Find a Gallery or Agent
To Sell Your Art
Or Maybe Sell it Yourself
Artists make art and once that art is made, they make more. Once that art is made, they make more. When they have enough art, many of them email or post or call or otherwise present it to art world professionals like dealers, gallery owners, curators, consultants, representatives, so-called agents, and others who sell art for a living. Some of these professionals like the art so much they tell the artists they want to represent, show, or sell it. The artists give them art to sell... and it sells. From that point on, all they have to do is make more art, give it to their sellers, let it sell, and collect the profits. And that, they believe, is how artists live happily ever after, creating away in their studios while others do the dirty work as the money rolls in. Their mantra is simple-- "I make art; other people sell it."
If you think that's how the art world works and how art gets sold, you need to change the way you think. Almost all artists would rather have other people sell their art than have to sell it themselves, but unfortunately, that happens far less often than they'd like to think. While social media has made self-representation an increasingly viable option, if you're one of the countless artists searching for the perfect person or gallery or online platform to sell your art, you need to know how to do it right.
Selling your art is hard work no matter how or where it's for sale, and the sooner you realize that, the better. Anyone who sells art for a living has this exact same challenge whether they're galleries, dealers, agents, representatives, or artists. Nobody escapes this truth. Your goal as an artist is to generate enough income to keep making art, whether on a fulltime or parttime basis.
Art business professionals know how to sell art; they're skilled at talking about how it has value-- tangible as well as intangible-- and that it's worth paying money for in order to own. Rarely in the art world do people spontaneously buy art without any prompting because they fall in love the instant they see it, and absolutely have to have it. When they see art they like, they almost always ask sellers questions first, and they better be able to answer them in ways that show the art is worth owning and adding to their lives, or else there's no sale. Ask anyone in the art business. They'll tell you that no art sells itself; someone has to sell it.
The same holds true for you as an artist. Your art does not sell itself; you have to sell it. And selling your art involves much more than simply getting people to look at it. Even if someone in the business sees your art and likes it, they have to figure out whether they can make money selling it... and YOU have to help them. The same holds true if you're selling direct online. The same principles apply-- you have to organize, present, write, and speak about your art in ways that show it has value, and deepen and intensify how viewers experience and connect with it.
For those of you who would rather have others represent you or show your art, you have to educate and inform them about what makes it special, what makes it stand out from all other art. Talk about the future, about where you're going with your work, about how people respond to your art, and how new audiences tend to react once they're introduced. Telling them how much work you sell and what prices it sells for doesn't hurt either, especially if you sell reasonably well. Talking money doesn't mean you abandon your artistic principles or integrity; not even close. It's just one of many ways to convey why you believe your art has "value" and deserves serious consideration. One thing you can never do is sit silently while galleries or consultants or representatives look through your work, hoping they'll like it enough to sign you up. You have to advocate on your art's behalf and demonstrate that you've got what it takes to make a business relationship work.
This goes for your online followers as well. If you're representing yourself or selling direct, you have to convince potential buyers direct. You don't come right out and tell them, "Here's why my art is worth owning..." The process is more like you getting across to viewers-- either implicitly or explicitly-- what your art means to you, why you've chosen to dedicate your life to making art and most importantly, why you feel compelled to put your work out there into the public in order to be part of the overall art conversation. Give people opportunities to see what goes on behind the scenes, how it all happens, how you live the artistic life. Give them glimpses into the person behind the work, and be accessible to anyone who's interested enough to make contact. Now if you find any of this interactivity distasteful or you're one of those artists who just plain refuses to do it, then stick with the galleries. But for the rest of you, representing yourself online makes more sense than ever, and the opportunities for doing so effectively get better every day.
Meanwhile back at the gallery system, many artists get shows or representations by word of mouth, both online and in the real world. They're introduced to the professionals who eventually show and sell their art by others who see or hear about it first. If certain fans of your art happen to know gallery owners or know other people who do, and assuming your relationship is on good enough terms, and assuming they believe in your work enough to lobby on your behalf, ask who they think might want to have a look at your art. Or if they're willing to make personal introductions, that's even better. No matter what the situation, always be prepared to dialogue on the significance of your art, especially when whoever you're speaking with has little or no idea who you are or what your work is about.
With or without introductions, focus only on those galleries or individuals who sell your type of art or who represent artists with similar resumes, pricing, experience, and career accomplishments to yours. Learn enough about the art they sell and how they sell it so you can customize your presentation and explain your art in language they can relate to. Study their websites and when possible, visit their galleries in person. Follow them on socials, see how they talk about their art, their shows, and engage with their followers. Understand why you pick a gallery or representative, and for what reasons.
If you get a chance to to talk, start by talking about them, followed by talking about you. If you don't personalize each and every contact or conversation you have, and show that you know who you're speaking with, chances are excellent you'll get absolutely nowhere. You have to establish a connection in order for anyone to take notice. And that connection is way way more than "Hi, I'm an artist, want to see my art?" or "You're a gallery, you have walls, I'm an artist, I have art... that's a match!"
Talk about why you believe your art is worth owning, how you believe it adds value to people's lives, what your commitment to being an artist is all about. Talk about how your work meshes with the agenda or exhibition schedule of the gallery or whomever you're presenting to. This doesn't mean you do a high-pressure sales pitch, but rather that you treat the interaction as though you're applying for a job or entering into a partnership or business relationship (which you essentially are), or in other words, demonstrating that you have common interests or beliefs or philosophies about art and its place in the world. If on the other hand the only reason you're showing your art is that the person you're showing it to has a place where they can sell it for you, think twice before contacting them at all. That's nowhere near enough of a bridge to get you where you want to go.
