Collective Wisdom | What to Do with Older, Unsold Artwork

I’m not sure why, but I’ve recently received a lot of questions from artists wondering what to do with older, unsold artwork. Storing old artwork can become a huge challenge, especially for artists who have built up hundreds works over the years. Studio space is at a premium, and every square inch that is taken up in storage is a square inch that’s not available as work space. I have a number of different suggestions of possible approaches to dealing with older work and their benefits and challenges, and then I would like to encourage you to share your experience with older work. Together, hopefully we can find the perfect solution to the older work challenge!

Idea #1 – Rotate Older Work into Your Current Inventory

Sometimes older work didn’t sell not because there was something wrong with it but because it simply didn’t wasn’t in the right place at the right time to get a buyer. I’ve sold many works that were created years prior to the sale. For artists whose work is consistent over the years in terms of style, technique and quality, recirculating art can be a viable option. The older work can be shown in galleries or at shows or art festivals, and, as long as the work doesn’t have a date on it, no one may even realize the work is older.

The work might need to be touched up, and it may need a new frame, but refreshing your older work in this way allows you to leverage your existing work to bulk up your inventory.

The Problems with This Approach

If your work has changed significantly since the older work was created, it may not be possible to show it with your newer work. In this case, introducing older work may make your body of work feel inconsistent, or it may call into question the quality of your newer work.

Many artists pass through significant changes in style and format, and for those artists, it’s not feasible to reintroduce the older work.

You would also want to avoid sending a piece to a gallery that has already had the work, unless they expressly requested the piece back (unlikely), or unless the work was significantly modified.

Idea #2 – Repurpose the Materials to Create New Art

I’ve known of many artists who take old canvases and paint an entirely new painting over the top of an older work. Some of these pieces are totally new compositions, while some are significant modifications of the older imagery. I’ve seen abstract artists who will let glimpses of the old work show through as texture in the new piece. I’ve also known of sculptors who have melted down an old piece to cast a new work (not recommended in most cases).

The Problems with This Approach

Not all art materials lend themselves to being reused, and sometimes the effort it takes to prepare used materials isn’t worth it.

Idea #3 – Offer the Art for Sale at Dramatically Reduced Prices on Your Website or at Shows

Some artists will offer older work in a “bargain bin” at their open studio event or at a show. The price may be significantly reduced in order to help the work sell more quickly. I’ve heard of artists offering older work at 50%-70% off the original retail price.

The Problems with This Approach

Deep discount sales of this kind present several problems. First, the old work can be a distraction from your new work. The pricing of the older work can also be a distraction. The bargain art may make your regularly priced work seem expensive and prevent sales – not the desired outcome at all!

Idea #4 – Hold a Studio Sale

Another idea is to hold a kind of art yard sale at your studio. The sale may target existing customers, or it may be an opportunity for friends and neighbors to acquire your art at prices more suited to their income.

The Problems with This Approach

If you target existing customers you risk training them that they shouldn’t buy your current work but should instead wait for your work to age and for the price to decrease.

Even if you aren’t targeting existing customers, this approach may not work well. Your neighbors may feel that even at a greatly reduced price, the work is still too expensive, or they may feel they don’t want to spend their hard-earned money on your rejects.

Idea # 5 – Donate the Work to Charity

Some charities hold art-related auctions or sales. Your donations give them a potential source of fund-raising.

The Problems with This Approach

Charity fundraisers can actually be a good source to build relationships with influential people in your community. A silent auction bidder may eventually turn into a collector. With that in mind, it’s a good idea to put your best artistic foot forward instead of presenting older work.

Another problem with this approach is that most events will only be interested in taking a piece or two per event, not a good way to dispose of a large body of unsold work.

Finally, the other huge disappointment in donating work to charity is that you can’t deduct the value of the artwork from your tax bill. You can only deduct the value of the materials, but most of you are already taking a deduction for those materials, so the net effect is that you get no deduction for the donation. This is inexcusable, and the congress should definitely amend the law to allow artists to take more of a deduction for donations, but until that happens, you are going to be donating out the goodness of your heart.

Idea #6 – Give the Work to Family Members or Friends

Many of your family members or friends would love to have a piece of your work, and they’re unlikely to look a gift painting in the mouth . . .

The Problems with This Approach

If you are particularly prolific, you may eventually overwhelm friends and family with too much art.

Idea #7 – Bonfire

I remember an experience early in my career when I was working in a large gallery. An artist was in town from out of state and brought in several new pieces. The owner of the gallery indicated that it would be a good idea for the artist to remove several older works from inventory.

