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The Possibilities and Pitfalls of Self-Representation for Artists

by Jason Horejs on October 15, 2013 · 22 comments

Over the last several weeks, I have written about different types of venues where artists can show and sell their work. I discussed the ins and outs of showing with “vanity” galleries, co-op galleries, and traditional commercial galleries. When I started writing the series, I thought discussion of these three representation options would be sufficient. As I wrote the articles and read the comments, however, I realized that I would need to discuss the option of self-representation in order to have a full view of the options available to today’s artist.

Self-representation has never been as viable as it is today. The internet has made it possible for an artist to set up a virtual gallery and reach out to collectors. With email, digital photos (and photoshop) and digital printing, it is fairly easy for an artist to present his work to the world in a manner that is every bit as professional as a gallery.

In my experience, there are two types of artists who especially benefit from self-representation. Artists who are just beginning their careers, and artists who are very well-established have a lot to gain by selling their work directly to the public.

For artists who are just beginning their careers, self-representation may be the only way to find buyers initially. Many galleries are reluctant to work with an artist who has not sold work. Shows/festivals and online sales may be the only viable option for generating sales.

Well-established artists may have enough of a reputation and name recognition, and their work may be sought after enough, that self-representation makes sense from a financial standpoint. If collectors are seeking out your work and will buy it directly from you, there may be no need to pay gallery commissions.

Artists who are somewhere in between may find self-representation less desirable. For an artist in mid-career, it becomes very difficult to find enough time to both produce art and seek out customers. The demands and costs of marketing are often simply to great for artists who are just beginning to sell well to do both. Their marketing time would typically be better spent finding galleries, which will then take over much of the marketing and sales, freeing the artist to focus on creation.

Sales Avenues for Self-Representing Artists

One of the greatest challenges for a self-represented artist is finding buyers. Unlike a gallery, where the buyers come to find art, a self-represented artist typically has to go to the buyers. There are several key options for finding buyers, and I want to discuss each briefly.

Art Shows and Festivals

FestivalsOne of the best venues for finding buyers for a self-represented artist is on the art show and festival circuit. The shows take care of much of the marketing, and well-established festivals draw repeat customers. I know many successful artists who sold their first work and established successful careers on the show circuits. I like working with artists who have this kind of experience because they will have an appreciation of the effort that goes into selling art.

If you would like to read more about how to succeed at an art show, be sure and read our post, How to Succeed at Art Shows and Festivals.

Personal Website

A personal website can be a good supplementary tool to help an artist make sales. Your website will permit your potential buyers to see your work and learn more about you. This is great when you’ve had contact with someone who has seen your work at a show or festival, or if you’ve met someone in a social setting. It’s a good idea to set up a simple shopping cart (PayPal will work) to allow buyers to make an art purchase right from your site.

As buyers become more comfortable with making online purchases, online sales of high-end products, like art, become more common. There was a time, only a few years ago, when none of us thought online sales would be a significant source of sales. We all thought that buyers would need to see the art in person in order to feel comfortable enough to buy. Recent experience has taught me that this simply isn’t the case. I’ve sold artwork online ranging in price from $50 to $12,000 to buyers who have never been in the gallery.

The real challenge with a personal website is getting qualified buyers to the site. If you have a website and are tracking the site traffic, you probably see that your traffic volume is low. Many artists are lucky to get several dozen web-visits a week. In my experience, it takes hundreds, and even thousands, of visits to generate a sale.

Online Gallery

aaa-siteSomeday soon, online galleries will probably warrant a post of their own. For now, online only galleries are still maturing as a venue for selling. Online galleries offer better traffic than a website alone can. By aggregating artists, they can offer buyers a great way to view a large number of pieces on one site. They are good for the artist because that traffic may then trickle back to the artist’s personal website, or may generate sales directly.

The challenge with this kind of gallery is that the exact attribute that can make it attractive to buyers, the large number of artists showing together, can dilute the possibility of sales for an individual artist. Most of these galleries are free, however, so other than a small investment of time to set up a page, it makes sense to utilize online galleries to help you cast a wider net.

