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Artists’ Commandments: Know Thy Customer

by Jason Horejs on 04/22/2014 · 18 comments

Having spent twenty years in the gallery business, I’ve seen every type of buyer. I’ve worked with celebrities, business people, the retired, the young, the old and everything between. In past posts, I’ve encouraged you to treat every contact as a potential collector – you never know when someone you least expect will turn into a buyer. If you’ve been selling art for any length of time, you’ve certainly established a base of collectors from many walks of life.

After a while, however, you probably began to notice patterns among your buyers. You may notice that most of your buyers are of a certain age, that many work in a particular field, or come from a certain region. Eventually, you might even start to feel that you can spot a buyer from a distance based on your experience with past buyers.

I would caution you to be careful about this. It’s great to give someone who fits the profile of your buyers care and attention, but if you aren’t careful, you might develop a prejudice against people who don’t fit this profile. This may lead you to miss out on sales to those who are outside that profile because you don’t put your full efforts into engaging them.


With that caution out of the way, I would encourage you to spend some time analyzing your past buyers to see if you can discern common traits among your buyers. Understanding who your buyer is will help you better target your art marketing efforts to reach them. If you know who your buyer is, you will be better able to place your art in galleries or other venues where your buyer can see your work. You will be better able to say the right things about your work in your artist’s statement to appeal to the buyer’s sensibilities. You will be able to price your work in a way that will fit your buyer’s budget.

To the extent that you are able, try to answer the following questions about your buyers:

  • Age?
  • Professional background?
  • Residence location?
  • Gender?
  • Are your buyers putting the work in their home or business?

So how do you get this information? You don’t want to come across as an interrogator as you work with your clients, but by engaging them in good conversation and asking a lot of questions you can start to tease out these details. Questions are incredibly beneficial – they not only give you information about your buyer, they help you engage at a deeper level with the buyer.

Prospecting for Information When You Are Not in Direct Contact With the Buyer

What if you are selling your work through galleries and not having direct interaction with buyers? Train your galleries to get this information for you by asking them about the buyers.

“I know you can’t share the clients’ contact information,” you might say, “but tell me a little bit about them, where are they from? Did they mention their professions? Where is my piece going to be displayed?”

If you want to dive a little deeper and you have the client’s home address, you can also use a site like Zillow.com to discover the approximate value  of the client’s home and how long they’ve been there. Again, you want to exercise your best judgement here. I’m not suggesting that you try to invade your client’s privacy, but understanding the home value (using public documents) can help you in your future marketing efforts if you decide, for example, to do a direct mailing campaign.

In the end, all of this research will help you better serve your customers, and better place your art in front of those who are most likely interested in it.

I received an email from an artist who recently went through this process of analyzing her clientele. I asked her permission to share her findings here so that you may see what she discovered by spending some time getting to know her clients.

MY COLLECTORS: A PROFILE

Prompted by an article I had read, I looked back at my art sale records to find out what sort of person had been buying my paintings. Did they have anything in common?

I found that my patrons were usually married women or married couples, most with solid upper-middle incomes and traditional homes, in upscale rural or suburban areas. The great majority were local, residing within 50 miles of my home, where I maintain a studio/gallery. I was also selling paintings to a husband or wife who was buying the work for their spouse, often as a surprise because the spouse had had an opportunity to see and admire the work previously in person. The majority of my collectors have purchased more than one artwork from me. Most of my collectors were known to me before they bought a painting.

These buyers had a range of exposure to art, and most were in the early stages of being bitten by the “collector bug,” rather than being seasoned collectors. In a number of cases, I had sold work to people who had never purchased an original artwork before, and their excitement at doing so was extremely rewarding. Nearly all of those first-time buyers returned to purchase additional pieces from me.

These collectors valued what I have to offer, which is reasonably priced paintings, in a range of sizes that are still small enough to fit into the wall spaces offered by most traditional homes, executed in a loose but still representational style that emphasizes surface texture and the individual stroke. My collectors have always commented on and liked my framing, which they say fits seamlessly into their homes and is most often a simple and unadorned gold frame setting off the piece.

Some of my collectors have loved my watercolors and others my oils, and although they tend to go with their preference in repeat purchases, there are instances of crossover. The subject matter they choose is of interest: my plein air landscape work painted while traveling and during plein air competition events is quite often purchased by a local buyer from that location because the scenes will be familiar. A well-executed landscape of a remembered, beloved location will also trigger a purchase from a buyer, as well as a painting of a particular subject such as skipjacks or horse racing for those who follow what I do in those areas. Those who purchase watercolors may be attracted to still lifes or florals, which I often paint in watercolor and much more rarely in oil. Those who like watercolors usually have a strong preference for the medium, and so will also seek out landscape subjects.

