Myths and Misconceptions of the Art World | Myth #2 – Art Sells Itself

In my last post, I shared my thoughts on the health and vitality of the art market. I believe that the art market is the strongest it’s been in some time and that it is a good idea for artists and gallery owners to be actively working to increase sales. I believe that it is a common misconception among many artists that the market is weak and that efforts to sell art are a waste of time.

Today I would like to address and attempt to dispel another common myth among artists and gallerists, the misconception that art “sells itself.”

The thinking behind this conception is based in some reality. The idea is that art is a very personal thing, and that an art buyer who discovers a piece of art that speaks to their soul will respond to that art by buying it. When the connection is strong enough, the thinking goes, the viewer will purchase.

The underlying idea is, in my experience, generally correct. Most art buyers are making an emotional connection to a piece of art before they buy, and there have certainly been instances where a visitor to our gallery has discovered a piece of art, fallen in love, and approached me or a staff member with credit card in hand, ready to buy. These kinds of sales are very gratifying, and it’s almost inevitable that every artist is going to, at some point, encounter this kind of purchase.

The problem is that these kinds of effortless sales are a very small percentage of all of the art sales that are made. Most sales require work and salesmanship to close, and any artist or gallerist who waits around for the sales to come to them is inevitably going to miss out on many sales opportunities.

Many buyers will fall in love with art only to immediately begin the process of talking themselves out of making the purchase. The problem is that once someone starts thinking about the reasons not to buy, they quickly realize that there are many more reasons not to make the purchase than there are to make one.

I’ve watched buyers wrestle with themselves, and, though I can’t read minds, I suspect that fear is the main demotivator when it comes to the decision to buy. People are afraid that, though they love a piece of art, it might be too expensive, or maybe it’s the wrong colors for their home, or maybe it’s not the right size, or maybe they have bad taste . . .

The list of possible doubts is long and can quickly outweigh their desire to purchase.

It’s our job to help the buyer overcome these concerns, or to prevent the buyer from giving thought to them in the first place. This doesn’t mean we have to counter every possible concern, it just means that we have to provide the potential buyer more reasons to buy than they have excuses not to buy. We can also help our buyers solve any doubts or problems as they arise.

Selling art successfully requires skill, patience, and experience. I’m sure that those of you who have been selling art for some time have seen your success rate rise over time as you learn how to talk to your customers and how to help them overcome their doubts. While the art you are producing has doubtless evolved and improved, I would argue that your skill as a salesperson has been even more critical to your increase in sales.

With that in mind, I encourage every artist to do two things. First, I encourage you to become a serious student of salesmanship. I know that the word “salesmanship” has a negative connotation because of the unfortunate disrepute brought on the trade by unethical and pushy salespeople, but I urge you to set aside the distaste you might harbor toward the sales process so that you can learn effective sales techniques.

Remember, a true salesperson isn’t a huckster or thief, and salesmanship isn’t cajoling or forcing. Salesmanship is the art of helping people acquire what they desire. This is especially true when selling art. Art enriches people’s lives immeasurably, and if you can learn some basic salesmanship skills that will help you help your customers, they will thank you for it.

The second important thing you can do to become a better salesperson is to seek as many opportunities to sell as you can find. Experience is the best teacher. Every chance you have to interact with customers will help you refine your approach to working with customers and closing sales. Art shows and festivals, and open studio tours can be a great way for artists to gain exposure, and get concentrated doses of sales experience.

If you are studying the theory of salesmanship and then taking every opportunity to put theory into practice, you will see a steady increase in your ability to sell your art. Expertise in salesmanship is more important than it has ever been as self-promotion becomes more important in the art market. Even artists who would ultimately like to be selling in galleries will benefit by understanding the sales process.

How are your Sales Skills?

What have you done to improve your sales skills? What do you feel are the most important things you have learned as you’ve gained experience selling your art? What are the biggest challenges you feel you face as you interact with customers in an attempt to sell your art?

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About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of Dad was an Artist | A Survivor's Story and best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of reddotblog.com, and founder of ARTsala. 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. Connect with Jason on Facebook

12 Comments

  1. I found this article very thought-provoking. While having been approached by any number of people at my shows that they are interested in buying something, I never followup or practice salesmanship with them, thinking it is not what an artist does. Most of these people never actually follow up and buy the art. I have given them no encouragement, thinking it would be “pushy.” Not sure I can overcome this, but at least now I understand much better what happens AFTER that clear emotional encounter and initial comments about it have occurred.

    Thank you.

  2. Jason, do you have a few recommendations of how to study salesmanship? “The Greatest Salesman in the World”, perhaps, or another book or website?

    The longer I am at this, the harder it becomes. Promoting my own work steals the energy required to create the work.