We launched our online gallery, Xanadu Studios,  several years ago to work in concert with our physical space. We offer free exposure through the site, a link to the artist’s website, and only ask a 20% commission for online sales we generate. Our sales from the online gallery are a growing portion of total sales, and I’m now convinced that online sales are critical to our future growth.

Networking

I know a number of artists who generate sales by building strong relationships with people in the community, and by networking with those people to find buyers. They are also very good at networking through the people they know to meet new potential buyers.

Studio Tours

Many community art organizations hold annual studio tours. This can be another great way to gain exposure, meet buyers and sell work. (Read How to Host a Wildly Successful Open Studio Tour if you are considering participating in an open studio tour)

Alternate Venues

Often, local restaurants, cafes and banks will dedicate space to show artwork by local artists. Airports and libraries may also host community art shows. It’s rare that this kind of venue will generate strong sales. I’ve written a post on alternate venues at, Showing Your Art in Cafés, Restaurants, Banks and Other Venues.

Artist-Owned and -Operated Galleries

slide-newmangallerySome artists may decide that by opening their own gallery, they can reach a market of buyers in their local area in a way they couldn’t if they only pursued the sales methods listed above. Dave Newman, one of the artists I represent, and his wife Donna, have had a small gallery in Prescott, AZ, for years. They sell Dave’s work in the gallery, along with the work of a number of other artists and jewelers who’s work compliment his. The gallery has been a great way for him to gain exposure and generate sales. The Newmans have grown the gallery to a point where they have several employees. Dave is able to spend most of his time in the studio (which is located at their home, not at the gallery) while Donna manages the gallery and the business side of Dave’s art career.

There have been many other artists who have opened their own galleries. Some have been successful, like the Newmans, and others, unfortunately, have not. From my observations, several key factors come into play. Gallery costs should be low, while traffic is high. Finding a location where the rent isn’t exorbitant but the traffic is steady is absolutely key. It’s also important that the gallery not completely consume your time.

The Challenges of Self-representation

While there are many opportunities for exposure and sales for the self-represented artist, you can see that the challenges are tremendous. Each of the avenues for sales listed above requires a tremendous amount of effort on the artist’s part. Sales can be inconsistent. Every moment spent pursuing sales is a moment spent away from the easel. It’s also often the case that artists who are great at creating art, and perhaps even good at salesmanship in general, have a hard time selling their own work. Humility and self-awareness can make it difficult for an artist to talk about his/her own work.

Another great challenge is the challenge of sustaining exposure. Most of the opportunities listed above are temporary. They might give you only days, or weeks, or, at the most, months to expose your work to the public. In my experience, it often takes sustained and repeat exposure to match artwork up with suitable buyers. To an extent, art sales require serendipity (having the right buyer see the right work of art at the right time). Sustained, prolonged exposure is most likely to create this kind of serendipity.

The internet may be changing this balance, but until online sales are more consistent, many artists will continue to seek gallery representation for the sustainable exposure and sales a gallery can create.

Hybrid Representation

Many artists are taking advantage of the growing opportunities for self-represented artists, while at the same time pursuing gallery representation. As I stated in the beginning of the article, well-established artists may benefit most from this approach. Even mid-career artists may choose to push their website development forward and may participate in shows and festivals as a way to boost sales and increase exposure. These efforts can augment gallery marketing and lead to greater personal and gallery sales.

The real challenge for an artist who is pursuing both gallery and direct sales, is being careful not to step on galleries’ toes. Many galleries are afraid that artist direct sales are cutting into the gallery’s sales. The tension this creates can sour relationships. An artist who sells to a buyer who discovered her art through a gallery (and especially if the artwork is sold at a lower price)  may find her relationship with the gallery jeopardized.

The Benefits of Self-representation

In spite of the challenges, many artists are successfully selling their work directly to collectors. They are finding buyers using innovative techniques that weren’t available to previous generations of artists. The relationships these artists build with collectors can be both gratifying and profitable. Artists who are good at selling their own work benefit from the fact that they don’t have to pay a gallery commission when they sell their work.

What do You Think?

Are you a self-represented artist? What have you learned as you’ve sold your art? What venues do you use to sell your work that I haven’t mentioned above? What additional advantages or disadvantages are there for the self-represented artist? Please share your thoughts below in the comments.

