Expand Your Audience and Sell More Art

Market Research for Artists

If you're like most artists, you probably live and work with artists, eat with artists, socialize with artists and recreate with artists-- and likely with other fine arts professionals as well. When you're on your own, you probably read about artists, visit art websites, attend art lectures, visit galleries and museums and more. You're basically all art all the time. And that's excellent. But if you want to maximize your chances for success as an artist, you've got to do more, especially in this new age of universal art accessibility perpetrated by none other than the good old Internet. What kind of more? You have to continually broaden your horizons (and the horizons for your art) or in other words, learn how to present your art to a progressively wider and wider range of people in a wider and wider variety of circumstances.

You see, the problem with the all-art-all-the-time lifestyle is that the more inside the beltway you are, the more removed you tend to be from typical everyday people who like art and would consider owning it, but who may not know that much about it. There are plenty of 'em out there, believe me. Unfortunately, the more time you spend talking art jargon with art world insiders and using language only art people can understand, the greater your risk of lapsing into artspeak when talking to everyday people about your art and in so doing, rapidly rendering them comatose. The worst part about these casualties of incomprehension is if you'd kept them in the game, some may have turned out to be buyers.

Think about this: No matter who they are or how much or how little they know, anyone who's interested enough in your art to (1) take time out of their busy lives to stop and look at it and (2) ratchet up the courage to ask you about it, has got to be considered a potential buyer-- not instantly of course, but assuming your interactions go well and they become increasingly engaged with your work. The tricky part? Continuing the conversation without intimidating, insulting or overwhelming them, or just plain frightening them away. This is not easy-- having a casual encounter with someone who doesn't know that much about either you or your art evolve into a sale-- but it is possible. And the better you get at guiding inquiring minds through the perilous intellectual thicket surrounding your art, the greater the number of sales you'll ultimately make.

You already know how to talk about your art with art people. No problem there. You understand each other perfectly. That's taken care of. The hard part is learning to talk to everybody else (aka the other 99.99% of the population, pretty much all of whom like art). The sad fact is many artists have little experience observing or understanding how non-art people respond to their art (or how to respond back). The hard-to-believe fact is that a good percentage of artists don't even seem care about that 99.99% and dismiss them as irrelevant. Perhaps they see no upside in terms of their own personal advancement, they enjoy the perks of elitism, they regard confusing the shit out of the general public as an ego wonk, or whatever. What they overlook in the meantime? Meeting and dialoguing with new people, expanding their fan bases, increasing their followings, and especially the potential to increase sales.

At some point you have to think more about the broader population, especially online because that's where more and more art action is taking place. The greater the range of people you pay attention to, the greater the opportunities to expand your collector base and the greater the probability of making your artistic survival a reality. Who these people are or how little or much they know about art makes absolutely no difference-- as long as they come to see your art as worth making a part of their lives. Why these people like your art makes absolutely no difference either, as long as they like it enough to strike up a conversation and ask you about it. And since nobody buys anything they don't understand, it behooves you to acquire the skills to effectively present and dialogue about your art to as wide a range of people in as wide a variety of circumstances as possible.

By observing how different kinds of people respond to your art, you can learn the best ways to respond back and relate to them in ways they can appreciate. How do you accomplish this? You do what's commonly known in the corporate world as "market research" or "focus groups," or put another way, you watch how people respond to your art, listen to how people respond to your art and most importantly, talk to people about their responses to your art.

The more you know about how your art affects people and about what types of information they need in order to maximally understand, appreciate and enjoy it, the better able you are to keep them in the game, hold their attention, keep them asking questions, progressively deepen their experiences and involvement with your work, and hopefully, make sales or get commissions or exhibition opportunities or whatever else you're looking for. Remember-- we're focusing on typical everyday people who like art, not art people. You've already got the art people covered. The most important people for you now are those you know the least about, those you've been ignoring for whatever reasons or those you've made assumptions about, but have never bothered to test whether those assumptions are at least a teensy bit accurate.

How do you gather the necessary data? One of best ways is to expand your fan base on social media beyond your immediate art circles. Get yourself and your art out there in front of as many different kinds of people as possible. Present your work in ways that encourage conversation and responses, ways that pretty much anyone can understand. Experiment with different types of posts by continually focusing on different aspects of your art. Talk about color, composition, inspirations, stories behind the work, what it means to you, how you make it, whatever you want. Watch what people say, what kinds of questions they ask, which posts get the most attention or likes or shares. This experimentation phase is key; it's how you learn the best most effective ways to present and communicate about your art (and what doesn't work as well).

