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Surviving An Art Sales Slump

by Jason Horejs on March 14, 2014 · 25 comments

Last night, at Art Walk, we had two major sales. Art Walk doesn’t always generate sales, so it is exciting to see sales at the weekly event. These sales were even more important, however, because they marked the end of a sales slump. Even though we are in the middle of our high season, we had almost ten days without a sale.

If you’ve been in the art business for any length of time, you’ve probably experienced a slump yourself. I’m not talking about an overall drop in the market (like the one we’ve been through for the last five or six years), nor am I talking about a general lack of exposure and sales opportunities. Those are different issues altogether. What I’m talking about is a sudden decline (or disappearance!) of sales when things had been humming along and sales had been coming at a steady pace.

This is exactly what we were experiencing. The economy has been recovering and the art market steadily improving. Our sales have been steadily climbing month after month over the last several years. I feel very optimistic about the art market in general, and in Scottsdale in particular.

And then . . . BANG, sales die off completely for the last couple of weeks. No matter how we tried, how hard we worked, we could not close a sale.

Two or three days without sales are to be  expected in a gallery setting, but longer periods, especially during a busy season are more unusual. That said, they do happen from time to time.

By the simple law of averages and the random nature of business, you are unlikely to have a 100% consistent stream of customers and sales. Some days are busy, others are not. The law of averages also means that from time to time, the slow days are going to pile up together and give you the dreaded slump.

During the first few years that I had the gallery, sales slumps  nearly killed me. I would wake up in a cold sweat at night. I would lose my appetite. I would pace. I would panic.

“IS ANYTHING EVER GOING TO SELL AGAIN!?” I would want to shout.

If you’ve experienced a slump, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Over the years, I like to think that I have become more rational about sales slumps. Experience has taught me that if we stay on course with our marketing and sales efforts, every slump ends. I’ve also learned some tricks that have helped us navigate slow periods.

Keep Working

It’s amazing how quickly you can become accustomed to a lack of sales. You start to think of it as the norm. Pretty soon you start to feel like you might as well not bother trying because nothing is working anyway. Resist this feeling with all your power. A vicious cycle begins when you start believing that you’re never going to sell anything again. When you believe it, you stop trying as hard, and so you are less likely to make sales, which reinforces your feeling that it’s not worth trying. Keep following up, keep working!

Think Back to Previous Slump Ending Sales

Knowing that sales slump happen, that they are a normal part of the business cycle can help alleviate the panic. I’ve create a mental catalog of sales that happened at the end of previous slumps. I find that thinking back to these sales serves as a great reminder that “this too shall pass.”

Heat up the Cash Register

if we can just get the cash register to ring, even in a small way, the slump feeling disappears

I’m not a mystic, and I’m not superstitious, but I’ve found that sometimes, if we can just get the cash register to ring, even in a small way, the slump feeling disappears, and the cycle is broken. Yesterday is a great example. We were able to run a $500 layaway payment in the morning – it felt like the spell had been broken. Alright, maybe I am a little bit superstitious . . .

Don’t do Something Desperate

While it is important to get the cash register ringing, I would discourage you from taking drastic measures to restart your sales. While you do want to continue doing a good follow-up job with potential customers, you don’t want to become a pest. I also discourage the use of fire sales to try and revive business. A sale may indeed get the cash register ringing, but you run the risk of training your buyers not to buy your work at regular prices, but instead to wait for the next big sale. In a way, you are encouraging the next slump! You can read more of my thoughts about offering discount sales here.

Build a Rainy Day Fund

Once you’ve had some experience, the psychological impact of a slump can be greatly reduced, but if you don’t have a savings reserve, the financial impact on your cash flow can cause very real problems. I know it’s difficult, especially over the last several years as sales have been soft all the way around, but try to set aside a regular percentage of your sales to put in savings.

Artist Slumps can be Even More Discouraging

As a gallery owner I have the advantage of having a high volume of traffic and sales. This means that my business cycles are probably shorter than yours.  As an artist, your typical time between sales may be significantly longer than mine, which also means that a slump for you may drag on for more than just a few weeks, it may last for months. You are going to have to be even more vigilant in your efforts to fight the effects and overcome a sales slump. The same principles still apply though. Keep producing; keep marketing. Instead of giving into the urge to give up, use a slump as an opportunity to build your inventory and to redouble your marketing efforts.