The young artist agreed and pleasantly removed the older pieces, work on masonite panels, from their frames. One by one, he snapped the paintings in half over his knee, destroying them. My co-workers and I were mystified, perhaps even horrified, at the destruction, but the artist felt that if the work hadn’t sold, it must not be any good.

In the end, I suppose that if you feel your studio space is worth more than the work, or that it would take too much effort to dispose of the work in any other way, destruction is certainly an option.

The Problems with This Approach

It seems like a travesty that the destroyed work will never be enjoyed.

Bigger Issues

If all or most of your work is piling up in your studio, you don’t have a storage problem, you have a marketing problem! If you are producing work far faster than it sells, it’s time for you to shift your energy away from production and towards marketing. It’s time to find gallery representation or to participate in more shows and develop a collector list.

What Have You Done with Older Work?

Share your thoughts and experiences about what to do with older work, or ask questions about the topic in the comments below. Your input is invaluable – thanks!

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.

13 Comments

  1. I often paint over sections of older works that haven’t sold. I see that as an opportunity to improve my artmaking for myself – not just as change for sales sake but to truly make it a stronger piece of art. In fact, many of my most successful paintings have been created incorporating former paintings and ‘improving’ them against my personal criteria. Perhaps the original stirs memories that I build on, or perhaps it just loosens me up for a more ambitious result but having the older work as a base seems to inject energy into my desire to improve what may have made sense way back when. Sometimes it doesn’t work and I just gesso over the whole thing but more often I am thrilled with the result. And my collectors know what’s good and what’s not yet quite there.

    Improving the piece – whether from a conceptual or purely aesthetic perspective – allows me to market the new one with greater understanding, confidence and commitment. That I’ve spent so much time developing it provides a meaningful story to share and opens up an interesting conversation with a prospect. Having access to my struggle and the evolution of the work engages them more deeply in what they are looking at and, I believe, contributes to them more fully appreciating my art.

  2. I am firmly in the slash-and-burn camp, though perhaps not to the point where I pull something off a gallery or show wall to destroy it. This is because my storage space IS limited, reworking old canvas/panels is NOT best practice for longevity (acceptable sometimes for practice pieces though so there’s that) and requires scraping/sanding etc. to make the substrates reusable – time better spent marketing or painting. Also, my paintings continue to mature, my skill level rises; I don’t want work that doesn’t meet my personal curation level out in the world. I also do not believe in training collectors to “wait for the sale”. I want to show and sell my best and want my collectors to continue to feel they are buying something that will hold value over time as well as delight the eye.

  3. Thank you for delving into this issue. I agree storage and marketing kind of go together.
    Reading Idea #7. I was reminded of the time I enetered and was rejected from a rather prestigious exhibition. had created two large (for me) paintings about 4×8 and I was in a kind of Rothko mood. I was just out of school and had done well with other juried shows so I thought, “Why not?” I borrowed a truck to deliver the pieces but when they were rejected, I did not have anything other than my old VW Beetle. The pieces needed to be removed.
    I packed a saw and a knife.
    As I was dis-membering the canvasses in the parking lot, a shocked museum goer asked what I was doing. I told her I had to get them home and this was the only way. She was almost in tears.
    It is a violent act to many, to see art work destroyed. It’s a matter of one’s perception.
    Sometimes there is no choice.

  4. This is great – all good ideas. One thing I’ve been doing recently is holding free giveaway contests to get subscribers onto my email list. I am also planning to give a few away as incentives for people to stay to the end of my upcoming webinar. I prefer to give stuff away than throw it away, although if a piece is truly horrible, I’ll do that too. Thanks Jason!

  5. I am in the process of repurposing my stretchers. The older work is either rolled if I see some value in it or headed for the BBQ. Many have decried the idea of burning due to inflicting more damage to the environment. I will relook at what I have on that pile and perhaps reform it. The rest will meet the knife.

  6. All of this is such valuable information! I am on year 32 of being a selling artist and I am extremely prolific. I definitely alter my production with marketing and have employed all of these ideas to some degree. Recently I was doing a studio overhaul and had a piece where the frame had been too badly damaged to repair ( I also have lots of old frames sitting around). I had pulled the piece from the frame and was getting ready to cut it up for use in my newest collage works. I had a regular collected visiting my studio that day to purchase a small collection of works. We were wandering around the studio looking at everything, including discussing my latest endeavors. She saw the piece sitting on my work table and fell in love. The work was 20 years old! She had been collecting my work since 1995, so the age was not a hurdle for her, rather another piece of my artistic history. I did divulge to her that the piece was going to be “reconstructed and repurposed” and she couldn’t stand it:) I sold it to her at a small discount and she was thrilled!
    I had a huge shift in my work this past few years and I am now using new and old works for display in local businesses and offices, just so it doesn’t sit around my studio. They are marketing tools in my local community. 😊

  7. I have learned that, in the right mood, I can have a “fix it” day where I correct problems in old paintings. If not successful, I use the old painting as a colorful underpainting, and have have success with vibrant areas showing through. I often remove old paintings from the stretcher bars and put new canvas on. I cut up or crop old paintings to use in collage, or restretch the cropped painting on a smaller stretcher bar. Lastly, I have put discarded paintings out on the street where people walk by…they are always gone soon. Studio sales have brought me good profit, attracting those who can’t afford expensive paintings.

