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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17 Comments

  1. I agree. It definitely takes practice to overcome the awkward feeling of shifting attention to the customer, but well worth the effort. I also view that as a gift to the lingering artist in this way: few artists get to witness (first-hand) a successful interchange and sales close with a collector. What better way to help our art peers than a live demo? Priceless!

  2. Excellent way snd advice; of how to have a positive experience with collectors, and, fellow artists both! I picture every word of this in my mind like a video. It works! Gayla Hollis

  3. At a group studio tour last Summer, several times when a visitor and potential customer walked into my booth, the artist who had invited that person to the group show would run out and greet them enthusiastically and steer them to their own display. I was frustrated because several of them were interested in my work, and I wanted to discuss it with them, as well as collect their information for future mailings. How should I have handled my fellow artists who seemed unaware of their friend’s potential interest in my work?-lcat

    1. Linda, it would have been best to confront her directly that day, but I understand that when stuff like that happens you get confused before you get angry. Gently ask the other artist why she poached a potential customer. If she says, “Well, I invited them”, say that’s fine but that she doesn’t own that customer, and that is inconsiderate, and you wouldn’t do that if the tables were turned. If it remains a problem, bring up the issue with other artists in the group. Just sayin’ , hope it helps.

  4. Thanks for this Jason, great advice. At group exhibitions the problem is sometimes when things are slow the artists get into conversation with each other and don’t even notice potential customers entering. This is awkward especially when the group gathers in front of your booth and obstruct anyone from seeing your art. How do you break up this group without offending fellow artists/friends?

  5. I found other artists ( and some public ) can be huge “time wasters”. Nice, well intentioned people who are generally complimentary about your work but are rarely buying customers. Focus on the actual customer rather than that (well meaning) person

  6. The last bit of advice, explaining in advance how you will focus 100% on a customer is the kernel of wisdom in this post. Not only does it preserve relationships with colleagues by setting an expectation, but it’s also a bit instructive for them on how to behave in their own similar situation. It would open the door to let your fellow artists know that you won’t find it rude if they bow out and go away–you’ll catch them later.

  7. I usually flash my eyes and a great big smile at my artist friend, say “Ooh, a potential collector! Excuse me please” and immediately turn and stride over to the person interested in my work. My fellow artists have never followed me, perhaps because I act quickly, and they usually just find someone else to talk with.

  8. My problem is that I get really involved with a discussion about art and find it hard to break it off to do “meet and great” with people coming into the gallery. Currently, I say something to the effect of “I really want to discuss this with you, but I have to do my ‘meet and greet’.” After the customer is in a good place “usually ‘just browsing'”, I make sure to pick up the discussion I was in, but also to keep an eye on the customer. I want to see the signal that he has a question. Also, if he is leaving, to thank him for coming into the gallery.

  9. I prefer not to have lingering friends or other artists around for several reasons (listed below), and I try to have something simple that I’m doing that can be picked up or put down at a moment’s notice so that the customer doesn’t feel the full weight of my attention for their entire stay (after greeting them, of course). Here’s why I don’t even invite friends or familiy to my events anymore:

    1. When I excuse myself to greet a customer, their “interest” feels like they are eavesdropping, and it annoys me
    2. Their physical presence in a 10×10 booth makes it difficult for customers to see all my work and/or they block the entrance altogether.
    3. You never know/can’t control what they are going to say or how long they will stay. I’ve had artists come into my booth and complain about what a lousy show it is (ie, a lousy show they are having) or express a lot of negativity right in front of customers. I have learned to cut them off and state that my booth is a positive experience space and negativity is not allowed. I had another artist come into my booth and make derogatory remarks about republicans. It was one sentence, and before I could say anything, the only customer in the booth turned around and said, “what? it isn’t ok to be a republican here?” and walk out. The artist shrugged and left and I was left with my mouth hanging open. Friends have started to have personal conversations because to them, this is social hour. A cousin came in and would NOT stop talking. I’m working! Now, when someone comes in to chat (artist or friend), I get up (if I’m sitting) and walk into the hall to move the conversation out of my booth. Then when I’m ready, I say “well, I have to get back to work,” or if someone comes in, I use Jason’s line about, “excuse me, I need to greet this collector. Why don’t I call you next week (if it’s a freind)?”

  10. Jason covers this prickly subject well. Like Carl, I find visiting friends are an asset-up to a point. They help me get through the tedium of a slow hour or two. 99% of them understand I am working, and retreat when I am talking to a customer. Sometimes, when I see a lingering browser, I will cut away from a conversation, saying first, “excuse me for a minute”. Then , standing up and turning to the browser, I say ” If you have any questions, I am happy to answer them”, giving the browser my undivided attention. The friend almost always gets it. If he watches, no problem, unless he butts in the conversation with the customer. after 30 years of doing shows I have the confidence to project myself, and do not care who watches.
    I had one obnoxious former customer that would stand squarely in front of my table, monopolizing my time for well over an hour. When I got up, he stayed in my face. I would have lost a sale if my my longtime partner Laurie didn’t complete the transaction. I was furious. Finally, at the very end of the show this piece of work butted in as I was trying to close a $2000 sale . I turned to him and said, “I am working. This gentleman wants this piece of art. Let me finish.” ” But I want to buy something”, he whined. I said ,”Wait your turn.” I made the sale, and he returned to buy two $45 prints. The upside is he never bothered me again.

  11. My craftsman neighbor shop owner told me, on our first meeting in his store, that if while we were chatting a customer came in, that I was to leave immediately. No question, no hard feelings, no problem. And this has worked for me too. The worst is having the friend butt into the conversation between you and your customer. A withering glance often, but not always helps!

  12. Two thoughts come up for me . 1: Sometimes nothing neeeds to be said. And 2: be aware that all interactions may be part of a bigger ongoing story. (Actually three thoughts, but I’ll save that for the end).
    I had a couple come into the cooperative gallery where I was a member and express enthusiastic interest in my work. Another artist was present and had actually made the phone call to tell me this couple were in the gallery and wished to speak to me and waited with them for the few moments it took me to get there, so it wasn’t entirely innapropriate for her to remain a while to see what happened. They Loved my work – style, themes and the color blue I had used. In fact wife said, “He just loves the color blue!” However, the piece I was showing was simply much too big for the space they were decorating. At this point the other artist disappeared around the corner and came back carrying a painting flat in front of her body – she looked like a walking billboard of a big square very blue flower- calling out as she came “Oh, Annie, LOOK, I finally finished it ! What do you think?!” I was speechless. My client and I exchanged a glance and I took the opportunity to invite them to leave the gallery and follow me two miles to my studio, where we enjoyed ourselves so much they bought Two large, (but not too large) paintings with a beautiful dominant blue in the scene.
    My thoughts? – #1: silence is a form of communication (thank You, Jason, I reread your lesson several times!). #2: ongoing story – I am still in touch with my clients of course . And I am still friends with the other artist – but with a sad but valuable insight into her character.
    and point #3: my favorite – I realized that day that I am selling much more than art – I am selling the Experience, the unforgettable moment of falling in love with a work of art, the story they will tell when theyvshow the piece they have found, and the pleasure they will continue to have of the memory
    Thank you Jason, I always enjoy your messages. Please say hi to Barney for me and thank him for all that he shares
    Have a great year
    Anne Bevan
    Anne@annebevan.com

  13. I have had encounters this. I was also a little intimidated, but I did as you mentioned and focused on the potential customer. He bought 2 paintings that day and returned another time.

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