. Eventually, the customer escaped without buying anything from either of us. This was a very crowded event, and it was difficult to maneuver through the gallery. I felt quite frustrated and didn’t know how to react other than to just give up.

    1. This is tough. It’s important to try not to create conflict, but it’s even more important to sell (for both of the artists involved). I would say something like “I’m working on some new selling techniques and I need to engage with my clients without distraction. When the clients are looking at my work, can I ask that you stay with your work and not interject while I’m interacting with customers who are looking at my work? Thank you so much!”

      You want to be diplomatic but clear in expressing what you would like to see happen. The space where you’re showing your work is your space – defend it!

      1. I guess that might work if I could get him alone without customers around, but I don’t want to appear obnoxious in front of potential customers. At this event, there literally wouldn’t have been a moment to talk with him alone. Perhaps I might have asked to speak with him in private and stepped outside for a few minutes, though. Thanks for the suggestion.

        1. Difficult situation for sure. Excusing yourself for just a moment for a very quick discreet word with your competitor would have been appropriate. Telling him or her to leave your area and your customers would be appropriate I think.

  7. You are both correct in this dialogue. It does appear more inviting to the public when they see someone engaged in the gallery, versus an empty gallery. The problem however in allowing someone to linger (who is not a buyer, and is simply there for the social aspect) is that at times they will engage with the customer and say something which does not help in the sales process. Let the chatty friend or artist know that you are working. Your posture and relationship to them physically will convey to them that they need to move on. At times I will have to discreetly hold up two fingers to them to let them know to be quiet and focus my attention elsewhere. If they do not get it at that point I will simply and quietly express to them that it was great visiting with them; however will say something like: ” I enjoyed our visit; however you will have to please excuse me, I have to attend to something.” Always keep in mind that everyone is a potential customer, however you need to be available to make the sale happen. Art typically does not sell itself.

  8. OK, I’m guilty of being the too-chatty artist at openings. Sometimes its because there’s no one else to talk with and I’m bored. Sometimes I just forget. I will try to always remember this discussion and behave better in the future!!! Thanks, Jason!

  9. One problem with open studios is that men are so fascinated with tools and materials that they will dominate all conversation if I let them. I need people to examine and discuss the sculptures. As for how to deal with this issue, which is the biggest impediment to sales during studio visits, Jason did a good job of stating the priority we must keep in mind and the tactics of making it happen.

  10. Good answer Jason. In my opinion it all comes down to priorities (and sometimes about people being concerned about other people’s feelings). Whenever I see a potential buyer and I’m talking to a fellow artist, they are the first to understand that I have to move away and spend time with that potential buyer. It’s harder when you have two potential buyers. You just have to juggle and apologize and do your best to pay attention to both as if the one you are talking to is the only person in the room at that precise moment.

  11. Wow–great advice on the phone timer (alas– I am one of the few who won’t own a cell phone) and on the phrase, “Oh, excuse me for a moment, I need to go and say hello to this collector.”

    I can’t believe the rudeness exhibited in some of the experiences these fellow artists had. It just blows my mind and makes me very sad.

    But setting some ground rules as Jason mentioned is a good thing to practice–that if a customer comes in it is understood you are going to focus 100 percent of your attention on the customer.

    Thank you for posting this. Forewarned is forearmed.

  12. I had a similar situation. Once at the co-op gallery I was a member of, we had a local “character” who was extremely difficult to move. Many of the member artists struggled with him as he was not homeless but obviously poor and lonely. He had been tossed from most of the local businesses for being fractious. He was a very interesting person, but repeated his life stories constantly to whomever he could corner. Many of the members felt they had to allow him to park himself there during openings and watch as he ate all the goodies and accosted anyone who came in. Needless to say we had to have a meeting. It was decided he could come in for 5 minutes to look at the art and fill a plate then he would be gently reminded to leave and not disturb the gallery visitors. It was a sad situation and fraught with guilt as we wanted to be helpful but as we had to remind ourselves we were running a business. He appeared to take it well. I have left the gallery and am not aware if he still comes in.
    bear with me as I have another story. I was participating in our warehouse of working artist studios open studio night. It was always lucrative, busy and a great party. I invited a down on his luck artist friend to share my space. he came and hung his little paintings and sat himself in my easy chair and spoke to no one. He had his smart phone and focused on that. It was a bit difficult to “work” around him. But I later found out he was in the throes of a terrible depression and simply could not engage. It was not a great night of sales for me and none for him but I hope he realized he was valuable.
    Both of these incidents and many others have made me aware of many ways to handle situations like the many mentioned by others.

  13. Thanks Jason for this article. The one thing I’m still trying to figure out is how to “move” people who have planted themselves for a LONG period of time right in front of my work – enjoying a conversation with their wine and munchies – not looking at anyone’s work in particular – but keeping others from getting close to the artwork because they’re blocking the opening or planting themselves in a strategic spot. How is this best handled?

  14. You are educating colleagues by showing the chatty artist friends that you are a professional in the way you attend to real potential buyers when they show up. This simply takes practice.

  15. I have had friends who are supportive, although not monetarily, who will chatter away during an open studio event. I’ve learned when potential customers show up, to interrupt my friends and ask them to run downstairs (where the food is kept) and check to make sure there is fresh coffee, or see if any of the nibbles need to be restocked. That leaves me free to chat with my customers and gives my friends something helpful to do. Since my husband or my daughter-in-law is usually downstairs, actually taking care of the food or ringing up sales (hopefully), my friends then get caught up in talking to them for a while. I have one artist friend who is a master at turning a conversation about my work with potential customers into a conversation about her work. I’ve had to literally interrupt her and ask her to share what she likes about my work to get the conversation in my studio back on track.

