The Mechanisms of Art Sales

Some artists hate me. If you don’t believe me, just take a moment to look through the comments on my social media posts. In a comment left on a recent post where I suggest artists should consider focusing on quantity over quality (for the record, my suggestion is that quantity leads to quality), a commenter said, with what I could only read as disdain, “Because galleries want to make money.”

As a gallery owner, I find this kind of remark curious. I mean, why would that be a bad thing? When I opened my gallery in 2001, I did so to make money. To be fair, I also opened the gallery because I love art and working with artists. I could have chosen an industry where generating profit would have been easier, but I have a passion for art and business, and it’s been extremely gratifying to build a career by combining the two.

There is a strong sentiment among some artists that money and art don’t mix. Some think that applying business principles to art somehow corrupts the purity of the artistic process. Indeed, for some, selling is selling out.

I concede that there is a risk that an artist who focuses exclusively on sales, to the detriment of originality and creativity, will become overly commercial. I argue, however, that most artists are far removed from this risk and will benefit from a better understanding of the mechanics of the art business. I’ve observed that artists who can implement basic business skills benefit from the increased success they see in their pursuit of art and are enabled to pursue their art more vigorously and devote more time to creating.

At the end of the day, no matter how much some might wish it weren’t so, the art world runs on money.

With that in mind, I want to share five fundamental mechanisms driving art sales. These mechanisms are the core of my business, and I hope that a better understanding of these mechanisms will prove helpful to artists who are hoping to build a business around their art.

These mechanisms are:

  1. Assembling high-quality, engaging artwork
  2. Attracting customers
  3. Effective salesmanship
  4. Developing customer relationships
  5. Building reputation

Assembling high-quality, engaging artwork

As a gallery owner, one of my most important jobs is gathering great art to show and sell in our gallery. The quality of our selections determines, to a large degree, the success we will have in selling art.

We strive to work with artists who are creating high-quality, engaging artwork. We strive to select artists whose work we believe in and to help them market and sell their work.

Attracting customers

A gallery can have the best artwork in the world, but if no one knows about it, the gallery will not be successful.

We work very hard marketing the gallery and the artists we represent. We do this through various channels, including print and online advertising, social media, direct mail, and public relations.

Our location also plays a key role in attracting interested art buyers.

I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to have many (MANY!) people see the art you are trying to sell. The art business is, in many ways, a numbers game. No matter how great the artwork is, it will not appeal to everyone. It’s critical to have a high volume of eyeballs on the art to generate sales. Marketing and location are key.

Effective salesmanship

Once a customer is in the gallery, it is my job and my staff’s job to sell the artwork. This involves much knowledge about the artwork, the artist, the market, and salesmanship.

It is also important to understand the customer’s needs and match those needs with the right piece of artwork.

Developing customer relationships

The best way to sell art is to develop relationships with customers. We do this by getting to know our customers and their interests and by staying in touch with them even when they are not in the market to buy art. It’s important to always have new buyers exposed to the gallery, but returning customers are the lifeblood of the gallery business.

Building reputation

A gallery’s reputation is extremely important. We work hard to maintain a good reputation by being honest and fair with our artists and customers and by providing a high level of customer service. We pay the artists we represent quickly when work sells and strive to maintain open communication channels with our artists and clients.

This is the art business

If all of the above sounds like business, that’s because it is. I am in the art business, and an artist interested in generating sales of her work will only benefit from understanding how the business works and by implementing sound business principles into her art practice.

Not every artist is interested in pursuing financial success with their art, but for those that are, I don’t believe creativity and business acumen have to be mutually exclusive.

What do you think, can art and business mix?

Do you think art and business are compatible? What have you done to sharpen your business skills? Have you seen benefits from those efforts? How would you respond to an artist critical of those actively trying to sell their art? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

 

 

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.

31 Comments

  1. It’s amazing to me how many artists are offended by this. Quantity is how we learn. Like any other skill, it takes ten thousand hours (so they say) Paint fast, paint often.. get to the number 500 as fast as you can and when you reach 501, throw the first 500 away. You learn so much more and improve your skills in a shorter time by working quickly and often.

  2. I am also in the business of selling art. Part of my success is treating my galleries as partners rather than adversaries. I would say that if someone has a problem with selling art then get out of the way and let those of us trying to make a living do it. There are many hobbyists flooding the marketing channels and galleries help to differentiate between them and serious artists who will continue producing work long after the hobbyists get bored and move on to something else. Thank you for doing what you do, Jason.

    1. I agree with you! Jason has repeatedly offered excellent advise to professional artists (or those serious at wanting to become professional).
      I couldn’t do what I do without my galleries representing me.

  3. Jason, I’ve known you for a while now. As an artist, I’d say you have been one of the most honest and straightforward gallery owners I’ve ever met. You present no fluff nor bs, in how you do things. I’ve taken your classes and learned a lot. You’re successful because you are serious about what you do. I think any artist in your galleries are lucky to be there with you at the helm. My personal opinion.

