There are the worst, good, better and best ways to sell art. We’ll cover them all here.
Let’s talk about the first way, which is the worst way.
The worst way is selling art to strangers. Anytime you sell to people who you don’t know; it is the hardest and thus the worst way to sell art. Without question, selling to strangers is 100% the most expensive, the least efficient, and takes the longest time to complete a sale.
The problem is buyers must go through a process before they feel comfortable to make a purchase. It is the customer journey of KNOW, LIKE and TRUST. You hear this talked about in marketing all the time because of its universal truth. To get someone to buy from you, particularly a discretionary income and often expensive item such as fine art, you need to move them through this evaluation method.
If they can’t trust you, they can’t like you. When you have all three—KNOW, LIKE, TRUST things working for you—you create your best opportunity to sell your art.
It’s simple. If they know, like and trust you, the only questions are; do they have a need and do they like your art? Even when you have a relationship sales are never automatic. That’s because prospects might have a need, and like your work, but don’t have any money. Another fail might be they have a need and have money, but they just aren’t fond of your art.
Examples of selling to strangers include selling to anyone who does not know you. I don’t need to tell you cold calling or cold emailing someone you don’t know is unfun and ineffective. Advertising on Facebook, other social media, in print ads, or in art magazines are all forms of selling to strangers. These methods are, at best, ways to introduce your art to strangers and create awareness, but they don’t sell art. Especially expensive original art. In any situation, where the other person knows nothing about you, you’re starting as far back from KNOW, LIKE and TRUST as you can be.
If you are doing a good job of marketing, people are going to get to know you even though you don’t know them. I’ve talked and written extensively about how to market to your local and warm market. That’s because I believe those markets represent the very best ways for artists to get started and to make easy sales.
The easiest sales are to people who know you. The next easiest sales are to the people they know. – Barney Davey
Local and warm market sales work best because human nature kicks in. Whenever you aren’t starting by having to jump through the KNOW, LIKE, TRUST hoops, your barriers to sales are low. Local and warm markets make your art sales as easy as they will ever be.
It’s said the average person knows 150 people. Try creating your list. Start thinking of the people you know. Then determine who they are, such as your friends, teachers, doctors, lawyer, accountant, bookkeeper, neighbors, relatives, service people, work mates, sports friends, school chums, church-goers and so forth. I believe nearly anyone can get to that 150 target. Each one of those people should know you make art and can easily say what kind of art you make. “Barney is a painter. He specializes in desert landscapes.”
Whatever size your list of people you know, I guarantee sales and referrals are waiting to be made just by informing and asking. People like to help people they know. Put a little effort into your request. Offer some note cards. Assist them however you can. Offer a free sketch or ideas on a color palette. There are dozens of easy ways you can ingratiate yourself to others by being there for them first and asking for their help afterward.
It’s also estimated most people know about 25 very well. If you can reach through them to the 25 people they know, you now have a warm market of more than 600 people. Can you see the power of selling to someone who knows you, or knows something about you, and who is connected to you by someone who knows you well?
How is marketing in this way not measurably better, more fun, and effective than trying to sell to strangers? It’s not, and you know it. So, stop wasting time chasing strangers and galleries in faraway places when easy sales are all around you.
Your new contact might not be the person who has the kind of income to spend on your art. Nevertheless, your job is to make sure they at least know you are an artist and what type of art you make. That’s because they can refer their acquaintances who might be excellent prospects to buy your art.
As soon as your contact mentions your name to someone else, the new person is one who knows who you are. When this happens, you’ve jumped from worst to good in the four ways to sell art. All simply by somebody referring you.
In some cases, you may jump over the good way to the better way because they might also be someone who collects art. (We’ll talk about how that works in a minute.) Regardless, through the referral, you knock down the know and likely the trust barrier. Now, when you put on a little charm, you can zoom past the like barrier, too.
I’m sure you can see, referrals are a very powerful form of marketing for you. And, they are not limited to your geographical area. Your warm market isn’t just people who know you from your local community, your church, where your kids go to school or play soccer or anything like that. With the internet, your warm market is everywhere.
Referrals and relationships happen all the time in online communities. It’s one of the strengths of the web. It allows people who like the same things to find each other and make referrals. It sometimes seems to me referrals online come easier than those done in person. Social media is powered by sharing.
Selling to a warm market and via referrals isn’t limited to people who know you personally. It’s easy to make an acquaintance when you have a shared passion. For instance, if you make equine art, it’s a simple task to find people on the internet who like horses and equine art. And, they don’t have to be available to you in your local area.
