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Selling Without Galleries

2 Jul 2014

Over the past decade, I've worked with half a dozen commercial galleries, and although I enjoyed the prestige of being able to say that I am represented by a gallery, the truth is that I've been able to sell my artwork better on my own. Many of my artist friends prefer to just paint and let someone else sell their work, but I'm a highly social person, and I enjoy meeting and talking to clients.

The Green Flash by CW Mundy, oil on linen, 16 × 24, 2012.
The Green Flash by CW Mundy, oil on linen, 16 × 24, 2012.
I'll discuss how to get into galleries in future blogs, but for now I'll focus on some of the ways artists can get started selling their oil paintings on their own. It's been my experience, anyway, that gallerists want to see strong sales before they take on an artist, which essentially means we need to build our own client base before approaching galleries.

The good news is that the way art gets to a collector's wall is changing; selling power seems to be shifting from the galleries and dealers to the artists. The use of the internet and artist websites has offered a more convenient and sometimes less expensive way for collectors to buy art. On the other hand, I don't think commercial galleries are going to disappear altogether; those that have managed their finances, worked honestly with their artists, and developed a long list of loyal collectors will continue to do well.

One of the best ways to build a collector base and get started selling is at outdoor shows. It will require some investment up front in order to buy a tent and hanging racks, but once you do that your "storefront" is set up, and you can do as many or as few shows as you like. One of my former students got started a few years ago at a local "Art in the Park" weekend show. During his first exhibition there, he sold $4,000 worth of art. Shortly after, a local gallery began representing him, and his career went on from there.

I personally know a couple of other artists who make a full-time living by doing outdoor shows. One in particular often comes home with $10,000 in her pocket after a two-day exhibition. She does work with several galleries and local fund-raisers as well. This artist has maintained a six-figure income for many years.

Although I haven't personally sold any pieces on eBay or "Painting-a-Day" online venues, I have sold art directly from my website. However, all these sales have either been from former collectors or from folks who've seen my artwork at an exhibition or show. Unless you're already a highly collected artist, it's difficult to initiate sales from your website alone.

It's important to note here that when artists sell both through a gallery and on their own, their retail prices need to be the same across the board. If an artist sells to clients from their website at a lower price than what the gallery is selling his or her artwork for, the artist undercuts the gallery and will most likely lose representation there. Your price for a 9”-x-12” oil painting, for example, should be the same no matter how it’s being sold.

Since I haven't been working with galleries for some time now, I don't have to worry about conflicts of interest involving pricing or selling from my studio or website. What I like about selling on my own is being able to offer former collectors incentives such as price cuts, free shipping, or layaway plans. They can choose to buy the piece unframed, or I can offer them stock frames or custom, hand-gilded frames.

Another way to get your artwork out there is to do local shows that are fund-raisers. The topic of doing fund-raisers is worthy of a blog in itself, but for now, I'll say that if it's an exhibition with an opening where the artists are in attendance, it's a great way to meet people who may be interested in your work. Of course, you'll have business cards with you that will point to your website, blog, or e-mail newsletter.

It takes time to build a collector list, but it doesn't necessarily take a lot of money. It will behoove you to carry a guest book with you at these venues so that you can collect contact information of those who are interested in your artwork. Never force anyone to sign your guest book. Carrying it at gallery shows may not work well, because gallerists are often reluctant to share their list of collectors with artists, but when you're selling your own artwork, it's an excellent way to build a following. (Keep in mind, though, that it's in poor taste to collect names or promote yourself at another artist's opening night.)

One you've begun to build a client list, ask them to sign up for your e-mail newsletter or blog. In this way, you get them to give you permission to show them your new work. Permission marketing is the way many things are sold these days—people are paying less attention to interruptive marketing, such as TV commercials, spam, and phone solicitations. When you get permission from people who are already interested in your art to "bug" them with newsletters and images of your latest paintings, they actually enjoy hearing from you. When this list of interested collectors grows, you really won't need a middle-man to help you sell.

