Reality: Why & When People Buy Art and How Marketing Works to Sell It

The Importance of Understanding the Ways Consumers Buy Art

There are only two ways to influence human behavior: you can manipulate it, or you can inspire it. – Simon Sinek

Many resources, including my Art Marketing: The Ultimate Guide for Visual Artists, explain art marketing. This post provides a realistic portrayal of why and when people buy art and how artists can use marketing to inspire sales rather than manipulate them.

First Things First

Before art marketing does its job, artists with work to sell have billions of potential people to buy art. But, of course, it is ridiculous to assume every living person is a prospect, and that’s where marketing is a valuable tool.

A primary principle of marketing is to define your audience to avoid trying to influence billions of people. Before beginning any promotional activity, savvy marketers ask, “Who is most likely to buy my art?” Those who drill down to get the most definitive answer benefit by reducing their prospective buyer pool to a few thousand or even a few hundred people.

Live Your Best Artist's LIfe
Live Your Best Artist’s LIfe

Another marketing principle is only to spend your time, money, and effort to gain the attention of those most likely to buy what you, as the marketer, are selling. Steakhouses and McDonald’s exclude vegans, and toy stores target children and parents. The Hallmark Channel targets women and the NFL men, and so on. By recognizing their most likely prospects, art marketers can use marketing tools and techniques to reach, influence, and inspire them.

How Artists Can Avoid the Out of Sight Is Out of Problem

For artists to sell their artworks with a predictable outcome, they must be in touch with those most likely to buy art from them. Being out of sight and thus out of mind is no longer a problem. Changing market conditions and evolving consumer sentiments and buying habits shift power away from galleries and other third-party distributors back to artists. Today, social media and an efficient range of affordable digital marketing tools enable artists to build awareness and grow an email list.

These tools allow artists to tap into developing consumer buying habits that include a desire to support indie artists and increasing use of ecommerce to buy cars, diamonds, fine art, and other luxury items online. (Download a free guide to the Seven Essentials Art Marketing Tools for Visual Artists here.)

A Custom Domain, Ecommerce Website, and Email Marketing Are Must-Have Tools

A custom domain name, ecommerce website, and email marketing system (EMS) are essential to the process. Together, they create a unique online presence of an ecommerce store coupled with an ongoing communication system that works to inspire art sales and create a brand for the artist.

An EMS such as Convertkit, which is my recommendation, is a critical component. Artists use it to capture email addresses, which allows them to communicate with subscribers who have self-selected by responding to enticements as potential buyers. Your EMS is the primary means of selling art once a communication channel is open between the artist and potential buyer. Email marketing works with an ecommerce website to stimulate interest that leads to sales.

The Guide to Art-related Careers
Learn about art-related Careers.

Your Email List Is Your Highest Value Marketing Asset

Nothing can compare to the return on investment in building an engaged list of email subscribers. It need not be significant, but it must be targeted and enthused about receiving and responding to your messages. The marketing tools and techniques mentioned here are the primary means of building an email list. When done right, more people will buy art from an artist’s list than from any other method of acquiring art.

The Importance of Understanding How Consumers Make Art Buying Decisions

It is crucial to understand the art buying process from the consumer’s mindset. Most art is not a spontaneous sale, especially higher-priced original art. However, there are exceptions, but not enough to build a thriving art business around occasional random sales.

People buy art when they are both ready and open to buying. They might be ready, but they can’t and won’t buy art if they lack funds or have legitimate reasons in their minds to put off a purchase. And as with other luxury-priced items, consumers will reject spontaneity in favor of research before making an expensive buying decision.

Typically in shared households, couples have a mostly unspoken dollar amount that each party respects as the level where getting approval is necessary before making a purchase. While the group will vary by household and income, it’s a safe bet that pricey fine art nearly always falls into this category.

Selling Art Is a Complex Process

Many factors go into art sales. First, because buying art is a discretionary decision, buyers rarely feel scarcity or responsive to other sales techniques. Accordingly, buyers only act when they are ready and open to buying art. Except for those who collect art as a business, passion, or hobby, buying original art is done infrequently—perhaps a few times in a lifetime. This reality adds to the complexity of selling fine art.

The Guide to Art-related Careers
Learn about art-related Careers.

Here’s what we have discussed so far:

  • Artists, like all marketers, must define their target audience.
  • For sanity and budgetary reasons, artists must limit marketing to their defined audience.
  • A domain, ecommerce website, and email marketing system are critical.
  • Fine art originals sales are rarely spontaneous because it is high-priced and discretionary.
  • Because of the price point, spouses and partners must usually agree to buy the art.
  • Scarcity and other sales pressure techniques rarely apply to selling original art.
  • Potential buyers must be ready and open to buying for an art sale to progress in the buying cycle.
  • Artists must keep in touch with prospects for long periods as buying cycles can take months and years to complete.

Given the above, artists must do three things to make sales and build a business.

  1. Define their target audience.
  2. Create a website that caters to the intended buyers.
  3. Build a list of email subscribers and use email marketing to keep them engaged until they are ready and open to buy.

Artists Choose

Learning and applying marketing tools and techniques is a process. Start small and simple. Then grow into more sophisticated methods and tools.

