8 Reasons Why You're Not Successful Selling Artwork
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8 Reasons Why You’re Not Successful Selling Artwork

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If you’re serious about selling your art, you should consider your audience and how you can create work that appeals to them. Don’t forget that art is a product, and for any product, there has to be demand for it. This doesn’t mean you have to “sell out.” You can still maintain your artistic integrity while at the same time producing work that will sell. Many artists create work that is not only suitable for galleries, art fairs, and other purveyors of fine art but also commercially viable, more affordable, and ones that they are proud to show. You can do While the art industry is vast, with many different types of buyers and collectors, many of them are also very particular about the types of work they want to purchase.

Creating work that appeals to a specific audience can be difficult to discover, but it has little to do with the artist’s talent. Too often, independent artists confuse talent with saleability: If a piece of art isn’t selling, it must be because it’s simply not good enough to land in a collector’s hands. On the contrary, the talent is there, but demand for that particular type of work may be small, and finding the buyer and collectors that are interested can be difficult.  

Instead, consider the following tips that might help you create artwork that is more saleable and still something that you feel good about and want to show to the world.  Don’t be discouraged.  After all, if selling art wasn’t hard, then we probably wouldn’t have the term “starving artist” in our lexicon. 

SELLING ART IS HARD

The reality is that selling art is subject to the same challenges facing any business today. Whether or not your business is successful and generates revenue – or in the artists’ case, whether or not you manage to sell your artwork – is driven not just by the product but by what you do with that product. The concept of “if you build it, they will come” doesn’t work in modern society.  Selling art requires that your work is in the marketplace in a way that engages your target audience and entices buyers.

“I do think there’s this question mark about really strong work that should be selling and doesn’t,” says Aimee Rubensteen, the co-owner of Rojas + Rubensteen Projects, a nomadic gallery with roots in Miami, New York, and Paris. “The art world is changing so rapidly, museums and auction houses, galleries, and studios are all blurring together. Online sales have completely changed the infrastructure of selling art. I think there are so many different things at hand, but people are definitely buying more.”

The latter is certainly true: According to a survey published by America for the Arts, Americans are highly engaged in the arts, with over 80% believing that art creates a positive experience in the world, and almost 70% say that art “lifts me beyond everyday experience.” Even more interesting is that three-quarters of Americans attend at least one art event every year and a whopping 94% believe that art is important for a well-rounded education. 

Armed with the knowledge that art is becoming increasingly important to people’s lives and well-being, how can artists tap into that and be more successful in selling their work? What are some of the main factors affecting why your artwork isn’t selling, and how can you adjust your work to respond to the market? Here, we review some of the most crucial tactics for selling your artwork to a new collecting audience.

1. YOU AREN’T CREATING WORK THAT RESPONDS TO THE MARKET

Throughout art school, you were probably told to focus on creating and not selling art. While it’s true that artists should focus primarily on what they want their work to say, it’s also important to consider how that work will be received by the art market.

“Some artists create art in order to sustain themselves; they know they have to sell it, and to sell it, they have to make it aesthetically pleasing,” says Rubensteen. “And then there are others who abandon that idea, and their work is strong enough, so people connect with it and want to buy it.”

Naturally, artists who are making very strong work that’s well received by the marketplace aren’t so commonplace. Rubensteen stresses that artists selling art as a means of sustaining themselves should be thinking about what a collector might want.

“Saleability goes back to being a business person yourself,” says Rubensteen. “There are some collectors who want something decorative, and then there are others who aren’t looking for the aesthetically pleasing piece, they’re looking for something that has punch. It depends on what your intention is with your art over whether you will create art that fits the collector. If you’re trying to sell art, you should take that responsibility seriously.”

If you’re looking for ideas on how you might be able to make work that responds to your audience, consider spending more time visiting galleries, talking to fellow artists, and observing the work that’s currently making waves in the market. Find an artist that is making a good living selling art whose work is similar to yours – material, scale, and themes, and figure out what makes them saleworthy.

2. YOU HAVEN’T FOUND OR AREN’T ENGAGING YOUR AUDIENCE

Selling art is inextricably tied to how you’re able to engage audiences with your work. If you aren’t taking the time to meet art lovers and discuss your work and the impact you believe it’s making, you’re likely wasting valuable time.