Again, I'm not saying that galleries aren't useful to artists. I've recently seen two young artists triple their income by having an important gallery take them on. But galleries aren't the only way to sell artwork, and for many of us, we are perfectly able to make a full-time living by selling online, at outdoor and community shows, and even by setting up our own exhibitions. There's plenty of evidence out there that these venues are working, and in many cases direct sales can be more lucrative for artists than gallery sales.


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Comments

Kisu wrote
on 20 Nov 2009 8:25 AM

My brother has been making his entire living for almost 40 years from selling his artwork directly to collectors from his home studio, but it did take a long time to build that business.  He does sell reproductions of his work through several venues, but he sells the original painting outs of his studio.  

Lori, there is an excellent book describing the workings of the entire spectrum of the art market in a statistically very representative city in the U.S. (St. Louis) in a book called 'High Art Down Home,' by economic anthropologist Stuart Plattner.  It was written before the internet became a major force, but it is still a very fascinating examination of an art market involving all sorts of players, from hobbyists and independent studio artists, on to the high end museum and gallery levels.

on 20 Nov 2009 8:50 AM

Kisu, that's encouraging news about your brother. And thanks for the link.

mmelgar wrote
on 20 Nov 2009 9:13 AM

Awesome post! Keep them coming on the subject of marketing/selling artwork please.  I myself would much rather sell directly too and like to engage the customer as much as possible. I feel there is a deeper connection to the piece itself if the customer has met and interacted with the artist.

I'm striving to break into the market and have not been successful yet although I am taking steps to get there. First off I am working on having a bigger body of work. A couple of years ago I felt my technique was finally where it needed to be and now I'm in the process of making more work and then down the path of getting it out there. I'm laying the groundwork using social media/blogging so that when I do show my next series, I have an engaged, interested group of people that I will be able to invite after having build a relationship already. Once I succeed with the use of social media, I plan on sharing my steps with other artists.

I love the idea of not having to get into the "art scene" locally or otherwise to promote your own work. Many times, art scenes in certain cities is so clique-ish and pretentious that its a turn off to upcoming artist just trying to meet people. I don't necessarily want to sell to the art scene anyway, I want to sell to the every day person who wants learn to appreciate art and not be intimidated by it.

Thank you for this post!

monicamelgar.blogspot.com

http://mmelgar.com

on 20 Nov 2009 10:14 AM

Artist Brian Kleiwer from Rockland Maine is doing a great job at using social media to sell his work - that combined with his email newsletter. He offered "A hundred Paintings in 100 days".  Now he's experimenting with an opening reception and sale on Twitter.

This guy really has some great ideas that are working. Check it out

http://www.kliewerstudio.com/

Muna Shabab wrote
on 20 Nov 2009 10:25 AM

That is a great post Lori! and it couldn't have come at a better time. I'm thinking about starting to sell my art and I have no idea where to start. I'll be looking forward to your next post.  You sure have so many wonderful ideas to share. Thank you so very much.

Robin11 wrote
on 20 Nov 2009 3:07 PM

Interesting post!  My experience is different from yours, though.  Nearly all of my sales DO come directly from my website from people who found me online and have never seen my work in person.  It's mostly dog portrait commissions, but I've sold other work online as well.

JT Harding wrote
on 20 Nov 2009 4:04 PM

Thanks Lori,

I would like to read another article dedicated to local fund raiser shows. I've seen these be successful in my area and I plan to stage a couple next year.

JT

on 25 Nov 2009 9:03 PM

I'm behind the curve when it comes to all the web stuff and self promotion.  I do some very strong work but unfortunatly I am weak in the marketing area.  A question I have though is about payment and taxes.  As I break out into the market how do I handle credit/debit cards and the IRS?  Well as boaring a topic it might be, I am intimidated by it all so my work fills up in my house.  Any suggestions?

on 1 Dec 2009 3:28 PM

Harry, I use paypal from my website - that seems to be the easiest way to take credit cards. If I were doing a lot of outdoors shows, I'd probably sign up to get a credit card account with a bank.

