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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31 Comments

  1. I’ve mentioned before the artist who walked into my conversation and began assertively talking about their own work. The conversation turned to them. It was then impossible to begin a war of words. It was extremely rude of course, but any thoughts about what I could have done?

    1. I would think that, at that moment, it would be impossible to correct the other artist without coming across as horrible yourself once the conversation had reached that point. However, once the potential buyer had left, I would definitely lay down future boundaries by asking how the intruder would appreciate paying for space, setting up his or her area, and then you coming in and doing the same to him or her. That should do it but if the other artist isn’t skilled in social boundaries and he still doesn’t “get it” then lay down the law a little more directly. The time to stop a conversation that is going to go in that direction is at the beginning of it, diplomatically of course, but definitely.

  2. This is embarrassing!
    I think I’m the thing in my opening receptions that won’t go away!
    I’ve been working very diligently on how I present myself and what my audiences expect from me. (The teacher in me still wants to command the room” as they say- and this I can do).
    But the key is the purpose that the artist and the visitor have in being there. So, in the upcoming months, I will practice how to disappear into the purpose of the moment. I’m not sure just how that will work or what the strategy might be.

  3. I have said to the Thing That Won’t Leave, “Excuse me, I need to go sell some art!” This is usually received with immediate understanding and curiosity, and I just proceed with the new visitor as if The Thing was not present.

  4. What about the collector who won’t leave? I’ve had occasions at gallery openings where collectors seem to think that because they know me and have bought my work, they are entitled to monopolize my time, thereby leaving me little opportunity to greet or converse with those who may become collectors if given the chance!
    Any advice would be welcome!

  5. I think most of my fellow producers have always said – Oh, look, go talk to them! They mostly get it, I think. Now, the step 2 part – WAIT while your prospect looks – is interesting – not to return to your friend keeps you available for your client. Good stuff.

  6. Another annoying tendency I’ve noticed is when I put a small gourmet treat at my booth to entice collectors, the other participating artists will gobble them up!

    1. Maybe you could hold back the treats until a customer comes, then hold the plate out directly to the customer first. Then you could ask any artists if they would like *one* and quickly put it away afterward.

  7. I have had that happen at art show openings and when I have open studios in my home. Most artists I know are pretty good at knowing when to excuse themselves graciously, but I have problems occasionally with family and friends. Sometimes they interject things in to the conversation that do not always sound professional and can be somewhat distracting, especially when I am trying to close a sale. I have had to learn how to steer my family into other areas of the house or give them tasks, like perhaps the dogs could use a walk or could you pass these appetizers around. I know they like to feel involved and are also proud of me and some of them are actually clients. I have learned to be as respectful of them as if they were buyers as you never know when one of them is going to purchase something, however I do like what Jana said, excuse me does seem to work.

  8. I’m smiling as I read these because it is seems to be a usual occurrence that someone takes charge of a situation that is not theirs to take charge of (even in classes). It’s like when an over saturated pigment or element ends up on my canvas … I just have to take charge of it and even though I may like the thing, I can’t feel bad to eliminate its intensity and subdue it somehow. It’s the same with conversations and practice helps – to interpret mid sentence may be terrifying but an explanation and remembering that there are others to engage with is important. Shop talk can be for another time and most will understand if you step away. Easier said then done …and that’s why galleries can help artists sell.

  9. Get a dog… best ice breaker a studio can have. Must be a good dog… like my lab Grizzley. Customers feel more at ease and seem to talk longer. At first they are into him but after a bit they loosen up and start to ask questions about the work.

    1. Gotta argue with that one. My husband won’t go near a booth/studio with a dog. Lots of people either don’t like them or are allergic. Always hard for a dog lover to imagine!

      1. Yes, but lots of people DO like dogs, so they will go to the booth, especially if the dog is friendly. The dog can be a good ice breaker.

  10. I am an artist but have extensive sales experience as it pertains to my Interior Design Career. This happens a lot, as I know many external vendors as well as Interior Designers who stop to talk (always,it seems, when I am most busy trying to capture a new client in my showroom).

    I simply do the same as was mentioned and excuse myself. In addition, (to put an END to the current conversation) I say, “Hey, its been great chatting! Can you give me your card so we can continue this when we both have more time?” If they don’t have a card I enter their contact info in my phone to let them know they ARE important to me but we need to do this LATER.

