Surviving An Art Sales Slump

If you’ve been in the art business for any length of time, you’ve probably experienced an art sales slump. I’m not talking about an overall drop in the market (like the one we experienced during the years following the Great Recession), nor am I talking about a general lack of exposure and sales opportunities. Those are different issues altogether. What I’m talking about is a sudden decline (or disappearance!) of sales when things had been humming along and sales had been coming at a steady pace. No matter how you try, or how hard you work, you can’t seem to get the next sale to happen.

Two or three days without sales are to be  expected in a gallery setting, but longer periods, especially during a busy season, are more unusual. That said, they do happen from time to time.

By the simple law of averages and the random nature of business, you are unlikely to have a 100% consistent stream of customers and sales. Some days are busy, others are not. The law of averages also means that from time to time, the slow days are going to pile up together and give you the dreaded slump.

During the first few years that I had the gallery, sales slumps  nearly killed me. I would wake up in a cold sweat at night. I would lose my appetite. I would pace. I would panic.

“IS ANYTHING EVER GOING TO SELL AGAIN!?” I would want to shout.

If you’ve experienced a slump, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Over the years, I like to think that I have become more rational about sales slumps. Experience has taught me that if we stay on course with our marketing and sales efforts, every slump ends. I’ve also learned some tricks that have helped us navigate slow periods.

Keep Working

It’s amazing how quickly you can become accustomed to a lack of sales. You start to think of it as the norm. Pretty soon you start to feel like you might as well not bother trying because nothing is working anyway. Resist this feeling with all your power. A vicious cycle begins when you start believing that you’re never going to sell anything again. When you believe it, you stop trying as hard, and so you are less likely to make sales, which reinforces your feeling that it’s not worth trying. Keep following up, keep working!

Think Back to Previous Slump-Ending Sales

Knowing that sales slump happen, that they are a normal part of the business cycle can help alleviate the panic. I’ve create a mental catalog of sales that happened at the end of previous slumps. I find that thinking back to these sales serves as a great reminder that “this too shall pass.”

Heat up the Cash Register

If we can just get the cash register to ring, even in a small way, the slump feeling disappears

I’m not a mystic, and I’m not superstitious, but I’ve found that sometimes, if we can just get the cash register to ring, even in a small way, the slump feeling disappears, and the cycle is broken. Sometimes even running a $150 sale can help make it feel like the spell has been broken. Alright, maybe I am a little bit superstitious . . .

Don’t do Something Desperate

While it is important to get the cash register ringing, I would discourage you from taking drastic measures to restart your sales. While you do want to continue doing a good follow-up job with potential customers, you don’t want to become a pest. I also discourage the use of fire sales to try and revive business. A sale may indeed get the cash register ringing, but you run the risk of training your buyers not to buy your work at regular prices, but instead to wait for the next big sale. In a way, you are encouraging the next slump!

Build a Rainy Day Fund

Once you’ve had some experience, the psychological impact of a slump can be greatly reduced, but if you don’t have a savings reserve, the financial impact on your cash flow can cause very real problems. I know it’s a challenge when sales aren’t at a level that you would like to see, but try to set aside a regular percentage of your sales to put in savings.

Artist Slumps can be Even More Discouraging

As a gallery owner I have the advantage of having a high volume of traffic and sales. This means that my business cycles are probably shorter than yours.  As an artist, your typical time between sales may be significantly longer, which also means that a slump for you may drag on for more than just a few weeks, it may last for months. You are going to have to be even more vigilant in your efforts to fight the effects and overcome a sales slump. The same principles still apply though. Keep producing; keep marketing. Instead of giving into the urge to give up, use a slump as an opportunity to build your inventory and to redouble your marketing efforts.

Is it a Slump or a Lack of Marketing?

As I mentioned before, a slump is an unusual drought in an otherwise fertile sales cycle. If you aren’t having consistent sales, or if the slumps start outnumbering the booms, you need to be focused on increasing your marketing efforts and boosting your exposure. If this is the case, it may be time to sign up for more shows or approach more galleries.

 The Flip Side of Slumps

While the law of averages says that you are going to have slumps, the flip side to this is that you are also going to have booms. Just as there will be times when no one is buying, there are also going to be times when everyone is buying. As I mentioned before, be sure to set aside reserves during the booms. It’s also important to remember that if the slumps aren’t your fault, the booms probably aren’t either. Don’t let yourself get cocky!

