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The Possibilities and Pitfalls of Self-Representation for Artists

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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