It doesn’t matter what kind of art you make. Whether you do wine paintings or Western art, there are interested buyers for you out there. Some think abstract art wouldn’t work this way and they would be wrong. Granted abstracts are more difficult to market because they are harder to define in a niche. But, with a little work, you can find lots of people who like abstract art on the internet.
The better way to sell art is to sell to people who collect art. I distinguish the difference between people who buy art and the people who collect art this way.
The bulk of the population is art buyers, not collectors. Art buyers are people who have a need now. They have a space on the wall. They are redecorating their home or office. They are building a new facility. They need art for a gift or some other reason. They buy art as needed, but they don’t collect it. As soon as their need is fulfilled the likelihood that they will continue to buy more art anytime soon is greatly diminished.
Collectors like art and they like artists and want to support them. They almost always buy multiple pieces from artists they like. It’s unfortunate that there are too few collectors to go around. It means you need both buyers and collectors to make your art business thrive.
This better method is included here because you can have collectors who buy your art through a gallery. Or, they might buy from you at a show where you are exhibiting. It’s possible they find you online or through some other way, but they have not yet gone through the KNOW, LIKE and TRUST gamut. As such, they’re close, but not ready to be put into the next best way category.
This is the most profitable way to go. The concept of selling to collectors who know you is one I have written about and trained artists on the optimal ways to do it for years. I believe it is crucial to the long-term success of artists to find collectors and sell to them directly. Most likely, to sell all your art, you will still need third-parties to help you get your work to market. But their importance and influence are diminished each time you add new patrons to your list of direct buyers.
When you create a personal relationship with your patrons, you put yourself in the ideal position to ensure your future success. These personal relations give you the most control you will ever have over your career. Nothing can come between you and your patrons who buy from you directly.
When you put emphasis on collectors, you are narrowing down your niche to much smaller numbers of potential prospects. This is a good thing. It makes your marketing easier and more affordable. Smaller, targeted numbers increase the probability folks in your niche will buy from you. And, by working on identified prospects, you lessen the drawbacks of selling your artwork to strangers.
I developed the 100 Collector Theory to illustrate the power of building a base of loyal collectors. It goes this way. The average artist can create 1,000 original pieces of art in a lifetime. That is 33 pieces a year over a 30-year period.
Your art might be much harder to make and take longer to make. It could be 1,000 pieces is a high number for you. Or, you could be very prolific, and it could be a low number. You may be starting your career later in life. As the saying goes, “Your mileage will vary.”
It has been said Picasso made 50,000 pieces in his lifetime. Well, that included every scribble he ever put on a napkin. It’s out of the norm. For the average artist, 1,000 original works of art is a realistic number. It’s a good benchmark for the 100 Collector Theory.
So. let’s assume as an artist you have developed 100 collectors. When you have patrons, who’ve gotten to know you and who appreciate your art, it’s likely over the course of your career, and they will buy an average of three to five pieces.
Taking the math to the next step you can see these 100 loyal customers may account for buying as much as 500 pieces of art from you. What a relief to think you can sell roughly half of your total output of originals to this small, but mighty group.
You have patrons who know, like and trust you. They collect your work and are your best source of referrals. When these things happen, your marketing costs go very low and your margins very high. Your returns are practically zero. And, your comfort level is 100%, or close to it with them. This is as close to marketing perfection as you can get.
I can’t think of any reason you wouldn’t want to make it a top priority to sell your art to people who like artists and like to collect art. If you are prolific in your art making and equal in building relationships, there is no reason you can’t have 200, 300, or more patrons on your list.
Making a goal of attaining a larger number of collectors is neither unreasonable nor unattainable. What you achieve is dependent on your desire, production, ambition, and productivity. As such, your goals are highly personal. That means only you get the final decision on setting and living by them. So, whether you choose to target 50 or 300 collectors is your decision. All other input is just opinions. Of course, some are better taken than others.
Successfully selling art on a steady basis is always challenging. Maintaining a prosperous career is also daunting. Few small business owners or merchants are charged with making whatever it is they sell. Most source and order their goods. Hardly any need to create a steady stream of exclusive works to supply the business.
As an artist entrepreneur, you have all the duties and responsibilities of any small business merchant. Plus, you have the added task of being the creative engine that generates salable art for the business. So, pat yourself on the back for being special. Then get back to work because your buyers don’t care. They never think about things in that way. And it’s not your job, nor will it do you any good to inform them. I know, and your fellow artists know. We appreciate you for these required extra efforts to make a successful career.
