Venues, Exposure, How to Sell Your Art – Part 1

I have mixed feelings about “exposure.” By exposure, I mean how you, fellow artists, get your work out into the world so people can enjoy it and possibly even remunerate you for it.

Ways and means are:

1. Art Galleries
2. Public Venues
3. Charity Auctions
4. Festivals and Events
5. Online Websites and Communities

I’m going to talk about the first three here and what has or hasn’t worked for me.

1. Art Galleries

This is the big one. Everyone wants to have *Gallery Representation* < /Awed Voice > because isn’t that how art is sold? Traditionally, yes; the channel, for centuries, has been artists–>galleries–>collectors.

So how do you get a gallery to represent you? New artists often face the same paradox as new graduates do when trying to get a job where no one will hire you if you don’t have experience but you can’t get experience unless you have a job. So galleries won’t pay attention to you unless you’ve already been represented by galleries.

We all start somewhere. I stand by the advice from my more established artist friends: “If you want a gallery to represent you, bring them money.” That is, bring them some work for which you already have a buyer. Then the gallery will be happy to take 50% of that sale.

50% is a pretty standard commission. It’s worth it IF your gallery wants to put effort into marketing you and your work, IF they take the time to talk you up to their clients, and IF they take care of taxes and shipping and payment processing. Maybe they’ll even put on an open-bar opening with at least a couple of different kinds of wine. The good galleries will do that, but they’ll almost never do that for an artist who isn’t “established” because… well, the world runs on cash bars.

Thing is, if you can sell your work because people have heard of you, that means you’re established so why would you need a gallery? I guess there are some artists who are so busy and well-known that they need administrative and marketing support so they can focus on painting. I’m not one of those artists.

Every gallery I know is struggling. I suspect the gallery system is subject the same kind of disintermediation that affects all kinds of retail-wholesaler relationships around the world. I have a website and I publish my prices and would never let anyone mark my work up 50% because that’s unfair to the customers and it’s unfair to the gallery, but it also means I make 50% less on work sold through a gallery so I’m less inclined to put my work in that channel if I can put it elsewhere.

But my personal experience with galleries is limited. I’ve dealt mostly with start-up galleries who were more willing to work with new, untried artists. I didn’t have the courage to approach the Big Deal Established galleries, mostly because I’m still working on getting established, myself. But by then I hope I won’t need them. I look forward to THAT paradox!

2. Public Venues

Public venues include restaurants, banks, coffee shops and hair salons. These are public places with walls where you can put your art so it’ll be seen by the customers who frequent the place.

You can approach any public place or find opportunities in the Craigslist artists’ community section. The usual deal is that you bring in your work, you hang it and label it, and most of the time, they’ll be happy to help you sell it. Restaurants and bars might like you to throw a party for your friends on your own dime and call it an opening but they usually won’t take a commission on sales. You might reimburse them for the credit card processing fees (minimal – less than $20 a transaction) if someone wants to use a credit card to buy your work but otherwise, your investment is physical effort, not finance.

I’ve had a lot of really good experiences with non-gallery public venues. One financial institution (a credit union) was, by far, my favorite. They sold everything I gave them, they didn’t take any commission, and they were simply great at handling money and making sure I got the proceeds in double-signed envelopes with receipts. They did a better job than any gallery! It was a public service program that a friend of mine started when she worked there, and has continued on with great success.

Things that worked in my favor were: the paintings I had were small and affordable (priced from $100-$400), my exhibit was a couple months long over Christmas, and the whole community there was very arts-positive. My paintings all depicted familiar landmarks in the community so that helped as well. As an organization, they were awesome and I’d do anything for them.

I’ve had some lesser experiences, too. I hung some work in a low-traffic clothing boutique. They didn’t put out any publicity, and they had me sign an contract saying they’d take 50% on every sale. So it was a gallery deal. Meanwhile, I did all the marketing, transportation, set-up and take-down. Just as well I didn’t sell anything.

I usually sell at least one piece at any of these ventures so it seems worthwhile to bring a dozen paintings and a stack of business cards to see what happens. For the most part, these places will get a lot more traffic in a day than an art gallery will get in a week. The argument against general public venues is that art galleries have people looking to buy *art*, whereas general public venue contact is all accidental. And yet I’ve had some big commissions from customers who told me, “Oh, I saw your work years ago at…”

This is what we call “business development” and the type of venues matter. It’s not a bad channel. It doesn’t always pay off right away, but I think it’s worthwhile. At the very, very least, I consider it community outreach and mutual business support. That’s a good thing.

3. Charity Auctions

I get asked to donate pieces to charity auctions all the time. When the right people ask — like my credit union friends above — I’ll say yes. If it’s a cause I really believe in? Maybe, but there are SO many causes out there!

Here’s where I’ll link to a fairly useful article on The Myth of Exposure. The article recommends that artists should NOT put a lot of effort into ventures that promise “exposure” because exposure is relative. If you’re giving your work away to a cause you’re not sure you believe in because they tell you you’ll be getting “exposure” or a tax deduction, I’d stop there because it seems just as remote a payoff as a lost Nigerian bank account proposal.

Do it for charity but not “exposure”. Do it if you’re helping out a friend. Do it if you have strong belief in or personal experience with the cause, but don’t buy the “It’s Good Exposure!” sales pitch.

All right. I want to talk about other means of exposure, namely my experiences and opinions on Festivals and Events as well as Online Websites and Communities, but I’ll save that for Part 2. Given this very venue and method of communicating, I’m gonna need some more time and space to think about it and tactify my thoughts. But I’ll definitely come back to it!

Here is Part 2!