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 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 can’t 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.

About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of reddotblog.com, and founder of the Art Business Academy. Jason has helped thousands of artists prepare themselves to more effectively market their work, build relationships with galleries and collectors, and turn their artistic passion into a viable business.

24 Comments

  1. This can become a sticky situation if you allow it to become one. I will occasionally have artists come into my gallery to check out the walls, and at times sit down to chat with me. I am fine with that if it is quiet in the gallery, however whenever someone walks in I simply stand up and say: “It was great chatting with you, however you will have to excuse me, as I need to get to work.” If they don’t get the message at that point, I say something like” “Perhaps we could connect over cocktails or something some time. I’m not rude about it, however the gallery is a place of work and requires a great deal of focus. Every person walking in is a prospective buyer, and therefore they take priority. My experience with artists visiting the gallery is that they are not looking for artwork.

  2. In my experience that other-artist scenario is very real, and Jason’s businesslike solution is the only one I’ve found. Other artists who are disrespectful of the purpose of the gathering in that way are in the minority, but some have even promoted their own work at my opening. A more serious problem for me has been couples who visit my sculpting studio, which has many visible tools and works in progress. Wives tend to be much more interested than their husbands in everything about the art, including buying it. Husbands, who tend also to dominate conversations, tend to be much more interested in tools and in how to carve stone than anything about the art itself. Several imminent and many potential sales have disappeared in that dynamic. Fortunately, some wives return later by themselves!

  3. I think that some artists attend gallery openings with the feeling that they are supporting their fellow artist. That is good in itself, although it can cause other problems as noted above. I guess it is all a matter of learning, and become more skillful, about marketing and selling.

  4. It’s so wonderful when people make the effort to come to an opening however the question that I’d like to ask is what to do about this scenario…
    Some acquaintances tend to stand and talk to each other and sometimes draw in other people (by their voice or physically ) and are standing around chatting about something has nothing to do with my art and blocking the path of other people.
    .. It’s simply rude.
    I have used humour to move them away from the art .
    Any other suggestions?

    1. Hi again
      I wondered if anybody could take the time and just tell me any suggestions that you have to break up just kind of friend/family chat groups that has NOTHING to do with my art /solo show.
      HELP!
      I’M ABOUT TO HAVE ANOTHER SOLO SHOW AND I JUST KNOW IT’S GOING TO HAPPEN AGAIN.
      I NEED YOUR ADVICE PLEASE

      1. Hi Lynda,
        You simply have to be strong and just say something like:
        “Hey you guys, great to see you all here. Can you move away from in front of the artworks please, so that customers can come and see them ? Thanks.” and herd them away.
        Just keep doing that when you see it happening and they will understand,
        😜

  5. Great post! Coming from the other side of the coin: I’ve been the “victim” (hehe) of this type of scenario very frequently. Your suggestions on how to handle it are spot-on and very much what I tend to do, myself. On the other hand, I’ve been the “visitor” before! When I’ve done shows (especially the long-term, artist-in-residence, “big tent” kind) It’s nice every once in a while to take a spin around and see what your fellow artist friends are up to. I try to be a best-practices person in these situations and this is what I do: I won’t enter if my friend has a customer. I don’t want to distract them. If there’s no one around I’ll pop in and say hi & visit a minute (but not too long), but I always consider whether they seem to want to chat or not. If a customer comes in, I leave right away (not rushing out, but leaving normally) and as I leave I say loud-ishly something like “These new paintings are really stunning. I really love how you’ve made the light glow” so something positive is planted in the customer’s head. Seeing my friends sell well is a joy!

  6. I’ve found that having good food & wine at openings brings a lot of people in, but they have a tendency to graze at the table, drink all the wine, chat with their friends, & leave without buying anything. Minimal snacks helps cut this activity down.

  7. Good advice, while I do say excuse me a minute, I like the term ” I need to get back to work” it is not offensive and right to the point . Another good tip, love your blog

  8. Oh my goodness yes. Most of the time for me it is a browser with no intention of buying who wants to show me all his or her art on their phone, or their kid’s art. It is so hard to gracefully extract myself from this!

  9. I’ve been in the situation where customers want to hang out and talk and aren’t interested in buying. When someone new comes into the studio I feel a little rude but need to disengage to welcome other people. I had one lady who just stood there for 15 min watching me talk to other people but when I was finished she just stood there it was very strange!