Is it a Slump or a Lack of Marketing?

As I mentioned before, a slump is an unusual drought in an otherwise fertile sales cycle. If you aren’t having consistent sales, or if the slumps start outnumbering the booms, you need to be focused on increasing your marketing efforts and boosting your exposure. If this is the case, it may be time to sign up for more shows or approach more galleries (may I humbly recommend a great book on that topic . . . )

 The Flip Side of Slumps

While the law of averages says that you are going to have slumps, the flip side to this is that you are also going to have booms. Just as there will be times when no one is buying, there are also going to be times when everyone is buying. Set aside reserves during the booms. It’s also important to remember that if the slumps aren’t your fault, the booms probably aren’t either. Don’t let yourself get cocky!

How do you End Sales Slumps?

What have you done to break sales slumps? How do you get through them? What would you tell a fellow-artists who is in a slump? Share your thoughts and experience 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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{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Renee/Casual Gal March 14, 2014 at 4:03 pm

Hi Jason, this was a very timely blog post. I’ve enjoyed your blog for some time now. I have a little studio/shop in a small town in Colorado and things have been verrrrrry slow (we’ve attributed it to the weather.) I don’t have any thing to add, just wanted you to know that I appreciate the fact that you share your knowledge!

By the way, in keeping with your suggestion to not give up…I would love to talk to you about getting my jewelry in your beautiful gallery. My website is under construction right now, but, I have an active facebook page if you’d like to take a look.

Again, thanks for sharing your knowledge and enthusiasm!! Renee Gibson/Casual Gal Silversmith

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Michael Palmer March 14, 2014 at 4:06 pm

Jason, I have noticed a slump in sales, even before Christmas of last year. I’ve been through them before and agree with all your comments. Through any down turn I always keep painting, no matter what. I’ve produced twenty+ paintings since Nov. of 2013 and that’s working at a job too. The other thing I have beefed up is marketing efforts. My Opensky account will be up in a couple days, just created a business profile on Pinterest and will be doing a business site on Houzz. Along with all this, a Solo Exhibition in two weeks and in April, teaching a workshop. My words of advice, during an art sales slump, get busy and organize for the boom.

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Karen March 14, 2014 at 4:45 pm

It’s lways reassuring to hear your perspective Jason.

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Richard Levine March 14, 2014 at 5:10 pm

I think the most important distinction to keep in mind is that we are selling a discretionary product; it’s not like selling groceries, we have a limited population of buyers and that target population buys art on an irregular basis. Boom and bust is the nature of the beast and the only way to level the field is creative and consistent marketing effort. An artist may be able to somewhat mitigate the ups and downs by representation in galleries across different geographic areas.

Thank you for your blogs Jason, they are always informative and deal with real world, everyday issues of concern to us.

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Daniel Kamman March 14, 2014 at 5:17 pm

In the link “discout sales here.” you left out the “n” in “discount”.

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Joyce Wynes March 14, 2014 at 5:51 pm

Boom or bust I am always painting. I think that if I advertise and do the things I am supposed to do that things will work out. I have confidence that my work is as great as I can get it at this point in my career and I am always improving so my talent will take me where I am supposed to go. I can’t ask more then that from myself so, take it or leave it, I am what I am.

Of course, I hope that everyone will recognize where I am and like what I do, but as an artist, I have done everything I can do, so I am not going to blame myself or anyone else at this point. Every quarter, I reevaluate where I am at, reevaluate my advertising, and if that isn’t working, then I try to find other ways to make sure my paintings are shown at their best advantage. That is the most an artist can do. Go where they are best represented and leave the rest behind. If, as an artist, you are represented by a gallery or advertising in a catalog other other periodical, then that is your tell. If you aren’t selling then you need to find another market and move on. Keeping track of your outlets for sales is your best analysis. Go somewhere else if it isn’t working for you and your art.

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Jonelle March 14, 2014 at 6:08 pm

Before becoming a full time artist I was an interior designer, so I had a lot of business background that taught me to expect sales slumps. In that profession, they were usually at predictable times of the year. As with my interior design job, I decided to keep a log of art sales to help predict possible slow times. With art, it has been a little unpredictable, and at times it freaks me out. I’m glad you wrote this article, as it it tempting to just give up sometimes. The good thing about slumps is that it forces you to analyze how to improve your painting, your marketing or both. If things were always great, you may keep going in the same direction and possibly plateau or worse.