Rather than seeing the wide range of collectors I had expected to find, I saw a pattern of patrons who were most often female, married, in their 50’s and 60’s, well established financially, and who leaned to the traditional in their tastes. Although I knew many women buyers to be married, the female purchasers often felt confident in their choices without a consult with their spouse, whereas this was much less often true when men made the purchases—these purchases were more often made as a couple, or as a gift preselected by the wife.

Prepared by Claudia Brookes: claudiabrookes.com

What Do you Think?

Have you analyzed your customers? If so, what did you learn? Share your thoughts and reaction to this article in the comments below.

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About 

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of reddotblog.com, and founder of ARTsala. Jason has helped thousands of artists prepare themselves to more effectively market their work, build relationships with galleries and collectors, and turn their artistic passion into a viable business.

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Ruth Collis April 22, 2014 at 2:06 pm

Wow, that additional artist’s email was really helpful. Good idea about Zillow too.

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Michael Palmer April 22, 2014 at 2:38 pm

My buyers run the gamut of life styles, occupations and art interest. I’ve studied the shoes, clothing, hair styles and jewerly, but my best collector threw me for a loop when I first met her. She looked homeless. Hair was a mess, no jewerly, cloths didn’t match and so on. So, you are right about judging someone by their apperance. Today, matter of fact, I just finished a painting for her. Back when she came into the gallery where I work to commission the piece, she was wearing her house slippers… Retired school teacher of 40 yrs, and owns a very large farm north of town.

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Carol Es April 22, 2014 at 4:44 pm

I have found that none of them have anything in common.

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Joyce Wynes April 22, 2014 at 6:38 pm

Great article. I think finding your target audience is the toughest part about being an artist, especially in today’s world where your market is the world. Also, good tips about mining information from the gallery sales of your work. I always thought that was a little touchy as the artist because you don’t want the gallery owner to think that you are trying to work their buyers yourself but they have valuable information that would be beneficial for both to share.

The collector’s profile was very interesting and detailed and will be a big help in knowing what questions to ask and what information to collect on our own when we make a sale. Just curious, Jason, are your buyers mostly men, women or couples? Are they mostly from the area or traveling through? Middle to upper class? These are some of the questions I am trying to formulate to ask prospective galleries when I talk to them about representation to get a better idea of their clientele.

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Ron Grauer April 22, 2014 at 7:24 pm

Great ideas but my galleries don’t let me with 100 feet of my collectors so I rarely get to even see them let alone meet them. Is your gallery different?

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Jason Horejs April 23, 2014 at 8:48 am

I guess we are different – I’m going to create more sales if I can foster a direct relationship between the artist and the collector. We constantly have artists in the gallery for our ArtWalk, shows, etc.

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Hazel Stone April 22, 2014 at 9:49 pm

Hello Jason,
I finished and published my NEW website that I designed. http://www.hazel-stone-artist-in-watermedia.com I’m just sharing it now. I still have the other website, but will be updating and correcting it. I plan to get to the ARTsala project also. I have several drawings in progress so will start painting soon. Life has been getting in the way lately as it does at times.
All the best, Hazel Stone

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Terrye J Philley April 23, 2014 at 6:02 am

I appreciate this suggestion as I would have never consciously thought of it myself…though now it seems so obvious to do. I have been a teacher by trade and spent very little time in sales, so salesmanship does not come automatically. Thank you for all your suggestions.

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Kay Stratman April 23, 2014 at 7:05 am

Besides being an artist selling work independently and through galleries I am also the gallery director at an upscale contemporary art gallery in a resort town. My experience in the gallery gives me valuable insight into the “other side” of the art business. Recently a young man with a tiny baby in a front pack came in and strolled through the gallery, commenting on the “bunny prints”. They were oil paintings, not prints, by a rather well known contemporary artist, whose work is quite expensive even at 8″ x 10″. I took the opportunity to inform him about the artist, showed him the books and catalogs about him, directed him toward a video interview of him on our website, and asked more about his visit. (Tourist, likes to purchase work on vacations. Which is right up our alley.) Never would I have guessed that this young father with a brand new (9 weeks old) baby decide to purchase a $4000 8″x 10″ painting. But he did! He had asked for a bit of a price break and I decided that I wanted to take advantage of his enthusiasm and not loose the sale so we agreed on a price he was happy with and we could live with ($4000 was the reduced price!). I took the time to engage an unlikely prospect and found out that my initial assumption was wrong. Good thing I followed through with my training because it was a good sale for us and he was thrilled, me too.