  10. When i owned galleries i partenered with operators who dealt with this situation straight forward by making it clear to the visiting artists that the purpose of the process was to engage customers and sell art. it was not a meet and greet between artists or artist to operator, which we set up at a different time solely for that purpose. The rules were known ahead of time and thus the artists who attended would create positive interactions with potential customers through backing off appropriately and indeed introducing clients to the director. . If they overstayed they were told in direct terms.
    It was generally only amateur non selling artists and or their family members who were the issue. the showing selling artists respected the process. These individuals were told politely to observe the showing but to come back at a different time for other matters.
    Another gallery owner [very successful ] used this to his advantage by having a group of artists pre assembled for each opening whose task it was to head off such processes before they became an issue and to specifically create the required ambience for sales to take place. the client collectors never realised this was taking place but it worked to everyones advantage. I have seen this take place at market events and group art exhibitions as well when the artists work together frequently.

  11. Regarding Lee Gass’ comment – “In my experience that other-artist scenario is very real, and Jason’s businesslike solution is the only one I’ve found. …. [And] some [artists] have even promoted their own work at my opening.”

    Yes, this situation is very real —

    I have rather an amazing tale to tell regarding this situation, and in fact the only workable solution was to do the exact opposite of the most “business-like solution”, the one that Jason speaks of, which, had I done it would have resulted in disaster

    I am not a gallerist, but for a short period of time, I did have a gallery in Southampton, NY, (one of those very famous “The Hamptons” that surely you’ve heard mentioned). It came about because literally a week before the season started on Memorial Day I noticed an incredible storefront space on one of the main streets of town vacant – now if you know anything about resort towns and properties, you know that a store that is vacant a week before Memorial Day is not going to rent at all – so, on a sudden, crazy, whim, I contacted the owner and offered him a ridiculously low price for it for the summer, and of course since something is better than nothing, after some consideration, he took it, and I immediately plunged into a hurricane of activity to get a art gallery up and running instantly – and I did manage it, because fortunately my girlfriend at the time was also an artist, and I was friendly with a couple of other very good and interesting artists, so I was able to fill a large space with the work of 5 artists right away. (And we picked up a 6th artist, who walked into the gallery early on in the season who had incredible work – underwater scenes of whales, sharks and fish, in the deepest, murkiest of oils – and being very young, had never shown anywhere before.

    Late in the season, I happened to make contact again with a former fraternity brother I hadn’t seen in over 20 years, but who really liked my work, and had bought a bunch of it way back in grad school days. He lived in Boston, but he and his wife said they’d come down over Labor Day weekend to look at the work in the gallery, in particular mine, which my friend expressed interest in seeing. Since, as I said, he’d already bought over 10 artworks from me previously, I was excited by this upcoming visit, especially since he no longer owned any of his previous purchases of my art which had been sold with his house during a divorce settlement with his 1st wife, and he told me he regretted not having my art.

    Well Labor Day weekend arrived, and so did my friend and his wife on Saturday early evening. Though my friend was what I deem to be an important client, I made the mistake of not closing the gallery to the rest of the public so he and his wife could have a private showing, possibly because I felt having a couple of passers-by coming into the gallery to browse might in fact prevent my friend from feeling any pressure which a private showing might have created. The gallery hadn’t been that busy anyway, and a few stragglers here and there would, I thought, add some ambiance to the situation

    But while I was showing my friend and his wife all the artworks in the gallery, because my other artists were equally worth exposing him to, and then starting to discuss some of my pieces, into the gallery comes some woman artist, WITH HER ARTWORK, and just brazenly starts setting it up on the floor, against the walls of the gallery! Now since my “on-the-fly gallery” had only two “employees” – me, and my girlfriend, we were both in conversation with my friend and his wife, so there wasn’t anyone else to confront this woman – I asked my girlfriend, Sherry, to get the intruder to leave while I continued my conversation with my friend and his wife (but of course my attention was on the intruder as well) and in fact 2 minutes later, Sherry came back and told me this woman said she wasn’t going to leave, and if I wanted I could call the police, because otherwise she was going to stay since “a gallery should be a community equally open to show all artist’s works” Now of course, I could have called the police, and then I’m sure she would have been escorted out, if not threatened with arrest, or arrested. But the reality of the situation was, it was a Saturday evening on a holiday weekend in a resort town, and there were bound to be enough happening that it would probably would have taken the police quite a while to get there (summer holiday weekends in the Hamptons are quite rowdy, at best, or more likely, a total zoo, and I’m sure the police may have had their hands full with various people’s drunken antics, fights, car crashes, and accidental disasters). So, if I called the police, I figured it would take anywhere between a half hour to an hour before they arrived, and the tension of this situation was certainly going to put a damper on any smooth progression toward any art sales I was hoping to achieve, creating a very awkward situation for both me and my friends.