  16. Great article and a problem I have had on more than a few occasions. I had a non artist friend attend a show who proceeded to do a very in depth critique of my new series. He clearly did not like the direction of my new work. I was stunned, he had previously brought a lot of my work and was normally very generous with his praise. Not wanting to damage our relationship I stood there and took it. It did not stop until I was so humiliated that I turned to another viewer and asked if they could see the whip marks on my back. He never apologized, although his wife did and he never bought another painting. He does however still come for dinner.

  17. I turn those people into sales most of the time. My “smalls”are perfect for that. My smalls are pens, magnets, key rings, bookmarks etc… Items under $5 that everyone can afford. Since I’ve had those at my booths/tables, I’ve never lost money,or even come close to losing money, at a show. “Blah blah blah,oh while you’re did you see I have new pens? Here try one, they write super well” and I shove a pen and clipboard with a blank paper in their hand. Literally 99 out of 100 who take the pen from my hand and try one, buy one. Or 2, or 5 or 10. And then the sale is done, they usually go away, or, we can continue chatting and at least I know I made a sale lol And quite often, other people come by later and say “So and so showed me your nice pens, can I get a few?” And, then they see my originals and prints, and sometimes they become clients for my “actual” art. Moral of the story – The pen is mightier than the chatty fellow artist! lol

  18. I’m no expert in sales but I did work at a gallery as an assistant. When a friend comes by or simply someone I just met, and we start up a conversation…if someone comes in, I will politely excuse myself I do find it rude to just abandon a conversation.

    When I am with the potential, I will dialogue with them and invite them to look around.

    But, there is advice you did supply that I have not done before. Love this article!

  19. I just closed my studio/gallery of 6 years because it was such a distraction to complete my personal work and focus on running my business. I’m going to a private studio, no gallery, no in-house events. This way I can have extreme focus on my work and business.

  20. I have had similar problems with outdoor shows. My problem is when attendees see others that they know and stop literally in my tent for an extended conversation with their friends. Usually, it is a hot sunny day and they are using my space to get out of the sun. Generally, they are not buyers and sometimes not even serious lookers. How can I politely move them along?

  21. Flash a big smile and say to the other artist, “well, its been nice talking to you, enjoy looking at my art! Excuse me…” and go see the new customers. That way they know that you have ended the conversation but it was friendly. Loiterers can also be a problem even when other people are not around as this is usually a time to get some work done, in which case I finish the same “its been nice talking with you” comment with “I’m afraid I have to get back to work” and then go make yourself busy. Obviously only use this if they are clearly just hanging out and not buying. A friendly smile is the key.

  22. Great article to read, I have these problems at every show or open studio. My husband is wonderful at spotting the chatty artist or friend and will come to my rescue every time. We work in unison and he will politely talk with them and steer them to a topic or painting so I can focus on potential new clients. If my adult children are in town they will do this too and mingle with in ear shot so they can jump in when needed. Works every time!
    Just a side note, my most frustrating visitor is fellow artists who whip out their own iPhone to show me there work at my opening, so not cool (just saying)

  23. Something else to consider – a fellow artist should understand and respect your need to appropriately engage with a potential customer. After all, it is what they aspire to as well. And if you do it well, you will be teaching THEM how to do it as well, and also teaching them that while conversation with a fellow artist is always welcome, there is a time and a place.
    Among other things I run an information stall at our local market. Sometimes people I know well will drop by for a chat, but if a customer arrives (someone wanting to buy our books or products, a tourist, new resident in the village or similar) I excuse myself from my conversation and deal with the enquiry. If it’s appropriate, I might even introduce the person I was talking to, if they can be of assistance also. “So you’re interested in photography? We have a local club which meets on… at… By a happy coincidence, this is the club president i was just chatting to. Fred, can you fill in our new friend on our upcoming local events?”

    At our last market, a neighbour dropped by to try to engage me in a political activism campaign. This person talks a lot and several times I had to excuse myself to deal with a customer. I later watched with concern as the neighbour buttonholed other potential customers to try to engage them also. Thankfully, because where the neighbour was, was beyond my “jurisdiction”, a few others came by and distracted the neighbour from potentially bothering new customers.
    Later in the day, the neighbour returned and clearly wanted to continue our conversation, but I was focussing all my energies on a new customer who took longer than I expected. Eventually the neighbour moved on. The neighbour knew my ignoring them was not rudeness, merely priority.

    One of the events I promote at our markets, is our monthly open studios around the village. When I can, I also visit the studios. I notice that on these days, nobody is actually doing their art. There are too many distractions. But often, their current work in progress is on display so people can see the process. This often leads to further bookings for classes, or commissions. There can also be lively discussion on the progress of a piece. Whenever i’m visiting an artist and a new customer comes in, I move back and look at other work. Sometimes if the artist is explaining about a piece, I will also listen because I might learn something new. But I stay in the background and out of the way. And quiet! No starting another whispered conversation in the background which can distract. Some of these studios are tiny, little more than a garage.

  24. I wonder if any struggling artists out there have used “plants” during Open Studios and art fairs- you know, people pretending to buy artwork and raving about the artwork and how collectible the artist and how they already own other artwork, etc within earshot of browsers. I know it’s kind of dishonest but tricking people into believing something is “all the rage” like I’ve seen them do at shops in NYC might boost sales.

  25. This information is a gold nugget for me right now as I head into two shows this month. Unfortunately at other shows in the area I did not realize how my booth became a hang out. Now I have to try and break that habit. As I learn I realize how I have made some big mistakes in this area. So now I am going to transition into not being the booth socialize. I just hope I can make the transition without offending others. I will give Jason’s ideas and some of the others some practice. I really appreciate this information!!!

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