I am registered with my state as a business, this will give  you a tax ID number that you'll use to collect sales tax in your state. When it comes to taxes, we use a tax service that specializes in small business. Since the laws change every year - these experts help me to figure out what I can and cannot deduct as far as expenses go.

Most of the professional artists I know have a tax expert do their taxes.

canvas art wrote
on 15 Dec 2009 10:07 AM

Great post, take care, Pete

kylevthomas wrote
on 16 Dec 2009 11:22 AM

Lori,

I finished my MFA this past year and wanted to really give my art business a jolt. I was inspired by Brian Kliewer and started a 100 Paintings in 100 Days Project. Each painting is $100+shipping and tax(where applicable). I have sold 14 paintings so far and my newsletter subscriber list has been growing. This project has produced some really good paintings and I have a sizable portfolio to send to prospective galleries now.

I would encourage anyone wanting to give a boost to their art business to try this type of project.

See my 100 Paintings in 100 Days Project

http://www.kylevthomas.com

on 16 Dec 2009 11:37 AM

Thanks Kyle - excellent suggestion, and hope all  your selling dreams come to fruition!

lily37 wrote
on 16 Dec 2009 4:02 PM

I have sold quite a few watercolors through my web sites: www.sketchandtravel.com  Every time I sell one, I am very surprised but very happy.

I have just published a children's book with 12 full illustrations done with watercolor and collage. Mrs. Nosy - A Composting Story

artistsites.org/mrsnosy/  check it out!

Thanks for your comments on selling art. They are very helpful.

lilygoldman@gmail.com

on 18 Dec 2009 6:32 AM

Congrats Lily. It's always encouraging to hear how artists are making strides in their careers.

easel1 wrote
on 27 Dec 2009 2:41 PM

After reviewing Kyle Thomas' work (a commentor on this blog) and noting his price ranges and "100 paintings in 100 days concept" as well as (first and foremost) the high quality of his work - I can readily say that this 'brand new MFA graduate" is a winner in the "long run". He seems to take his work seriously but not himself. Bravo! Whether this visual artist uses galleries or handles his own affairs, he'll make it. I would bet my career on that.

YSokolov wrote
on 14 Jan 2010 12:53 PM

Thank you Lori!

This was very helpful information. And at the same time very encouraging to me. I have not got into a gallery yet, most of my art I sell are commissioned portraits, but now my eyes are opened a little more on how to sell my own work myself. :)

Thanks,

Y. Sokolov

http://tinyurl.com/ysokolovArt

on 3 Oct 2010 4:07 AM

"Your website is too strong I don't think that our gallery could help your sales"

An interesting put-down http://www.meltemiart.com

on 3 Oct 2010 7:04 AM

PK, Could you elaborate on what you mean by, "Your Website is too strong, I don't think our gallery could help with your sales"? I'm confused. I'm not looking for another gallery.

Are you saying that my personal website is too strong, or Artist Daily?

Lori

mark beale wrote
on 3 Feb 2011 4:37 PM

Lori-

Great article. We artists are often uncomfortable marketing ourselves, but it is necessary. Ive started a website of my southern landscapes at bealefineart.com. Mark Beale

Gaynor Dore wrote
on 2 Jun 2014 3:57 AM

This article is the most interesting and comprehensive I have read on this subject. I am a self taught artist who has benn painting for only 4 years. I have morphed from watercolour and gouache to acrylic which I love. I have sold several paintings in both mediums in America and England where I am based. Like you I love socialising and people and have no problem networking. I am about to exhibit in my first major show at a very prestigious venue in England where your work has to go through a selecting panel before you are accepted to a very over subscribed show.The tip about the guest book is invaluable and I will certainly do that. A tip of mine is dont rely on just the venue's literature, with their permission I printed of a flyer of my own and included it with all of the Private View and advertising tickets I was sent to distribute. For your interest my website is www.gaynordoreartist.com (I hope it is appropriate to put that on here).Thank you very much.

