Art Problems: Those Artworks Aren’t Gonna Sell Themselves

Artist are sometimes their worst enemies (edit Sigourney Schultz and Shari Flores/Hyperallergic)

As an organized artist, art consultants and gallerists frequently complain to me about all the ways that artists sabotage themselves by being hard to work with or putting up obstacles to buying their work. What advice do you have for artists on how to not be their own worst enemy? — Frustrated but hopeful for other artists

“Where do I begin?” said Dexter Wimberly through laughter when I asked him this question. Wimberly is an independent curator and the co-founder of Creative Study, an organization that provides video-based business courses to institutions and artists. He’s made a career out of working with artists.  

“Artists often don’t know how to ask for what they want at the beginning of the relationship,” he explained. “And as the relationship evolves, it can become more and more apparent that they did not structure the partnership in a way that is advantageous to them.” According to Wimberly, the best time to make your expectations clear is at the very beginning of an engagement when everyone is happy. “It’s far more difficult to do that in the middle of a crisis,” he said. 

Beyond not knowing what to ask for, artists often shy away from asking for anything out of fear that the opportunity they have will disappear, a point Wimberly agreed with. “The term ‘partnership’ is thrown around a lot, but it can mean a lot of things,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be 50–50. You have to understand what kind of a relationship you’re entering. The artist is saying, ‘I’m trusting you with my career and livelihood.’ And the gallery is saying, ‘I’m trusting you to deliver your work to me and no one else but me.’ These are big commitments,” said Wimberly, adding that it’s necessary to make sure these agreements are written down in a contract.

However many professionals work with more informal arrangements. Leonora Loeb, an artist and member of the artist-run collective Underdonk, said that working relationships with friends have their own sets of issues. “If you’re working with people you don’t know, people act more professionally than when you’re working with people you do know,” she observed. “People feel like they can just text me the information.” That said, friends are more likely to be sympathetic to information delays, such as titling, which may be the result of anxiety. 

While Loeb said that in general, she’s had positive experiences working with artists, there have been exceptions. “Things get difficult when people lose sight of the bigger picture,” she said. “It’s important to be mindful of how you treat people.” 

Art advisor Daniel Kinkade takes a business-first approach to artist relationships. “You have to decide what kind of artist you want to be,” he told me, referring to artists who approach a commercial market with requirements unsuited to sales. “A lot of artists don’t do this. Align yourself with a specific market or audience and then commit,” he said. 

Kinkade came to our interview with a list of do’s and don’ts for artists. “It shouldn’t take several days to get pricing information,” he said, adding that it should take no more than 24 hours to share all relevant material about the work. “We’re working in a world where a lot of the buyers are millennials and they don’t like to wait.” He advises artists to maintain an organized database of their work, and if they can’t afford professional photography, to at least shoot the work without furniture or pets. 

The most important advice he gives to artists involves their online presence. “It’s better to have a website and a little social media than a lot of social media and no website,” he explained. The image quality on Instagram is poor and to many collectors and dealers, managing sales exclusively through the app appears unprofessional. “I’m not sending my clients to your Instagram. I’m just not going to do it.” 

Both Kinkade and Phillip Niemeyer, the founder of Austin-based gallery Northern Southern, cited the importance of pricing consistency. “Understand that a 50% split is normal for all retail, not just art,” Niemeyer told me. He listed out other bits of advice: “Don’t be desperate, don’t fire-sale your work on Instagram unless you are done making art, and don’t sell out of your studio if you have a gallerist.” (“Fire-selling” refers to selling work at an extremely discounted price).

Of course, there are exceptions to all of these cases, which is what makes the business so challenging. 

Being desperate usually translates into spamming and harassing your dealer, but artists may also be forced to send multiple emails if the dealer is uncommunicative. You shouldn’t fire-sale your work, but you can fire-sale a bunch of old drawings with little resale value to make room in a flat file. You shouldn’t sell out of your studio if you have a gallerist, but many artists have galleries halfway across the country that never sell to local collectors. 

But going back to Wimbley’s advice, the trick with all of this is being transparent about your needs from the start. In my experience working with artists, the vast majority of lost opportunities occur because of poor communication and failure to take another into consideration. And this happens on all sides. If an artist doesn’t articulate their needs or a dealer doesn’t communicate with their artist for several months at a time, the result is the same — stagnation. 

Don’t let this happen to you. Have conversations. Get clarity. Your sanity will thank you for it. 

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