The marketing of artistic content in the 21st Century
Thanks to van Gogh or at least the interpretation of his life and work, the myth lives on of the artist as a romantic loner. Yet in truth, artists work hard to make this idea a reality. The fact is that artists need to be able to live from their art. And although artists produce a lot of good art, they play a much smaller role within the complex system that surrounds the marketing of their work. Whether artist, curator, gallerist, art advisor, auctioneer or collector – each attempts in their own way to confer value and meaning to an artwork, and to profit from art itself. Yet what is it that makes an artist well known, and what opportunities are out there for artists to market themselves?
Many artists experience difficulty in immersing themselves in the art market. Often it begins with an application to a gallery that sometimes doesn’t respond at all, or if it does respond, does so in the form of a rejection. Artists, particularly those fresh out of art school, initially appear on the art scene with a degree of fascination. Their appearances then become less and less frequent, until eventually you no longer see them at all. This is a shame, and here we could learn something from American companies that develop their ideas with great self-confidence and thereby reap successes.
I’m of the opinion that art does not exist without the viewer: it is the interaction that makes something art. This view presupposes that there are opportunities to discover an artwork and, this being the case, it is advisable to make use of the many existing platforms that exist throughout the world. Naturally, self-marketing is not for everyone, yet it is very rare that a collector will simply knock at the door to inquire whether he or she might be able to buy something. The work of the art mediators, whether gallerist, curator or art advisor, is significant. It is they that have the contacts and understand how to sell artwork. And I know, after 20 years in the art world, that without the contacts to the art market no one stands a chance. You need to get the art out there so we can see it!
Here are a few tips on how you might take things further:
What makes an artist famous?
Many collectors get inspired by good art. They live with it, rotate the art in their collections, and invite guests over to debate passionately with them about the work. Yet how does a collector go about acquiring art? What are the criteria that they use in their buying decisions? First of all the work needs to be discovered, both in a formal sense, but also in terms of its content. After much looking the eye moves to the CV and then the question of additional works. Was the work that triggered their attention just a successful one off piece or does the artist have more works like that one? Within which environment does the artist move? Where did they study, or are they self-taught? What galleries represent them? Have they won awards? Has someone written about them, and if so -who? Are other collectors already aware of them? Am I looking at a new discovery? The skilled collector makes their decision based on gut instinct, based on their knowledge and experience, and on the basis of a belief that the artist has a future. Some collectors make their decisions immediately; others have a watch-list and take their time. Wrong decisions are calculated into the equation. And some work that wasn’t purchased can lead to years of sleepless nights, as it is no longer available. Other works will, at some time, leave the collection which may have changed its focus or developed further. The good thing is that artworks come and go – they are in flow!
But how does the art arrive at the market?
The Path is the Goal
Consider first, what is special about your art? If you yourself don’t know the answer to this, why should others be interested in it? So think about who it is that you want to reach. What is your target group? Do you want to be talked about? Do you want to be famous, just to survive, or perhaps both? Is making art your calling? Do you want your work to be seen by others or would you rather that it never left the studio? My recommendation: learn to live apart from your works, even if they are good!
Think about who in your circle might have good contacts and which gallery might have a program that would suit your practice. How often have I experienced that artists walk into a gallery to present themselves, without having a clue as to whether their art reflects the taste of the gallerist? Become informed about the program and activities of the gallery and take an interest in their current exhibitions. This has a plus side. If the gallerist isn’t available (and 90% of the time this is the case as the reality is that they have to work hard to make their sales!) then try to get to know the gallery staff, to give an overview of what you do, and have good material that you can leave with them – in the form of flyers, exhibition catalogues or a well edited portfolio. Go to the openings and try to talk with people without being pushy: There are a lot of people wandering around at private views who are very interested in art! Show a presence, but be decent! And ask a couple of weeks later if an opportunity has arisen when you might be able to show them your art. If yes, then go a step further and arrange a studio visit. If not, then remain polite and ask whether they might have any recommendations for you. If it all leads to an exhibition, then a door to the art world has opened. Generally the gallerist will take on the marketing of the work (transport, press-release, invites, labeling, private-views, art fair participation, etc.). Whether this all leads to sales remains to be seen, but please don’t be too impatient. It doesn’t happen overnight. And it’s the gallerist who carries the most risk, investing both money and trust in you. If you are still an emerging artist then the gallerist won’t be able to live from your sales, even if the usual 50% commission might seem very high at the outset. The gallery will only be able to finance your exhibition by way of career artists who already achieve higher prices. So don’t go behind the gallery’s back when selling out of the studio – always make them a part of your success. The gallerist is ready to grow with you and that, today, is to be valued.