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Mary March 14, 2014 at 8:09 pm

Thanks for the encouragement. This is good business advice for sales of any kind to save in the boom times. I’m using my slump time to add to my portfolio.

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Natalie Briney March 14, 2014 at 8:27 pm

I am so glad I have found you and your blog! so many helpful tips and amazing words of advice for us artists out there. I very much look forward to your next post.

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Lindy Gaskill March 14, 2014 at 10:00 pm

Your post came at an interesting time as I was just analyzing the boom and bust, ups and downs, of my own business. I find it interesting how all of a sudden I can have sales – bam, bam, bam – and then nothing – down – and then the ups start all over again. It does seem to go in cycles and I am thankful for the ups as they balance out the downs. Now I need to figure out what causes the boom and what influences the bust.

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chris March 15, 2014 at 4:36 am

Thank you Jason,
I think you have hit upon a topic in the world of artists that really could use a lot more delving in to. There are a lot of emotions, actions, and financial realities that occur when these slumps happen. I have been through many, and I am still an artist, supporting a family, after 10 years. It has been hard. I know you and Barney cover the nuts and bolts issues of things but it would be great to get someone and, maybe you both could do this as well, too cover the emotional battles that come with the financial battles that professional artists go through during these up and down periods.

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Glenda Kotchish March 15, 2014 at 5:08 am

Do you have an book recommendations for galleries – how to boost sales?

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Rani Garner March 15, 2014 at 5:24 am

About nine years ago, I started tracking my sales on a monthly basis. Discounting a few recession years, a pattern emerged, and I found that if I was going to have a slow period, it would be in January and February. Now I don’t worry so much when sales decline and plan ahead for it financially. Based on that knowledge (and using Jason’s book), I’ve also just gotten into a gallery in my region that has more of a winter season. As far as helping an artist
get through a sales slump, it often is the case that artwork HAS sold, but you just don’t know about it yet.

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Susan Williamson March 15, 2014 at 5:53 am

I had the mistaken belief that a gallery like yours in Scottsdale would have consistent sales of high end art. Thank you for sharing the real life experience and spot on advice to artists!

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Marie-Louise McHugh March 15, 2014 at 6:48 am

Spot on! I just keep on working and promoting to be ready when things pick up again. Thanks for sharing!

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Julia Watson March 15, 2014 at 1:35 pm

Thanks for your timely post, Jason. I show in and help manage a membership gallery in California, the Los Gatos Museums Gallery. We’ve had a small slump lately too. I attribute it partly to tax prep season and I hope that some people will get refund checks soon! We saw another slump during the government shutdown last fall, so I know outside events can influence art sales.
But I agree with your advice – Keep on working!

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Mary Singer March 15, 2014 at 2:28 pm

I started out my career doing fine art portraits of people. My “studio” was a corner of my bedroom BUT… I just advertised in the local paper and I got quite a few jobs. I did more portraits of equine and pets then anything. People would actually come and SIT for their portrait. Today I am lucky if I get someone to sit 5 minutes for a caricature or a sketch : ) I branched out into many different art fields including book layout and design and making my own blueline layout board to design a magazine. ( Can you tell how LONG I have been at this ?) branched out into wild animals in natural habitat and then to the gorgeous bluffs and river where I live in the MidWest. I learned how to use a computer and decided to try out a few sites but I am NOT the best at that. I have gotten back to fine art portraits and have had several NICE orders in the last few months after a stretch that was up and down, not at all unusual. I have stuck it out through thick and thin because I simply HAVE to create art. It is the way God made me .

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Susan Jarvis March 16, 2014 at 9:54 am

HI Jason,

Reading your blog posts has been a major stabilizing influence for my art career. Ever since I took the “Starving To Successful” seminar here in Salt Lake City, I have had a better attitude about the marketing part of art business. This post, about surviving the slumps, was timely (I’m in one right now), however I am painting like crazy for a show in May. You’re right! slumps come and go. Thanks for taking the time to reach out and for being straight forward. Love it!

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Will Eskridge March 16, 2014 at 10:46 am

As always, a very informative and excellent post Jason!

