The Business of Art: Who do you paint for?

The ability to convincingly connect to his or her patrons is something every successful artist is able to do. They get to people in a way that touches them and makes them want to buy into their creativity. Whether instinctively or by design, they know who it is they are painting for.

Who do you paint for flyer The Old Town district of Scottsdale, Arizona claims the oldest art walk in the country. Certainly, for anyone who loves art, it is treat to wander from gallery to gallery on a pleasant Thursday evening. As a local here, I revisit the experience myself just as often as I can. From my most recent tour, I came away with some thoughts about the business of art.

Amid enjoying the scene and lots of stunning I art, I found myself repeatedly asking “Who do you paint for?” Springtime Old Town art walks are a joy. The weather is spectacular, bringing out large crowds making the experience much like what happens at a busy fine art fair. That is, you have serious shoppers, casual lookers, art lovers with no money to buy, other artists, and some who are there for scene, or to be seen.

I mention art fairs here because a report from the 2010 ArtExpo New York show caused the same, “Who do you paint for?” question to come to mind. This question is not original. But, in these times when many artists, galleries and arts programs are struggling, it is poignant. Catering to buyers is crucial to the success of any business.

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Download List of 7 Essential Tools Artists Use

Owning and managing a gallery requires consummate business skills

Unless you are a trust fund baby who has other reasons besides being profitable for running a gallery, then it has to be run just as any other business. What that means is the owner needs to find artists whose work will connect with his or her buyers. This is not the market where galleries will take on work that may be hard to sell.

Exhibit space in a gallery is always at a premium. A work hanging for months is a wasting asset of sorts, even if the work is there on consignment the hard fixed attendant costs for displaying it month-after-month continue to bear down on the gallery’s profitability. To make art pay for both gallery and artist, it has to find a buyer. In this market, where buyers are also at a premium, the simple solution is to put works on display with the best chance of getting sold.

Some art begs the question of who do you paint for?

Of course, it is not that simple, but this solution cannot be ignored. And, that is what brought the question to my mind on the art walk. I saw art in galleries get not a second’s notice by a single patron although dozens and dozens have passed it by, Looking at these pieces intuitively, I felt they had no business in the gallery. They were, to my eye, not market worthy. Given they got zero interest from other patrons, I felt my instincts were validated.

I had to wonder what was the artist thinking when it was painted. Now, I realize art arguably is the most subjective type of product anyone could choose to try to sell. And, I admit my own biases were fully engaged as I viewed some of some artworks that caused me to ask myself who would buy this piece?

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Download List of 7 Essential Tools Artists Use

Dogs that wont' hunt

Politicians have made a cliché by talking about bills that won’t pass as dogs that won’t hunt. The phrase comes to my mind when seeing some of these works that I know will be hard to sell. Having worked in a couple of galleries, I have no illusions that every piece in any of them will always find a home. Some works in both had been on and off display for years. Some were re-framed in an effort to move them out. However, by and large, the pieces were ones that appeared to have commercial value.

The pieces I saw on the art walk were not the sort that would have ever been given any notice in either of the galleries I worked for, and I am quite sure would not pass muster in most other galleries on the art walk. Still some poor artist labored over the concept and creation of an artwork that will be hard to sell. And, some gallery owner or director decided to take a flier on it.

This happens in any field where personal tastes matter. Rummage through the close-out racks in a department store and you find numerous pieces of apparel that are at worst downright laughably ugly. It makes you wonder who designed the piece, what they were thinking and what was the buyer who ordered them thinking?

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Download List of 7 Essential Tools Artists Use

Art fairs such as ArtExpo New York are test tubes

The same sort of thing happens as shows such as ArtExpo New York. A report from an artist who was represented by his publisher brought to mind the same question of whom are you painting for. I am not naming names here because it won’t help anyone to mention them.

Picture a booth with fours artists being exhibited by a single publisher. One artist has been with the publisher for a long time and has a great following, the others are much newer to the scene and are just beginning to get established. Naturally, the top artist had the most sold red dots. Another of the new entrants garnered nearly as many without the years of exposure at the shows, through direct mail and advertising. The third did okay, and one poor fellow sold nothing at all. How does this happen?

How can one emerging artist open nearly a dozen new galleries, have 55 prints and originals sell in the same booth, and yet another artist in the same booth whose work had equal exposure, but got zero sales? You could say life is not fair and I would agree.

The real reason has to do with whether the art connects to the buyer. There is no amount of marketing or selling that can make up the difference. If a buyer sees something she or he likes, they are predisposed to learn more and to be asked to buy. If the dogs aren’t hunting or the fish biting, then the art gets no action.

Art business success comes by making art that compelling connects to collectors

It has always been the case that artists need to connect with their buyers to be successful. But, now it is more important than ever for this to be the case. There is more art everywhere than any other time; it is more widely available at all price points. I believe artists who are serious about making their art pay in today’s market conditions should be thinking about who they are painting for.

There is no harm at all to paint to please yourself. It is a wonderful thing if you can please yourself and your patrons at the same time. But, if you are looking to make a career from selling your art and your patrons are not liking what is most personally appealing to you, then you need to change your style or think about getting a day job.

If you have read my book, How to Profit from the Art Print Market, you know I show how top selling artists find a way to keep creating in the same vein for years. And, that they are talented enough to continue to create new images without wearing out the line. Being reliable in this way is one of the keys to their enduring success. I believe this message is most true now for artists of all sorts whether new or established, in the originals or the print market, or both.

Find something that works and work with it

It boils down to this; if you want to be successful, find something that works and stay with it, refine it, expand it, deconstruct it, but be consistent. If you need to try something new and different, okay. Just don’t do it to the detriment of what is working to pay the bills for you now.

Conversely, if you are not getting the sales you need, you need to find out why. Is the look just commercially viable, or is the work not strong enough in a market where collectors have overwhelming choices? It could be you have the concept, have the technical ability, but lack the creative verve to make it compelling. That may be a harsh assessment, but if it is accurate, wouldn’t you want to know? You have no chance to fix the problem if you cannot pinpoint what it is.

It is always fun to be creative and expressive. But, that is not what being successful as an artist is about. To gain enduring commercial success, you have to tap your collectors in a persuasive way, or it just won’t work.

The ability to convincingly connect to his or her patrons is something every successful artist is able to do. It goes across the board with all artists, be they musicians, writers, actors, visual artists and others. They get to people in a way that touches them and makes them want to buy into their creativity. Whether instinctively or by design, they know who it is they are painting for.

Download List of 7 Essential Tools Artists Use
Download List of 7 Essential Tools Artists Use


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  1. Interesting post and a thought provoking question indeed!

    While my market is more in illustration I know who I paint for and I love to have the contact to my clients, but I also know that getting into a Gallery and representation in the fine arts sector can be a frustrating endeavor.
    I don´t spend time thinking about that; like you said the galleries and the market needs to change and rethink their businesses to build a bridge between the artists and the buyers.

    With today online tools, artists need to market themselves and learn to connect with buyers directly. Galleries are marketeers and salesman but neither artists nor buyers and they try to fix this lack of knowledge with their pricing, sorry but in the current state of economy development this business has no future.

    And I just have to disagree with the last paragraph – to quote Oscar Wilde:

    “Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.”

  2. Excellent article. I witness this myself at NY Art Expo Show.
    Artist need to develop their career but no amount of online marketing and effort will be justified if art does not connect with the buyers or artist did not found “who do you paint for”

  3. but i think now people are realizing about the artists too and they are coming in to markets looking for natural and hand painted arts. the article is awesome love this

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