8 Reasons Why You're Not Successful Selling Artwork  |  Art Business Journal
Marketing Selling

8 Reasons Why You’re Not Successful Selling Artwork

If you’re serious about selling your art, you have to think about what potential buyers want as much as what you want to create. Creating artwork that nobody wants to buy won’t get sold. That doesn’t mean you have to sell out; you can still maintain your artistic integrity. Many artists have an “artistic” product line suitable for showing at galleries, for commissions and art collectors. You can also have a more “commercial”  line, that is more affordable and appealing to the masses. You can do both. Don’t forget, art is a product, there has to be demand, and you are a business. Whether you’re trying sell art on your website, an online marketplace, pop-up gallery or art and craft fair, and want to sell more, this article is for you.

How do you sell your artwork? It’s the age-old question that artists confront each time they create work that doesn’t seem to find its footing in the marketplace. Too often, independent artists confuse talent with saleability: If a piece of artwork isn’t selling, it must be because it’s simply not compelling enough to land in a collector’s hands. Unproductive thoughts start to creep in – maybe you’re simply not talented enough to make it as an artist. You consider giving up.

Selling Artwork is Hard

The reality is that selling artwork is subject to the same challenges facing any business today. Whether or not your business is successful and generates revenue – in the artists’ case, whether or not you manage to sell your artwork – is driven not just by the product, but what you do with that product. Selling your artwork is more than making your work; it’s about making sure your work in in the marketplace in a way that engages your target audience and entices buyers.

“I do think there’s this question mark about really strong work that should be selling and doesn’t,” says Aimee Rubenstein, the co-owner of Rojas + Rubensteen Projects, a nomadic gallery with roots in Miami, New York, and Paris. “The art world is changing so rapidly, museums and auction house, gallery and studio are all blurring together so that artists have living studios in museums. Online sales have completely changed the infrastructure of selling art. I think there’s so many different things at hand, but people are definitely buying more artists.”

The latter is certainly true: According to a survey published by Invaluable, an online auction and gallery hub, nearly a quarter (22.7%) of art buyers find new works of art via social media, which edged out museums (20%) and galleries (15.9%) as buyers’ primary source of discovery. Millennials are leading this change, with 44.3% of young millennials (ages 18–24) and 33.8% of older millennials (ages 25–34) saying they discover art on social media.

Armed with the knowledge that more and more collectors are entering the art world, how can artists be successful in selling their work? What are some of the main factors affecting why your artwork isn’t selling, and how can you adjust your work to respond to the market? Here, we review some of the most crucial tactics for selling your artwork to a new collecting audience.

1. You Aren’t Creating Work That Responds to the Market

Throughout art school, you were probably told to focus on creating, and let whether or not you’d be able to sell your work happen naturally. While it’s true that artists should focus primarily on what they want their work to say, its also important to consider how that work will be received by the art market.

“Some artists create art in order to sustain themselves; they know they have to sell it and to sell it, they have to make it aesthetically pleasing,” says Rubensteen. “And then there are others who abandon that idea and their work is strong enough so people connect with it and want to buy it.”

Naturally, artists who are making very strong work that’s well received by the marketplace aren’t so commonplace. Rubensteen stresses that artists who wish to sell their work as a means of sustaining themselves should be thinking about what a collector might want.

“Saleability goes back to being a business person yourself,” says Rubensteen. “There are some collectors who want something that’s decorative, and then there are others who aren’t looking for the aesthetically pleasing piece, they’re looking for something that has punch. It depends on what your intention is with your art over whether you will create art that fits the collector. If you’re trying to sell art, you should take that responsibility seriously.”

If you’re looking for ideas on how you might be able to make work that responds to your audience, consider spending more time visiting galleries, talking to fellow artists, and observing the work that’s currently making waves in the market. “I say find an artist whose work is similar to yours – material, scale, and themes, and figure out what makes them saleworthy.”

