By Barney Davey
It was never easy for a brick and mortar gallery to make impulse sales. Successful galleries work contacts for years and months to get first sales. That has always been the case. The internet has changed everything. It made the process harder than ever.
Editor’s Note: This post is excerpted from my new book: Straight Advice: How to Market Art Online Now.
The internet allows collectors to price shop and perform due diligence on the gallery’s claim about the artist’s reputation, the art’s provenance and more. They do it right in the gallery on their smartphones.
The internet also had a devastating effect on print sales in galleries. Fewer galleries carry prints now. They recognize originals don’t have the same competition as prints. Galleries that sell prints are specialized. Most of the remaining print galleries have a long history and great contact lists of buyers.
The Great Recession economy put additional pressure on galleries selling the same prints by an artist, creating online price wars. While this has always gone on, the internet has intensified the competition and rapidly expanded this shift in buying tactics. Smart collectors realize they can shop widely for fine art prints as with everything else, thanks to the convenience of the internet. This is a problem for artists and galleries but, at the same time, an opportunity. It’s pure Darwinism.
The survivors are those who learned how to adapt to shifting consumer buying trends. The same will be true for artists.
Formerly, I believed it was bad business for artists to create channel conflict by competing with their galleries unless they were an established name in the industry. It’s easy to realize why galleries wouldn’t surrender valuable retail space to compete with unknown artists selling the same work on their websites.
In an ideal world, artists and galleries should not have to compete. Unfortunately, it’s not such an ideal world and so that’s not the case today. Although there is no clear-cut formula for how competing artists or galleries should co-operate, both parties taking the high road is the best approach.
What I mean by the high road for artists is that they need to establish guidelines for what is not only in their best interests but the galleries’ as well. If you’re fortunate enough to have a relationship with a gallery that’s moving your work, you should not be in direct competition with them by selling the same images from your website.
Perhaps the gallery markets the originals while you sell the prints, but because each case is unique, there are too many options to explore here. Suffice it to say; it will take creativity and persuasive negotiation to work deals with galleries when you’re also selling work on your site or through other distribution channels.
Selling directly to collectors can be a viable marketing decision when you’re a known entity. For example, the premier primitive artist, Jane Wooster Scott, has done well selling from her website (woosterscott. com), while supporting a dealer network. She was an early adopter of this trend.
In Wooster Scott’s case, galleries with Americana collectors want to carry her work, despite the channel conflict, because they know that, due to her reputation and the demand for her work, she sells. It’s a business decision for them, just as it is for her company. So, while you can aspire to be able to achieve what Scott has managed, building your reputation and demand for your work may be the better way to go. After all, it makes sense that galleries will steadfastly reject artists without a following who plan to compete with them directly. Who can blame them?
Whatever the case, I do think publishers, artists and galleries need to rethink how they collaborate to create a collector base for the artist. What worked in the past may not function best now or in the future: the shifting buying patterns caused by the internet are at the heart of that.
There has always been some naturally occurring antagonism between some galleries and some artists. It’s a marriage of sorts. Some are rocky relationships while others are solid; artists feel galleries don’t do enough for them, and galleries think artists aren’t loyal, are withholding better pieces and ready to jump to the next gallery, and so it goes.
Of course, there also are wonderful stories of galleries and artists sharing blissful success in long-term relationships. However, I’ve also heard artists ask, with a sneer, in what other business do retailers get their product for free and then Keystone it (100% price increase) when it’s sold. On the other hand, I’ve also heard gallerists lament that it costs them $100 or more per month, per piece on display in rent, not including other expenses such as commissions, benefits, taxes, utilities, advertising and more – and all with no appreciation of their overhead from the artists they serve.
Galleries often rightly find many artists clueless when it comes to understanding the difficulty of creating a collector. But artists often find that galleries fail in adequately representing them and living up to the spirit of their sales and marketing agreements. This observation is neither a condemnation of either artists or galleries nor their actions. Everybody puts self-interest first, which is natural. As I said earlier, there’s a Darwinian quality to the relationship.
Having said that, this is not the time for either side to be working against the other. The best outcome would be for all parties to realize that, if they don’t find a way to cooperate better and deal with the disruptive changes caused by the internet, they’ll all suffer in the end.
My advice is as follows: If you’re an artist, you need a website. You’ll have to figure out how to use it to serve your needs and that of the galleries or publishers who carry your work, depending on your particular circumstances. If you’re a gallery owner, and you’re not set up to sell online – and don’t plan to be – then start thinking about what your next career will be because you’ll soon be an observer in this business, watching the erosion of your sales to your online competitors.