  8. Thanks Jason for starting this conversation. I’ve done many of the above-mentioned things: donated for fund-raising auctions (although newer work always does better) or given them to family/friends. I’ve reworked them, which sometimes has been quite successful. I recently created a new mixed media piece incorporating an older painting, which gave it a whole new context and it was accepted into a juried show. I also have painted over them entirely. I recently brought out older work to show again after years in storage, but it feels awkward to show them unchanged alongside new work, sales of the older work didn’t improve, and I am concerned that mixing in older work may have lessened the impact of the new work; I’m not likely to do that again. I have never destroyed old work, not wanting to add to the waste stream, and I’ll ever destroy sketch books….but I am paying for a storage unit, so I’m considering a one-time storage-unit-sale (at greatly reduced prices).

  9. These comments are very worthwhile, as was your summation of this problem. We live in a two bedroom condo in the winter in Palm Desert, CA. Every nook and cranny is filled with artwork. Each season I have a sale, and usually give away two paintings to bring in the people. I do okay and sell around 5 to 10 pieces, but that doesn’t even seem to put a dent in my supply of paintings. Ever since my gallery closed over 17 years ago, I’ve not marketed. I’m such an eclectic painter. My main love is oil and realistic scenes, but then between each realistic painting I “play” with ideas I’ve seen on YouTube. What’s fun is one of my “play” abstracts was accepted in my home town’s art center in Sioux City, Iowa. The event is called Artcetera, and little did I know that they are bringing many gallery owners and clients to bid on the pieces that were accepted. I’m almost 80, and paint every day. My goal right now is to paint where we live. So far I have five paintings finished. Next year around this time I’ll have a show. We live at Palm Valley Country Club, so some paintings are of the golf course, but mainly what I see when I take my walks around the complex.
    Your comments and helpfulness is wonderful. I bought your video, but have yet to take the time to sit down and listen and learn. My husband has been ill, so that’s been taking my time. Hope to get to it soon.
    Thanks again for your blogs.

  10. Jason – Many Fine Art Galleries in Houston once contracted with are now closed and I’m finding wall space in ‘Consignment and Antique Shops’ to show and sell to ‘art collectors’ with the date and signature in full view on the work. My work is finding new homes as a recent sale was to a doctor @ Texas Children’s Hospital . I’m living with a large inventory of work that once received many likes on a East or West coast ‘Artist Web-sites’ = PaintingsDIRECT and Saatchiart . . . Barney Davey says there’s two reason art may not sell – Not Good Enough or Not Seen By Many. Hmmm! Well I’ve received many likes and think it has more to do with just being in the right place at the right time – or our ‘luck’. Finding Balance is a full time job for me and many artist . . . Wouldn’t you agree?

  11. That “only worth materials” rule may not be as hard and fast as you think. I know that when my sister donated their old minivan to Rawhide, they were given the choice of a flat $500 valuation, or wait until it sold and get the sale price. I think the rule Rawhide works under also applies for charity auctions–namely, that an artist can use the auction-sale price as their tax-deduction value. Not sure how it work if it ends up being a raffle item.

  12. I’ll be melting down an old bronze piece that I was never satisfied with, so I can pour a new one, more in line with my current style that sells well. In most cases, I wouldn’t destroy an older piece, but it’s the right move to make for this one.

  13. I don’t bother with whether or not my art is selling as I’m not a business person. I cringe at the thought of huckstering. I make art purely for the joy of creativity. I love to spend time in my studio. I’ve sold a few pieces to friends but I’ve also given away a lot of my art.
    Currently I’ve got a pile of fresh blank canvases that I haven’t even painted yet. My walls are covered with my art work and I rotate my pieces. I don’t have any more room to have artwork so I’m working on small greeting cards that I will mail it at Christmas and for birthdays.
    All of my friends have received artwork from me and I don’t feel that I can bombard them with any more. I’m 65 years old as are many of my friends who are downsizing and don’t want more stuff. Plus I paint abstract and most people don’t like or appreciate abstract art.

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