Artists will choose the marketing tools best for them to promote initial buyer interest and keep current subscribers and past buyers informed, educated, and engaged and do not need to use every available tool. Instead, they’ll choose from the range of traditional marketing that includes direct mail, postcards, promotion, publicity, press releases, advertising, word-of-mouth, referrals, and more.

And they’ll do the same with digital marketing, including email marketing, social media channels, search engine marketing, paid advertising on search engines and social media, influencer marketing, and more. Skillful application of an appropriate mix on a steady basis is how to get the best results.

Marketing Messages Are Only Effective When Used Frequently

Marketing is about creating awareness and then continuing to drip out a steady drumbeat of messages to reinforce, update, and move prospects toward making a purchase decision. Many artists fail to keep up communication because of the misguided worry they will be annoying. Better to err on the side of too much than too little because the latter nearly always guarantees obscurity. If people unsubscribe, they were never going to buy anyway.

In a magazine article I read years ago, Howard Fox, the curator of LACMA, the prestigious Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gave valuable insight into how he decided on who he chose to bring into the museum. He visits 100 or more galleries, openings, and artist’s studios per month on average. In the end, he found it was those artists who kept up the constant reminder to him that got and kept his attention. In a sense, he was proving the axiom that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Only you control whether you are out of sight and mind.

The job of an art marketer is to determine:

  • Who are the best prospects to buy my art?
  • What are the best ways to reach them affordably?
  • What messages will influence and inspire them to purchase my art?
  • How to keep a steady stream of messages going out over multiple channels?

The goal here is to help you understand how most original art is bought and who buys it. By now, you know it is an iterative process. Find the right potential buyer, gain their interest, create a relationship that allows you to build on the initial attraction, and turn it into a desire to own your art when the buyer is ready and open to buy.

Marketing Is a Numbers Game

You need a much larger pool of prospective buyers than actual buyers to sell anything. It takes time, numbers, patience, and practice to make all the pieces work together to create a predictable selling system. But, in the end, it is more than worth the effort.

Without a plan, artists are relegated to living off random sales or perpetually jumping from one or another method, show, or latest sales gimmick to generate sales. But, you know from experience and instincts trying to build a business haphazardly is not sustainable.

Did This Post Help You Make Sense of How Art Is Sold?

What you are reading now is one part of a multi-lesson unit in the ongoing series of informational guides and training presented in the Art Marketing Toolkit program. While we do layout specific concepts and suggest appropriate tools and actions to implement them, we also go deeper to investigate and explain why and how things work. This post is a perfect example of such efforts.

We believe that providing artists with a greater understanding of evolving market conditions and how marketing fits into the equation is the best way to help them build an art business and an artist’s life that fits their needs and desires.

Core Belief

I believe the way to have the best life as an artist and arrive at the most desirable overall outcome is to work on living life, creating art, and getting it to market holistically instead of individually. Years of experience have proven attempting to market art in a silo leads to unsatisfactory results.

Following the Logic Builds Knowledge and Confidence

The lessons in the Art Marketing Toolkit program are linked and progressive. For example, you learned about the need to know who is most likely to buy your art in this post. The next lesson in the series is the Importance of Understanding Your Customer Avatar or Ideal Buying Persona. The logical progression of knowledge builds on this Why & When People Buy Art and How Marketing Works to Sell It post. When joining the program, you will learn in live, interactive sessions with supportive and involved group communication and many more.

Here’s the best part…

You Can Design and Build a Joyful, Well-lived Artist’s Life

The Art Marketing Toolkit gives artists information, training, and encouragement to build an art business based on their needs and desires. Unfortunately, not everyone wants a full-blown, high-volume art career because getting there requires giving up far too much in most cases.

I aim to help artists design and build a joyful, well-lived artist life. And they should enjoy making art and being in the art business at the level of involvement that works best for them.

You Have Many Options. We Encourage You to Explore Them

Whether you want a full-time career selling lots of art frequently or are very much okay with making art because it is your passion where you make occasional sales, that’s up to you. Both options are perfectly acceptable since the only person to satisfy is you. If you are happy with how things are going with your art business, you’re already in that joyful, well-lived life. So we’re here to help you get and stay there.

The Guide to Art-related Careers
Learn about art-related Careers.


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  1. I really appreciated the sagacity and positive vibe of this piece. It's informative and not too technical to drown me in highbrow jargon that frustrates the crap out of me. I don't know where else I would have found this information but Fine Art America, even if you displayed it elsewhere. I believe in the concept of discretionary marketing. I'm retarded in all things technical, and although embarrassed and distressed about this challenge, I'm constantly aware that I have a fire burning to share my photos, and someone would love having them on their wall, desk, or elsewhere. That keeps me from scrubbing the whole thing. I love my family but they're nonresponsive in support. So I go on alone.

    1. Thanks for your kind words about my article. They are much appreciated. You can subscribe to get sent weekly updates at the top right of the homepage. I hear you about family support. It is a common lament for many artists and creatives. Their families can’t relate to their work nor help them with it. Consider joining the Art Marketing Toolkit family of artists. It’s the best $4.99 per month you can spend on yourself.

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