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rayna gillman April 25, 2014 at 9:48 am

Great story, Kay. Makes me think of my father, who was shopping for a car (but the same principle applies). Unshaven, in his Saturday plaid shirt and khakis, he went shopping for a Cadillac – with cash in his pocket. At dealer #1, salesman took one look and ignored him. He left.
Dealer #2, salesman approached, my father asked to look at the Cadillac and salesman immediately said, “oh, no, sir, I think this is more in your line,” as he pointed to a low-priced Chevrolet. Dealer #3 treated him like a real customer and he bought the Caddy he wanted – for cash, on the spot.

You deserved that sale!

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Daniel A.I. Swanger April 23, 2014 at 11:12 am

“My Collectors–A Profile” describes exactly the same sort of patronage I receive.

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Jacquie McMullen April 23, 2014 at 11:25 am

I too find that most of my customers are female, upper middle class, and generally like landscapes in a more traditional style. They are usually retired or semi retired and have interest in collecting . As a pastel artist it is gratifying when a client will cross over and buy a pastel instead of an oil painting .

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Amelia Renkel April 23, 2014 at 8:18 pm

Website coming later. I don’t paint much – usually abstracts. I have sold several signed / numbered prints of these and some of my photographs. One of my most cherished memories is of a little girl (about age 6?) who left the gallery with her mother and then they returned a few minutes later. The young lady pointed to my circus ‘Paratrooper at night’ and said she wanted to buy it. Her mother let her handle the transaction (it was not expensive). It tickles me to think she enjoyed it enough to want it on her wall. I hope she expands her range of art knowlege / appreciation and explores her own artistic talents.
Comments from my repeat customers about my jewelry encourages me to try new techniques and media.
Comments from a particularly talented artistic friend (Marjie) helps me cope when I get into a slump about painting; she really enjoys my abstracts. She creates absolutely beautiful florals and landscapes so I value her opinions.
I try to engage each customer who comes into the gallery. It does not matter whether they are interested in my items or some of the other artists. I have received many excellent comments / suggestions from a variety of customers over the years.

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Pamela Neswald April 24, 2014 at 1:07 pm

As usual, these are excellent reminders. Thank you very much. I find my clients very closely match your artist’s sample with the exception that I get a good bit of vacationers as I’m on Maui. I see Jaquie has also had a similar experience and wonder if there has been (or will be!) a survey taken of the artists. A pattern seems to be emerging, no?

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Claudia Stewart April 28, 2014 at 7:07 am

When I lived in Prince Rupert for 20 years, I had a following of women purchasers, friends, friends-of-friends, who bought much of my work (before the Internet). Also one gentleman who was a major supporter of the Arts and quite a collector, has several of my pieces. Another very lucrative aspect was tourist season. A show at tourist season was sure to generate sales, some from the States, from Germany, etc. I would say most of my sales are women, most of them married or attached.

I am finding it harder to sell work in a larger centre. I’m actually planning on moving back!

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Joy Scott May 10, 2014 at 5:43 pm

My jewelry sells to well educated professional women, between the ages 40-60. My larger pieces are predominately acquired by men, living on either the East or West Coast, Chicago and Texas. The older men like the Mid Century Modern pieces, I believe it reminds them of their childhood. Men between 30-50 go for pieces that are red and show angst.

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Sharron Vincent Porter May 22, 2014 at 7:25 pm

Just starting to sell after many years of teaching and infrequent group shows. In the past it has been people I know or who are in the artist community in which I exhibit. Now, it seems I am selling, again, to people who I already know or who know me through contacts in my community. It pays for me to be seen and liked and publicized around town!

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diane eger May 23, 2014 at 9:01 am

My collector pretty much describes our customer, 40′s,50′s 0r 60′s professional, well educated and
with a middle class or upper middle class income. Unfortunately this is the group that has been hard hit by the economy and uncertainty as to the future.They are mainly women or their husbands who buy gifts.
Our customer values hand made items and is happy to meet the craft artist. They value the labor and
skill that goes into our jewelery and generally are not looking for a “deal”. BUT these customers are
now very scarce due I think to the aforementioned economic reasons.

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