Gaynor Dore wrote
on 2 Jun 2014 4:08 AM

This article is the most interesting and comprehensive I have read on this subject. I am a self taught artist who has benn painting for only 4 years. I have morphed from watercolour and gouache to acrylic which I love. I have sold several paintings in both mediums in America and England where I am based. Like you I love socialising and people and have no problem networking. I am about to exhibit in my first major show at a very prestigious venue in England where your work has to go through a selecting panel before you are accepted to a very over subscribed show.The tip about the guest book is invaluable and I will certainly do that. A tip of mine is dont rely on just the venue's literature, with their permission I printed of a flyer of my own and included it with all of the Private View and advertising tickets I was sent to distribute. For your interest my website is www.gaynordoreartist.com (I hope it is appropriate to put that on here).Thank you very much.

Gaynor Dore wrote
on 2 Jun 2014 4:08 AM

This article is the most interesting and comprehensive I have read on this subject. I am a self taught artist who has benn painting for only 4 years. I have morphed from watercolour and gouache to acrylic which I love. I have sold several paintings in both mediums in America and England where I am based. Like you I love socialising and people and have no problem networking. I am about to exhibit in my first major show at a very prestigious venue in England where your work has to go through a selecting panel before you are accepted to a very over subscribed show.The tip about the guest book is invaluable and I will certainly do that. A tip of mine is dont rely on just the venue's literature, with their permission I printed of a flyer of my own and included it with all of the Private View and advertising tickets I was sent to distribute. For your interest my website is www.gaynordoreartist.com (I hope it is appropriate to put that on here).Thank you very much.

Gaynor Dore wrote
on 2 Jun 2014 4:08 AM

This article is the most interesting and comprehensive I have read on this subject. I am a self taught artist who has benn painting for only 4 years. I have morphed from watercolour and gouache to acrylic which I love. I have sold several paintings in both mediums in America and England where I am based. Like you I love socialising and people and have no problem networking. I am about to exhibit in my first major show at a very prestigious venue in England where your work has to go through a selecting panel before you are accepted to a very over subscribed show.The tip about the guest book is invaluable and I will certainly do that. A tip of mine is dont rely on just the venue's literature, with their permission I printed of a flyer of my own and included it with all of the Private View and advertising tickets I was sent to distribute. For your interest my website is www.gaynordoreartist.com (I hope it is appropriate to put that on here).Thank you very much.

E.D. wrote
on 3 Jul 2014 5:02 PM

Lori, this is one of the best articles. I have just newly started to sell my art at a gallery. And I fear that some of the more established artist get the best treatment at the gallery and the best spots for buyers to view the paintings. I think the percentage is high but I didn't have any idea where to start selling my work. I will gladly try some of your idea's. Thank You.

on 11 Jul 2014 3:31 PM

E.D. I haven't been active on this blog for awhile, but I do see comments in my email.

Thanks for the Kudos. I wrote this so long ago that I'll have to go back and read what I said ;-)

A lot has happened in the art world since 2009, and I'm in the process of getting a new body of work painted in order to pursue gallery representation for 2015. Like many artists do these days, I plan on selling small studies directly from my website and larger paintings through galleries and perhaps juried shows that are held at galleries and museums.

What I've experienced lately is that it's difficult to get higher prices for my work when I have no gallery representation. When I sold at galleries, even a decade ago, my prices where twice, or even 3x my current prices (without representation).

That said, I've noticed recently at outdoor shows that artists are able to sell works over $2000, for larger paintings.. Some in the $4000 range, so that's a good sign. However, the artists that did get those prices on their own also happen to have gallery representation.

Prolific painters can make a decent amount of income just selling from their websites and blogs, but I paint slowly.

on 27 Aug 2014 3:26 PM

this was a great post and comments from everyone, thanks for sharing. i wonder, though, if you should charge the same price, but Lori wrote that she could get 3x the price when she had gallery representation. I am confused---should you lower your prices when you dont have a gallery?