The mystical world of art sales
A reader writes:
What makes one artist’s work sell while another artist’s doesn’t?
Ooh this is a tricky question, because there’s no one answer, and certainly no easy answer. As with so many things, art is subjective - meaning it’s different for each person – and also subject to external forces beyond our control, such as trends or the economy.
Right now in the gallery we are having an incredibly successful exhibition by Leonardo Uribe – we’ve sold 60% of the work and it’s our second-best selling show this year in terms of revenue. Right before Leo, we had a show that only sold one piece, which came as a big shock to me and the artist, because last year that same artist had produced our best-selling exhibition. The point is, sometimes it’s a bit of a mystery!
Below is a list of things that can help give you your best chance for success - but beyond that, we should also remember that sometimes it’s just persistence, luck or a little bit of both.
Choosing the right sales channel
Some artists do well in galleries; some have great success online, whether selling through Instagram, on their own websites or through a third party broker such as Bluethumb; while others are best suited to markets. What works for an individual artist will depend on things such as: who is your target market (and where do they hang out); what is your price point (a buyer would be willing to pay more for work in a gallery than at a local market); and how much of the work of selling and administration do you want (or are able) to do yourself? You will need to do some research to work out what is the best sales channel for you.
Your artist bio
Have you recently won an art prize, received an award or residency? Does your work feature in any notable public or private collections? Have you exhibited in any major festivals or biennales? Where did you go to art school? At the higher end of the art market, these things matter, both to buyers and to gallery owners who are deciding whether or not to take you on. If this is where you are aiming to be, you need to put some work in to fattening up your bio.
Of course if this type of thing isn’t your style – such as if you have a bunch of engaged, dedicated followers who love to interact with you and buy your art through social media – then this matters much less (check out this earlier post on the importance of social media for artists). As a curator who shows a lot of young and/or emerging artists, this type of thing matters less to me than an enthusiastic, devoted audience, but it is something to consider when thinking about your creative career and where you are aiming to be.
Tastes and trends
This is the hardest part of the equation, because it’s almost entirely outside your control, and you have to decide if you are going to chase the trends or stay true to your own style. If you do decide to follow the trends, changing your style every couple of years to match what the market wants, you have to ask yourself if that is going to be fulfilling for you. It might be that you do this type of on trend work as your bread-and-butter income, and do other work that fills your soul in the background, knowing that it might never sell but you get such pleasure in creating it. Or you might decide that following trends is a totally legitimate way to have a career as an artist – in which case, go for it. Or it might be that this isn’t for you, and you need to find a way to make your work strong enough to weather the changing trends.
Quality of the work
It should go without saying, but is your artwork any good? Is it something that a person other than your mother would want to hang in their home? Most artists are modest and are able to critically analyse their own work, but some I have met lack this kind of self awareness. If you don’t know whether your work is any good, do you have a teacher, mentor or peer who would be willing to give you some frank feedback? Of course we know that art is subjective, and not everyone will like the same things, but is there enough people who value what you create? If not, is there more study or more practice you can do to improve? The better the work is, the better it will sell.