How to Increase Your Art's Market Value
and Make the Most
of Your Career as an Artist
Note: The following is the revised and updated text of a talk originally given to artists at the Indianapolis Art Center and to art students at the Herron School of Art at Purdue University.
When I started out in the art business, I bought and sold art by artists who were no longer alive, art by older artists who had either stopped making art or were near the ends of their careers, and art that was in the families of descendents of artists. Through my experience selling these types of art, I've developed techniques that contemporary artists can use to maximize the value of their art now rather than later (aka posthumously), and to increase their chances for success both now and in the future. Why should art dealers or galleries recognize and exploit the profit potential of your art later when you can enjoy those profits starting today?
Only a small percentage of artists become world famous and make tons of money. Somewhat more artists achieve respectable levels of success within their lifetimes and support themselves entirely by making and selling art. The great majority of artists, however, supplement their art incomes by either teaching art or by working full or part time at jobs not related to art in order to make ends meet. If you're one of those artists who falls into the "great majority" category, you would probably like to increase your art income to the point where you can eventually create and sell art full-time. The good news is that no matter little money you make from your art now, you can begin to lay the groundwork for your future art career self-sufficiency.
The most important first step towards becoming a full-time artist is to keep making art. Being an artist is never easy and the temptation put your art career on hold and apply yourself instead to other interests can sometimes be overwhelming. You might be thinking about giving art up until the kids are grown, about focusing only on your non-art job for a few years, or about closing down the studio for a while because sales are slow. My advice is simple: Don't do it.
For example, I recall a reasonably well-known artist who decided to quit painting at a relative high point of his early career and proceeded to make hardly any art for a number of years following. When he decided to take up painting again, his new work looked like little more than derivative rehashes of what he was doing when he stopped. He was totally out of practice and had lost his creative edge. To this point, he's managed to reestablish himself as a respectable artist, but he'll never again be the creative, cutting-edge force that he once was.
From a financial standpoint, he can't charge as much per painting as he would have been able to had he kept working. Collectors tend to approach his art with caution and buy conservatively because they're not sure whether he'll stop again. They know that if he does stop, he'll again negatively impact the market for his art. Even though he's now supporting himself as an artist, he has and will continue to have a credibility problem with both dealers and collectors.
So continue creating art no matter how difficult the process becomes. Continue even though you're not selling anything. Continue even if you're dissatisfied with what you're producing. Persevere, work through the tough times and you'll be glad you did.
Once you're in the habit of regularly making art, you've got to get it out in front of the art buying public. Your art is your billboard, your business card. It works for you 24 hours a day. It's your single best form of advertising and it's not doing anyone any good gathering dust in your studio. The more art you have on display at outside locations and the more locations that show it, the more people see it and the greater your chances are of making sales. Even when you're not generating sales, you're still sharing your art with others and maintaining a public presence. You never know who might see it and be impressed enough to spread the word.
Corporations know that in order to make sales, they have to expose their products to consumers over and over again. They "brand" their names into the minds of buyers, so that their products are most easily recognized and most likely to be purchased. Just look at mass advertising on in the media and online. Big businesses continually drum their identities into your head. Ford, Ford, Ford; Pepsi, Pepsi, Pepsi; McDonald's, McDonald's, McDonald's.
Art is no different. The more times people see your work, the more inclined they are to believe that you are a well-known artist and that your art is respected or at least acknowledged by the art community. Picasso, Picasso, Picasso; Warhol, Warhol, Warhol; Chagall, Chagall, Chagall. So get your art and your name out before the art buying public on as many occasions as possible-- both online and in person. Wherever you show it, make prices available; make contact information available. Sooner or later, you start selling art.
Display your art at places that make it look good, places where art buyers tend to congregate, places where you know the clientele can afford your asking prices. These may not yet include the hard-to-get-into places like art galleries, museums, corporate lobbies and established public exhibition spaces, but more likely the less-hard-to-get-into places like juried and non-juried shows, open studios, local and regional art fairs, local small businesses and other less competitive public spaces.
