The art business myth I’m going to tackle today is that art buyers are unlikely to buy online because art needs to be seen in person to be truly appreciated. Many artists and gallerists cling to this idea in a mixture of frustration and hope. Frustration because selling art online has proven more difficult than anticipated, and hope because if it’s a general truism that artwork doesn’t sell online, we don’t have to worry that we’re doing something wrong with our websites or feel guilty about not doing more.
For gallerists there is an added dimension. If art were to sell easily online, it would make galleries less necessary.
Whenever discussing online art sales, there tends to be a bit of surprise when I report that my gallery makes quite a few sales online every month, and that, counter to conventional wisdom, we have made many large sales online.
As the internet has matured, I’ve learned that artwork of all shapes and sizes can and does sell online. Though we still see a majority of our sales in our bricks and mortar gallery, internet sales continue to grow year after year, and have become a critical piece of our success.
The challenge when talking about online sales is that there are actually several distinctly different ways that the internet is involved in art sales. We need to distinguish between these different types of sales in order to determine whether the myth is valid.
Different Kinds of Online Sales
Internet Assisted Sale
The most common type of sale involving the internet for my gallery is the one in which the client has been to the gallery and has seen the artwork in person, and then returns home and visits our website to view the work again as part of the decision making process. In many cases, I or my staff will email the client an image of the piece that was of interest.
This kind of internet/real-world sale is very common. I would estimate that the internet plays some role in at least 70% of all of our sales.
In these sales, the client feels very comfortable viewing the work online because he or she has already seen the art in person and so has a good sense of how closely the imagery seen online matches the real thing.
Artist Follower Sale Over the Internet
A similar kind of online sale occurs when a buyer is familiar with a particular artist’s work and stays up to date through the artist’s or gallery’s website. When a new, interesting artwork becomes available, the client might learn about it through the site or via an email newsletter.
Again, the client is comfortable with purchasing the work because she is already familiar with the quality of the artist’s work and knows what to expect in that regard even if she hasn’t seen the new piece in person.
We have many collectors who buy art site-unseen this way. I wouldn’t think of this sale as a purely internet-based transaction because the buyer has still likely physically been in my gallery or encountered the artist’s work in person. The internet just facilitated the discovery of new work.
Gallery Collector Sale Over the Internet
We also make many online sales to buyers who have visited the gallery in the past, but haven’t seen the work of a new artist that we are featuring. They might see the new work on our homepage, or on our artist’s page, or in an e-newsletter.
Though they don’t know exactly what to expect in terms of the particular artist’s work, they know and trust us as a gallery, and have a strong sense of the quality of the other work we carry in the gallery. Our gallery lends new artists credibility in the eyes of these collectors.
Internet Sale to an Unknown Buyer
The final kind of online sale we’ll consider is what I consider to be a “pure” internet sale – a sale that is made completely online to a buyer who discovered the art website through a search or other website. This buyer was unaware of either the gallery or the artist before the purchase.
This kind of sale is one of the most rare, and one of the most intriguing. In the early days of the internet, I suspect we all hoped that this kind of sale would happen regularly, and that, as a result, we’d all become rich!
The reality is that there are a number of factors that suppress this kind of sale from occurring regularly. First, there is a lot of noise on the internet. With hundreds of thousands of artists online (millions?), the odds of being randomly discovered by an interested, qualified buyer are long. Even if a potential buyer does stumble across your site somehow, they have to feel confident enough in you and your work to make a large financial transaction in order to purchase artwork they haven’t seen in person.
There are a lot of obstacles to overcome to get to a sale, and, consequently, these sales are very rare. Thus, the myth, that artwork won’t sell online.
There’s only one problem, we have made many such sales over the years, and I know of a number of artists who have as well.
When I tell artists that we have sold art sight-unseen online, their first reaction is: “sure, but it was for lower priced work, wasn’t it?”
While it is true that it’s easier to make small sales online to unknown buyers, we have made a number of significant art sales online, including a number in the $10,000+ price range. As art collectors become more and more comfortable with buying goods online, it’s inevitable that they will likewise become more comfortable buying art online.
While it is likely the pure internet sale will remain a minority of online art sales, the four types of sales I have listed here add up to a significant opportunity for boosting sales. Any artist or gallery owner who is neglecting online sales opportunities does so to their own disadvantage.
Optimizing for Online Sales
In order to take advantage of online art sales opportunities, keep the following points in mind.
1. Your site should present your work in a professional way. It’s important for your website to look modern and clean, and for it to be easy to navigate.
2. Your site should be up to date. It’s critical that you be able to upload your own images so that you can always keep your site current.
3. You need traffic! It’s important to drive as much traffic as you can to your site. You should promote your website to contacts you make at shows or other events. You should have an email newsletter. You should be active on social media. Getting traffic takes work and time, but it is worth the effort.
4. You should have an online purchase mechanism, such as a shopping cart, or a very easy way for potential buyers to get in contact with you.
5. Showing in galleries will boost your online visibility and traffic to your website. Just be sure that if clients are discovering your website after visiting a gallery site, that the gallery is getting credit and commissions on any sales that are made.
The internet offers unparalleled opportunities for artists and galleries to increase their exposure and sales, and we are still in the very early days of online marketing. I’m grateful for the sales we make online, and I’m excited about the prospects of growth for internet sales.
Have You Sold Artwork Through Your Website?
Has the internet become an important part of your art business? Have you sold artwork sight-unseen to collectors? Share your experiences selling online in the comments below.
In his Amazon.com best-selling book, Xanadu Gallery owner Jason Horejs shares insights gained over a life-time in the art business.