2. You Haven’t Found or Aren’t Engaging Your Audience

Selling artwork is inextricably tied to how you’re able to engage audiences with your work. If you aren’t taking the time to meet art lovers and discuss your work and the impact you believe it’s making, you’re likely wasting valuable time.

“The question you need to ask yourself is, ‘How can you make this person believe that they can’t leave without it?'” says Rubensteen. “I think that applies to anything you sell. The difference with art is that it’s a very emotional sale. It’s usually an emotional connection, a memory or a story or a cause, or even just a spiritual feeling.”

Finding your audience is often the hardest step in selling your work, but it doesn’t have to be overly complex. Consider how your work might be utilized to start an important conversation within your community. Is it possible to partner with local stakeholders and create an exhibition? Is your work particularly fitting for another creative production, such as a concert or a flea market? Are there local businesses looking to partner with artists in an effort to engage their local community? Make a list of possible opportunities and find organic ways to connect with like-minded people.

selling artwork
Finding and engaging your audience is an important marketing strategy to attract potential buyers if you’re selling artwork.

To sell your artwork, consider how your work responds to the market.Once you’ve found your audience, stay connected! Be proactive about collecting contact information like social media handles and emails. Spend the time to send out a monthly newsletter highlighting some of your new work, where you’re exhibiting, and what’s inspiring you lately. Keep your fans updated on social media, and engage with other artists and collectors frequently.

3. You Aren’t Learning From Your Peers

While artists do tend to work in silos, it’s important to stay engaged and connected with other artists, particularly those who work in the same medium or touch on similar themes as your work. Why? Because seeing what other similar artists make – studying their technique, understanding what they’re trying to say and how they’re saying it – will only allow you to build onto your own practice. You’ll be able to assess what your work might be missing, particularly if these artists have been successful at selling their work.

“Artists should be collaborators and find the resources they need to sell. Being proactive is just as important as selling your work,” Rubensteen says.

4. You Aren’t Marketing Art Online

The art world is certainly changing with the advent of technology, and independent artists can benefit immensely from using that to their advantage. It’s now easier than ever to post your work online – whether that’s because you want to share it or sell it. Apps like Instagram make it easy to bring your work to a mass audience, while platforms like Saatchi Art, Orangenius, and Vango allow artists to sell original art online directly to consumers.

However, your work still has to get found. What are some of the best ways to make sure that collectors can easily discover your work online? Setting up an account with online art sales platform is a good first step. Be sure to check out all the available options in the marketplace before you make a decision to work with one platform: Each has a variety of special features, with some more comprehensive than others.

Once you’ve chosen a platform and uploaded your work, let your network know where they can find you. Staying active on social media – not just posting your own work, but commenting on and following the work of others, is a great way to generate buzz around your artwork.

5. You Haven’t Found Your Niche

Maybe you’re still figuring out whether your medium is strictly painting or involves more mixed media. Perhaps you’re trying out a bunch of different themes because you haven’t quite decided what your work is meant to say. It’s understandable that, as an artist, you spend a lot of time honing and refining your work. But as you’re doing that, you should be considering how you might be able to sell that work, anyway.

One useful approach is to spend time separating your work into portfolios in an effort to present one singular body of work. For example, if you take a look at your studio and notice that 5-6 pieces might be presented as one cohesive unit for an exhibition, then take some time to photograph that work and create a portfolio. Make sure to distribute this portfolio as part of your overall online marketing efforts.

6. You Aren’t Telling the Story Behind Your Work

This is easily one of the most important factors explaining why your artwork isn’t selling. Collectors are far more inclined to purchase work from an artist they feel they have a connection to – whether that’s because you’ve shared emotional details about your work, have a friendly and outgoing personality or are adept at articulating the meaning behind your work.

“It’s a pleasure to work with artists who can articulate why their work is sellable. Being transparent is better than merely hoping it will sell,” says Rubensteen. She notes that selling yourself as an artist is something you must know how to do no matter whether you’re selling your work to a collector or looking to land gallery representation.