Yay! There is something good in the mix that is unique to you. The advantage you have is visual artists only need a small group of loyal buying collectors to make a thriving career. Therefore, I believe it is so important for artists to be diligent and to work hard at building a solid basis of patrons who buy from them directly. Get this right, and your career is golden.
It took centralized power away from a small group of distributors and made it possible for artists to find the kind of buyers who will become fans of their work, purchase multiple pieces, and offer them referrals. Technology makes it easy to connect with your top prospects and to communicate with them frequently.
Finding unknown buyers and wringing sales from them is hard and unforgiving. And, often not that profitable. It’s not easy to identify prospective buyers, and it can be expensive to get your message delivered enough times to get them to take notice of you, much less pull the trigger and buy something. They have lots of choices, and when they don’t know you, it’s easy for prospects to close their wallet.
Selling through physical galleries is sometimes okay. The problem is there aren’t enough of them to go around. There never was. And, the ones left have less influence than ever. Many are hanging on by their fingernails. I don’t believe nearly any artist can make a living by selling through galleries. The exception is a select few who are well established with decades of experience and relationships with galleries. And, many of them are concerned about their futures. They can see what is happening and realize things are changing in ways that are unfavorable to them and their gallery partners.
You can try selling online. Sometimes, it works well. But, it can be fickle for lots of reasons. Facebook changes its algorithms, rules, and advertising interface nearly daily. Plus, it’s getting more expensive. And, worst, you don’t want to build a house on rented land.
Selling online is a good way to augment your other sales channels, but it’s not a way to build a business of ongoing sales of higher priced originals. You can get booted from social media without recourse at any time.
There are more shows now than ever. The number of shows makes it hard on exhibitors and buyers to pick the right venue. And, it waters down the sales for all involved. Plus, art shows are expensive, not to mention travel and shipping bothers. And, you know shows are never a sure thing. Some are more reliable than others, but you don’t want to bet your future on a show’s ability to keep producing.
I watched the Decor Expo Atlanta show grow into a behemoth by 2003 and go belly up by 2008. That was a haunting disaster for hundreds of exhibitors who for decades had heavily relied on that show to produce annual revenue for them.
No system works for everyone. Even the top solutions fail for some people. So, what should artists do to ensure their success? My advice is to identify your best art-buying prospects and work to create a relationship with them… and keep doing it no matter what. When you succeed at this, you will have more control over your career than ever. Nothing can come between you and a personal relationship you have with a patron who buys directly from you. Nothing.
Galleries can close and they will. Facebook can get so big it fails. People lose interest in it and other social media. Third-party channels such as publishers, licensors and others can drop you for any reason at any time. Who wants to bet their career on those things?
I’ve advised artists on the best ways to get their work to market for 25 years. In that time, I’ve seen lots of things come and go. I can say without any hesitation that I believe the best thing artists can do for themselves is to find their ideal buyer prospects and connect with them. Then create smart, ongoing communications with them to remind them on regular, scheduled basis about the fantastic art you make.
If you read about the 100 Collector Theory above, you know a collector might buy three to five pieces of art over the span of your career. When you concentrate your efforts on building a solid core of collectors, you give yourself the best odds of selling your work on an ongoing, profitable basis. Your marketing costs will be lower, and your margins will be higher. You will have the cash flow to market your work online, or through other third parties, but you will never be reliant on them and have your career in their clutches.
The web and other technology make it easier than ever to find your top prospects. It’s now possible to become known to people who are most likely to buy your art. Many times, you can get to know who you should work on connections with by name. You may not be able to join their country club, or even want to if you could. But, you can join them at the Boys and Girls Club or any dozens of local, offline, and online groups and associations where they gather and participate.
If there is a better way to build a sustainable art business than selling directly to patrons you handpicked, I don’t know what it is. I seriously doubt there is a better way that keeps you in control. Remember, no one can ever take a personal relationship away from you. That is a super powerful benefit of growing your own buyers.
Any artist can do these things and do them well. There is evidence of it all around. It may not always come easy or swiftly. You will experience setbacks and heartaches. If you stay the course and do the work, the payoff will make your struggles worthwhile. The exhilaration of the view from the top and the intense satisfaction from knowing you conquered your fears and worries and worked through all the obstacles to get there are what doing the work is all about. Your journey begins now. Carpe Diem!