Let's assume a conversation advances to a point where you establish common interests. You might talk about what you're currently working on, when you expect to finish it, how much work you have available now, and how regularly you produce. In case you get asked, be prepared to talk about who buys your art, why they like it, and how much it generally sells for. Do particular types of people like your art? What do they like most about it? Does it sell best at certain venues or in particular settings? Why do you think the person you're speaking with is a good match for your art? The more such information you provide and the better prepared you are to provide it-- or at least show you've actually spent time thinking about it-- the more you'll impress with your "dedication to the cause" and the better able they'll be to decide whether they stand a reasonable chance of selling your work.
Be prepared to provide references if asked, names of people who can speak to your capabilities, hopefully names they'll be familiar with. Talk about what you can do besides make art. For example, can you speak about your art in a public forum like at a gallery opening? Can you give a talk? Be part of a panel? Can you do a demonstration? Are certain aspects of your process unique or notable in some way? Do people find those aspects interesting or engaging? Do they enhance the desirability of your art? Do you have good social skills? Are you comfortable talking to people who might be thinking about buying your art? Every last bit of information helps in the decision-making process.
Other points to keep in mind whether you're presenting to someone you'd like to sell or represent your art, or are selling direct online:
* If you've had past show experience, particularly shows that went well, talk about them. What sold? How much sold? Hopefully, you can use galleries or people who've shown or sold your art as references.
* Talk about what's unique, special or notable about your art, what distinguishes it from similar looking art by other artists. Without getting too long-winded or overly detailed, point out aspects of your work that might not be obvious or apparent from a simple viewing. If you're selling online, post detail or close-up images of your work to help viewers better understand its complexities and how well it's made.
* If you're just starting out, tell why you believe people should consider your art, what your larger mission or ideas about it are, and why you're dedicated to having a long productive artistic career. Hopefully you can back this up with proof that you spend significant time in the studio every single day creating new work.
* Talk about how much art you currently have available for sale, and how much you can produce in what amount of time. Make sure you have enough completed work on hand to even go public with it in the first place. People who sell art need certain minimum amounts not only in order to represent you properly, but also to make the relationship profitable. Just like everybody else, galleries have to sell enough art to stay in business. By the way, if you can't produce the amount of art that someone tells you they need, say so. Never make promises you can't keep. Or if you're presenting your art online, hopefully you're capable of creating and posting new work enough regularity to show people how serious you are.
* Make sure whoever you're speaking with typically sells art in your price range-- not at prices you one day want to sell your art for, but at prices you sell for now. If your average work of art sells for $500, for example, and the their average work of art sells for $5000, then your chances of getting representation are probably minimal. Or if you're representing yourself online, make sure your selling prices are in line with what your followers can generally afford.
* If you want someone to represent you, address loyalty concerns. The number one concern of gallery owners these days is that artists will honor the terms of the relationship and never ever ever sell art behind their backs. Anyone who puts time, money and exhibition space into showing your art and building your reputation wants to know you'll stick with them long enough for their investments to pay off. And this includes a discussion of your online presence and how it may have to be changed if they decide to take you on.
* Make clear that you're flexible and easy to work with. If you're not easy to work with and you really want representation, get easy to work with.
Always keep in mind that one of the main reasons someone decides to show or sell your art is they think they can sell enough to make enough to help keep them in business. Either they think they can sell that art now or they think that by working with you over time, they'll be able to sell it at some point in the future, hopefully in the near future. The only way to get and maintain gallery representation that lasts for more than one or two shows, or to have a consultant or representative actively market your art for more than six months to a year is for them to sell enough to make their efforts worthwhile. That's simply the way the art business is.
If after all your efforts you're still having trouble convincing people to take you on, the problem could be you haven't found the right person or gallery to sell it. Then again, people might think your art is hard to sell. Then again, maybe the way you present yourself or your art turns people off. Maybe you inadvertently say things people don't want to hear. Maybe if you change your strategy or the way you present yourself, you'll be able to get what you want. In other words, you have to continually pay attention to how people respond to you and your art, reflect on conversations, and think about what's lacking or what you might do better, especially if you're getting nowhere fast. Never be afraid to modify your approach or try entirely new ones.
Avoid spamming galleries or online groups with your art, or randomly asking anyone who'll listen to visit your website or follow you on social media without giving any reasons. Doing things like this can actually sabotage your chances for success. If you're making no headway, try to find out from people in the know why they think you're having problems. Assuming you know someone well enough to ask, have them comment on your overall presentation. You might even think about paying an art consultant or other art world professional to review your approach or critique your art and the way you present it. They can often suggest changes or strategies to make your presentations more effective. The same holds true if you're representing yourself online. You must continually reflect, experiment, be brave and do whatever you have to do to improve your profile and presentation.
To ignore criticism or refuse to listen to informed opinions, recommendations or feedback, to resist change or acknowledge that there may be better ways to take your work public condemns you to a future of using the same unproductive presentation techniques over and over again. If you expect to sell art, no matter what the platform, know that succeeding as an artist is essentially a collaborative cooperative venture. You have to somehow bridge the gap between the art you create and your unique form of personal expression with the people you introduce it to, regardless of who they are.
Is a gallery offering you a show? Does someone want to rep your art? Entering into a business relationship? Signing a contract? If you answered yes to any of those questions, read Common Artist Legal Problems and How to Avoid Them.
(art by Alfredo De Stéfano)
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