“The question you need to ask yourself is, ‘How can you make this person believe that they can’t leave without it?’” says Rubensteen. “I think that applies to anything you sell. The difference with art is that it’s a very emotional sale. It’s usually an emotional connection, a memory or a story or a cause, or even just a spiritual feeling.”

Finding your audience is often the hardest step in selling your work, but it doesn’t have to be overly complex. Consider how your work might be utilized to start an important conversation within your community. Is it possible to partner with local stakeholders and create an exhibition? Is your work particularly fitting for another creative production, such as a concert or a flea market? Are there local businesses looking to partner with artists in an effort to engage their local community? Make a list of possible opportunities and find organic ways to connect with like-minded people.

To sell your artwork, consider how it responds to the market. Once you’ve found your audience, stay connected! Be proactive about collecting contact information like social media handles and emails. Take time to send out a monthly newsletter highlighting some of your new work, where you’re exhibiting, and what’s inspiring you lately. Keep your fans updated on social media, and engage with other artists and collectors frequently. Don’t forget about online forums like Reddit or Quora.

3. YOU AREN’T LEARNING FROM YOUR PEERS

While artists do tend to work in silos, it’s important to stay engaged and connected with other artists, particularly those who work in the same medium or engage in similar themes as your work. Why? Because seeing what other artists make – studying their technique, understanding what they’re trying to say and how they’re saying it – will only allow you to build onto your own practice. You’ll be able to assess what your work might be missing, particularly if these artists have been successful in selling their work.

“Artists should be collaborators and find the resources they need to sell. Being proactive is just as important as selling your work,” Rubensteen says.

4. YOU AREN’T MARKETING ART ONLINE

The art world is certainly changing with the emergence of technology, and independent artists can benefit immensely from using that to their advantage. It’s now easier than ever to post your work online – whether that’s because you want to share it or sell it. Apps like Instagram make it easy to bring your work to a mass audience, while platforms like Artrepreneur, allow artists to sell original art and giclée prints online directly to consumers.

selling art
Online marketplaces, such as our own Artrepreneur, allow you to sell originals and giclée prints easily and with no commissions.

However, your work still has to be found. What are some of the best ways to make sure collectors can easily discover your work online? Setting up an account with an online art sales platform is a good first step. Be sure to check out all the available options in the marketplace before you decide to work with one platform: Each has a variety of special features, with some more comprehensive than others.

Once you’ve chosen a platform and uploaded your work, let your network know where they can find you. Staying active on social media – not just posting your work but commenting on and following the work of others, is a great way to generate buzz around your artwork.

5. YOU HAVEN’T FOUND YOUR NICHE

Maybe you’re still figuring out whether your medium is strictly painting or involves more mixed media. Perhaps you’re trying out several different themes because you haven’t quite decided what your work is meant to say. It’s understandable that, as an artist, you spend a lot of time honing and refining your work. But as you’re doing that, you should be considering how you might be able to sell that work, anyway.

One useful approach is to spend time separating your work into portfolios to present one singular body of work. For example, if you take a look at your studio and notice that 5-6 pieces might be presented as one cohesive unit for an exhibition, then take some time to photograph that work and create a portfolio. Make sure to distribute this portfolio as part of your overall online marketing efforts.

selling art
Taking good photos of your art is important to show your work in the best light. Click the image above to watch the webinar.

 

6. YOU AREN’T TELLING THE STORY BEHIND YOUR WORK

This is easily one of the most important factors explaining why your artwork isn’t selling. Collectors are far more inclined to purchase work from an artist they feel they have a connection to – whether that’s because you’ve shared emotional details about your work, have a friendly and outgoing personality or are adept at articulating the meaning behind your work.

“It’s a pleasure to work with artists who can articulate why their work is sellable. Being transparent is better than merely hoping it will sell,” says Rubensteen. She notes that selling yourself as an artist is something you must know how to do, no matter whether you’re selling your work to a collector or looking to land gallery representation.

“I think there are two parts to the process,” she says. “One is articulating their work to me as a gallery. We always ask for an artist’s statement, whether it’s bio details or things that influenced the work. We always ask for a CV with a list of exhibitions they’ve been in, performances, or artist talks. Artists who can articulate their own history for the gallery and do it clearly make the job a breeze.” 

