Discussion: Are Promotional Sales Appropriate in the Art World?

Recently, I received an email from an artist announcing her “End of the Season Sale.” According to the email, this is the fifth consecutive year she has held the sale. All of the available work would be marked down by 30% to her email subscribers and social media followers.

My initial reaction to this kind of promotion is usually negative – I feel the art business is not one that lends itself well to this kind of effort. I never have sales of this kind for inventory in the gallery, and I discourage this approach whenever the discussion comes up in my frequent conversations with artists.

This artist’s email brought the topic to mind again, and I am one who always likes to question my own perceptions and assumptions. Is my position sound? Have I formed my position reasonably, or have I overlooked important factors? I’m hoping you’ll help me decide.

Here’s my position on the topic in a nutshell – I can think of three main reasons why I don’t hold sales.

1. Promotional sales often don’t lead to more sales activity.

I don’t believe promotional sales are effective in the art business. Part of this is theory, and part from observation. Let’s start with my theory: I find that art is a unique product in that it simply is not a commodity item. Each piece of art is unique – there will never be another – and often relatively costly.

When a potential buyer is considering whether or not to buy a piece of art they have to decide first if they love the work, and second if they feel it is worth the asking price. If the client loves the work, the second part of that question is usually pretty easy to answer. If you truly love the art and trust the artist you will feel the work is worth the asking price (whether or not you can afford the asking price is another question entirely) .

If the client doesn’t love the art, then the discussion is over and it’s not as if your promotional sale price reduction is going to entice the potential buyer to fall in love – love doesn’t work that way!

Your job is to get the artwork in front of the client in order to give them that opportunity to fall in love. Your marketing efforts should be centered around this, rather than around a gimmick to get your client to act now.

That’s my theory on the effectiveness of promotional sales, but I have also had conversations with artists who have tried sales events with very little positive effect. None of the artists I have spoken to on this subject report that promotional sales are a big part of their overall, long-term success.

2. There is a very real risk that you will devalue your artwork by offering it at this kind of discount.

Because the value of art is somewhat of a mystery (the real value of art is in the eye of the beholder, and the price is therefore somewhat arbitrary) you can very easily undermine the value of your art by offering it in a discount sale. If you discount the art a buyer may simply wonder if the original price was too high in the first place.

Also, how likely is that buyer to ever want to buy something from you at full price again? Not very  Once they have tasted this forbidden fruit, I can’t imagine you ever getting them ever coming back to buy at full price. Worse, they might say to themselves “If I can get this artist’s work at 30% off, perhaps I can get it for even less.”

[Please note that this is a different issue than whether or not it is ever appropriate to negotiate the price when trying to close a sale.]

3. Sales can train buyers to delay their purchasing impulse.

Similarly, once a potential buyer knows you are open to the concept of sales, they now have a strong incentive to put off their buying decision.

“I like this painting,” our potential buyer might say to herself, “but it’s October, and I know this artist always holds an end of the year sale; maybe I should wait to buy it until then.”

This would be especially true if the sale is a regular event for you and you are good at getting the word out to your buyers.

This is just a glimpse into my thought process on the matter, but I would love to hear from you, especially those of you who look at the issue differently than I do. Have you ever held a promotional sale to boost your sales activity? If so, how effective was it, and how did you successfully conduct the sale? Do you feel adamant that an artist should never hold this kind of sale?

Share your input, experience, opinion, and wisdom 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.

14 Comments

  1. I agree with your thoughts on this 100%!
    I have a lot of inventory from phases, experiments and series past. I have often thought to put them on sale but I think they become more exclusive and more valuable over time.
    If I believe a piece is truly not worth its gallery (retail) value I am more likely to destroy it then to big sale discount it. Every year I go through my inventory and cull the weakest work.
    I do offer a slight discount for an in-studio sale.
    As tempted as I am at times, I don’t go full on SALE SALE SALE. An “Open House” is a good alternative to a SALE! Galleries also do not like being undercut and collectors would not be happy about having paid full price at a gallery. I want them to feel good about their previous purchase and come back.
    Thanks for this article. It was a good reminder and affirmation to stay the course .

  2. I agree with Jason’s viewpoint, and add that I feel that it is “un-neighborly” towards other artists to blatantly advertise that art can cost much much less if the buyer merely waits it out. Our county is very much art focused, and many depend on making for their livelihood. An art/artisan cooperative puts out its sandwich boards as much as two months before its next such “event”, on the major tourist and locals route to the beach. I feel that in addition to Jason’s valid points that advertising sales is adverse to their own interests, it leads to public negative confusion about approaching art, a piece’s connection to them, and the subordinate reality of fair pricing.

  3. Hi Jason. I have to say that I’ve had a different experience with a “sale”. During the pandemic, there was a thing called the “artists support pledge”. The idea was that artists could post works on social media with the “#artistsupportpledge hashtag, and offer these works for $200. The pledge was, for every 5 pieces you sold, you would purchase a piece from another artist for $200. I discounted paintings that normally would have been $325-$425, and I sold dozens of them. I even started creating paintings just for it. In fact, it did seem to spur interest in my larger works, and I’ve generally been painting more large work since then. there may have been other factors at work here, but that’s been my experience, and I don’t know what other conclusions to draw. Is my work overpriced at $325-$425, or is $200 just a simple affordable price point? Is social media the best new way to sell art? I’m tempted to try it again.

    1. I think $200 has been the price point that overcomes resistance and lets the person go with their impulse. I prefer to paint “littles” to sell almost that low, well framed and well presented. That doesn’t undermine my other pricing. My collectors buy both.

