"Self-Commissioning" Art Rarely Works

Q: I spent a number of months on a painting dedicated to a female military pilot who died in action. I offered the finished picture to a women's military organization in Washington, DC, but they weren't interested. They said it didn't fit their format. Since this is more of a museum piece, I need ideas on how to get it exhibited so that the public has a chance to see it and an institution can buy it. If I sell it, I'll donate 20% of the proceeds to a war memorial fund. The painting is priced at $15,000; print reproduction rights can be negotiated separately. Enclosed is my resume. Any suggestions?

A: You've made a number of assumptions and errors in judgment that impact your chances of selling this painting. To begin with, you decided entirely on your own that the piece was necessary and appropriate for this women's military organization without asking them first. You knew nothing about the organization's acquisition policies, acquisitions budget, or whether they show or purchase any art at all. With no advanced notice, you painted the painting, presented it to the organization for sale, and they told you that it didn't fit their format.

To begin with, you should have researched the organization in advance. If it turned out that they regularly exhibited or acquired art, then you should have proposed the idea for the painting ahead of time, perhaps with sketches and a synopsis-- like the way authors query publishers with ideas for books or articles-- and gotten the organization's answer up front before investing all that time and effort creating the art. Most likely they would have turned you down regardless, or maybe they would have asked you to donate the painting instead or suggested a size or type of composition of a painting that they might be more willing to consider or accept. In any case, whenever you have a specific end point in mind for a specific work of art, make your intentions known to the relevant parties well in advance of beginning the work.

Another problem with the way you offered the painting is that you set your goals too high. According to your resume, you're relatively young and inexperienced as an artist. Unless you have an established track record of exhibiting at and selling to museums and public institutions, your chances of cold-calling any significant organization and selling them an expensive work of art are remote at best. These sorts of accomplishments accrue gradually during the course of an artist's career as the artist receives greater and greater recognition within the art community. You've got to work your way up to major commissions and large sales while setting your immediate goals at more realistic levels.

Referring to your painting as a museum piece further complicates matters and is not a judgment you should be making; that's better left to critics, curators and art world professionals. Also, when you decide on your own that a piece of your art is important to the world as a whole, you tend to overlook "less important" opportunities to show or sell it-- ones that might actually work. Your painting is certainly important to you and it represents a significant accomplishment in your career, but that doesn't mean that it can only be exhibited or sold under special limited circumstances.

Continuing with your litany of difficulties, the fact that you had no direct connection to the woman portrayed in your painting, other than reading about her and identifying with her, also reduces your chances of successfully showing or selling the art. For example, do you think that just because you read about President Obama, are impressed by his life story, paint his portrait and offer it to the National Portrait Gallery that they'll buy it? Of course not. Museums and institutions almost exclusively acquire portraits painted by famous artists, preferably executed firsthand with the subjects as sitters, and commissioned either by the sitters themselves, their families, or groups or organizations that the sitters were closely involved or affiliated with.

Fortunately, you haven't wasted your time creating this painting. It's a wonderful piece that reflects how the pilot's life has impacted you as an artist and as a woman. The public can read her story anywhere, but they can only get your interpretation of that story from you through your painting. A possible idea might be for you to paint a series of related pictures, perhaps focusing on other women of note, and work towards showing them all together at a gallery or exhibition space. Your point of view and the message you want to get across will both have more impact when presented in a series of paintings rather than in a single piece. Also keep in mind that an isolated portrait tends to advance the cause of the subject while a series of portraits tends to advance the cause of the artist. And the cause you need to advance right now is yours.

Regarding this painting's $15,000 asking price, your resume indicates that you have no solid track record of selling any art in this price range. You're aiming too high once again and are asking for too much money without being able to demonstrate that you regularly make sales at or near this price point. You've got to start out at more sensible levels, preferably comparable to what artists with similar experience and accomplishments to yours charge for their art. Also think about producing a wider variety of work in all price ranges so that anyone who loves your art (or this painting in particular), but can't afford it, will at least be able to afford something.

One final point. Spending two years on a single work of art is not cost effective. It's fine if you're independently wealthy, make an adequate income from selling other art or have sufficient outside sources of income. But if you have to sell art in order to survive, limit the amount of time you spend on each individual piece so that you can hopefully reach a point where you generate enough sales to pay your living expenses. Sometimes you have to compromise your dreams and aspirations in order to realize immediate short term goals.

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