Places like restaurants, coffee shops, salons, clothing boutiques, bookstores, hotels, bed and breakfasts and designer furniture showrooms may not be the most suitable for your art-- for sales, that is-- though these days, more and more alternative venues are making a go of it by showing (and selling) art on a regular basis. The problem with displaying at these types of locations exclusively is that most people don't visit them to see or buy art. They go there to eat, spend the night, buy clothes, get a cappuccino or look at couches.
But these types of venues are always good for improving your name recognition, so never pass up an opportunity to show at one, especially when you're early in your career, and assuming the space is complimentary to your work. The prospects of making significant sales may not be great, but if you make an effort to carve out areas of wall space for your art that approximate gallery settings, you just might get lucky. Do your best to present your work in ways that patrons will have no doubt about it being worthy of attention, and have no doubt that every single piece of it is available for sale.
And don't forget the exposure that comes from donating your art to non-profit or charity auctions (assuming they're art related), from doing volunteer work for non-profit arts organizations, from interning at galleries, from donating or lending your art to hang in the offices of businesses or organizations, or even from allowing images of your art to appear on select websites as illustrations, backgrounds or images related to specific types of content. These are great ways to get your name out there before the art buying public.
Now that you're regularly producing art and getting good exposure, the next step in increasing your sales is to understand the collector mentality and play to it. This may sound distasteful and like pure marketing, but most experienced collectors require certain assurances that they're spending their money wisely. Nobody likes to waste money and as a result, much of the art business is structured in such a way that evidence can be presented to collectors that they're get good value when they buy art.
As an artist, you know what your art means on a personal level and you can certainly convey that to people, but if someone asks, can you also make a good case for your selling prices? Explaining why your art has value from a monetary standpoint is an essential part of convincing buyers that your art is OK to own, especially when they're on the fence, not that familiar with your work or are just beginning to buy art.
Many buyers need assurances because they often don't know that much about art. They're unsure or insecure and want concrete facts about your work that they can understand. Some people, of course, buy art on the spur of the moment and according to whatever strikes their fancy, but they're in the minority. Ultimately, you need to somehow demonstrate that your art has value.
One way you can do this is by keeping good records and documenting your practices and your art. In order to convey the impression that you're a serious artist, you must be able to produce tangible evidence of your accomplishments that anyone can see, read and understand. The following suggestions will help you accomplish these objectives:
-- Join recognized artist organizations and get yourself listed on their membership rosters.
-- Either self-publish or have an art dealer or gallery that represents you publish a catalogue of your work that's at least twelve pages long.
-- Whenever possible, get your art pictured or featured on websites, get listed in exhibit catalogues and newsletters from art associations, juried shows, non-juried shows, local, regional and statewide shows.
-- Get your work reviewed, get coverage both online and in hard-copy publications. Even a one-sentence mention in a small article on a local website is good.
-- Apply for listings or entries in major biographical dictionaries like Who's Who in American Art or New American Painting. Only apply to publications that accept applicants on the basis of merit and do not charge for listings. Directories that charge for listings are often vanity publications, not well distributed, not taken seriously by collectors, and ultimately wastes of money.
You're goal is to accrue tangible third-party proof that confirms you're a dedicated artist-- a resume that shows you're active, productive, exhibiting and getting noticed. You want to take that proof and place it into the hands of anyone who is thinking about buying your art. Telling it is not nearly as effective as showing it. So bulk up that list of accomplishments; it's validation from the outside world that you are who you say you are.
Hand-in-hand with documenting your career accomplishments goes documenting every significant piece of your art. You do the writing here. Itemizing a work of art includes facts like dimensions, medium, date of creation, what it inspired you to create it, what it signifies or represents, and of course, an image of the finished piece. A descriptive paragraph or two accompanied by an image or two of the work when it was in progress should do it. Collectors love this kind of stuff.