    So, I decided the best course was actually to do nothing, and let her stay – in fact I decided to totally ignore her, and continued interacting with my friend and his wife – and I told Sherry to put some music on. Well, the next thing you know, more people started coming into the gallery, and then someone, who was in the gallery, left, but came back shortly with a bunch of candles in glassware, which they proceeded to distribute around the gallery and light, and then some street musician came and sat outside the gallery and started to play – but it turned out he was quite good, and people began to gather around to hear him, some of whom then started coming in the gallery too. So the evening turned into a spontaneous party of sorts, and it wasn’t until near midnight before Sherry and I closed the gallery and went to dinner with my friends, for more quiet conversation – but the mood of everyone was in fact quite good, and in fact I did sell 3 pieces of art to my friend, which he came and paid for the next day. [and incredibly, I learned later, the woman who had set up her artwork on the floor had also sold some artwork] And I probably would have sold some additional artworks to people who had been in the gallery that eventful evening, except that I had to close the gallery on the 3rd day after Labor Day as per my arrangement with the landlord, which meant I had to arrange the packing and shipping of all the unsold art in the gallery, because only 1 of the artists other than myself and my girlfriend were local, and there was a lot of artwork to pack and ship. One of the people who had been in the gallery that Saturday night did contact me about a month later and wanted one artwork they had seen that night in the gallery, but it was already in a show in Germany, and in fact it sold there sometime during that show, so I couldn’t get it for my would-be client.

    1. Oh! Boy !!! A pretty wild story. Glad you ended up selling some pieces. Kind of strange though that people would start bringing candles into a space that was not theirs .

  12. Recently I was a participating artist in a show and while I was talking to other artists, a woman came up to me and asked if I was Freddie. When I answered “yes”, she said “I love your painting. Can we talk?”. I naturally inferred that she was interested in the painting and maybe wanted a discount. She asked all kinds of questions about me and the techniques, etc. She finally made it clear that although she loves my painting, she just downsized and has much more art than she knows what to do with.

    Another point….an artist bought one of my paintings.

  13. I am about to do my first of two shows and I am almost hesitant to invite my close friends as I am afraid they will just add clutter and confusion and take up time I need to spend on a possible buyer. Of course if they purchase, then they are forgiven. It is a touchy situation and I am nervous enough as it is my first attempt at displaying and selling.

  14. I recently had a solo show. Another artist who has work in the gallery came to the opening reception. This person’s work was at the very front of the gallery mine was in a large area in the back of the gallery. This person stayed for the entire reception and at one point was in the front of the gallery talking to and showing his work to anyone who came in. I thought this was in very poor taste on his part. It potentially kept people from coming to the back where my paintings were. Another artist also came but came to support me and my opening reception which I very much appreciated. I’ve had solo shows in the past and have never had this happen. It just seemed strange, and I personally would never do that to another artist.

  15. For gallery events, artists who take up space is always a problem. But breaking away from them is usually easy because on some level, they understand. I always apologize later and explain, just to be sure they are clear on the principle.

    For studio tours there are two other kinds of danger.

    One is the husband who wants to talk about tools while the wife wants to appreciate sculpture. Sometimes I think it’s a conscious strategy to keep the wife from spending money, but truly, tools are all some men can think about. All some other men can think about stones; rockhounds want to lecture me about stone. For some reason, all those issues seem to relate mainly to men.

  16. It can be awkward sometimes, when friends or fellow artists hangout! I just say ‘excuse me’ and go to work. At tent shows, when it is slow, we will generally congregate at someone’s tent. Generally, when a client comes in, we scatter like Quail! If my friends don’t get the hint, I have had to be more blunt and say something to the effect of ‘it’s time to go to work”! It is our job!!

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