  4. Well, I think you’re awesome. Thank you Jason for sharing your world with the rest of us. Your thoughts on quality vs. quantity are certainly sound. You never said that quality is bad, rather that quality is the goal. I think the haters need to read more than just headlines; those are the ones who will never learn much. Thanks for your voice – it’s so valuable!

  5. Jason,
    Of course you chose “fighting words” to get your idea across….just call it “Brush Mileage” and everyone would agree. Besides, you never said you should actually show the work you did while painting that quantity of work, if it didn’t have quality…that’s just logical. Called learning to paint.

    1. My response to your question “What do you think, can art and business mix?” is why not? Art and business have been mixing for centuries. I love being paid for my art. It allows me to make more art vs focusing on something else to make a living that might leave no time for art. I’m glad for galleries and especially glad for your perspective on things.

      Mileage counts. The more I paint the better I get. Painting for a show nearly always brings improvement. It’s evident in my students too. When they’re producing the quality goes up. The one time I see quantity fail is when an artist is not able to see when they aren’t improving or don’t realize that there are plateaus that need to be gotten past, in that case they need to take steps to figure out what’s wrong and that’s a whole other topic. For the most part quantity will bring on quality.

  6. Hmmm… I guess my view is that every book I’ve read, music I’ve listened to, or movie and television work I’ve seen, or photograph I’ve seen published, have all been created by artists who certainly believe art and business can mix. How successfully depends on circumstances and individuals, but the effort is always there to make it happen. That way you get to do it again.

    I also like that my art supply business doesn’t share the view of your comment leaver. I’d hate to find another.

    All the arts practice quantity in some form until they are able to determine that they are practicing quality as well. After that, other things come into play.

    Always enjoy your insights, Jason. Much appreciated.

  7. I have been a professional artist for several years. I have enough experience to know that everything you say, Jason, is absolutely true. I have heard artists complain that galleries charge too much and so they want to sell their art by themselves on the Internet What BS! A good gallery that sells your work and pays you in a timely manner is worth every dime of their 50%. Thank you for clarifying all the things that good galleries do.

  8. I can’t do everything well. Maybe that’s just me.
    When I decided to devote my time to creating art on a consistent basis after a career in arts education, I realized I knew nothing about what to do with the work I created.
    I live in a gallery poor region with lots of artists. One said to me, “Around here, UPS is the only way you can get anything out and seen let alone sold.”
    And then, I came across you, Jason. First the book, then the course. It was so foreign (and some still is) that I realized I either had to get help or quit. I’m stubborn.
    I’m in this for what I can share about who I am, how I think, what I do. Anything and anyone who can help me with that is what I need.
    I learned early that , “the workman is worthy of the hire.”
    If I want to make some money, the person I need to help me do that is one who has the wherewithal to make that happen.
    In my years of connection I would echo Barry’s sentiment about Jason’s honesty, passion, and genuine interest in art, those that make it, those that want to own it, and the joy he feels with every sale. I know he’s my champion and my cheerleader.

  9. Your guidance has inspired me to paint more even though I have been at it all my life. Thanks for your perspective, I am also finding that consistency helps me improve and enjoy my art.

  10. Agree with many of the above comments on how effective Jason is in many areas. All I can add is that I have learned more from him than all of the other people I have read or followed combined. He never hesitates to share freely and speaks from experience and understanding. Great qualities!

  11. As far as quantity goes I have seen artists crank out up to 5 small Plein Aire 8×10 “” paintings per week on Instagram. These small works look like they were thrown together week after week. Occasionally a painting emerges as passable, but the majority look like they were produced on a assembly line. Personally I would not allow myself to produce art like that, and I would not be happy with the quality of those paintings. More power to these artists if they can crank out that many pieces and be personally happy with the quality of their work and get galleries to actually sell this quality of work in the long term.

  12. Regardless of how I think about my own art making as a business, as a stone sculptor I must admit that without the businesses that provide stone to the building trades, no quarried stone would be available to artists. Without the businesses that provide stoneworking tools to industrial stoneworkers, sculptors would have no tools. Without the businesses that make safety equipment available to industry, sculptors would have lost their hearing, their sight, some of their fingers, and probably their minds. And at the very minimum, it takes selling sculptures to be able to afford all that stuff!

  13. Look what just happened! Someone made a groundless comment and it stirred you to write something of great value. A word of wisdom to the rest of us; When someone tries to feed you their sour grapes, don’t eat them!

  14. I’m 62 and am working on a sort of ´comeback’- long illness took me out of the art business after having duly climbed the rungs. My aim is to get my prices back up where they belong in order to raise enough to move overseas. I have maybe ten years before my (progressive) illness makes it impossible to paint.

