Why Selling Art May Never Be The Same
The Gatekeeper System was the only way an artist could get their work in front of the best collectors in past decades, but just as the recording and publishing industries have seen wild changes in the way consumers buy their goods, galleries and artists are experiencing vast changes in how they get their work seen and sold. The ease of downloading and buying on the internet, has not only made it easier for recording artists and self-publishers to make a living on their own, but visual artists are increasingly able to promote and sell directly to their “peeps”. Collectors are contacting artists directly to see what's brand new off the easel – before it gets into the gallery.
Are There Fewer Collectors Buying?
Absolutely yes... in some venues. I'll explain why in a few minutes. These are not just my opinions - what I'm about to say is based on research with gallery owners, collectors and artists. The good news is that the number of collectors for lower priced work (under $1000) is growing fast. This is the middle class who is discovering the joys of art collecting. They are "beginners" and even if they do have the means to buy more expensive work from galleries, they are not willing to pay over a certain amount of money. Most buy works unframed for under $500. These folks love to support local or regional artists while they build a collection.
They buy at art fairs, local framing galleries, shows and events near their home, and from artists' studio sales. Outgoing artists are painting at farmers' markets, outdoors in nearby resort communities and any place where they can meet people and develop a relationship with them. This grassroots art movement is increasing the number of collectors - people who have the means to buy art, but have never been to galleries. I've done portrait commissions for multi-millionaires that had photos of their family and framed posters on their walls. While their furniture was top of the line, they knew nothing about collecting original works of art. They were shocked by the prices of original work. If they were willing, I gently educated them about artists in the area that they might check out and often sold them some of my landscapes or still lifes.
I used to advise artists to go for the national market, because then you get the local market automatically, but that was many years ago, and everything about the way art is marketed and sold has changed. Right now, in this economy, if you're just starting out selling your work, you'll do better if you promote your art locally and regionally. The nationally acclaimed galleries who advertise in magazines only want artists who are a sure sell... which means they want artists who are already selling very well to a national market. It's a catch 22. Those who win national awards on a consistent basis and have reasonable prices stand the best chance of getting into one of these well-known galleries.
What About Galleries?
My latest research shows: There are, of course exceptions, but primarily... Artists who sell exclusively through high-end commercial galleries are hurting for sales while those who are selling on their own, or combining gallery sales for their larger works and self-sales for small unframed studies are able to continue to earn a living. Even the artists who are doing so, report a 50% drop in their income from before 2008.
Galleries may no longer be the best answer. Why is that? Because they are not attracting collectors as well as they did in the past, and what I'm about to say is huge.... collectors do not feel any incentive to buy unless the artist's work is in such high demand that they might miss out on it, unless the work is sold by draw, or is an annual event where the artists save their best works for the opening... stuff that is new, spectacular and is probably going to be snatched up on opening night.
Supply And Demand:
Works that hangs in the gallery or shows on the gallery website... month after month, year after year, loses its appeal... why is that? Because there is ample supply - all the time, which downgrades the demand for that work. The law of supply and demand still holds true for selling goods at all levels. Art might sell differently than groceries do, but some of the same principles apply.
If you've ever read any of Seth Godin's books, he frequently talks about how Scarcity Creates Value. We artists would do ourselves a favor if we take that concept to heart. While producing artwork as though you're a painting factory worked during the economic boom, or may have worked, prolific artists can put themselves in danger of saturating their markets, and this is the important part... especially if these prolific artists' prices quadrupled in a matter of a few years. There is no long term growth and scarcity to substantiate the higher prices.
I can't mention names, but there are more than a couple of prolific well-known artists whose income was 10 to 20% in 2010 of what it was before 2008. Fortunately, for them - sales are picking up in recent months. HOWEVER, I believe that no artist should assume that things will return to what they considered "normal" during the bubble. From now on, it is wise to prepare for downturns, create multiple streams of income, and not get too dependent on galleries to do all the promotion and sales.
In later blogs, I'll go into more detail about how artists can arm themselves with plans for when the going gets tough, and I don't think the tough times are over. Most artists who've worked with galleries exclusively are seeing them close, and those that remain open are often not producing enough sales to pay the artist's bills.
So Why Are Galleries Suffering?
Basically because they have lost a great deal of their collector base. Many folks who were avid collectors in the last decade are no longer buying artwork. For one, some have dozens, if not hundreds of works in their collections. When the housing market took a nose-dive, these same collectors sometime ended up with the mortgage on their second homes "underwater". Some decided to "cash in" on their art investment and put their recently acquired works back on the market. So what happened?
Just as the print market got saturated in the 1990s, when collectors bought up limited edition lithographs thinking they'd be worth a lot on the secondary market, they unfortunately later found out that their prints were not worth anything on the secondary market. Original works do hold more value than prints ever will, but right now, there is a plethora of living artists' works on the primary, as well as, secondary market, and if those artists have not had years of slow growth of prices that substantiate the worth of their works, the paintings are slow to sell - especially in a weak economy.
This phenomenon not only hurts their sales - because it causes artists to compete for sales with their past works, but it hurts sales for other artists who sell in the same price range. Collectors are being very careful. Yes, I know that they are supposed to buy art for the love of it, but gallery dealers are saying that most buyers are deeply concerned about their "investment" value. This worry is leading buyers to ask for 10 to 15% discounts in order to secure their investment. Essentially, they are treating artwork purchases like stocks.
While this trend may sicken many artists, it's what's happening. I hope things change soon. Art sales are improving, but mostly at museum shows, auctions and annual events. The most serious collectors seem to prefer to buy at these one-time shows for which the artists reserve their best works. They also buy from seeing works in magazine ads or online... especially if the work of a certain artist tends to get snatched up right away. So essentially... sales beget sales. It all boils down to finding ways to increase the demand for your work. There are dozens, if not hundreds of ways to go about this - and savvy artists will take their individual marketing and painting personalities into consideration when making business plans for the coming year.
OK, I realize that I have not offered a lot of solutions here, but I promise that I'll pursue a series of blogs that address solutions, and will note what artists are actually doing to find buyers for their work.
Stay tuned....!!! and expect things to change.... Change is Here to Stay. The Smart and Hard workers will Do Well.