Include this information with the art when you sell it (and keep it for yourself as well). This is similar to the sales person at the men's clothing store telling you that if you buy the suit, he'll throw in a tie. People always appreciate a little something extra and unexpected-- this modest effort on your behalf provides them with something special, something personal, and something tangible that helps them understand what they've just bought. Not only can they share your art with their friends and acquaintances, but they can also speak about it from an informed educated standpoint-- yours. This is almost like having advocates and sales people working on your behalf and saying exactly what you want them to say about your art.
As for more personal documentation, regularly record your artistic progress somewhere-- on an "updates" page on your website, in a journal, in a blog, on social networking sites, etc. Summarize what you're up to and why. You don't have to write reams; several sentences per day or a paragraph or two per week will do just fine. Include regular photos or short videos of you at work in your studio or out and about researching or creating your art. People love a good story line and if yours is compelling, you're guaranteed to attract fans and followers.
Also do your best to keep track of individual works of art. Know when they sell, who buys them, how much they pay, and under what circumstances they sell. These records will come in extremely handy for your retrospectives. And don't think that you'll never have a retrospective. And don't think that you'll remember all the details of your career if you do. As life becomes increasingly complex and you get further and further away from your earlier work, the only way that you're going to remember what happened is to write it down. And just in case you're interested, good documentation ALWAYS increases the value of art.
Now for a few tips about how to present your art for purposes of getting shows or making sales. Selling art is a competitive venture, whether we're talking about getting gallery shows or representation or selling directly to collectors. We've already talked about getting exposure and what that means, but in addition to exposure, do everything you can to position yourself as more than just another artist selling their art. For example, if a collector has only $3000 to spend and intends to buy only one piece of art, they're either going to buy it from you or they're going to buy it from another artist. And then they're done. So your job is to stack the odds in your favor by increasing the chances that they're going to buy it from you.
Often this involves little more than being able to comfortably talk about your art in terms that pretty much everyone can understand. Most people who buy contemporary art regard the experience and adventure of meeting and speaking with artists as an important part of their collecting. The more dedicated art buyers love getting involved in the art community by spending time at galleries, joining museum groups, going to show openings, visiting artists at their studios, talking about art, and meeting artists, dealers, and fellow collectors.
So when you're called on to act in the capacity of being your own advocate, you should be ready. Even if you only show at galleries and don't sell art directly out of your studio, gallery owners recognize that artists who have social and conversational skills have an edge over artists who don't. Given a choice between two equally qualified artists, many galleries are inclined to go with the one who comes off better in public. Some galleries even require artists to have speaking abilities before they're accepted for shows.
I once attended an opening for the so-called "Petite Picasso," Alexandra Nechita, who was only twelve years old at the time. Not only was she able to talk about her work before a packed gallery, but she also fielded spontaneous questions from the crowd like someone three times her age. And those kinds of talents and abilities increase sales.
If you're uneasy in public situations or have problems speaking about your art, polish the way you present yourself by practicing with friends or associates. If you have trouble answering certain questions, rehearse set responses. Have your friends ask you all those difficult questions that potential buyers sometimes ask. Have them put you in awkward positions. With practice, you'll learn how to handle yourself in even the toughest situations.
Whenever you speak with people interested in your art, begin by establishing common bonds or interests. Find out which pieces of your art they like the best. See what price ranges they're comfortable with. Ask questions like the following: "Is this the kind that you like the most?" "Is this one the right size?" "Do you like the blue one better or the red one?" Keep it simple and let them decide how deep or complicated they want to get.
And don't forget to "close" as they say in the selling business. If you sense that someone is getting increasingly interested in your art, work towards popping the money questions: "Is this something you'd like to buy?" "Would you like to take it home on approval?" "Would you rather pay for it over time?" Don't wait for someone to beg you to buy. That rarely happens. This doesn't mean that you pressure or corner anyone, but rather that you're sensitive and responsive to those moments when someone is seriously leaning in the direction of buying. With experience, you'll learn to recognize exactly when those moments are.
