For artists, it’s vital to your business and satisfaction to understand why your art is not selling.

— Barney Davey

Artists ask me, “Why is my art not selling?” I understand and feel their frustration. You pour your heart and soul into creating your art, which sits unsold in your studio. If you’re struggling to sell your art, you’re not alone. Selling art is complex, and many talented artists face the same challenge. 

Making art and marketing art have opposing and sometimes competing functions. The first is right-brained and requires creativity, while the second requires left-brained skills to manage business operations. Solo-entrepreneur artists must do both to succeed in the art business. Gaining skills and finding balance with them is essential to success.

You’ll find help in this post as it explores why your art may not sell and provides actionable tips to help you improve your chances of success. So, why isn’t your art selling, and how can we help you turn things around? Let’s find out.

Start at the beginning to learn why art is not selling.

When I teach artists how to sell art, I begin at the base level, which dictates there are only two reasons why one’s art is not selling:

  1. The art lacks commercial appeal. If enough people in your target audience have been exposed to your work frequently without converting into buyers, you probably have the wrong art for that crowd.
  2. Not enough qualified buyers know about you and your art. And those aware of the art don’t see it often or get regular messages about it, including offers to buy it. It takes persistence and repeated exposure to sell artwork and most luxury goods.

Let’s dig deeper.

Is your artwork commercially appealing?

If you can’t answer or need clarification about your artwork’s appeal, it’s okay. It would be best if you got into situations to get feedback. However, lacking clarity indicates a need to market more aggressively by targeting the right people. But remember that art is very personal, and if you aren’t sure if your work will sell, it’s time to promote and market it to prove it.

I’ve attended, helped manage, promoted, and produced hundreds of art shows. Thousands of artworks are on display at Artexpo New York this weekend. I guarantee that if you view them all, you will find some very unappealing—and that is being kind. But if you research the work, you will likely find it sells, despite your opinion. 

I don’t know how often I’ve been puzzled to see what seems weird, if not ugly, or amateurish art find a market. I bet you have, too. Go figure. That means the artist and the buyer were on the same wavelength. The artists are tuned into their buyers and don’t need approval or validation from those not involved.

The absence of mass-market appeal means nothing to select buyers who connect with your work. A few people may be impressed to know it is popular. But, most will buy it because they love it and like you. So, you can see the value in knowing your audience and avoiding traps set by opinions that are pointless to your art business.

Market to your top prospects with intention. That’s how to turn down the noise and reduce the stress and randomness of depending on marketing to strangers.

Your buyer pool is small, and that’s a good thing.

It’s critical to understand that your art only needs to appeal to your buyers; to sell your artwork, you may need to change your marketing, not your art. Only time and testing will tell. You can build a profitable art business with 100 loyal customers.

Visual artists can use the same tools as mass marketers but on a smaller scale and for less money because they only need a small tribe. You can practically handpick your clients when your artwork resonates with your intended audience.

I purposefully discuss and teach about making valuable connections in this weekly newsletter. Targeted marketing makes the most sense for artists. As for artists, it’s more affordable, controllable, and sane when time and money are limited.

 How do you market your work? 

Marketing art is complex and takes patience and perseverance to pay off. For it to work, buyers must see it often and be effectively reminded to buy it.

Here are some questions to ask yourself about your marketing. The answers will help you understand your opportunities and pitfalls.

  • How many people have seen your art? 
  • How many have seen it more than once? 
  • What are you doing now to promote your art? 
  • How well is your promotion working for you? 
  • What are you avoiding doing to promote your art that you know would help you? What is keeping you from doing that? 
  • What percentage of the people you know also know you are an artist with work to sell?
  • What percentage of those aware of your artist status have seen your art, and how often?
  • How many people outside your close circle know that you are an artist? Or how many people outside your immediate circle have seen your art, and how many times? 

Your candid answers will reveal much about what you are doing and why, if you let them.