    I was showing (and selling) in Chelsea (nyc) and all over the Hudson Valley (and abroad) in the early oughts I was bitten by a Lyme tick. I gave up on the biz hustle because I didn’t have enough energy to do both anymore. I mostly have sold online the past twenty odd years, for not enough. Even WITH a gallery on your team, there is plenty of the business work that still falls on the artist’s shoulders, and I didn’t have it in me to do both.

    And before the purists get after me, I ALSO helped to build the Hudson Valley into an arts destination, starting in the 90s, promoting the many coops and startups there and helping everyone to network effectively, as well as curating a system of off-sites for baby artists to cut their teeth on. I so much didn’t sell out that I neglected my own promotion. I believe in mutual aid and that opportunity is the key to success. And it worked very well.

    Yes, art is a business, and no, you don’t have to sell your soul to do it successfully. Helping our fellow artists to bring in the tide that floats all the boats is not only ´good biz’, I would argue it élevâtes thé appréciation of the arts and creates more opportunities within the entire community

    (I won’t bore you with the long list of festivals, groups, and mutual aid societies we put together- partly because of the biz savvy we’d acquired.)

  15. Thanks for this post, Jason. I always enjoy your honest and decent perspectives. I’m pretty sure your cranky commenter has never walked into his gallery, if he has one, and seen an empty space where his $1500 painting once hung! I’m pretty sure that would change his perspective in a hurry.

  16. Jason, I so appreciate your thoughts! It always on the point and makes sense to the folks that do paint for a living and are not just doing it for a pastime. The folks that don’t understand that, probably have never had bills to pay on either side of the fence.
    Keep up the great blogs! We do appreciate your insight. It’s very helpful!

  17. I am a life long artist/painter and one thing I have learned to understand . Is that Art is a symbiotic relationship between the creator of the art and the art loving collectors. One does not exist without the other. (If indeed as an artist your goal is to make a living with your art). I personally do not want to die with a my paintings , I want them to go away!

    My endeavor is to make art and to sell it and in my small corner hopefully make peoples lives a little nicer in the process, collectors appreciate and buy the art and then enjoy it and share it in their lives.

    Just another one of those circles of life.

  18. I took your “quantity over quality” post to simply mean “not every painting has to be a great, involved masterpiece.” Sometime a painting can be just “very good” and still be very saleable. My problem is that I always end up losing myself in my paintings, striving for the former. Now I am trying to create smaller, less intricate pieces that are simply “very good.” That gets them more into the $1K-$3K which more collectors can afford. Thanks for the reminder to think this way.

  19. Why we keep talking about them? Those artists are not professionals! What professional on earth on any field thinks their work doesn’t deserve to get paid?Who can think is ok to work for free?, Who in this world think is ok that the public assume artists don’t have to pay their bills? Only people that think art is done by immortals can believe that!

    I wish professional galleries will talk more about how to sell or how galleries really work with people that are already trying to develop a vision and master something, and stop worry about artists that can’t even decide if they want to paint for a living or paint to just kill time on this earth. Those artists haven’t even found who they are as individuals and is going to take decades before they know who they are in their art! Those are not going to pay to know anything either way.

  20. As always! a great read. The Art Business is a great business with many opportunities. You need the work to be able to enter it. If you concentrate on the work and create a confidence in the work, the rest will follow. It also means that you should have patience and a goal for your work. Love the walk, and the knowledge you gain on the journey.

  21. Yes art and business are compatible! I’ve been a full time artist, pay my mortgage and all bills for sixteen years, and the only way to do that is to sell art. I took Jason’s course a few years ago and it helped me get more organized and consistent with my practice. The quantity part of the equation was also important. The more work I make, the better I get, the more work I sell, the higher prices I can achieve, the more successful my art business. At the end of August I’ve already produced a hundred artworks this year in a range of sizes and my sales are breaking all previous records.Thank you Jason, keep it up!

  22. Creativity, art and business are without a doubt inextricably intertwined. As a lifelong illustrator and painter, I know for sure there’s no other way to look at it. Art is the most valuable thing I know how to create and I am in the business to make money. Sales and marketing are in themselves a creative process. So is accounting. It generates a feedback loop that informs how I create my products (paintings). One of the most important things I’ve learned from this process is that your work has to be original, recognizable (even unmistakable), engaging (as you say) and the execution and presentation must be of a very high quality.

  23. Great article and observations as always. I didn’t mind your statement about quantity over quality. Sometimes that is what is needed. I worked as a commercial artist/designer for years and unfortunately it is very often a numbers game. Mixing a business mindset along with fine art is in my opinion a great combination. I love being creative and expressing my world view in a painting but at the same time, occasionally you need to “play to your audience”. Having a business mind set is also very valuable in keeping your ego out of the equastion. Art is subjective and having the commercial background makes it very easy to not take it personally if someone doesn’t resonate with my work. Rejection is just part of the journey and hopefully makes you learn.

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