Turn Art Lookers into Art Buyers
I go to a lot of art openings and typically don't hang around all that long at any one place. I look at the art and, when possible, have a few words with the artist, after which it's on to the next show. I recently had a chance encounter with an artist whose opening I had been to several nights before. We exchanged pleasantries, and I mentioned how much I enjoyed the show. The artist thanked me and, as we were about to part, asked somewhat cryptically, "Did you look at the art?" with emphasis on the word "look." Without thinking, I answered, "Of course," but then felt a curious twinge of guilt as I walked off wondering, well... did I really look at it? Yes I did, but the artist's implication seemed to be that perhaps I didn't look at it long enough. Hmmm.
So I get to thinking-- what does it mean to "look at the art," and even more to the point, what does it mean to look at it enough? And even more importantly, what does it mean to look at art enough to become so excited about it that you buy it? Enough according to whom? Who decides when enough is enough? And how does looking at art progress to buying that art? In particular, what does this "act of looking" mean from the artist's perspective as distinguished from that of the viewer (potential buyer)?
Let's start with the artist. If you're an artist, whose responsibility do you think it is to assure that when people look at your art, they look at it "enough," and even more importantly, that their experience of looking is a productive one? Would it be theirs or yours? Right. Yours. And whose responsibility do you think it is to make sure they continue to look at your art for as long as possible? Right again. Yours. You see, in a democracy, people are free to look at art for as long they feel like looking at it, and take whatever actions they want to based on what they see-- or think they see-- including looking longer or hitting the road.
I'm amazed at how many artists actually believe that the viewers are responsible not only for looking at, but more importantly, understanding and appreciating art a certain amount, whatever that amount may be, that a minimum looking time is required in order to achieve threshold levels of understanding and appreciation, and here's the kicker-- that anyone who wants to buy something has to want to buy it bad enough. I mean are you kidding me? The viewers are supposed to do all the work-- even work to buy it? How self-infatuated can artists possibly be to believe that total strangers are obliged to schedule fixed amounts of time out of their busy lives to commune with art, get up to speed on it, and ultimately prove how much they want it in order to be gifted with the privilege of ownership?
Now consider the viewer. Oddly enough, people who look at art tend to see things differently than artists. Sure, the hardcore vortex of an artist's fan base wants all art all the time, but how about the rest of us? We're taking it easy, visiting galleries, having happy banter. Or maybe we're early for our restaurant reservation, so we slip into a gallery and pass time against the backdrop of the art. One thing we don't do is leave home determined to come back with art. Generally speaking, art has to absolutely nail someone for them to stop in their tracks, shut up, stand still, and give it more than a passing glance-- which doesn't happen often. (Take you, for instance. You see plenty of art. How often do you stop? Precisely. Not that often.)
The truth is that most encounters with art are fleeting, and most people want electrifyingly stunning reasons to stand there and stare. What kind of reasons? Reasons they understand and identify with-- reasons that YOU the artists provide-- or else they move on to the next work of art or artist or gallery or hors d'oeuvre or dinner or whatever. Yes, it's your job to slow them down, hopefully to the point where they become so entranced with your modus that they'll ultimately want to take a piece of you home, aka buy something.
The solution? There's only one. You or your gallery supplies a brief introduction that enables anyone to grasp or understand or appreciate your art on some fundamental level really fast, no matter who they are or how much or how little they know about art-- from potato heads to PhD's. And furthermore, that this introduction is instantly accessible, like for instance, within arm's reach of the art. Don't write a novella, and please, oh please, avoid bombastic blather that requires an MFA to decipher (nobody likes being talked down to). One or two or three well-worded compelling comprehensible sentences in plain English that ordinary people can understand and latch onto will be abundantly adequate to incite enthusiasm for your art.
You see, those few sentences are like the first few paragraphs or liner notes or introduction of a book. In fact, convincing someone to buy a book is remarkably similar to convincing someone to buy art. With a book, the first thing anyone does who's not familiar with it is to pick it up and read a few sentences. The more compelling those sentences, the harder it is to put the book back down, and the greater the chances they'll buy it. The same goes for art. It periodically stops people, and next on their agendas, they want to know more-- like what exactly are they looking at? And if there's a quick concise answer at hand, chances are excellent they'll read it, and if it's convincing enough, they might even act on it. People who feel like they get what they're looking at, or think they get it-- assuming it resonates with them-- are more likely than people who don't get it to stick around long enough for you or your operatives to get busy and sell them something.
Otherwise, if your art simply sits there unexplained, those who stop won't stop for long. Why? Because once they're done looking, there's nothing left to do but leave. And don't expect them to ask for help. Why? Because many people who go to galleries (or wherever art is for sale) don't even know that asking is an option, and most of the rest are afraid to open their mouths because they're petrified they'll say something stupid. So please-- give them a fighting chance to understand, appreciate, and maybe even buy your art.
Forget this bullshit mindset that people who look at art are required to get educated about it on their own. That is a lose-lose proposition, and so outdated and so self-centered as to be laughable. Maybe in the good old days you could use that tact to stupefy tinhorns into buying ("If I can't understand it, it must be good"), but not any more. The business has changed big time. Art buyers are no longer naive enough to believe that artists and/or art dealers possess mystical inscrutable knowledge that can only be comprehended if they tremble in deference, ask no questions, nod in agreement, open their wallets, and buy.
In fact, confuse today's buyers and they're off to the next venue. They want to know what they're getting, why its significant, how it's priced, what it means, who made it, what the resume looks like, what the prognosis is for the future, and more. Most importantly, they want to feel like they've made intelligent choices, and that they're getting good value for what many believe are their "investments." And last but not least, when their friends come over for dinner and say stuff like, "Bob, is that art new?" Bob will share his knowledge (starting with the three-sentence introduction he read 30 seconds after first laying eyes on it), and proceed to overwhelm his friends with his discriminating taste and sophistication-- and irrevocably emerge a winner-- which Bob could never have done without your (the artist's) help. Capiche? Excellent.
Several hints for crafting compelling copy:
* Your introductory might subtly suggest typical positive responses that viewers have to your art. If you're like most artists, you already know what people like about it. So make it easy for first timers, feed them the secrets up front, and save them the trouble of having to mangle their brains trying figure out why they like what they're looking at.
* Pair a several sentence explanation with each work of art, knowing that specifics are easier to grasp than generalities. It can be about anything-- color, shape, size, materials, technique, medium, inspiration, mood, thoughts, justifications, beliefs, the music you listened to while you made it, why you made it, where you made it, how you made it, how long it took to make, and so on. Keep it simple; keep it clear; make viewers want to know more.
Remember-- nobody owes you or your oeuvre one nanosecond of attention. It is your duty, and yours alone, to convince people that what you communicate through your art is valid, worthwhile, and engaging enough for them to make it a part of their lives. It's that simple and no more complicated.
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