  4. I totally agree with Jason. We do too much work throughout the year to have people feel that they can just wait and for a sale. I avoid them. In fact, interest in my work increases as I raise prices gradually. I do however hold the occasional instagram contest or giveaway but too many. I gave away 1000 gift certificate and the person who won it hasn’t even used it yet, its been a year. So likely they’re waiting to see something they love. Pertaining to the fact that people won’t even take free art if they don’t love it.

  5. I have worked in both a small art gallery and art gallery/frame shops. I have also sold work when I have put up pieces to sell.

    First, I agree with Jason’s 3 points, especially his dislike of discounting. Collectors have a fairly strong tendency to feel cheated when similar work by an artist is discounted for a sale. I understand the need to clear gallery space for new work, but just culling the less than great work is a better option (despite how hard that is to do).

    Second, on the framing. A “nice frame” is frequently replaced because the frame doesn’t compliment the rest of the owner’s decor no matter how well it compliments the art work. Another reason framing is replaced is the artist went with the cheapest possible framing or that framing job actually hides the work. I have seen white mats, mats dwarfing the piece, ready made frames block the piece from the potential buyer’s eyes; they just can’t see past the framing. The advent of the “gallery wrap” was someone’s stroke of genius.

    For works that need glass, you have no choice but to frame. Please stay away from the white mats. Choose one that is close to the middle values in your work or one that extends the largest block of color.

  6. I trust my galleries to do the job of selling my work. But your article about studio sales prompts the question: what do I do with inventory that galleries no longer want?

    To address that dilemma I had a studio sale once. My collector’s preview was Friday night and then I had my studio open to the public Saturday and Sunday.

    Saturday and Sunday were a waste of time. All my sales happened Friday night. No surprise.

    I did offer my collectors the 20% discount that they expect as repeat buyers and that my galleries sometimes give. I offered an additional discount to works of art that were created ten or more years ago. Perhaps I shouldn’t have done it. After all, I’ve “knocked it out of the park” quite a few times in the past.

    I really would like an answer to my question: what to do with inventory that my galleries don’t want?

    1. You could find a different gallery? I recently had work at a gallery for almost a year with minimal sales. They just returned the pieces that didn’t sell, I took them to a new gallery and most sold the first night! 2 thoughts: the gallery fit was not perfect. 2. They sat too long for their regular customers. Lower prices would not have mattered. They needed a fresh start and a better fit. In my opinion. But honestly, I seem to do much better on my own – promoting my own work on social media and selling through my own site. Hope that was a little helpful:) I do 100% agree with never having discounted prices. To me It shows buyers your regular price is not your best price, if that makes sense. (Plus everything else that was listed!)

  7. I agree for the most part. Sales aren’t something I do, most of the time. There are a couple exceptions that I think have worked well for me. As a bronze sculptor, I will often do a presale. This is a sale for the piece before it is even cast. The idea is that the buyer will be able to get the bronze sculpture at a lower price because they are willing to invest in your work before they have seen it in bronze. It also allows me to be able to cast at least 2 expensive bronzes without using my own money. 1 for the buyer and another for me to sell later at full price.

    I have also really enjoyed doing a studio open house (once every year or two) where I will sell things I don’t usually sell elsewhere. I will often hold this at a time when I have finished a public commission sculpture so people in my own community can see the piece before it leaves my studio and I install it wherever it is going. The pieces are sell are anything from slightly damaged pieces, experimental pieces that don’t fit within my usual style, or other mediums I have done, like plein air paintings or pottery (I’m not working to become a plein air painter or a potter but I still enjoy doing it). All of these pieces I would not usually be selling elsewhere like my website, gallery, or shows and because of that I can sell them at a discount to my friends and neighbors. They get a good deal and I get to clean out my studio of artwork that is just taking up space.

    I think these are two reasonable ways to do a sale that doesn’t devalue the artwork or train buyers to delay purchasing. Thanks for the great post as always Jason.

  8. I just had my first month long show at a small, local gallery. I actually did offer a sale after the show was open for 1 week. The results were amazing! My show got great reviews on opening night, but only a few small pieces sold. Once I marked them down, my inventory flew out the door! Many buyers commented that they loved that they could now afford the piece they loved. I love that! I want my art to be in homes where it can be enjoyed. I won’t do this kind of sale all the time, but I do like making my art accessible to every buyer. Maybe that’s wrong, but it does feel very nice to know that these buyers appreciate it.

  9. I don’t like sales either and I don’t offer them. However, I do offer a multiple piece discount at my in-person art festivals. The more they buy, the more they save does sound somewhat gimmicy but his has greatly improved my open edition print sales and at times saved my ass from a mediocre show.

  10. I agree with Jason. We are not selling sweaters or mattresses! We are selling unique, hand crafted, one of a kind items that I don’t think lend itself to a “promotional sale”. I like all of the ideas from the commenters. I’m a new artist, and I like to read all I can get my hands on about the art business.
    Thanks!

  11. All the anti-sale discussion sounds logical, however the very first significant artwork I bought for myself I bought it was on sale. I had seen it a year earlier and fell in love with it but couldn’t afford it. A year later, after her gallery had been closed most of the year due to covid, the piece was on sale at a price I could afford and I am thrilled to own it.

    As for my own work, I have lots of friends who would like to own a piece of mine both because they like the work and like me, but art is not in their budget. I think having a studio sale of pieces that aren’t moving otherwise is a great idea.

    Now that I think of it, I have been to a couple of studio sales back in the 80’s. The artist gave essentially a party for their friends and collectors, music, snacks, drinks, and all the artwork was priced under a certain amount. In studio events are fun and get people thinking and talking about your work.

  12. I agree with your point of view and most of what you say with sales turns out negative and i just think as an artist that we want to move away from that situation.

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