A few additional presentation and selling tips:
Observe how art is sold in as many different circumstances as possible. This can be a highly educational exercise. Watch people sell at all types of galleries, art shows, art fairs and other venues where art is for sale. See what sales techniques work; see which don't. Watch how sellers interact with buyers. If you can politely find out what sells best and why, do it. Learn everything you can from gallery owners and fellow artists about how they present, market, and sell art.
Don't ignore, discount, or dismiss certain segments of the art business based on your own personal tastes, philosophies or peer group pressures. When you do that, you rob yourself of important knowledge. For example, I've learned a great deal about selling art from going to openings at some of the most commercial galleries in the country-- galleries that so-called fine artists look down on with disgust. I may not be a big fan of the art at these galleries either, but when I hear about sales totals at times exceeding several hundred thousand dollars on an opening night, I want to know how they do it and you should too.
In some ways, the art world is far too fragmented. Instead of sharing and cooperating and learning from one another, different artist factions spend their lives tearing each other down and disparaging each other's art. A New York City artist once told me that because of abuses in the limited edition print industry, people should stop buying prints altogether. Is that supposed to include originals by all legitimate printmakers, etchers, and lithographers? Should we ban printmaking? Should we make it a felony? This artist would rather eliminate the industry altogether than study and learn from its marketing successes, and incorporate those successes into his business model.
Just remember that there's no right or wrong art, and as long as sellers don't break the law or engage in deliberate misrepresentation, there's no right or wrong way to sell art. Every single time a fledgling buyer buys his or her first piece of art, no matter what type of art it is, subsequent sales to that person become easier and easier. That first sale is always the toughest one to make, and congratulations to the artist or dealer who makes it.
And now a few words about pricing. Many artists hate this topic, but you've got to be pragmatic here. The instant you complete a work of art and place it up for sale, it becomes subject to the laws of the marketplace just like any other goods or services. You in turn must be able to successfully transition from the creative mode to the objective pricing mode.
As I said before, people like to know that they're getting good value for their money. This means that you've got to price your art competitively. A good rule of thumb, whenever you're not sure how much your art is worth, is to price comparably to what other artists with similar accomplishments and similar market bases to yours charge for similar works of art. This is especially true if you're participating in open studio or group show events where ridiculous selling prices can really stand out.
I can't tell you how many times I'm at a group show perusing the art, comparing prices, and see a pattern like this-- $2000-- $1800-- $2250-- $10,000-- $1750-- $2300-- and so on. "$10,000?" I say to myself. "What's this piece doing here?" The art may indeed be worth $10,000, but in a group show setting where everything else is priced in the $1500-$2500 range, the only impression viewers have is sticker shock. That $10,000 piece of art is entirely out of place and all but guaranteed not to sell. The artist should have instead chosen to show a piece in the $1500-$2500 range like everyone else.
When you can't figure out how to price your art and don't have an extensive resume or only sell sporadically, set yourself a sensible hourly wage, multiply that amount by the number of hours you take to make the art, add the cost of your materials and let that total be your asking price. Whatever you do, don't pull prices out of thin air and don't price yourself out of the market by comparing yourself to artists who are definitely more established than you are. Be honest about your position in the hierarchy of fame, fortune and accomplishment, and price your work accordingly.
What you personally think of your art is irrelevant in terms of how much it's worth on the open market. You may believe that you're as good as Picasso, for example, but that doesn't mean that you ask millions of dollars per piece. If you want to experiment with different price structures, go ahead. This can be a great way to firm up your ideas about what your art is worth. So start high if that's what you want, but as things progress, get outside feedback from collectors and art professionals whenever possible. If you're too high, you'll know soon enough. Eventually, you'll settle on dollar amounts that make sense to both you and potential buyers. Whatever you do, be careful not to get too erratic and change your prices every time you show. Do that and you'll end up confusing everyone-- including yourself.
