Reposting: Should Artists Work with Galleries, Go Direct to Collectors or Do Both?

Should artists use galleries, sell direct, or work both channels. Artists need to answer the question in the context of today’s evolving art market where change is the most constant thing we know.

Last year, Lori McNee and I tackled the question whether artists should use galleries, sell direct, or work both channels. The question is one every professional artist must answer. And, they must answer it in the context of today’s evolving art market where change is the most constant thing we know.

Because the need to understand the options remains great, I am reposting here the article that kicked off the series. It garnered lots of interest from our mutual readers. You can use the links in the post here to read the entire series.

Art Marketing Conversation with Lori McNee & Barney Davey  In the art business, if you hang out online with your kind or tribe as Seth Godin calls them, it does not take long to find lots of interesting folks whose work you admire. Such is the case with fine artist and prolific blogger Lori McNee and me.

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Through mutual requests, we decided instead of guest blogging for each other that it would be a fun experiment to collaborate conversation style keeping to a single art marketing topic. It was an easy choice to first tackle whether visual artists should work on getting into galleries, seek to build their own direct-to-collector distribution, or do both.

Barney:  Although it arguably is contradictory, I am in the “do both” camp. While I believe artists will enjoy many benefits by working with galleries, working exclusively makes artists too reliant on things out of their control. In year’s past, there were no options and the gallery system was stronger.

I do not advocate abandoning art galleries. However, in today’s art market, well established art galleries can get blindly buzz sawed by circumstances beyond their control and wreak havoc to the detriment of its artists in the process. And, now visual artists have tools to sell direct as never before. In their own interest, I believe they should pursue them alongside galleries.  As entrepreneurs, artists must tend their art careers and art businesses. That means being aware of changes and making the most of them for their own sake.

Lori:  This is one of the most heated topics being debated by artists right now. In fact, this very subject has been the focus of conversation during the past two weekends on my visits and paint-outs with some very influential professional artists. This is what I learned:
•    Surprisingly, some nationally recognized artists have begun to abandon the gallery route in favor of studio shows, self promoted exhibitions and direct marketing sales.
•    The majority of artists, including myself, believe in a healthy combination of gallery representation and self promotional sales.
•    The minority believe in relying on galleries for their sole promotion and sales.

Here is the synopsis: Direct marketing is the trend for 2010-2011. Gone are the days when galleries could hang art and easily sell it off the walls.  In light of the challenging economic times, the art market has suffered and galleries have been struggling. Most prospective collectors do not have the disposable income they once enjoyed. Now when a buyer does decide to invest their hard earned money in art, the collector wants a personal connection or better understanding of the artist. Galleries and artists can now tap into the ‘direct marketing’ approach with the use of Social Media, blogs, websites, YouTube as well as artists’ receptions, arts/crafts fairs, etc. This new form of direct marketing is the wave of the future.

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Barney:  Today, society’s quick acceptance of change affects every business large and small. For example, could Google have imagined a closed social network platform launched to find the best looking freshmen on campus would evolve into the most serious threat it has known?

Facebook, other social media and ecommerce have changed consumer habits affecting the business model of brick & mortar galleries. Another factor is the Darwinian effects caused by the collapsing housing market that pummeled all businesses providing anything for homes, including art galleries.

Changing times require artists learn to be self-reliant. Fortunately with the available tools, this is the best time ever for visual artists to control their destiny and to sell direct. That said, I believe galleries serve an important role, are here to stay and should be treated with respect.

There is a term called coopetition where companies compete on some fronts and cooperate on others. I believe this is the future for artists and galleries. On one side galleries need to recognize and accept artists will compete with them without accepting suicidal head on direct sales battles. On the other, artists have to bring more to the table than art that sells, i.e., a personal brand, a loyal following, a killer mailing list, media contacts and so forth. Creative concerned coopetition should be the key to growth and survival for artists and galleries.

Lori:  I really like the idea of coopetition.  Some galleries might be hesitant to warm up to this mutually beneficial new idea.  Therefore, artists need to be proactive in building trust with their galleries through open communication.  I see this as the natural evolution of the artist/gallery relationship.

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Barney: Despite that we both agree a combination of working with galleries and direct sales is the best. I believe we also agree there is no perfect answer. Artists can still be very successful being exclusively with galleries only program, or vice-versa handling all sales direct to collectors. Obviously, social media can play a huge part in marketing an art career no matter what path an artist chooses to follow.

Stay tuned. This conversation will get into social media and art marketing in our next installment, to be announced.

You can find the second installment, Visual Artist’s Challenge II – Balancing Self Promotion & Gallery Representation, on Lori’s Fine Art Tips blog.


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  1. “Direct marketing is the trend for 2010-2011.”
    Comment: Direct marketing was always the trend ever since the internet and artist web sites came to be. When was that? – 10 years ago this direct marketing trend started? It was just art coaches and art bloggers that were trying to push some other ideas and finally catching up with the real art world that they noticed the new trend of direct marketing.

    “…the collector wants a personal connection or better understanding of the artist. ”
    Comment: Do not agree. Collector’s are all different; some are interested in a personal connection, some not. This is not some new phenomenon being discovered..

    “This new form of direct marketing is the wave of the future.”
    Where have you guys been? Artists and galleries have been doing this for years.

    Hmmmmm…here is my relationship with galleries. Galleries have the territory within their walls and anyone that goes to the artist and says “I was at Gallery XYZ and want to pay a painting directly from you.” (Artist then gives gallery commission of some sort.)
    Anything outside of that is the artist’s territory. And the gallery and I will discuss if they can sell my art via internet. They can promote my art to get people in their gallery, but can the gallery sell it directly via the internet? – maybe not.

    Lots of these ideas seem to come from the comment section of this blog where Lori was a part of.

  2. Hey Barney,
    Great article!

    I agree with you that artists should be selling through galleries as a distribution channel, but also selling directly. And I love how Lori talks about the new art business model that includes direct marketing, social media, studio shows, and selling direct.

    Also, I agree that this is the greatest time in history to be an artists. There are so many tools and ways to succeed. It is a fascinating time in that regard.

    I am an advocate of artists using direct marketing to grow their business. Brand marketing has its place in marketing, but I find it is most effective if combining it with a direct marketing component. Every marketing plan I have ever created for artists and various businesses big and small, has been based on the fundamental principles of direct and database marketing. Moreover, my website teaches artists direct marketing principles, so they can prosper.

    Direct marketing is shark marketing on a minnow’s budget.

    Thanks again for the article!

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