A small tip: do not confront a gallerist at an art fair with your work. They need to concentrate on potential buyers and without doubt will not have time for you.
Alternatives to Galleries
If no one wants you then do it yourself. Get together with others. Artists can achieve a lot together. Put on exhibitions. You can always find a space of some sort. Even using private spaces – like the so-called home-gallery – always comes across well. Invite a couple of selected individuals: a drink, a beer, dinner, or just to come over. It’s not unusual to have to pay for a beer at an opening. Maybe you can find someone to curate the show, thereby extending your network. Perhaps someone can give an opening talk. Write a press release – it’s worth a try. If the show is critically written up in a professional, well-written piece then it definitely brings added value and gets people talking about you. Invites or a flyer can now be produced cheaply, online. Collect business cards, create a distribution list and leave information on the show in the local area. Perhaps you could open an artists’ gallery together with others and grow together into the market. Many artists have successfully shared space, time and costs.
In addition there are also now many art fairs that independent artists can apply for. Of course, unlike gallery platforms you have to pay for the stand and costs yourself. But if the price isn’t too high and the organization behind the event is well networked and the location good, then it is worth doing! Maybe you can find a patron who is willing to take on the costs, perhaps in exchange for a work. Asking costs nothing and the worst you’ll get is a no.
The commercialization of artwork no longer takes place just in physical space. The virtual possibilities for marketing should not be underestimated. In the 21st Century, an artist without a website is throwing away a lot of potential! It offers the best opportunity to have your work visible 24 hours a day, everyday. There are pre-defined templates that allow anyone to create a website at little cost, generally without the need of an expert. What’s important is the content. And here, as in many other situations, less is more. Concentrate on a simple structure with good images. For the menu-points, it’s sufficient to have an image gallery, the CV and – importantly – contact details! Here you can either link to your gallery or to your own email address. It is worth offering the visitor the opportunity to sign-up to a newsletter. What is important is that the website content be kept up to date and that the site is linked to the right key words so that it can be found quickly. The pictures should be of a good resolution or give the possibility of zooming in. So-called social media buttons are very popular. These offer the chance to distribute your images or content to the wider world. Don’t use too many images, unless you use your website as a form of catalog, like Gerhard Richter does. But do be rigorous with editing! It might be good to also write a small text about yourself and your work. People like reading the ‘about me’ in the menu and it gives them the opportunity to learn something about you. But here too, be brief and take time to consider what is essential. Do make an effort with your online presence. It is the tool for making that first impression and should serve to provide enduring curiosity. The CV or biography should not be unnecessarily fudged. Those who know about art can read between the lines. Even a short CV can give a great impression if the quality of the exhibitions and awards is high. Nothing against having exhibitions at a law firm, or the birth of a new family member – we can all be proud of that – just leave it off the CV as it will come across as unprofessional.
Besides having your own website, there are today numerous platforms on which you can advertise your art. On Facebook there exist communities for any subject and they are happy to receive external content. You can post your images, information on exhibitions or just your feelings. You can also find out about what others are doing and learn from them. Saatchi and other online platforms offer the service of selling your artwork globally for a low fee. Active users are invited to participate in curated online exhibitions, meaning generally that experts both examine and publish your work.
Art Prizes – a guarantee of good art?
Art prizes are usually awarded via the form of an open submission competition hosted by private or public institutions. Artists are rewarded for particular artistic achievement. They are more or less well remunerated or provide other forms of support, but what they do achieve is an increase in the value of your work. The added value and the awarding of the prize are heavily dependent on the organizer, the strength of the jury and its members’ ties to the art world. Art prizes and funding create today a significant potential livelihood for emerging artists. More established artists are honored for their achievements over many years. There are many opportunities and at the other end sit people who will see and engage with your work. What’s being offered should be attractive, the effort required to apply should be in line with the prize on offer, and the application fee modest. Artist-in-residency programs offer the opportunity to take a few weeks out of your normal surroundings and to make contacts with those with similar interests. They promote an international exchange and often offer an atmospheric place for artistic development.
Last but not least: Hang in there! Believe in yourself! Persistence, patience and continuity in the process of making work are what ultimately guarantee your success. Exchange is important, especially in terms of criticism. Not everyone will like what you’re doing but there are people out there that will love your work. Don’t take criticism personally, but think about it – it will certainly bring you further, and in the end your art will outlive us all!
As Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once said: “Art is long, life short.” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)
Autor: Annette Doms