Presentations That Help Sell Artwork

I recently attended the opening of an exhibition of artwork by a group of artists, and the display raised questions in my mind about the impact of presentation on sales and career development. The exhibition was a temporary display in a community center, and the organizer had little time to make the former gymnasium look like an art gallery. Because of that, the drawings were matted and either tacked to the wall or placed in cardboard bins, and the unframed paintings were hung on the wall covered with colored crepe paper. There was a huge crowd of people at the opening, but relatively few of the drawings and paintings sold during the opening reception.

I contrasted the informal, partylike atmosphere of the opening with the displays I normally see in commercial galleries. Many of those upscale showplaces I visit follow the advice Calvin J. Goodman offers in his book, The Art Marketing Handbook: Art Marketing in the 21st Century (Gee Tee Bee, Los Angeles, California). When a client becomes interested in a painting, Goodman urges the dealer to immediately carry the picture into a private viewing room where the prospective buyer can focus on it without any peripheral distractions. If that isn’t possible, then nearby paintings or drawings should be taken down from the wall so that the client’s attention is directed to the one piece of artwork he or she is considering. The point of Goodman’s strategy is to elevate the importance of the artwork under consideration, focus the client on one piece at a time, and avoid having the prospective buyer search for another painting that might be smaller, less expensive, or more important.

Some of the most successful artists I’ve met over the years have similar strategies for emphasizing the importance and value of their artwork. “I learned long ago not to let collectors visit my studio,” Friedel Dzubas (1915–1994) told members of a graduate seminar I attended at Cornell University. “As soon as they see unframed drawings scattered around the room, canvases stacked ten deep against the wall, and new paintings laying on the floor, my work immediately drops in value. The artwork is no longer precious, unique, or the result of magic—and believe me, collectors want to believe that creating art is a form of magic.”

A third piece of advice that came back to me as I looked around the crowded group exhibition was offered by my friend, Thomas S. Buechner. He explained that a group of his small plein air paintings went unsold when they were first exhibited inside thin wooden frames. “I first thought those sketches should be presented with simple, inexpensive frames because they were small and didn’t take much time to complete,” he recalled. “Boy, was I wrong. Six months later I exhibited the same paintings inside gold-leaf frames with three-inch-wide moldings, and every one of them sold. I learned that paintings—especially small ones—don’t look important if the frame doesn’t say they are important. From that point on, my motto has been ‘Want it sold? Frame it in gold.’”

The point of all this is to suggest that the way we present our artwork can have a huge impact on the perceptions of potential buyers. When a drawing, print, or painting is matted or framed in a way that isolates the image and gives it an air of importance, collectors are more apt to assign a higher value to it. The presentation may have absolutely no impact of the intrinsic value of a great work of art, but people act on their perceptions as much as on their knowledge. I’d appreciate knowing if you have tips to offer on the best way to present your artwork.

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Steven Doherty Blog
M. Stephen Doherty

About M. Stephen Doherty

I've been interested in art since I was a child,  and I was fortunate to be able to take Saturday art classes at the Cincinnati Art Museum from the time I was 9 years old until I finished high school. I majored in art at Knox College and graduated summa *** laude, Phi Beta Kappa (proving artists can use both sides of their brain!).  I then earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in printmaking from Cornell University; taught art in public schools, a community college, an adult education program, and a college; worked in the marketing department of a company that manufactured screen printing supplies; and was hired to be editor of American Artist in January, 1979.

Thomas S. Buecher introduced me to plein air painting and it immediately became a passion of mine because it got me outdoors and allowed me to continue learning when I traveled to judge art shows, attend conventions, give lectures, and interview artists. Over the years I've exhibited my paintings at Bryant Galleries in New Orleans, Trees Place Gallery on Cape Cod, and in a traveling exhibition titled From Sea to Shining Sea.

I've written 10 books on artists and art techniques and contibuted articles to magazines, websites, and exhibition catalogs. Now as I prepare for semi-retirement, I'm trying to hone my painting skills -- especially those related to painting portraits.

I've been very fortunate to have met thousands of talented artists who have enriched my life with their art, their friendship, and their advice. I am grateful to Jerry Hobbs and Susan Meyer who hired me in 1979, to the talented people who worked with me on the magazines, and to the artists and advertisers who supported American Artist, Watercolor, Workshop, and Drawing  magazines and the related websites.

I've also been blessed with a supportive, talented wife, Sara; a daughter, Clare, who works for an insurance agency; a son, Michael, who is a computer enginner in Austin; a son-in-law, Shawn, who can fix and carry anything; a granddaughter, Amanda, who has me wrapped around her finger; and my mother, Dotty, who has advised and encouraged me from the beginning.

21 thoughts on “Presentations That Help Sell Artwork

  1. Steve, this is important advice. I’ve seen these things work in action. One of my successful artist friends who does outdoor art shows, will often take the painting off the booth wall and set it aside while she discusses the painting further.

    I’ve even seen her ask the collector to hold the painting in his or her hands. Next thing I see is that she’s wrapping it up.

    Frames dress the painting. When I frame my paintings with the best I can afford, the result says a lot of how much I value my own work.
    Thanks so much for this post – great reminders.

  2. I’ve always had a preference for gold frames, especially wider gold frames. I was happy to see this advice as I have almost been persuaded to go with other types of frames instead. As far as collectors visiting the studio, Friedel Dzubas’ comment makes sense. Giving the impression of scarcity certainly can’t fail to add value.
    Interesting article, thanks for posting it.

  3. hm-mm? Interesting. I do allow patrons to visit my studio. The red flag that just went up was that in my entry, I hang lot’s of paintings salon style giving many choices of my work. Few have ever bought from that wall. As you say, they might not take on the air of importance. So, “less is more!”