“I think there are two parts to the process,” she says. “One is articulating their work to me as a gallery. We always ask for an artist statement, whether it’s bio details or things that influenced the work. We always ask for a CV with a list of exhibitions they’ve been in, performances or artist talks. Artists who can articulate their own history for the gallery and do it clearly makes the job a breeze.”

“The second part is really being able to speak to their work,” Rubensteen adds. “Sometimes it’s a confidence issue. It’s easy to say to a gallerist, ‘Youll explain it much better than I will,’ but having the ability to say ‘This is what my work is about’ can be really hard for artists.”

Rubensteen recommends that artists employ certain techniques to add rich storytelling value to their work and provide context that will enable buyers to make a decision. “Think through the articulation process of being in a group show and understanding how your work is in dialogue,” she says. Consider adding an anecdote or description about why your work is important to you. It’s about knowing your own work and talking about it to others.”

In addition, Rubensteen suggests that artists shouldn’t shy away from connecting with potential collectors in person.”I think it’s amazing to have collectors meet artists, I think it really influences whether or not a sale is made. When collectors meet artists and have that same connection it kind of seals the deal. It’s amazing when there’s a sale finalized and the artist installed the work herself in the collectors home,” she notes. 

7. Your Pricing is Off

It’s natural for artists to feel like their work is valuable and should be sold at a price point that considers their expertise and influence. However, the ultimate goal for a young artist who has yet to sell their work should be making that first sale. Pricing your artwork should reflect the fact that you’re an emerging artist.

“At first its very important to sell your work even if cost is low,” says Rubensteen. “I realize it’s hard to price things that don’t fit into a market that might have specific starting points, but as you build who you are then you can have the opportunity to sell at higher price points. It’s like selling something that’s valuable to you – at first, you have to persuade someone. In order to explain that value, you have to have some statistic. And even if it’s a low price point, at least you did some business. At least you can say yes, I have a collector.”

artwork selling
Don’t be afraid to negotiate with a potential buyer if you’re eager to make that first sale.

8. You Aren’t Negotiating

Just because you’ve arrived at a price for your artwork doesn’t mean you should hold absolutely firm to that number. Just like any other vendor, negotiation is something that’s to be expected for artists attempting to sell their artworks. At the outset of a potential sale, you should consider how low you’re willing to go, says Rubensteen.

“We have a specific discount rate before the art goes on the wall,” she says. So if a person wanted a discount, this is the maximum we can offer.” Rubeensteen notes, however, that every potential sale should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. In certain scenarios, if the collector and artists were eager to make the sale, we might do a larger discount. That depends on the artist.”

In addition, it’s important for artists to remain involved in the process, but to leave the financial details to the professionals. “In a financial talk I would keep the artists out of the process because its not their expertise,” says Rubensteen.” I think its best to leave the business talk separate from really creating a connection between artists and buyers. In the end, they’ll both know what was paid, but I think it’s a different tone when the artist is present.”

Likewise, some artists don’t yet count with gallery representation and should consider ways they might make their artwork more affordable or desirable to potential buyers. Rubensteen urges gallery owners and artists to explore new methods for selling their work, such as a payment plan or agreed upon payment rate.

Make It Your Goal to Sell Your Artwork

No matter what stage you’re at in your artistic career, selling your artwork should always be the goal. After all, why shouldn’t you be able to sustain yourself almost entirely from making your artwork?

“I think there’s no shame in making money from your art,” says Rubensteen. “There’s no shame in saying I actually sell my work. There’s a lot of weird stigmas with artists who say my work is too pure to sell, and that narrative is not practical. There’s nothing wrong with being a business person and trying to sell your work.”

Have you experienced a sales slump or found ways to sell your work? When selling artwork, are there strategies that work or don’t work for you? Tell us in the comments!

About the author

Nicole Martinez

Nicole is a veteran arts and culture journalist. Her work has appeared in Reuters, VICE, Hyperallergic, Univision, and more.


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