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?

Starving to Successful

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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 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

16 Comments

  1. Great advise. The more oportunity you engage in selling the better. While the subject, color, size play a part. I found the story behind the work is what connect the customer to the piece. It’s true, each customer is different However, for me the back story usually close the deal.

  2. November and December are my busiest months for sales but I have a hard time selling to people then when I know they are purchasing items for gifts. Not knowing the end users tastes makes me hold back as I fear pushing the customer into a purchase that the recipient won’t like. Even though gift recipients can visit the studio and exchange their items I still struggle with these sales.

  3. I worked for a time in large retail. We had sales competitions between departments about 4 times a year. We had motivational videos and incentives. i feared those times. Long afterward, I tried to figure out why that was the case and why I was able to help whatever team I was on, to lose. The best i can come up with is that I had to perform outside of myself. The “salesmanship” became more about my quota than what the customer needed and i never found the balance.

    You have stated often and early that the art sale is an emotional event for the buyer. i’m going to suggest that the whole process from the artist’s conception to the buyer’s purchase is emotional for everyone connected to it. Eventhough my own particular work right now feels mechanical and cold, i am conceptually and emotionally involved and the amount of time and energy I devote to the work is costly.

    I had one “check in hand” sale when I had just started work upon graduation. A fellow walked by me sitting on the sidewalk with my paintings (It was a sidewalk show), stopping a couple of times but didn’t say anything. The day wore on. Late, as we were packing up, he came back. “I want these three paintings- pointing to them. Here’s my check and contact information. As I remember, there was no amount- just a signed check. The conversation was that he would gladly take a package deal but did not want to cheat me with a low price.” I was ecstatic of course. That was a one-off so to speak. I’m reminded that “Joel” was a shrewd businessman and was quick with decisions. The paintings were in his restaurant for decades. He was proud of the paintings, introducing me to people if we happened to be there when he was.
    I haven’t thought of that for years. Both he and the restaurant are gone and so are the paintings.

    1. Thank you for this interesting comment and beautiful story, Stephen, it really touched me. And of course, thank you Jason for this great article!

  4. So I am in the midst of setting up a website with no store, but wording so that most likely I will be send them a link to the gallery were the painting they are interested in is located, For building my email list I want to offer a rebait form my for free gift for signing up. So if they are sent to purchase from someone else they don’t miss out on a added deal they send the Rebait form to me and the discount comes from my share cut not the Gallery so they don’t have the added work this I hope would bennafit the gallery and create added opportunity for growth I also want to have it that I ask the client repeatedly in different ways how they were referred to me so that if a gallery sent them I could honor there% Please I would love feedback on this Idea.
    Amanda

  5. I totally agree. This goes along with my solo show in San Francisco that is going on right now. The wonderful commercial location is without anyone on site to “sell” my art and me to the hundreds of people that walk by it every day. I can only hope that my art will stick in someone’s mind for future sales when they learn the art’s full story.

  6. There is a skill to selling art which (in my opinion) is an art in itself. As a gallerist, I encounter people from all walks of life. There are some people who walk in who know absolutely nothing about art. It is the salesperson’s job to ascertain what works are of interest to them, and to educate them some, on those works, and at the same time, to get them excited about that piece . You need to get them to imagine that piece in their home, office, etc without saying something obvious such as …”Can you imagine that in your home?” Instead a simple comment such as …”That’s such a wonderful piece…It gets a lot of attention” , will have the person immediatey imagining how it would look in their home, or setting. The fact that it gets a lot of attention, also gives them confidence that if others like it here in the gallery, then surely they will like it in my home.

