Over the past decade, I've worked with half a dozen commercial galleries, and although I enjoyed the prestige of being able to say that I am represented by a gallery, the truth is that I've been able to sell my artwork better on my own. Many of my artist friends prefer to just paint and let someone else sell their work, but I'm a highly social person, and I enjoy meeting and talking to clients.
|The Green Flash by CW Mundy, oil on linen, 16 × 24, 2012.|
I'll discuss how to get into galleries in future blogs, but for now I'll focus on some of the ways artists can get started selling their oil paintings on their own. It's been my experience, anyway, that gallerists want to see strong sales before they take on an artist, which essentially means we need to build our own client base before approaching galleries.
The good news is that the way art gets to a collector's wall is changing; selling power seems to be shifting from the galleries and dealers to the artists. The use of the internet and artist websites has offered a more convenient and sometimes less expensive way for collectors to buy art. On the other hand, I don't think commercial galleries are going to disappear altogether; those that have managed their finances, worked honestly with their artists, and developed a long list of loyal collectors will continue to do well.
One of the best ways to build a collector base and get started selling is at outdoor shows. It will require some investment up front in order to buy a tent and hanging racks, but once you do that your "storefront" is set up, and you can do as many or as few shows as you like. One of my former students got started a few years ago at a local "Art in the Park" weekend show. During his first exhibition there, he sold $4,000 worth of art. Shortly after, a local gallery began representing him, and his career went on from there.
I personally know a couple of other artists who make a full-time living by doing outdoor shows. One in particular often comes home with $10,000 in her pocket after a two-day exhibition. She does work with several galleries and local fund-raisers as well. This artist has maintained a six-figure income for many years.
Although I haven't personally sold any pieces on eBay or "Painting-a-Day" online venues, I have sold art directly from my website. However, all these sales have either been from former collectors or from folks who've seen my artwork at an exhibition or show. Unless you're already a highly collected artist, it's difficult to initiate sales from your website alone.
It's important to note here that when artists sell both through a gallery and on their own, their retail prices need to be the same across the board. If an artist sells to clients from their website at a lower price than what the gallery is selling his or her artwork for, the artist undercuts the gallery and will most likely lose representation there. Your price for a 9”-x-12” oil painting, for example, should be the same no matter how it’s being sold.
Since I haven't been working with galleries for some time now, I don't have to worry about conflicts of interest involving pricing or selling from my studio or website. What I like about selling on my own is being able to offer former collectors incentives such as price cuts, free shipping, or layaway plans. They can choose to buy the piece unframed, or I can offer them stock frames or custom, hand-gilded frames.
Another way to get your artwork out there is to do local shows that are fund-raisers. The topic of doing fund-raisers is worthy of a blog in itself, but for now, I'll say that if it's an exhibition with an opening where the artists are in attendance, it's a great way to meet people who may be interested in your work. Of course, you'll have business cards with you that will point to your website, blog, or e-mail newsletter.
It takes time to build a collector list, but it doesn't necessarily take a lot of money. It will behoove you to carry a guest book with you at these venues so that you can collect contact information of those who are interested in your artwork. Never force anyone to sign your guest book. Carrying it at gallery shows may not work well, because gallerists are often reluctant to share their list of collectors with artists, but when you're selling your own artwork, it's an excellent way to build a following. (Keep in mind, though, that it's in poor taste to collect names or promote yourself at another artist's opening night.)
One you've begun to build a client list, ask them to sign up for your e-mail newsletter or blog. In this way, you get them to give you permission to show them your new work. Permission marketing is the way many things are sold these days—people are paying less attention to interruptive marketing, such as TV commercials, spam, and phone solicitations. When you get permission from people who are already interested in your art to "bug" them with newsletters and images of your latest paintings, they actually enjoy hearing from you. When this list of interested collectors grows, you really won't need a middle-man to help you sell.
Again, I'm not saying that galleries aren't useful to artists. I've recently seen two young artists triple their income by having an important gallery take them on. But galleries aren't the only way to sell artwork, and for many of us, we are perfectly able to make a full-time living by selling online, at outdoor and community shows, and even by setting up our own exhibitions. There's plenty of evidence out there that these venues are working, and in many cases direct sales can be more lucrative for artists than gallery sales.