 

 

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13 Comments

  1. For me it’s all about making the best use of my time… When I’m selling well, I don’t seem to have enough time to produce enough new Artwork, when sales dwindle I do everything that needs to be done that I didn’t have time for during the boom time… We all have so much to do so just do it! If you want to be a professional Artist, part of that job is to make it happen & that is so much more than producing your Art! Be your Art & encourage people to want a piece of you, which is your Art…

  2. thanks Jason, for the words to the wise. I haven’t started my art business yet, as you know, but I suspect I’ll run it as I do my current business. I keep a business checking and a business savings and a personal checking and a personal savings. I keep a month’s overhead in my business checking. When I collect more than a month’s overhead, I put it in my business savings. When my business savings collects 6 months’ overhead, I put the overage in my personal checking. Same with my personal checking. I keep one month’s personal expenses in my personal checking and when there is an overage, I put it into my personal savings. There is no limit on what I can collect in my personal savings!!! This has worked well for me for the last 6 years. Perhaps it is an obvious way to handle evening out a business that has peaks and valleys. I don’t know. I’ve never had business training, so it has been trial and error with common sense attached. That’s my plan for my art business–once it is going. And I did sell a painting this weekend!!!

    Susan

    1. Good Luck with that plan it does make sense but as being a professional artist for over 30 years I never remember having more than a months overhead laying around in my business checking account let alone 6 months to move to savings it is feast or famine as the norm and when feast times come I am usually making up for paying for the previous famine. As of late I have been able to keep a buffer fund. I think part of being an artist by lifestyle is to be creative in our financial dealings. It is usually flying by the seat of my pants

      1. Thanks Kevin for the response. I’ll keep it in mind as I got forward. It took me a while to get to this routine with my present business. At first, it is just keeping up, but I can see that an art business can be very volatile. Glad to know that it is possible, though with some creativity.

  3. This is good advice for starters, but having been in business for 30 years, myself and many artists have gone through savings several times to keep going. Many of us have had to go to work, especially during this relentless recession. The last time I worked, I quit too soon and really paid for that mistake. One of the most frustrating aspects of the last few years are a number of “false springs”, where business would pick up and be great for 2-3 months, then nothing for two months or more. This spring was great, with two strong shows and sustained sales, big and small. I sensed there was some pent-up demand for art. However, plenty of bills needed to be paid so that money was soon gone. So saving for a rainy day fund is out of the question until my biggest show at the end of August.
    I have discounted some older art in my portfolio. It was a big consignment that was half-sold over the last 5 years. I wanted to lessen my inventory and the consignee wanted me to lower prices.
    Using slow time to develop new inventory is a great idea. It is also a good time to test different subjects. I deviated from my usual subject, did some old truck portraits and they sold immediately. I also took older painting out of their frames and repainted them, fixing mistakes and making them more vibrant.
    Paying close attention to a declining price point kept my sales going. I noticed my price point went down from $950 to $750, so I painted smaller work to correspond, and they generally sold.
    Keeping up with marketing is also a good point. I put up my newest products out on my Facebook page, and I kept up the advertising I had out there. Maintaining inventory of giclee prints was also important, even though it is an economic strain.
    I have been through about 6-7 slumps. I dealt with them the best i could, often getting a job to supplement weak sales. I am a year from drawing benefits, a house is paid for, so I am in far better shape than I was. The important things to say is expect downturns in business, pay attention to economic news, be thrifty, try new avenues to sell your art, stay positive, understand this is your calling and believe in the quality and beauty of your art.

    1. This is a very helpful and thoughtful post. It really paints the picture clearly of dedication and just persistence. Thank you.

  4. I re-arrange! Something happens when you touch the art & move it around!
    It’s also a distraction for those stressful days when you are in the slump!!!

  5. We’ve all been through slumps. Some are longer lasting but be assured there will be another. Artists are no more immune than million dollar retailers. Some are permanent market adjustments that call for price reductions and some are cyclic. Both must be figured into survival strategy. Sure, do all of the above, study, paint, revamp your marketing, etc. … it all helps.
    But I will again state the unmentionable. 🙂 What is so horribly wrong about seeking other income – a day job? Why do so many artists blanch at the thought? Afraid you won’t go back? You can go into a financial death spiral clinging to the “professional artist” syndrome and let your pride wipe out your inspiration along with your bank account.
    You won’t be the first artist, musician, or writer to have had public jobs … it’s a long list. Get over yourself.
    My art does not provide my living, it augments. So? I’ve worked hard for decades to get to this position in life. That doesn’t make me any less committed to my work and I truly resent the implication it does not. It frees me to paint what inspires me rather than “what sells.” It is pure liberty.

  6. I am learning this is part of being an artist. I cleaned out my savings this past winter to pay for upcoming shows. Although they were good opportunities, I didn’t sell as I’d hoped. I don’t have any shows for seven weeks, and is using this time to build up inventory, but also reassess my progress and results. A friend once told me, “We either adapt or fail”.
    We are not in this business to get rich, that’s for sure!!!

  7. Thanks for all the info you provide. This page about slumping art sales wash very good. Living in eastern Kansas at the time is not working very well for sales. I always seem to do ok but this areas prices are a joke. Quality works of art are never fairly rewarded or they sit in the corner for forever. Planning a move to Fort Lauderdale Florida shortly. Again..thank you!

  8. I am still working to hit that break even point. In the past 15 years my expenses have always been greater than my art income. Now that I’m retired I may have a bit more time, but I also have a bit less money.

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