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, 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?

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.

15 Comments

  1. Jason
    I found your article informative and am ready to take the next step.
    I’m a stone sculptor and in a gallery in Laguna Beach,CA which is set up as a nonprofit co-op so each of us are required to work there twice a month.
    I will definitely look into getting your book and look forward to more of your articles.
    Thanks
    Jeff Schwalm

  2. Well I made a sale recently. Through my day job again, which involves teaching English. The boy, whose dad actually is an art collector, said he liked a paper collage I showed him, he then suggested I create a piece similar to that on canvas: I obliged, he purchased it.

    One student who came for a similar purpose squealed when she saw my works (my studio was my bedroom, now it’s the guest bedroom), she bought two from me. Another student also purchased after I showed her my catalogue, created via blurb.com.

    A friend of the first student I mentioned also bought a small canvas piece, though appropriated another, though his grandfather gifted me a cat hammock in lieu. He picked out one of the best, viewers are sharp like that.

    With the pandemic there are less visitors and exhibitions are banned, a new ruling that came into force the very day I arrived into the countryside with 40 newer works. But the organiser bought two, though he cheapskated, I marked one at a lower price because the canvas was not the best, and had warped, so he got the best 20×20, picked by another member for an earlier group show, and that 60×60, at a bargain.

    I was not born with sales skills, a few years ago an old lady expressed an interest in a work of mine at an open-air Montmartre style venue that used to take place before the pandemic, though the excuse came up, she wanted another like it. I created a twin work, though she did not return. All this was like the UK during a bad recession, only here it is a default. The foreigners didn’t come here to look at paintings by and large, though.

    I get a little passive income from a work that sells on a print on demand basis on one website, alas, still don’t know how to tweak the tagging to get my other works noticed.

  3. I constantly scan my environment for unique sales opportunities. Once, I sold a piece to my dentist after I had finished it and it was in my car. I walked into my appointment and immediately noticed that the decor palette was the same as my painting. So, I took it inside and showed them the painting and they immediately purchased it seeing that it fit right into their new decor. That was a sale that I made on my initiative. Strange things happen for the good, sometimes.

  4. I find myself becoming a better human being (more comfortable in my skin) as I embrace my growing sales skills. All in all the key is I am more relaxed and interacting with potential clients becomes fun. Over the years I learn by adjusting from observing my mistakes.
    I always appreciate reading your blog post Jason.

  5. Rebecca
    I have sold at live art shows/co-op galleries and a museum gift shop. The main thing I have had to learn was to let a potential buyer have the time to “fall in love” before I start talking. It is hard to shut up and just take-in the experience the buyer is having. I want to say, “Can I help you?” “Do you have any questions…” I am so excited I can almost not breath or think. I have to remind myself to relax and trust the process that is happening. It is like really being in the moment. I try to get my attention off my own desire and on to the buyer. Probably if I would stop thinking of these boxes as my children that would take the pressure off.

  6. I have been a salesperson, not of my art but of oak wine barrels. And so I do recognize a good salesperson when I meet one. They are likable, they genuinely enjoy interacting with their clients. I’ve never had too much trouble getting into galleries or selling the work as long as there is a people person running the show. The other factor with sales is a simple recipe- give people something they want at a price that they like. It makes a sale so much easier. I sold so many truckloads of barrels this way- thousands. And it was great fun. Art is more difficult- but I believe the basic tenets are the same.

  7. My son recieved his first commission to draw 100 original Santa Clause cartoon Christmas cards from a neighbor who paid 50 cents per card. She came to me with the idea and I told her he would love to do it and closed the deal. He was six years old. When he was eleven another neighbor hired him to do a pen and ink of a dog for the cover of Briard of America club magazine for $50. When he was 16 people started approaching me and ask how much for him to do a wide variety of commissions. He was busy at art college and I would close the deals. This has been going on for 38 years. I learned to be a good sales person because he never would ask for sales or tell people he was an artist. I kept increasing prices and he has supported us both with his work.
    In the process of learning how to sell I found that everything Jason tell us is true. People need to feel confident and see value in the price you are asking. I built a website to show the work he has been commissioned to do in the past. I point out consistantly excellent work. He ended up doing many styles since people would say I see he draws cars but can he draw a boat. I would assure them that there was no difference and they would feel better about ordering. Showing people other works and stating this artist can do more of the same for you always works. Also, I tell them that the outcome of the work is always more important to him then it will ever be to them. They get it. It is his life. It is one purchase for them.
    Buyers need to know that your art is so important to you that you would never do less than your best. That it has meaning in your life and that makes them feel good about buying from you.
    Jason continually points out that consistancy of topics is vital for galleries. I am in the process of building a second website that will just be for fine art work paintings as are other site shows commissions in 16 different styles totallying thousands of works which would overwhelm fine art buyers.
    Watch Jasons videos on youtube. They are excellent and informative. He never gives flippant advice. Jason really cares about the artists, buyers he turns into collectors and his students. He is a rare find in the gallery world and we are very lucky to have found him. I have dealt with gallery owners in NYC, Portland, OR and California and he is rare indeed.