The above list of questions intentionally drills down from macro activity to the micro level with people in your close circles. Start with the most straightforward sales first—people who know you or people who know people who know you. Two degrees of separation through your circles of influence include thousands of people you can potentially reach organically. Efficient, warm, and local marketing is rewarding and relatively easy compared to building a sophisticated digital marketing machine.

Are you shy about letting your friends and family know about your art?

Because you shouldn’t be…

Not all art enthusiasts are buyers, but they can still be valuable in raising awareness for your work. They may mention your art to someone who loves it, who could become a potential buyer, or help promote it further. Try this: “I’ve been creating still-life oil paintings. I’d love for you to see them. And if you have the chance, I hope you’ll discuss it with your friends and acquaintances.

You might save the request for after they have seen your work. The goal here is to use word-of-mouth marketing. Offer your help to your contacts in return for helping you create awareness for your artwork. A simple request for help to create awareness is not an intimidating ask. For you, it’s about developing a mindset of seeking connection and understanding, which is less stressful and much easier than trying to think about how to sell your art to everyone you meet.

Does your art have a style? 

Could someone look at a few of your pieces and tell you they were all made by the same artist?

You can make different kinds of art with various themes, but if you want to sell it, it needs to have an unmistakable style for a specific audience. It’s not complicated. You’re in business to make things others want to buy. In an ideal world, your buyers would love everything you created, but there are never enough of those types to build a business.

In the real world of bill paying, you may need to cater to your buyers’ preferences rather than your own. It’s not perfect, but it’s still a pleasant way to generate income.

Style is not a theme or topic. Theoretically, you could paint bunnies and seascapes in the same style, and buyers should be able to tell, but I don’t recommend it. The reality is that you can change your style, but you’ll need to change your audience.

Galleries need consistency because they can’t afford to build a new clientele when your style changes. It’s not dictatorial; it’s a practical business application for marketing effectiveness and simplicity. And for the sake of your creativity, you can still take risks to stretch your style while sticking with making work that sells.   

How many of these options apply to how you sell your art?

It’s helpful, if not necessary, to evaluate your marketing practices. Are you doing these things, and how well can you tell why your art is not selling?

  • Exhibit at shows.
  • Have a website and ecommerce store.
  • Has an accurate, well-defined customer avatar.
  • Creates content suitable to share on social media targeting the avatar’s demographics.
  • Shares content frequently on social media.
  • Engages with commenters on social media.
  • Networks with people in the avatar’s social and economic circles. 
  • It has an effective method of collecting email addresses.
  • Has a marketing system to follow up on every contact and sale.
  • Is committed and takes action to build a profitable art business.
  • Recognizing that selling art is usually a long process, with spontaneous sales as a bonus. 
  • Persistently message interested buyers until they buy or request to unsubscribe.

There is a correlation between what artists do to market their work and how well it sells. Very few people do all the above, but if you research the most successful artists, you’ll find they do most of them routinely. 

If you aren’t doing all of those things, it’s probably because you don’t want to, are afraid of the process, are fearful of failing when you try, or for other reasons. While these are potentially valid reasons to get down on yourself, your angst may be misplaced. Everyone is unique, and your story might be more distinct than you realize.

Keep reading to learn why… 

Are you sure you want to build a business around selling your art? 

There are alternatives…

Once artists realize how much hustle it takes to operate a successful art business, many start seeking options to find another way to make a living. Having a career—or even better, an art-related career—that supports selling your art rather than trying to make your art sales your main financial support system is a viable option. And there is nothing wrong with that choice. Although you might make it full-time as an artist, that doesn’t mean you must go there. It’s an excellent outcome to realize that just because something is possible doesn’t mean one must commit to it. 

Even if you love driving and taking long trips and have all the physical abilities to operate an 18-wheel semi-truck, that doesn’t mean you should become an over-the-road commercial driver because it’s not your thing. And every artist who makes art, no matter how talented, has no obligation to commit to building a business around making art. Feel free to ignore those who put such expectations on you.

You don’t need to be all-in on the art business just because you are an artist.

It’s the same with being an artist. You’ll read and hear me say this frequently.

Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

— Barney Davey

Even though you may love making art and have an undeniable talent for it, there are untold reasons why building a business around making and selling your art is not a good choice for you. If you struggle in the art business, it’s unlikely that you will force yourself to commit to doing everything necessary to make the company run smoothly.

Clarity holds the key to success.

A lack of clarity on what one wants to achieve from one’s art business is the first and most significant reason most artists fail. As the Mad Hatter told us, “Any road can take you there if you don’t know where you are going.”

Humans enjoy fantasizing about positive outcomes. For instance, making a lot of money by selling art frequently while receiving praise from supporters, the media, and the intelligentsia sounds exciting. But those dreams are often quite unrealistic. 

Many artists either can’t or don’t want to pay the steep price of success. The equation changes when your lifestyle and others depend on your consistent production. Business success takes the artist away from the carefree days of making the art they want to make when they want to make it. 

The value of “pragmatic ambition.”

To be happy and enjoy life, have an honest, realistic perspective on what is possible. Someone described it as “pragmatic ambition.” For example, pragmatic ambition might lead to a job in an art-related field that turns the tables. That is, rather than attempting in vain to build an art business to support themselves, imagine the artist using the proceeds from their day job to support their art business. 

For instance, being a picture framer might not be as exciting and romantic as being the subject of numerous one-artist shows and openings and attracting attention from the media and art enthusiasts. Still, it pays the bills and comes with less stress, and you still enjoy great satisfaction from making art while avoiding the daily grind of a full-time art business.

When is the joy of creating art enough?

If you compose a symphony that never gets played in Carnegie Hall, it is no less a work of art. The same is true for the visual arts you create. You can make art for yourself and a small group of friends and followers and be content by deciding not to worry about what others think about you and your art. You don’t need a killer career with art at the MOMA to lead a joyful, creative life on your terms. 

Your happiness and joy are internal. What others think or say about you or your art, whether positive or negative, is unimportant. You can accept and value the opinions of others but never let them decide your fate or make you miserable. 

If you are ready to sell your art, go for it!

If you want to reach the top, then no amount of logic about “pragmatic ambition” will pierce your desire. If that describes you, return to the top and read points 1 and 2 above. Make the most appealing work that will resonate with the people you want to reach and produce a marketing plan to help you achieve your goals. 

Art marketing is just marketing. Get the tools, follow the rules, test, and revise, and you will succeed. It’s simple to state but hard to do, especially if business and marketing are not your forte. If you can’t, you need a partner or manager to handle such things because you won’t succeed without marketing consistently and regularly. Alternatively, if you are a lone wolf, for your sanity, it’s advisable to be realistic about how much you can accomplish on your own.

Additional thoughts about why artists find their art may not sell.

  • Are you pricing your art correctly? It’s essential to research and find out what similar works of art are selling in the market. Pricing your art too high or too low can negatively impact sales.
  • Are you taking advantage of all available marketing channels? In addition to exhibiting at shows and having a website and social media presence, consider reaching out to galleries, art consultants, publishers, and licensing agents to get your work in front of a wider audience.
  • Are you creating enough new work? Consistently producing new art and sharing it with your audience can keep your work fresh and relevant and keep people engaged with your art.
  • Are you taking the time to build relationships with potential buyers? Art sales often rely on building relationships with collectors and potential buyers, so consider attending opportunistic events, identifying and reaching out to potential buyers directly, and nurturing relationships over time.
  • Are you continuing to develop your artistic skills? Investing in yourself and continually improving your creative abilities can help you create even more compelling works of art that are more likely to sell.

Remember that selling art is complicated and often unpredictable, so you must be patient, persistent, and ready to change with the market. Sustained success takes time.

What can artists do to be realistic about what they can accomplish and still enjoy the business of art?