    There are other people,(who for some reason) feel the need to impress me that they have some knowledge of art, and will throw certain names or terms around. I satisfy that desire on their part by engaging them on the same level. However no matter how knowledgeable a person is regarding art, you “the salesperson” need to open their eyes to those things which may not be apparent to them. You need to make the impression that you are the expert with knowledge you want to share with them. Don’t be pushy or talk too much in this area of the sale. Be casual and relaxed and you will help the client to relax. The more you know about the piece of art, the history of the artist who created it, their creative approach and skill, as well as the dynamics of the world of art, then the better able you will be to sell that painting to the public. If it is your work you are selling, talk about what inspires you, your connection to the landscape, model etc. Explain what you are trying to say. Any sort of story which makes a piece of art a conversation piece also helps. Never ramble on and on about a work of art, simply thinking that the more you talk the greater the chance of making a sale. Talk substance, about quality and value, and convey opportunity. You only have so much time to grab the public’s attention. If you talk too much you ruin the risk of losing the sale. For that reason, you need to learn how to read your client and determine how interested they are, and what (if any) reservations they may have. If you are having an opening with a gallery, don’t sit in the shadows shyly. That is your opportunity to make an impression. Approach people, extend your hand, and thank them for stopping in to look at your work. Casually compliment them if you can on something about them to help engage them, then get them to focus on your work. Be fearless without being pushy. If the person will not make eye contact with you, then they are feeling pressured. Back off at that time and give them some space and time to themselves. The person is more apt to purchase if they like you, so always be friendly, relaxed and honest.

  7. Hi Jason,
    I appreciate your blog and advice, and have learned a great deal from you over the years!!

    I was part of an art co-op for a time and also hosted a couple of solo shows of my artwork and what I found out about myself as a salesperson was that I would anticipate that the potential buyer would be thinking, “Well of course you want me to buy your paintings – you’re biased!!” And I felt artificial about “knowing” that a painting of mine would affect them in beneficial ways as mentioned in your writing above.
    I have not been at all active toward selling because of that. I don’t know how to dissolve this block. any suggestions from readers or Jason?
    P.S. Merry Christmas and an art-filled New Year from Mairi in BC Canada!!

  8. Excellent to revisit viewpoints about selling and that in fact it is a service rather than something bothersome. People do value art but often appreciate a listening ear from the artist or person/gallery owner showing by the work. It takes practice to answer concerns people may have and it is something that we can all continue to do. Welcome, ask, educate, tell stories or simply connect in a friendly manner and follow through – those are things I think about. I also am geniually concerned about the people interested in my work. I try not to assume it is beyond their means and remind myself art has more value than we sometimes give it. Art is good and selling it is also -some just have had more experience with it.

  9. Thank you for your advice Jason, which I always find invaluable. I enjoy telling my collectors the backstory to my Artworks which is just about always well received & often lead to sales. I certainly don’t see myself as a skilled salesperson but I am. enjoying learning as I go along…

  10. I’m an artist who hasn’t yet sold anything. Recently I had this idea to start selling, but instead took over the salesmanship of a small local carpentry (to gain the skills). It’s an easy job for me because I do believe in the work and service of this carpenter. What I’m learning is to display my beliefs before the potential clients. I wouldn’t want salesmanship to be anything else.
    It’s often low at it’s high points; to walking out of a clients house and realizing the obvious mistake I made is deflating. But those are really the eureka moment, because it’s in those moments of discovery that I discontinue making the same mistake. Salesmen need to keep themselves encouraged each day so that they can Eureka themselves. There are many ways to keep encouraged.

  11. I agree, Jason. My sales in 2018 were the best ever. Art is selling very well, which is a blessing for
    artist. I also agree Gallery sales are out selling online sales. I feel buyers need to see the paintings
    in person, and to touch them as well.

  12. Thank you all very much for your comments and insight to ‘selling’ my artwork. I’m new to all of this and I am looking forward to having a showing in a gallery of some type. I suppose my biggest fear is that I just look at what I do as “something I enjoy” and haven’t necessarily taken what I create serious enough to sell to the public. I am working on that. Thank you again.

  13. Another good bit of food for thought, I love these articles!
    I’ve been showing and selling my work for about 22yrs. In the beginning I was terribly shy and hated explaining my work to strangers, especially my paintings, because they usually have some underlying meaning that can seem a bit strange to conservative folks in Alabama. But the more I interacted with people, at shows and in galleries, the more at ease I felt baring my soul in public. I think it is very true that, the more exposure you have to the public the more you hone your style of approaching people. In recent years I have actually enjoyed meeting new people and sharing my tales with them.
    One thing that hit me in this article was that if a piece of art speaks to a buyer they will purchase it. I will add to that, that meeting the artist can be a strong motivator as well. We had a gallery walk in town and I was at one of the galleries I was showing in. The gallery owner came up to introduce me to a couple who was interested in one of my sculptures. They ended up buying the piece. When I delivered it to their home the husband told me that if they hadn’t met me, he most likely wouldn’t have bought it.

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