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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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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Dan Daugherty October 15, 2013 at 1:03 pm

I have been trying to balance all these things, and there is a lot to balance. I am a Sculptor, and right away that makes things a bit different.

Establishments seem only interested in Art that “Hangs” on walls and while I have some, Only a few. Additionally, I am disabled and have trouble walking let alone loading and unloading sculptures at a fair, (although I am working on an Idea to rectify that). For me self representation is a nightmare.

I do have a presence on the internet, One on FAA, (fine Art America) which does nothing for Sculpture sales being a Print on demand site, my own website: http://steelstuffsculptures.com/ And a face book fan page. but as you say Jason, I can muster very few hits per week.

All of this time spent away from my shop is very frustrating as it takes me much longer to produce a sculpture than most others…LOL…I can’t keep up with my Idea’s and imagination. On the bright side, I am not giving up any time soon, And I never fail to get great comments and feedback whenever folks see my work here at my house.

I Love the idea of an Open Studio and would be having one, in November, except that My Anniversary is coming up among other things so There goes another obstacle. (did I say that?)…. Now there is a possibility that I may have to re-locate… Basically, One must simply face the issues as they come and persevere. What else can you do?

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Brian Billings October 15, 2013 at 1:32 pm

I am a self-represented artist and art festivals have been the best for me when it comes to sales. I also drive traffic to my website after a show. The first year just paid for expenses, as it takes a lot of money and preperation up front just to get selected for these festivals. Some shows I do well others are a bust, so the more you do the better. I love doing these shows because it gets me outside and I get to interact with art collectors and you get to meet a lot of great artists. I have learned a lot about myself and my art by doing these shows. It would be great to someday be able to travel to shows accross the country and get into galleries at the same time, for me that would be the best of both worlds! Thanks Jason for the great articles on all the different ways to sell art.

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Helen Klebesadel October 15, 2013 at 1:33 pm

For all practical purposes I am a self-represented artist now. (My gallery of 20+ years recently closed when the owner retired). I have a website, http://klebesadel.com, linked to an Etsy site that serves as my on-line inventory and sales site, http://www.etsy.com/shop/HelenKlebesadelArt. I also sell my watercolors and giclee prints through the very large on-line gallery, The Artful Home, http://www.artfulhome.com

Etsy is really venue for DIY crafters and people selling works primarily under $500. My work doesn’t really belong there (too pricy and higher end) but it was the best venue available when I started. I do sell through the Artful Home but its largest clientele is looking for high end crafts. I have my art in a few other places online and continue to explore possibilities that make sense. I would like to read a good assessment of pros and cons of the major on-line fine art galleries that exist. I do not know enough about the available fine art based online platforms to make a recommendation, but I do know that no matter where you put your work on-line nothing will happen unless you work to drive traffic to your site yourself.

I do want to find other brick and mortar galleries around the country to represent my work, and am gearing up to identify cities I am willing to travel to regularly enough to make relationships with the gallery owner/managers. The simple truth is, that I approach my work like I am writing a book. Each painting is a chapter and the larger exhibition is the finished volume. A body of work created for an exhibition resonates when its all shown together to create a larger conversation than occurs with individual works show alone. It is that experience, of putting a whole show in a space with an audience responding to it, that cannot be replicated on-line.

For the short term I will look to public art centers and galleries and, with luck, small museums to replicate that experience. They are more interested in ideas than sales.

However, I need sales too. So as a self-represented artist I also hope to establish gallery relationships. It can be both/and.

Thanks for the excellent essay.

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kathryn October 15, 2013 at 1:45 pm

That makes so much sense, that in the beginning self-representation is the best way to go. I have to say that doing art fairs is a lot of hard work, extremely draining and can be a crap shoot at times too! I found entering gallery competitions in the Los Angeles area has worked very well for me in selling my art as well as networking!

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Robert Colburn October 15, 2013 at 2:02 pm

Hi Jason,

I also think it is important to mention that any artist considering some hybrid type of representation, self- and gallery, recognized the importance of charging the same amount for their artwork whether selling directly or through a gallery. This is often the biggest hang up I hear from artists wanting the best of both worlds. It can be hard giving up 50% of your sale to a gallery if you are used to getting 100%, and it can be hard to acclimate clients to a doubling of your prices if they are used to a “direct” price from you already.