Most importantly, be able to justify your prices to anyone who asks. Have reasons and explanations that make sense to people who don't know that much about art, and don't get too theoretical or difficult to comprehend. People want to know why you price the way you do. They want to understand and feel like they're getting value for their money. Art prices are hard for many people to make sense out of, and your job is to help them-- because when they understand what you're up to, assuming they like your art, you make sales.
Let's take a brief look into the future. The average artist's career lasts for decades. Each and every one of you can rest assured that at some point down the road, both you and your art will transition from being contemporary to becoming vintage. In other words, your art will come to represent the past more so than it does the present or the future.
Prepare for this inevitability by setting aside a body of work-- starting now-- that will not only do you justice as an established artist, but will also provide you with maximum financial rewards in terms of its significance and salability over time. Imagine for a moment that your art is currency and the art that you keep for yourself is your IRA-- your individual retirement account. You create art daily, you sell a certain percentage of it in order to survive, and you put aside a selection of quality pieces in order to provide for your future. As you advance in your career, your art increases in value and so does the value of your art retirement account.
Many of the great artists in their more businesslike moments see their art exactly that way-- de Kooning, Johns, Warhol, Chagall, Picasso to name a few. Not only did they put aside enough art to support themselves for the rest of their lives, but also in some cases, enough to support their families and subsequent generations for the rest of their lives. You can do the same-- perhaps not on such a grand scale, but certainly on a scale that will ultimately be rewarding.
So how do you do establish your art IRA? First, don't sell off all of your best pieces and keep only what you can't sell or what you decide is not worth selling. Keep at least some significant or important works. Keep some that win awards, some that represent early examples of notable transitions in your career, pieces that were particularly inspired, studies for major pieces, pieces that contribute to one's overall understanding of your accomplishments. Keep enough art so that you'll be able to present a cohesive visual overview of your career to anyone who asks. These are the pieces you sometimes see in retrospective exhibitions labeled "Not for Sale" or "Collection of the Artist."
I've visited and spoken with dozens of older artists over the years. Some kept aside hundreds of works; others kept virtually nothing. Those who kept nothing had nothing to show for a lifetime of work, either to themselves or to others. If they got themselves into circumstances where they needed money, they had nothing to sell. And that was always kind of sad.
Put works aside not only for yourself and your descendents, but also for everyone who is or ever will be interested in your art-- not just the art that you're making now, but also the art that you made during the various stages of your career. Also realize that at some point in the future, in addition to your current collector base, your work will begin appealing to a wole new generation of collectors who represent a totally different segment of the art collecting community. These collectors will be more interested in the art you made decades ago than in the brand new art that you're making now. These are people who, in many cases, weren't even born when you were already active and creating and producing art. When this happens, you want to be ready with plenty of saved art.
Ready for what? Collectors will want to buy. Galleries will want to show. Believe it. It's retrospective time! It will happen. If you persevere and continue to create and regularly put aside a significant, desirable and salable portion of your work, new people will sooner or later take notice. It's almost like beginning a second career later on in life.
And don't be insulted if these new people pay less attention your current work and more attention to the old stuff, the pieces that you've so wisely put aside. Your recent work will be fine too, but it's the early works that will provide the initial attraction to these youngsters. Those early works may also, by the way, be exactly what seasoned experienced collectors are prepared to pay the most money for.
By the way, remember all those websites, publications and exhibit catalogs that you got yourself listed in years ago? Remember all that documentation and all those records you've kept about your art like who owns it, what it represents, and so on? Well, it's all going to come in mighty handy at this advanced stage in your career. Not only will you have tangible proof of your significance as an artist, but you'll also be a lot easier for new generations of collectors-- and perhaps even a sharp young gallery owner or two-- to find. There'll be a tangible trail of accomplishments leading right up to your studio door.
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