    It works every time because it puts a definitive end to things and in a polite way lets them know they aren’t necessarily welcome in the conversation with a potential buyer.
    People just want to be involved and know they are valued.

    1. In addition, if that person doesn’t leave and joins in with the client you are courting it is always good to turn the conversation around towards the client. “What kind of art do you collect? Oh, do you (travel, have a dog yourself,paint,etc. according to the subject of your art they are commenting about) It helps you show interest in them, find out about their space, and exclude your unwelcome guest. It also opens up additional conversation about a space they may be looking to fill. As an artist I hate the idea of “sofa art” to match decor but as a designer, this is a reality. Especially in well put together homes like our clients here in Scottsdale have, they want a completed look. Questions are the only way you to dig deeper into their needs. They may not know you do commissions and now you have a chance to tell them.

  11. Might be worth arranging a beer night to enlist the usual suspects in a conversation about these things. Perhaps an understanding/code of conduct could be explored. Seems to me that a friendly posse could think through it together and plan outcomes that help each other. For instance, wouldn’t it be great if your art bud senses the cue when your patron engages with you and fetches drink refills (instead of being a boorish eavesdropper)? Even better if this became reciprocal among many over time, and things improve for everyone. Artists who help each other do better.

  12. What do I do when a group of people gather in front of my booth
    too chat…. not chatting about art, possoable buyers walk on by
    because they cannot get to my booth. How do I ask them to walk on?

    1. This is a big problem I have too. NEVER set up your art in a U-shaped space if you can help it. Visiting people (including a family member) stood in front of my display so I stood outside of my space and when a potential client came along I ushered them in by assertively asking people to move outside so the client could look at my art. It is very frustrating but you are the only one who has the control of that space.

    2. Hi Judith! Over the years I have gotten much better at handling this situation. If they are very close you can act like you need to rearrange a piece or price and simply say “excuse me! I need to get to my work”. Another way to clear a path is act like you need to take a photo of your booth from right where they are standing. If all else fails ask them to step to the side as they are blocking your doorway. Some understand, some don’t, it doesn’t matter as long as they move!

  13. To be clear, artists are still welcome, right? I find attending the Scottsdale art walk to be renewing, informative, and enjoyable. I think it’s important for artists to be part of the art world, and attending art walks and visiting galleries is a big part of that. I do try to not distract from any sales that might occur while I’m there, but if there is an art show opening I would like to meet to the artist briefly. Is this inappropriate?

    1. Absolutely – artists are welcome and encouraged to visit us during Art Walk. We just ask that they avoid monopolizing the featured artist’s time. A reception is not the time to ask about technique and expect a lesson!

  14. I am an Oil-Painter & I behave just like you when it comes to sales Jason, the focus has to be on the customer. We are in business & business is all about our customers. It is natural to go through the awkward stage but it must be overcome & that takes practice & commitment…

  15. Thanks for sharing this information. I am a new artist and have not encountered this situation yet. Luckily I belong to two artist groups where we share our work and techniques. When I encounter an artist that wants more information, I will invite them to one of these groups.

  16. Sometimes I have had to slowly position my self between the visitors and the potential client, ending with my back turned to them….I feel this way I can give all my attention to the client

  17. To Carl C:

    Excuse yourself from your artist friend and then engage the visitor. If artist-friend is still hanging around, during a pause in your discussion with the visitor, simply wave and say over your shoulder, “Thanks for coming in, Fred. I’ll see you later!” and then return your attention to your visitor. This usually gets the point across that they’ve been politely dismissed.

  18. A Prose for customers:
    They over stay their welcome as they view my precious art,
    waiting for me to serve brownies or some kindness of heart…
    Donate this one, that one too: Surely your goodness will come back to you
    (Oh by the way, is that ten fold)?
    Chatting & connecting is my special thing humans like to know that
    you’re touchable approachable and ‘not just a sales thing.’ Never define people
    by your own status thing: whether it’s $$’s or their usefulness,
    Don’t measure them in GOLD! Never by your Needs of having special art
    Friendship is a True Gift when flowing from your Heart…
    So, one day I stopped by and my neighbor said, “Each time we have coffee,
    this wall art has grabbed your heart.” Today, I am moving, downsizing and
    it’s YOURS! Is this Starving Art or Friendship?
    carol@futurebeacon.com

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