As I am still working a 9-6 desk job, I haven’t given slumps a ton of thought because I’ve had the steady paycheck to rely on for regular bills and such. However as I am attempting to make the transition to not having a day job, this post gives me great food for thought. I have an idea for the year to pretend that I am already a full-time artist and that I don’t have the “backup income” of my day job. I think if I have this mindset, it’ll force me to market more.

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Loretta March 16, 2014 at 2:43 pm

I have a part-time “day job” to keep the income consistent, but am working toward the day it isn’t necessary, like it was a few years back. Art sales are booming for me at present, and now I’m grateful for the period of time when no one was buying (or commissioning) because I built up a nice inventory for a boom I did not expect. Not only that, during a slump no one is telling me what to paint so I can paint whatever I’m passionate about and be at my most creative. In that respect I look at slumps as positive and refreshing.

Thank you for sharing your viewpoints about this topic!

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Mason Parker March 17, 2014 at 10:20 pm

All eight rules above about handling artist’s sales slump are dead on in my experience.

Yes, keep working, here is always SOMETHING to do. If you have no commissions going an all your inventory is made and into stores, make a new batch for backup, try out some new ideas, find more galleries and meet ther owners, anydamnedthing.

My version of the second rule, after my first thre years as a full time artist was that as seasonal as business always was, over a given year, the money always seemed to have a way of coming in.

Any sale is a good sale, even a $4 greeting card. “Yay!, mocha money”

I have yet to become desperate enough to have to liquidate or havea percent off sale, and all the business I could thnk of that did that DID go out of business. Don’t do it, though versions of “bargain specials” to clear out old inventory are effective unless the item is a complete dud. Then you give it away.

Rainy day fund, no brainer.

Next two, galleries come and go out of business, always have a rainy dat fund and moe prospective galleries.

Flip side of slumps. For me it was certain items rather than given years, remedy was to have a good line of items.

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Darren March 20, 2014 at 1:53 pm

I recently advertised through social media that I was having a “special” on all my artwork. The special was that I was NOT raising my prices on any work through spring of this year. I went on to say that: “While the price of gas, milk, groceries, and services are all going up, the prices of my original paintings would not through spring of 2014″

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Yolanda Tamez March 22, 2014 at 2:36 pm

The yin and yang of it. I am at this time lucky enough to not have gone through this, but unlucky enough to not have enough work out their yet, or my name to even be considered in a category of real talented art. . Although I know that I am talented in my own way, as many, but do I need the recognition to feel that I am …not sure sometimes doesn’t matter at times, but then the climb sure seems to be a lot of hard work. Now then I guess that’s what gets u to the top..lol…Thing is, do I want to climb that ladder, that high that far. lol I am not in that position to reply to what I would do. But I am sure marketing is a part of it for sure. I think their are slumps in all business, otherwise why would be inundated with all the commercials, we see to buy things…it’s different and yet all the same…Like a roll in the wave the wave goes up, then it comes down, up, down…maybe it’s in keeping with the flow of the energy one possesses as to how bad they want to succeed all the time. Even that is hard to keep up all the time..Unless your playing the song happy each and everyday…Hope you make any sense of this..I’m trying…No rainy day fund…that’s why Starving to Successful seemed like a pretty good way to go…thanks

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Carol Es March 23, 2014 at 11:05 pm

Hi Jason. Long time listener, first time caller here.

I just wanted to commend you for mentioning the fact that artists should not blame themselves for the slumps, nor get cocky during the booms. That, and the importance of gearing up for the booms during the long, slumpy months. That in itself is a kind of art – creating reserves. This is not easy, especially when you’re an artist that is truly roughing it.

I was an artist such as that for most of my life. I don’t recommend it for the sane, or even people that enjoy eating food, but I know there are many artists out there right now that are thinking, “Reserves? You’ve got to be kidding me. I’m lucky if I can make rent!”

The truth of the matter is however, if you’re going to do something (like roughing it) then you gotta do it all the way. “Roll the dice,” as a hero of mine has written.

You might as well go the distance and dedicate your sales to go right back into your career and make damn sure you invest in reserves as much as possible, and *not* reserves for rent. Reserves for paint.

Oh jeez, I could go on forever, but you and I are on the same page – just from different ends of the same spectrum.

I think I just wanted to say, “thank you,” but I got long winded, as I tend to get. Oopsy.

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