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.