Getting everything done to sell art is complex, especially for artists who work alone. Here are a few tips for artists who want to be realistic about what they can accomplish while still enjoying the business of art:

  • Prioritize the most effective marketing strategies: Instead of trying to do everything at once, focus on the marketing strategies that have been most effective for you in the past. These actions could be social media marketing, attending art shows, or networking with potential buyers. You can maximize your impact by focusing your efforts without spreading yourself too thin. One goal well done is superior to a bunch of half-baked and unfinished projects.
  • Set realistic goals. It’s essential to set challenging but achievable goals, which could be as simple as setting an intent to sell a certain number of pieces in a given period or to grow your social media following by a certain percentage. Setting realistic goals allows you to avoid feeling overwhelmed and maintain your motivation.
  • Outsource tasks when possible: If there are aspects of the business of art that you don’t enjoy or aren’t skilled at, consider outsourcing those tasks. For example, you could hire a social media manager, a web developer, or a marketing consultant to help you with specific aspects of your art business. Doing this can free up your time and energy to focus on the parts of the operation you enjoy and have expertise in.
  • Remember why you started: It’s easy to get bogged down in the details of running an art business, but it’s important to remember why you started in the first place. You likely began creating art because you loved the process and the result. By focusing on the joy of making art and sharing it with others, you can stay motivated even when the business side of things gets challenging.

You can build a successful art business while still being passionate about making art if you are honest about what you can do and focus on the parts of the business that you enjoy.


Tags

art career advice, art marketing advice, how to sell art


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  • Over the course of my career as a working artist, I’ve read countless how-to books and articles on achieving success and supporting oneself with one’s art. Hands down, this article contains the best information on the topic I’ve ever encountered, and discusses vitally important aspects that are often overlooked. Thank you, Barney!!!

  • I’m going to be the Debbie Downer here. I learned from experience, hours of unpaid labor and lost money that when most people are struggling to pay for groceries they will pass by your beautiful art every time.

    You can spend hours preparing and creating your work and $$$ purchasing the supplies, but when people have a choice between buying your work and feeding themselves, it’s not hard to figure out which choice will win out.

    Unless you manage to get in the right circles, you will not find that financially insulated individual who can afford to pay you. And even then – will your work resonate with them?

    Advertising, galleries and art shows are all time-consuming to arrange, and can get expensive. So unless you’re making a profit on your work there comes a point where it’s not wise to continue funding a failing business. I found that paying for a website and domain weren’t worth it.

    The artists that hit the jackpot and are in the right place at the right time are almost one in a million. Musicians run into this problem frequently. There are so many bands who sound professional and have a lot of adoring fans, but they still can’t quit their day job.

    It’s almost like playing the lottery, but the ticket you’re buying is much more expensive. At least with the lottery ticket someone else can’t simply download and steal from you. It’s really all chance. Can you afford it? If not, just make your art for yourself.

  • Tina Swindell says:

    Thanks Barney! Still chugging along. Good article. I always enjoy your posts.

  • I’ve had numerous people tell me my work is gorgeous, but never ask me the price/look at the tag, so it’s hard to say that”price” is the issue. How do you sell paintings when your community views an art fair as nothing more than a free show?

    • I’m sorry your art is not selling easily. Your situation is normal. Only a relatively small percentage of the population will buy any kind of art. From among them, you must find people who like the kind of art you make. And from them, you must find those who are open and able to buy your art now. When you mention “numerous people,” how many is that in actual numbers? And where were they seeing your work? In the post, I ask readers to answer these questions:

        How many people have seen your art? 
        How many have seen it more than once? 
        What are you doing now to promote your art? 
        How well is your promotion working for you? 
        What are you avoiding doing to promote your art that you know would help you? What is keeping you from doing that? 
        What percentage of the people you know also know you are an artist with work to sell?
        What percentage of those aware of your artist status have seen your art, and how often?
        How many people outside your close circle know that you are an artist? Or how many people outside your immediate circle have seen your art, and how many times?

      Fine art is rarely a spontaneous purchase. Ask any galley owner, most sales are cultivated over time, beginning as contacts and evolving into connections and then collectors. Please read the post to help yourself understand where you are in the process of selling your art more frequently.

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