Great series of topics! Thanks ~

RC

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Janet Glatz October 15, 2013 at 2:48 pm

Great topic and info. I’ve always been a self-represented artist, and have done many many outdoor shows and indoor group shows over the years. The upside of showing in festivals, etc. is that you learn from your peers–how to pitch, how to price, how to persevere. Downside? Rarely do you make more than the cost of tent space, travel, food, and gas. I quit road show sales last year and for awhile was afraid I might never sell another painting! How wrong I was–now I’m in two co-op galleries and show my work constantly all over the place. Sales are good and I’m having the time of my life. I would also like to say that working with an art coach has helped me a great deal. Both Renee Phillips and Aletta De Wahl taught me tons of stuff I never knew. Plus, they gave me the courage to put myself out there like never before.

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Mary Manning October 15, 2013 at 3:30 pm

Jason, The approach Janet Glatz took is the road I’ve traveled, except I haven’t had a chance to work with an art coach. That said, following Carolee Clark’s mentorship with you has made me a much better person in selling my own work. Plus I’m represented by a gallery, and continue to enter national and international shows. This past weekend, working two different exhibits, I had people come up to me and tell me about paintings they remember from three years ago! So my name and work are getting out there. I have also found that it takes time and attention, including belonging to several arts groups, and donating paintings for charity auctions, a wonderful way to catch the eye of collectors.

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Cheral Squyres October 15, 2013 at 3:46 pm

Ive tried many of those avenues. Live in a semi rural area where there doesn’t seem to be many art collectors. We live just 4 hours from Albuquerque and 5 from Santa Fe. I have found most to the upper class art collectors go there to buy. Even though we have the best art anywhere! Amarillo Texas. I am going to reach out to those areas to get representation and enter shows in those areas. I just had a fantastic show at a beautiful venue and invited everyone I know. I feel like I am beating my head against a wall. I have owned three galleries in the past and it just didn’t pay off for me. Its time to get out of my home town.

Still trying and painting
Cheral

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Lori Woodward October 15, 2013 at 5:19 pm

Jason,
In the mid 1990s I began selling my work at outdoor shows in New England and did fairly well. New gallery owners saw my work at those shows and I was invited to show at their galleries. Once I entered the gallery system, I dropped the art fairs. I enjoyed the gallery experience and my prices increased over time.

Now I’m selling completely on my own, and participating I the occasional gallery event (not as a full time gallery artist). I’ve sold around 20 paintings this year, as an artist in residence at a luxury B&B, while teaching workshops, at open studio events, and half those sales are from my rented booth at a high end antiques coop.

However, I’m finding that without gallery representation, I’m hitting a price ceiling that’s far below the prices my work sold for at galleries. So…. I’m preparing and saving a new body of work to submit to galleries during 2014. I’ll most likely sell larger works through galleries and continue to sell smaller paintings on my own.

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Claudia L Brookes October 15, 2013 at 6:56 pm

I have always been a pretty much a self-represented artist, with a few galleries along the way. The galleries that worked best for me and sold the most work eventually closed their doors, I found plenty of ways to sell my work, and I did not work hard at replacing them. I have done the limited time “rent-a gallery,” which always worked well (it is important to select the right artists to show with-2 or 3 people whose work does not compete with yours , who pull their fair share, and who are good at selling). i also do 2 big shows on my own premises every year: similar to open studios. I would be interested in more gallery representation, but I am not truly convinced that it is so much less work for the artist.than doing their own marketing and selling. The artist still has the expense and bother of moving work out of their studio and into the gallery premises; shipping is time-consuming and expensive. Also, most of what I hear from mid-career artists like me is that their galleries each sell only a few of their works a year. I have difficulty seeing how the math works out on this, but would be happy to be more enlightened. These artists also feel that they can never really stop promoting themselves, and that the galleries really do not take over this function .And of course, in the end, the artist who depends on galleries has no client base, because the the galleries, quite legitimately, rarely share information about buyers. Despite all that I see as drawbacks to gallery representation, I always remain interested, and think that I would like to add galleries in areas that I already visit to paint en plein air and that are far enough from my home base that they would not feel threatened by my studio sales events.