In the real world, host a show, soiree, reception, dinner, party or gathering around your art-- not at galleries but at alternative venues. Better yet, have someone host it for you. Perhaps a friend or acquaintance will offer or have access to a space where you can display a selection of your work and throw yourself a show, even if only for a night. Then again, if you have to do it all yourself, that's fine too-- as long as you do it. Why not at a gallery, you ask? Because at alternative venues, you can practice and perfect how to dialogue with others about your art. Get your presentation down first; then you'll be ready for the galleries.

The event should be at a non-intimidating non-art location like a lobby of a commercial building, a conference room, a hallway, a boutique, a hair salon, a coffee shop or wine bar, a restaurant, a vacant storefront, even someone's private home or office-- not at a gallery or art studio or place where mainly art people hang out, but at a venue where non-art people will feel comfortable. That way, they'll have their guards down and be more likely to respond to what they see and to communicate their feelings, opinions or experiences. And make sure there's no pressure to buy, just to come, look, enjoy and have a good time. Then again, if someone wants to buy something, go for it.

Invite as many non-art people and as few art people as possible while also minimizing the number of friends, family and those who already know your art-- they won't be any help. In fact, they'll distract you from the matter at hand. Encourage those you invite to invite friends they think might be interested, and for those friends to invite their friends. The goal is to get total strangers through the door-- people who have nothing invested one way or another in either you or your art. Save your fan base for later. Remember, this is not about people you know; it's about people you don't know. Don't worry if the thought of this all makes you feel a bit anxious or reluctant; that's exactly the point. You're here to learn, to get comfortable around new people, to get brave and explore unexplored territories surrounding your art.

People will have all kinds of questions, many of those questions unrelated to any formal aspects of art or art history but rather questions like how long it takes to make, how much it weighs, how hard it is to move, what you hang it with, what it means, why you put the red circle in the corner, how long it takes to dry and so on. Most importantly, people who don't know that much about art ask questions you don't anticipate, some of which will be so off-the-wall they'll take you totally by surprise, some so totally that you won't have the slightest idea how to respond. And that's the whole point-- this is what you're here to learn. A surprise question can only surprise you once and once the surprise is over, it's time to craft an answer. Why? Because hardly anything is worse than saying nothing or "I don't know."

This is the key-- learning to respond to all kinds of questions from all kinds of people in all kinds of circumstances, both online and in the real world. Experienced artists are good at this; many are so good at understanding how average people respond to their art, they can make preemptive strikes on a wide variety of questions before they even get asked. Remember, no matter how uninformed or irrelevant certain questions may sound to you, I can assure you that they're of utmost importance to the people who ask them, and furthermore, that your answers are critical to advancing and enhancing their experience and enjoyment of your art, so critical in fact that some of those answers may ultimately lead to sales.

The moral of the story? In order to effectively transit artland and survive as an artist, learn how to answer all kinds of questions about yourself and your art from all kinds of people all the time-- quick, credible, friendly, compelling, easy to understand and most importantly, with respect. Your mission is to give people a grip, to get them involved and once you master that, you're on your way. The better you are at making people comfortable around your art, the better your chances of succeeding as an artist. It's that simple and no more complicated.

Additional tips for your art market research:

* Have several friends attend your event so they can watch and listen to people talk about your art, and perhaps even get involved in conversations. Then have them report back when its over.

* Whenever possible, either online or at an event or elsewhere, make yourself available to anyone who might want to talk or otherwise communicate with you about your art. Don't be hard to reach or speak with.

* Pay attention to the most common questions people ask about your art. These are the questions you need to have the best answers for.

* No matter what people say, don't take it personally. In fact, learning not to take it personally is critical to your success as an artist. Remember-- these are not fine arts professionals; they're people who like art and who respond based on their own personal tastes, feelings and experiences. It's not always about you.

* When the occasion presents itself, encourage people to speak or chat with you about your art. Tell them what you're up to-- that your goal is to learn how to explain your work to as many different kinds of people as possible in ways they can understand. Encourage them to be direct and honest in their responses... and promise you won't get upset or pressure them into anything. The more people who ultimately understand and appreciate your art, the better. There is simply no downside to broadening your fan base.


(art by Gottfried Helnwein)

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