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A guide to selling less artwork


This past Saturday was beautiful day (h/t climate change) and a wonderful one culturally on Cherokee Street for the annual print bazaar took place. Artists from our region exhibited and sold their work in a large number of the shops. I met several friends on one end of the street and we worked our way to the other.

I saw many great works on display and the people of St. Louis turned out in droves to support the art community. But there were also a number of moments where I felt sales opportunities were missed for the artists. It took me back to a thought I have mulled for some time about the importance of sales and marketing training and support and how rarely is seems to be a part of formal arts programs. The time, effort and resources artists devote to develop their practice is inspiring and yet the sale of of their work often seems an afterthought. Rather than hoping to make a sale, I would love to see artists confident in that process.

Freshly frustrated by Saturday’s event, I reached out to my friend Jim Arsenault, who is one of the most engaged art patrons I know and an enthusiastic collector. Here is a look at his office wall. This was not the first time Jim and I had discussed this and he offered to add something to this piece, making it my first-ever guest blog

[Cue Jim]

Buying and collecting art is and made more difficult by the fact we all start from a deficit, which is believing art is some sort of code that can be cracked and therefore understood. According to the critic Jerry Saltz ,“The reasoning is if you don’t understand it, maybe the art is trying to put one over on you, take your money, that it’s laughing at you, means nothing, or is somehow fake and bad… we don’t ‘understand’ Mozart, the Mona Lisa, or Rothko’s floating, fuzzy, Buddhist TV-shapes.” With no definitive guide, we are left to our own devices; what one person looks for and values often varies greatly from someone else, and therefore buying art begins to feel like dating. Despite looks tending to be the first thing we notice when dating, the substance behind the looks is often what seals the deal. Take for example, “Chateau” by Jeremy Kohm, a photo from my collection

On the surface, it’s a beautiful but straightforward photo of an indoor pool at a nice hotel. But what does it mean? The word “Shallow” is prominent and centered. Is the pool all that is shallow? Am I shallow? Am I shallow for not being able to decipher the great meaning that must be hidden in this photograph I cannot seem to find? Is Jeremy Kohm mocking me? Now read Jeremy’s description of the photo

“This Art Deco-styled indoor swimming pool, located in Ottawa's Chateau Laurier, was built in 1929 and was fortunately kept very well preserved. Perhaps it's my attraction to the ocean or that one summer I worked as a pool boy, but in my personal work I have a strong fascination with photographing water. Specifically, I am drawn to the fabricated or natural environments that contain and surround it. This image is an extremely personal piece of work as the pool is located in the same building where personal hero and famed Canadian portrait photographer, Yousuf Karsh, once kept a studio and residence for several years. More importantly, I took this picture a few hours before my wedding reception when I probably should have been getting ready. I think my wife and I were slightly late for the reception because, to get the shot I wanted, I was forced to wait for eternity until the pool had emptied and all the ripples had settled.”

Now that is anything but shallow. Just like a smell that jolts you back to summer camp or a song transporting you back to high school, this photo transports me back to my own wedding day- the pockets of stillness interspersed throughout the day and the contemplation of a life altering event that comes with them.

To all the artists out there working to grow your practice, patrons need help getting there. Your good looks got you on this “date”, show the person on the other side of the table what makes you special and seal the deal.

[Chris steals the keyboard back from Jim]

So Jim and I have laid out some thoughts but what can you do to get started? One thing I have found helpful is what can be called “planning for failure”. Your next exhibition is here and that the end of the evening you haven’t sold anything. While there could be a number of factors at play here, when thinking about what is in your control, here are some things you might consider.

  • Do not assume the customer will take the time or has the knowledge to understand your work: there is a good chance the person hovering near you does not have a strong arts vocabulary or background. Do not count on them to figure out your style, help them.

  • Avoid the statement, “let me know if you have any questions”: Continuing from the above comment, this statement unintendedly places the burden on the customer. Whenever I hear this statement I am transported back to my college accounting class (spoiler alert: I got a C-) where my professor said during lectures, “does anyone have any questions?” My thought would always be, “I’m so lost I don’t even know what the question is.” Instead try out statements like

  • “May I share a couple things with you about my practice?"

  • The idea / theme / theory I’m exploring is…

  • I drew inspiration from…

  • “Something people tell me they enjoy learning about my work is…"

  • You are not just selling them a piece of work: Like Jim said, sell them the story, experience and benefits of owning your work.

  • For example, if you’re selling greeting cards the thing they need to consider is, do they want to send out the same Hallmark holiday cards as everyone else or something more thoughtful and unique? Which do they think people will find more memorable and exciting to receive?

  • If you’re selling decor or a piece to hang on a wall, sell them the opportunity to know your story and hang that on their wall rather than just the work. Also, it’s the chance to distinguish their home. Do they want their walls to have the same Crate & Barrel, West Elm and Target aesthetic or would they prefer their home be distinctive to them?

  • Avoid industry lingo: Every industry has jargon. Make what you are saying approachable. This is not to say you should talk down to them but rather make sure they can follow you. Fun fact: the marketing firm Boomerang found people were mostly likely respond to an email when it was written at a third-grade reading level.

At the end of the day what you’re selling them is a meaningful story. Anthony Bourdain once said, "context and memory play powerful roles in all the truly great meals in one's life. I mean, lets face it: when you're eating simple barbecue under a palm tree, and you feel sand between your toes, samba music is playing softly in the background..., that grilled chicken leg suddenly tastes a hell of a lot better.” The same is true for your work. Where the patron found you, what they learned that is interesting they can share with others, the fact they bought something local rather than mass produced. These are all things you have the power to give them when they are buying your work.

Finally, thank you for your contribution to our city. We are lucky to have you.

Go Forth Boldly


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