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Stephen Baumbach October 15, 2013 at 6:59 pm

Great piece Jason. Self representation can be tough but as you say with the internet, it can be far reaching and effective way to to get in front of the client.

Stephen

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Valerie Borgal October 15, 2013 at 7:16 pm

I have participated in local art shows with a tent, display screens and boxes of paintings. I sold well until the economy dipped and I decided then, I am too old to be lugging and setting up for the day only to break down the art and lug it all home. I took a studio, in a large mill building with over 200 artists, that has Open Studios on the first Sat. of each month and once a year has a weekend city wide open studio with buses transporting folks to the participating studios. In Dec. we are open the first 2 weekends of the month. This has given me a place to show my work, teach some classes and sell my work during open studios. I have done well this year. I have a drawing for a gift certificate at each open studio which brings people back to purchase original artwork from me. I also have a website but need to redo it. I have a lot more art available that needs to get up on the site. The website has not generated many sales.

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Lori Woodward October 15, 2013 at 7:44 pm

BTW, I don’t expect that getting gallery representation will be easy, and several gallery owners are friends of mine… Some are struggling. I’ll plan to keep my work reasonably priced.

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Aïda Marini Schneider October 15, 2013 at 8:02 pm

“Taking my show on the road”, that is, doing art festivals was a real growing experience for me. I did that for about 15 years, exposing my work to different collectors and markets, and giving me the chance to interact with people interested in my approach to art, as well as learning so much from other professional artists. The quality of art at the top festivals can be very high. Currently, I sell through 2 galleries, and with an artist friend, started a studio tour. So a combination of self representation and gallery connection have worked for me.

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Rebecca Westeren October 16, 2013 at 9:13 am

Gosh, How I hate self representation! I have a big name locally and med- name regionally and no name nationally.
I have representation in a few galleries in the Puget Sound and at the Seattle Design Center. I do not do fairs and festivals. I was approached by an art commissioner for a local city to do a 3 month solo show a year ago and then the same for a very large popular brewery/eatery this year and the show is up now with 50 works. I have had several restaurants, clinics, city halls and hospitals in Washington state whom contacted me to purchase and install. I have offered discounts to them because of volume purchases. I have seen galleries close down too many times in the last 5 years. Some of the artists represented were amazing artists. I have seen my friends go from selling 50-250K in annual retail sales down to not very much and them taking side jobs or in my case back in school for new skills to earn a living whereas before art paid it all. I rather the galleries rep me and a well deserved commision to them. Long live the art galleries!!!

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Sari Grove October 16, 2013 at 9:45 am

I remember reading about Jack Bush, a famous Canadian minimalist painter…The gallery owners would come up to his studio, & he would unroll canvases, & they would pick which ones they were going to buy…They all bought directly from the artist, & then were free to sell the works at their galleries…This is how this was done…Yes, gallery owners used to BUY from the artist…It wasn’t a freebie type of thing…The artist got money on the spot…

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Nancy Coleman October 16, 2013 at 10:18 am

Jason, thank you for paying attention to this critical aspect of representation for artists. Indeed, self representation comes with every mode of representation, whether with a private gallery, cooperative, online, or any other: no matter who were are “selling” to – gallery owner, friend, a jurying committee, new acquaintances who may become collectors, etc. – we must be aware of the impressions we give them of ourselves, our work, our ethic, our commitments, and our passion, as well as our potential for talent. The article would have served us all better, however, if you had not glossed over Networking. This is probably the very crux of any successful endeavor that goes beyond one’s own self. Learning to network will advance any artist toward meeting her goals, sometimes slowly, but with a ripple effect that over time will generate more results than simply hoping that even a gallery will do the trick. So many artists forget that buyers often buy because they feel a connection with the artist in some way. Sometimes it is from the art work itself, but very often, they may appreciate the artist’s story, or effort, or laughter or authenticity, and are willing to invest something because of it. Perhaps, Jason, you would publish an article on networking. You use it so well yourself for your own business; I am sure you would have valuable insights for all of us.

