I’ve been invited to give a short presentation to the members of a co-operative gallery next week, so I’ve been thinking about what an amazing opportunity all of them have to learn more about selling their art. It reminds me of the years I spent renting studio space at the Pendleton Center in Cincinnati. As a community, the Pendleton artists held an open studio night once a month, so I had the privilege of talking to hundreds of people about my paintings on an ongoing basis.
Whether you’re at a street fair, a group show, or a self-run gallery space, there is nothing better than talking to people directly about your own and other artists’ artwork. I know, it’s not easy to talk about your own work. The first time or two may be fraught with nerves. But that passes really quickly, and then it becomes this extraordinary window into how other people see your art—both the positives and the negatives. The trick is to talk just enough to keep the conversation going because what you really want is to listen and observe. You’ll learn so much! (And, yeah, you might even make a sale!) Here are just four invaluable things you might discover:
1. For starters, you’ll discover who’s interested in your artwork and who’s not. How old are the people who are noticing your work? Is it mostly men or mostly women or about equal? How would you describe their styles? And who just walks right by without even stopping? What you’re doing is gathering demographic data about the people who are most interested in the artwork you create.
2. Now get them talking about their internal responses to your work. It’s very common for someone to study a piece and then make a vague comment like, “Nice” or “Oooh, I like that.” So follow up on that with, “I’m glad you like it. What’s attracting you?” or “What do you like about it?” Really listen to their answers. Are they attracted to the subjects you portray? Does your work tend to convey the same types of moods or feelings, and people are picking up on that? Maybe there’s some formal quality, such as texture, color, or technique, that grabs people’s attention. You’ll soon discover that people are often reluctant to voice their opinions (I heard a lot of “Oh, I don’t really know anything about art!”) so make it easy for them by encouraging them to simply share whatever they’re thinking.
3. Perhaps even more valuable is to read between the lines to discover what might not be working for a lot of people. If you notice that people often raise their eyebrows or poke their friends in the ribs when they see your work—and not in a good way—pay attention. If you frequently hear comments like, “Huh… interesting” or “Oh, my, what bright colors,” you might want to take note of that pattern, too. I’m not for a moment suggesting that you change what you’re doing based on a few random comments from people, but only if you see a pattern of comments that might help you improve your work.
4. And as uncomfortable as it may be, it’s healthy to discuss price points with people, too. Especially if you’re an emerging artist and you’re not 100% sure of what you should be asking for your work, it’s okay to seek feedback on your prices. You might even find that some people think your prices are too low. Listen, in particular, to those people who seem like they buy art regularly. And again, look for patterns, not one-off comments.
Why is all of this so valuable? One simple reason: branding. One of the more challenging aspects of marketing artwork is articulating your own brand. It can be hard to define the qualities, characteristics, and values that are represented by your work. But the people who are interested in your art function like a mirror, reflecting those brand qualities back to you with their words and actions. Gather up their comments and your observations like they’re nuggets of gold, and use that information to help you clarify and articulate your brand.
And as if that’s not enough, it also helps you plot your marketing strategy. Once you know with certainty who is interested in your artwork—and why—you can use that information to figure out how these people (your target audience) can be reached and what your marketing message should be when you’re communicating with them.
If you have somehow managed to launch your art career without selling your work personally, or if you haven’t yet launched your art career because you’re nervous about talking to people about your art, I’d encourage you to find ways to connect with people in person. I promise the fear will slip away, and you’ll reap huge rewards from the process.
And if you have had the opportunity to exhibit and sell in person, please share your thoughts. What have you learned from the process? Let’s connect!
Want more useful tips and free art marketing advice? You can have my weekly blog posts delivered straight to your inbox by clicking here to sign up for my weekly e-newsletter. Don't miss it!