  4. Thanks so much for the scenario! A few weeks ago some clients that I have had for 10 years or so came to my stuido instead of buying from me at a show that I used to be in on a yearly basis in New Orleans. One of them commented that he couldn’t believe my work was placed and stacked on the floor. Since I don’t have the room to hang everything I was surprised at his comment. But thanks so much for the insight, Don’t bring clients to your studio. That is something I never considered and I appreciate the knowledge.

  5. I think, we should bring clients to our studios if they appear but make a good presentation in the studio. I would hang just a few best works, for example, and make sure it’s clean and smells nice. I think it’s best not to turn rare clients away from us (artists) but give them a chance of seeing artist at work.

  6. I’ve been hearing exactly the contrary lately. That studio visits are resulting in lots of sales for artists who do it. Linda Blondheim is a good example, she sells well from her studio.

    I personally HATE gold frames. I don’t have any artwork in my home…or anything else…in gold except for a painting that has some gold leaf in it. So that’s interesting to me.

    I also have heard that closed frames are gaining in importance in presentation.

    Thanks for an interesting blog post!

  7. Robin, I like the black clay frames with a gold liner… nothing too shiny though. I order my frames from Omega Moulding and New Jersey Frame, but both require that you’re in business and have a tax ID number, and that you order in bulk.

    There are plenty of other companies that sell “gallery frames” to arists. Some offer Omega Frames at reasonable prices such as:

    There’s another company: JFM Frames, but they only sell wholesale to those with business IDs in bulk.

  8. Dear Steve,

    The information you offered is worth its weight in gold! Thoughtful presentation, does with out a doubt, enhance the over all appearance of work. Such presentations influence the perceptions of would be clients. You state it succinctly. Thank you!

  9. I agree with all the points of this discussion. I agree with Lori that showcasing the painting in the best framing to give it the finish it deserves is the best approach. I have been a professional Interior Designer for 28 years and I know how the art needs to fit into the home. Most buyers are looking to enhance their home and lives with that “magic” art piece—the title of “collector” takes study, passion, interest, and resource information. The home owner will eventually become the “collector” if the painting insites the interest and passion. When the Gallery owner takes the painting into a visiting room, it needs to have a vignette of some type like a corner of a living room—the painting over a chest………One of the most difficult voids I see today is this lack of knowing of how to finish the home with art pieces. This may be a bit geographic to my area, but I maintain a mantra–to buy an original art piece for a home brings that “Magic touch.”

  10. What a timely post. The art group I belong to has recently been discussing a policy for ‘hanging’ at display locations and our annual art fair. Some of our group favor the traditional ‘framed and wired’ requirement, while others want us to loosen the requirement to include matted and shrink wrapped works with flexible plastic hangers in the center about 1/3 down from the top. These are not difficult to hang like the metal saw-tooth hangers are, but they lack the professional finished touch of those framed and wired. Has anyone else run into this question?

  11. For every truth in Art the opposite is also true. This is the difficulty beginners have, not knowing who to believe when it comes to matters like this. I disagree with these sort of absolute rules, because each artist must decide for themselves what frames their work best. It’s definitely beneficial to be open-minded and consider guidance such as this, but gold frames do not compliment every style or size of drawing or painting. In fact, many works done by masters, as seen in National Galleries, are cheapened in my opinion, and too often dominated gronky ornate gold frames.

  12. I didn’t mean to talk in terms of absolutes. The point I was trying to make is that presentation will have a real impact on someone who is considering a purchase. If you have a professonal looking studio space, then it can also serve as a great gallery. If you think bargain hunters are more likely to buy things in mats rather than expensive frames, keep cutting mats. However, if you are like me and you work in a basement next to the cat boxes, seasonal furniture, camping gear, stacks of unframed paintings, and a wet vac it might be worth keeping potential buyers out.

  13. Kathlene,

    I often go to the Morgan Libary in New York because they have one of the finest collections of drawings and plein air paintings in the world. They often frame the charcoal drawings in their collections with generous double mats, French mats (the ones with watercolor lines painted around the edges), or linen mats; and then they use slim black or gold frame molding to hold the glass over the matted drawing. Elegant, important, and simple.

  14. Where I am now I’m selling mostly to people who already know me, who have already been to my home and have seen my studio in all of its eclectic, multi-use ‘glory,’ so there’s no pretense to be made. I had a neighbor’s son in to the studio to look at work and buy a picture a couple weeks ago, and having all of my other work around actually made him vow to come back and buy *more* of the more expensive work when he was financially able. Some of it was framed, but much of it was not. I suppose a lot depends on one’s local market and people’s taste there. Where I am (in a *very* distinctive, active, regional market in the U.S.) the big gold frames just wouldn’t go over well.

  15. Great advice in your article on presentation. I also avoid showing work in my studio, but I do show it in my home on nicely painted walls, always high quality frames, and with other art around which sometimes also sells once the buyer sees it.
    As to community venues, you never really know how your work will present since it is up to whoever is hanging that day. Some annual shows do a better job than others, and now I only submit work to the ones who do the best job of presenting.
    Coffee shops have become a favorite venue for me now, if I am allowed to hang the work myself and I know if their lighting is good. It may seem like a low brow environment, but sales have been better for me there than at galleries lately!
    Bottom line, if the artist has a say in where and how the work is hung and is available to talk with collectors, there is a much better chance of making a sale.
    Karen Gillis Taylor

  16. Interesting concept of gold frames. Personally I have never had anything sell that was wrapped in gold, in fact I am presently refinishing some elaborate gold frames to black as they showcased beautiful little butterfly images that have been in 3 shows and 2 galleries without selling. Maybe all that glitters is not gold.