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Susan Goodmundson October 16, 2013 at 2:24 pm

Thank you for this article . Thank you all for your imput too. I sell well in a small gallery and do Open Studio tours.
I would rather be in a retail gallery. I am advertising on the Zanadu page of the Art Collectors magazine. I am hoping over time this will result in sales.

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Cindy S October 28, 2013 at 5:18 pm

A couple weeks ago, I toured an Arizona sculptor/painter’s studio, a man who has continued to sell his work very successfully even through the recession. He rarely shows in galleries. He said he spent about 75% of his time on business, and it was clear that he was as creative and skilled at business as he was at art; he even built his own building to work in! And, he was making his own printing press from wood and steel, which was an art piece in itself, so was the building. In some professions, a person could easily work for a company and feel fulfilled, make a good income, without ever going into business for themselves. For artists, if they want to do their personal art ‘full time’ it requires business skills, especially if gallery representation is no longer realistic as their sole way of selling. Of course, there are art related jobs. I’ve done that. Not quite the same thing as doing your personal art, but it is good experience and pays the bills. When I was younger there was no internet, and I didn’t want to run a business. I was happy with an art career working as an employee. It was totally separate from my personal art, which I didn’t have time to make much of in those days, but I did do it and sold some. Now I focus on my personal art, and am more mentally prepared for the business aspect, but that’s not the same as being “good” at business! It’s clear though, that artists can learn it, and can sell their own work, and the net has been a huge factor to help with that, even if it’s also clogged with competition.

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Lisbet Damgaard October 30, 2013 at 12:59 am

I am also a beginning, selfrepresenting artist. I feel as though I am drowning in the “do´s and don´ts” and “need to and nice to” of exposing my art on the internet. It feels like endless amount of time can be spent.
My professional background is in purchasing, sales and marketing on an industrial level so I am aware of how important everything is. But I was left with the question of how to avoid drowning amidst a million (better) artists in a market, where everyone is looking for the buyer.
I decided a different and much more targetted and personal approach (as opposed to the internet). I followed all the advice Barney Davey and yourself have shared – found a number of paintings that represent my best Work, made a simple but professional hardback presentation book of my Work and an intro of myself and “went native”.
I sent a low-key e-mail to a local conference center (directly to the managing director) and attached a couple of Photos of my best Work. I asked if I could make a presentation and would like to make my Pictures available for them to hang for a period of 2-3 months. He replied almost immediately with a suggested time and day.
I brought my book and 5 paintings and we talked for 2 hours. He was interested in my Work on surfers (wind- and kitesurfing is big here) and we agreed I return 3 months later with the series I was working on. Still my goal was to have Work in the conference center (great exposure!) and costfree from his point of view.
I returned last week and presented 15 paintings (large and small – he has all sorts of rooms and halls). He was enthusiastic and kept 12 for a closer look.
I returned Tuesday and there was only 1 painting he couldn´t find a place for.
Following your advice, Jason I had made a very simple “contract” which stated the timeperiod, the Insurance coverage, and what would happen if the art was sold. I had made an inventory list (thank you Again for your advice) where the inventory number and value of each Picture was listes.
First of all he promised he would definitely buy at least 3-5 pieces. He was pleased to have time to “get to know” the paintings. Secondly I walked away with a commissioned job for 5 x 2 paintings (each 28″x28″) for some rooms he was renovating. Colors, motifs and Price already agreed.
What I take away from this is that there are businesses in all countries that have a budget for art, but do not have the time to source it. There are business owners who appreciate art but do not have time in a professional capacity to source art. And some of these businesses are great for exposure.
Starting with local businesses allows me to make repeat visits – to make it a personal experience.
Most importantly – I was organized and well prepared and I did not SELL my art, but made it EASY for him to buy. We do not want to be sold to, we want to make a purchase.
I admit I was Lucky with the choice of this potential customer, but I prepared myself to be Lucky.
And I followed some great advice from a professional – thank you Jason.

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Jason Horejs October 30, 2013 at 9:26 am

Lisbet – congratulations on an excellent marketing approach and for working outside the box! You not only prepared yourself to be lucky, you made the luck.

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