During economic downturns, artists must be equally creative with the business side of art.
by Daniel Grant
When Covid-19 became widespread, forcing most of us into quarantine, painter Erin Ashley knew that sales of her work might be few and far between. Like many artists, buyers couldn’t come to her studio or to the art galleries that sell her paintings. But you can’t let a pandemic ultimately ruin your career. “You have to think outside of the box,” says Ashley, and get creative.
Limited Time Offers
One of Ashley’s creative ideas was to send an email blast to her extensive mailing list offering a half-off sale on all of her smaller works. She titled the sale, “The Art of Social Distancing”. The sale only included paintings sized from 6” x 6” to 12” x 12” that are normally priced $150 – $400. By mid-April, she had sold nearly a dozen paintings as part of this effort.
Part of her overall pricing strategy, Ashley shares that another benefit of having periodic sales is that it creates a reason for people to buy art. “It’s also a great way to remind people about my work.”
“I feel blessed to be able to sell any art, especially in these trying times,” says Ashley. For her larger works not included in the sale (sizes 24” x 24” and up, and priced between $700 and $6,500), Ashley includes a “Make an Offer” option for these paintings. Buyers may either purchase a piece at the list price on her website or submit an offer that fits their budget. Ashley adds, “All offers will be considered but not guaranteed.”
Ashley notes that she has reduced prices on her work in the past during times of economic uncertainty. And buyers returned to the regular prices after the worst was over. “Even though I cut my prices (periodically), I still have to come up with amazing pieces that speak to the buyer,” says Ashley. “You can have all the sales you want, but it really comes down to the work in the end that gets the sale.”
Support for Artists
Some artists might be a bit worried about the repercussions of lowering their prices. Will prospective buyers have less money, or spend more conservatively, in the wake of an economic crisis? As the economy rebounds, will buyers continue to assume that the prices artists set on their works are higher than what they will actually take? And then there’s the question of whether or not lowering prices (or offering larger discounts) hurts the artists more than it helps the buyers. Especially since many art collectors may have more job security and financial stability than average. Lower prices for the people who least need it can seem counter-intuitive.
However, this hasn’t been the experience of Melissa Lyons (above), a painter in Beaufort, South Carolina. She has found that buyers are responding positively towards artists that need support during the pandemic crisis. “My business is doing better than ever,” says Lyons, noting that she let buyers know through social media that her paintings were discounted 20 percent. “One return client bought five of my paintings, just because she wanted me to feel supported.”
Lyons admits that selling her artwork directly, rather than through a gallery, affords her more flexibility in pricing. Furthermore, offering special sales is not a new activity for her. “I have birthday sales, anniversary sales and holiday sales,” she says. And they all have resulted in more purchases and interest from regular and new buyers.
Perhaps, it takes a crisis to get artists thinking about new ways of finding a home for their art. Most artists, especially those who have had long careers or are just prolific, have a lot of artwork inventory. From works stored in cabinets or storage buildings, to ones filling closets, leaning against walls, or underfoot and in the way.
The solutions to this are not limitless. You can sell art, lend it, throw it away, give it away or put it in storage. And while artists would love to sell all the works they exhibit, most pieces on exhibition eventually come back. And few artists can boast of selling everything they create. The reality is that artists will end up with more art every year, creating a what-to-do-with-it problem of varying magnitude.
Storage, at least initially, is every artist’s first recourse. The studio is an obvious place to keep art. But over time it can fill up, reducing the amount of available space for creating new art. Barbara Nechis, a painter in Calistoga, California, stores framed paintings under the beds of her home. But she distributes others to family and friends as gifts and loans. Plus donating work is also an option. “I have also given work to hospitals, schools and libraries,” says Nechis.
All Art is Not Created Equal
When evaluating the volume of work on hand, some artists opt for a more final solution–destroying paintings they consider poor. “There’s enough bad art in the world,” says Indiana painter Charles Mundy. “I want to spare the public bad art, especially if it’s mine.” Mundy has knifed unwanted paintings, cutting them up and putting them in the trash. In 2001, he destroyed 180 paintings at one time. Still, the production continues. Another prolific artist, Frank Webb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has taken a similarly ruthless approach to work that doesn’t measure up. “I store surviving paintings in boxes labeled A, B, C and D,” says Webb. “If inventory becomes unmanageable, I destroy the paintings in the D box, then some of the grade C are downgraded to the D box.”
Discarding art can be quite freeing. It can unburden an artist of the weight of every piece of paper or canvas he or she has touched over time. But it is not something to be done lightly. One might think that an artist is the best judge of what is good and bad of his or her work. But the heady art market often rates demand for product and name recognition equal to quality. And perhaps, in some instances, the artist is not the best judge.
Visiting Sol Lewitt’s studio in 1970, artist Dorothea Rockburne spotted a piece of paper that Lewitt had used to test a new pen in the waste basket. “Oh, that’s lovely,” she said, retrieving the crumpled paper. It’s now titled, “Scribble Drawing”, and has been included in every retrospective of the artist’s work since.
When the second life of thrown-away artwork is the art market, pieces that an artist discarded and presumably disavowed may still generate high prices. But also (possibly) damage his or her artistic reputation. At least once, the matter has found its way into a court of law. Frank Stella once placed some damaged artwork outside for trash pick-up only to find the work placed on exhibition at a Manhattan art gallery months later. He sued for the return of his work. He won but had to purchase the work back. Stella’s second try at getting rid of the piece was more successful.
Art Finds a Way
Maybe the most inspired way artists find a home for art that hasn’t sold is to swap work with another artist they admire. Because ultimately the destiny of art is to find someone that appreciates it most.