  8. Great article. It’s time to change the way we think about salesmanship. In the vein of your last article, positive thinking goes a long way. Like you said, it is all about helping them get what they want. I often paint commissions, which gives me an opportunity to tailor the client’s ideas and dreams into a beautiful composition that truly pleases them. I’m much more comfortable “selling” a commission than something I’ve already painted and is hanging on the wall. I need some tools for working on that.

  9. It does not matter if you are selling in a festival show, a gallery, or an exhibition… one obstacle which is at times an challenge to a sale, is “the presence of a client’s friend or family member.” Often-times a person will be looking at a work of art and they really want to purchase it, however need the approval of a friend, colleague, or family member that it is okay to purchase it. I have observed this many times, for years now. At times it can be an easy sell, however all too often the other person will cast a negative spin on the work and discourage the client from purchasing it. I honestly believe that this is often -times the result of jealousy because “if they can’t have it themselves, they don’t want their friend to have it. Other times it may simply be a difference in taste. Not everyone simply likes the same thing. When I recognize this sort of situation, I try to gain the attention of the decision maker and talk directly to them. I assure them of the validity of the work, and will tell them that there is only one reason to purchase this work, and it is because “you, and you alone love it, and that it is going to bring you years of pleasure.” I am soft and casual in my tone, however direct to the point. I usually inquire about what the style of their home or office is, and where they plan to place this. That helps them visualize it in “their” space. I also like to point out the personality of the piece which can at times open their eyes to how their taste may be different from their friend’s. If it is a married couple, then you have to include the negative voice in the discussion and sell to them as well, which is more challenging. It may be a matter of finances or such which is the issue at hand. Always pay attention to the dynamics of the sale when it is more than one person you are selling to.

    1. Excellent advice Ray. I have run into that 2nd party many times. Suddenly you are climbing a hill you did not know was there. You have a good way of handling it. Thanks.

  10. I’m blessed – I came out of a sales role with Coca-Cola. While I always get really nervous, I can do fairly well at negotiation. However, my price points are too low for the amount of time I put into each piece. I’m steadily working on that part of my business.

  11. the biggest challenge I face is selling my art in this Covid 19 pandemic world. all my art is online, and no one has bought anything. Is it because I am physically handicapped.? my art is much better now since becoming handicapped in 2018. As long as Civid 19 is around I am not going to be able to sell my artwork in public, and online there seems to be no one interested in art. it is like there is no light in them for inspiration. Despite my crippled hands, knees, wrists, and back I can still do artwork and write. I do not wish to be felt sorry for I desire at least making a few sales. money is not the main issue it is the inspiration that feeds the spirit, and soul of every man, woman, and child. I have wanted to just give up, but if I do that I will lose all my own inspiration, and my God-given abilities, talents, and gifts will be useless. I do not know how long I will live. I have outlived the doctor’s estimates, but not God’s appointed time so before God calls me home I desire for my art to be displayed all over the world. it is on my bucket list. I have to keep creating artwork because one day the dream of my own gallery, and studio may come to pass, and I can start teaching the kind of art I do. it is a new unique kind of art called”Primitive Prophetic Art. I see the art image in my dreams, and vision, and place it on canvas. You can google that and my name to get more information. please keep me in your prayers.!

    1. I decided to put my art out there in June 2020. Yes, when the pandemic started🤪🤪, not great timing. In ten months this is what I have achieved…..part of two group exhibits, my first solo exhibit at a gallery in May, and invite to join another new gallery starting in June. Also, I have been accepted on two online galleries, one I have used so far. Also, received an email from a tourist resort who had viewed a painting I completed and they asked permission to add it to their follower website…..can you say free advertising! Has it been easy, not at all but if you wait for the phone to ring your paintings may start to gather dust. I heard a lot of no’s during that time but the fact I retired from a sales industry helped a lot to deal with rejection. This is not an easy industry, and once tourism returns to normal there should be a large improvement in sales numbers. Learning to promote ourselves is very key until or unless we reach legendary level. Hopefully I can be one the the few to do it before they die,lol.Great article!

  12. Back in the 60s I sold giant macramés, sand candles and pottery door to door so to speak. Running up and down the California coast in my VW van stoping at all the head shops and surf shop along the way.
    I knew I was not a good salesman so I always had my girlfriend go in and make the pitch. Our best customer was Knots Berry Farm. I’m not sure that she was the best salesperson but she was a sweet hippy girl standing there with product in hand and a smile on her face. Who could say no to that?
    I’m still not a sales person and never will be. You need to have the gift of gab and thats not me. I know some people can write a whole book on things like hanging a picture on a wall. Me…I’d just say put a nail in the wall and hang it.
    Now I paint 5-6 hrs a day and I’m content with that. Guess I could use that hippy chick but times have changed and here I sit with paintbrush in hand. Guess maybe I should take a class in salesmanship.

  13. One technique I learned from other artists is to tell the client, “Take it home, live with it for a week, and if you don’t love it, bring it back.” Rarely were paintings brought back.

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