“The second part is really being able to speak to their work,” Rubensteen adds. “Sometimes it’s a confidence issue. It’s easy to say to a gallerist, ‘You’ll explain it much better than I will,’ but having the ability to say ‘This is what my work is about can be really hard for artists.”

Rubensteen recommends that artists employ certain techniques to add rich storytelling value to their work and provide context that will enable buyers to make a decision. “Think through the articulation process of being in a group show and understanding how your work is in dialogue,” she says. Consider adding an anecdote or description about why your work is important to you. It’s about knowing your own work and talking about it to others.”

7. YOUR PRICING IS OFF

It’s natural for artists to feel like their work is valuable and should be sold at a price point that considers their expertise and influence. However, the ultimate goal for a young artist who has yet to sell their work should be making that first sale. Pricing your artwork should reflect the fact that you’re an emerging artist. See “Pricing your Artwork to Sell” for more.

“At first, it’s very important to sell your work even if the cost is low,” says Rubensteen. “I realize it’s hard to price things that don’t fit into a market that might have specific starting points, but as you build who you are then you can have the opportunity to sell at higher price points. It’s like selling something valuable to you – at first, you have to persuade someone. In order to explain that value, you have to have some statistics. And even if it’s a low price point, at least you did some business. At least you can say yes, I have a collector.”

8. YOU AREN’T NEGOTIATING

Just because you’ve arrived at a price for your artwork doesn’t mean you should hold firm to that number. Just like any other vendor, negotiation is something that’s to be expected for artists attempting to sell their artworks. At the outset of a potential sale, you should consider how low you’re willing to go, says Rubensteen.

“We have a specific discount rate before the art goes on the wall,” she says. So if a person wants a discount, this is the maximum we can offer.” Rubensteen notes, however, that every potential sale should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. In certain scenarios, if the collector and artists were eager to make the sale, we may consider a larger discount. That depends on the artist. 

It’s important for artists to remain involved in the process but to leave the financial details to the professionals. “In a financial talk, I would keep the artists out of the process because it’s not their expertise,” says Rubensteen.” I think it’s best to leave the business talk separate from creating a connection between artists and buyers. In the end, they’ll both know what was paid, but I think it’s a different tone when the artist is present.”

Likewise, some artists don’t have gallery representation and should consider ways they might make their artwork more affordable or desirable to potential buyers. Rubensteen urges gallery owners and artists to explore new methods for selling their work, such as a payment plan or agreed-upon payment rates. See our article, “Should I Negotiate the Price of my Artwork,” for more information on negotiating strategies. 

MAKE IT YOUR GOAL TO SELL YOUR ARTWORK

No matter the stage in your artistic career, if selling art is your goal, then any action that you take as part of your art career should relate to that goal. If you don’t, then you won’t be maximizing the potential for sustaining yourself almost entirely through your artwork.

“I think there’s no shame in making money from your art,” says Rubensteen. “There’s no shame in saying I actually sell my work. There are a lot of weird stigmas with artists who say my work is too pure to sell and that narrative is not practical. There’s nothing wrong with being a business person and trying to sell your work.”

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See also
Should I Negotiate the Price of My Artwork?

Do you have any other tips or advice for selling art?  Let us know in the comments

About the author

Nicole Martinez

Nicole is a veteran arts and culture journalist. Her work has appeared in Reuters, VICE, Hyperallergic, Univision, and more.

7 Comments

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  • Inspiring article, it’s reassuring to learn that it’s okay to sell at a lower price to get established.

    • It’s a dicey proposition though. If your pricing is too low, potential buyers will wonder what’s “wrong” with your work or think you’re desperate. You have to find the sweet spot between pricing that’s inappropriately low for the type, size, perceived desirability, relationship to similar works, and your career status (emerging, midcareer, etc.). If you have an opportunity to show at a commercial gallery, the director can help you set pricing–then you should stick to those prices and resist selling out of your studio at wholesale.

  • Your last tip is the most salient for me. I don’t understand how or when this idea that selling one’s work is shameful. I’ve met artists who live off grants who think that’s fine but selling to individual or corporate clients isn’t. Being an artist is a legitimate profession for those who wish to be professionals; everybody’s gotta eat.

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