Art Business: Sell Art Online & the Internet Art Market

23 Sep 2008

Today, there are many online means of promoting your art business and selling artwork, and many collectors go online before they head to their nearest gallery.

by Daniel Grant

A decade ago people questioned whether anyone would buy art that they had only seen over the internet—not in person. Now there are many online means of promoting and selling art, and many collectors go online before they head to their nearest gallery. Artists and their work are accessible on their own websites or through links from the websites of galleries, art organizations, and juried shows. Some artists offer artwork for sale on eBay and Craigslist or through one of the myriad mall sites (art-exchange.com, starvingartistsgallery.com, and originalartonline.com, among others). Blogs and YouTube carry artists’ words and pictures. Artists’ pages also show up on social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

Cypress Woodlands in Fall by Marcia Baldwin.

Cypress Woodlands in Fall by Marcia Baldwin.

Opportunities for exposure, promotion, and sales abound, but it is still the rare artist who can point to the web as the source of the bulk of his or her earnings. Louisiana painter Marcia Baldwin is one of those artists. Earning a living from selling equine and floral paintings on eBay since 2003, where she is known as M Baldwin with eBay ID mbaldwinfineart, Baldwin was able to reach her personal sales goal of $100,000 in 2005. “The key to selling on eBay is to keep producing,” she says, noting that she paints one or two pictures a day, seven days a week. In the course of a year, she sells as many as 500 paintings, with prices averaging between $289 and $500.

Selling on eBay is not free, and the expenses add up to approximately 40 percent of the gross, perhaps the same as the amount an art gallery would take. The expenses include a 17 percent commission on all sales, and $32 per artwork to list her paintings on the first page of a search (a typical eBay search under the category of “paintings” produces more than 100 pages and 10,000 offerings). PayPal, the online secure payment system for credit-card purchases, takes another three or four percent. There is also the cost of shipping the paintings to buyers (custom boxes, packaging materials, FedEx Home Delivery, and insurance), which averages $30 apiece.

Producing a lot and keeping the prices relatively low for an audience that is bargain hunting is essential for artists using eBay. “You learn how to make paintings quickly,” says Illinois painter Diane Millsap, who creates four New Orleans-themed paintings a week and generally sells between eight and 12 per month, averaging $400 to $500 per piece. Some of these bargain hunters purchase more than one of her paintings and recommend her work to others. Print publishers also have perused her offerings on eBay, which she says has led to print-licensing agreements.

Artist websites present opportunities for sales to a far wider audience, foregoing the percentage-charging middlemen in the brick-and-mortar or online galleries. A website expands the artist’s potential to reach all corners of the planet, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to sales. Artists still struggle to figure out how to make their site stand out from the billions of others.

The answer is search-engine optimization—how to be found by someone looking for something online through a search engine such as Yahoo! or Google. A search on, say, Google for the general category “landscape painting” is apt to produce more than a million potentially relevant websites, with 10 results per page. Web marketers note that it is rare for anyone conducting a search to look past the fourth page, which means that the overwhelming majority of sites won’t be visited. They point to the use of unique and specific “keywords” as essential in elevating a particular site’s standing from back in the pack to the first few pages. When a website is created, certain keywords are written into the site’s HTML code to identify the content of the site, and these are also the terms that someone making a search would type in. There are ways to shortcut the process: Companies may buy advertisements on search engines (the ads appear on the page where the search begins) whenever certain keywords are used, and some purchase keywords so that their websites appear at the top of the list.

“Ads and buying keywords are a game for people with marketing budgets, because it can get expensive,” says Chris Maher, a website developer for artists. “It’s better to just incorporate good keywords—the more specific the better.” Maher notes that landscape painters might want to include the name of their studio, the town they live in, the particular subjects of their paintings, and other unique qualities of their work that might help browsers find their website more quickly and easily.

The algorithms of search engines also tend to give precedence to web pages that are linked to other high-traffic sites with similar content—popularity begets more popularity. One artist who has put this into practice is Linda Paul of Colorado. Paul has been making a living exclusively from website sales of her giclée prints and painted tiles since 2000, earning more than $200,000 in 2007. “I haven’t spent a cent on search-engine optimization,” she says, but she has promoted links from other websites to her own. “I’ve got 2,000 sites pointing to me right now.” Among her techniques are reciprocal links with other artists, writing blogs and articles on other sites, and promoting her work to print media that have their own websites.
The bottom line is that an increasing number of artwork sales are coming from the web. Even sites that don’t elicit sales are creating valuable exposure. And when you’re an artist, every little bit helps.   



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