    Help me, Mr. Wizard! 😎

  3. I agree with Jana. What do you recommend for self promotion? I work in the gallery once a week that has my art, and if people stop in front of it, I can introduce myself as the artist. But it is very hard to lead people to my art unless they ask. It would feel like Inwas showing off or bragging. My work does sell itself, but not as frequently as I would like.

  4. Jason, it’s becoming rarer to meet potential customers face-to-face. It’s one thing to post work and another to sell it. Will you be providing tips on selling via the net where it’s more difficult to develop a relationship with the buyer and you don’t have any body language or tone of voice cues? In fact, you typically don’t even know when someone is viewing your work. Thank you for all you do to help us be more successful.

  5. I have sold work sporadically so I really don’t have a track record to look at. My first sale many decades ago in another life was a “checkbook in hand” kind of sale. It was a sidewalk sale. The person had walked by a couple of times. Late in the day he came back and wanted 3 pieces. They spent the next 3 decades in his restaurant until it burned 3 years ago. Paintings gone.
    My biggest challenge is titling followed by coming up with an elevator statement about my relationship with it, followed by embracing the silence. I can’t shut up! My wife helps as best she can but when I get going …
    This post is a perfect example.

  6. Jason, I agree with everyone here and especially Vicki. Right now I’m not in a gallery any more and all my interactions are online with people. You don’t always get a chance to interact with them unless they reach out to you with questions. Then it’s easier to follow through with them. Do you have any advice on this?

    It was different when I was in a gallery and working the floor. It’s just easier to interact with people who want to. Body language and their level of interaction let me know if they were interested or not. I spent more time with those showing interest. Some didn’t buy at the time but would come back another day and purchase one of my works. Seems just the time spent in conversation with them made them feel more comfortable about purchasing one of my works.

    Thanks for all your help, Jason.

  7. I concur with Vicki — especially as a newbie on the market, with no gallery to back me up and no studio to offer “tours” of (much less a large enough audience even interested in my works, each of which is one of tens of thousands of paintings posted online every single day).

    I’m no slouch at chatty sales pitches, having written hundreds of them for various industries in the past.
    But I think it’s naive & utopian to believe my little art website and various social media appearances can actually make me “visible” in this jostling maelstrom.

    Are my works gaining an “audience”? I just joined Instagram on Saturday and had a dozen Followers within hours.

    But it’s easy to Like and Follow someone on social media.
    Forking over a couple hundred (or thousands of) dollars, pounds or Euros for a painting is another universe / mindset entirely, imo.

    In short: I’m glad I have a day job and don’t need to sell any of my work. 😀

    Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy your newsletter immensely. You offer interesting, valuable information, packaged in sincere, very readable prose. Bravo! Few newsletters manage to accomplish that.

    I just don’t believe that most of its insights and tidbits of insiders’ wisdom apply to the vast majority of artists “out here”. But is indeed fun to press my nose to your gallery’s window to see how the 1% lives! ;-D

  8. In my experience, Open Studios events attract a broad range of visitors who are curious about what art is happening in the studios, and many come to be inspired rather than to buy art. It feels more appropriate to allow visitors to browse freely, rather than to approach them with questions as if they are potential customers.

  9. Thank you, this is good information with perfect timing as I am just jumping into selling my art. Good conversation with an established artist yesterday whose best advice was have fun and do what works for you. Bottom line; art enriches and blesses those who make it, buy it, give it, receive it, view/handle it! Thank you Jason for helping us share art!

  10. I have been selling at shows and markets and it is really hard to know what to say to people. They are interested, they say they love my work and they linger but they often don’t buy. I really need help knowing what to say.

  11. I am what many people would consider a “mid-career” or even a “mature” artist. I have had some limited success in the past as a member of non-profit artists’ organizations, managing my own 1-man or small group shows, and even ran my own in-house gallery briefly in the early 2000’s. I have struggled with depression since childhood. At times it is truly crippling and has prevented me from pursuing opportunities and connections as aggressively as I should have. I have been on some form of medication for all my adult life. Mostly due to this issue, and some truly awful encounters with galleries and their gatekeepers in the past, I have been unable to have a satisfactory relationship with any commercial gallery. I am now at an age when I feel that any energy spent on “selling” detracts from energy for “making.” One strategy I’ve adopted is to brand myself as an “outsider” artist, if only by default. I know this is not a question. I’m just wondering what anyone might have to say to someone in my situation.

  12. I have known for some time now that my lack of sales ability is holding me back. Unfortunately I have no clue how to fix this. Is there a book or online class anyone can recommend? I have participated in several art fairs. It is beyond discouraging to take the vast majority of my inventory home with me. I am an introvert and do not have the gift of gab.

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