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People Need Help Buying Art, So Help Them
Remember that fantasy art life you grew up dreaming about, the one the art schools perpetuate in order to make their nut, the one where you get your degree(s) and everything else just falls into place? You're introduced to all the right people... the critics, the curators, the patrons, the power peddlers. The influential dealers and collectors visit you at your studio, see your work, and either buy it on the spot or give you shows while all you have to do is create and get famous. Yep, that's the one.
Well, now you know better-- that reality indicates otherwise. You know that art is an option, not a necessity. It competes with tons of other commodities in the marketplace, first for attention and ultimately for dollars (just like every item for sale in every store simultaneously competes for your business). You know you've got your work cut out for you if you expect to make a living as an artist, and that convincing multiple individuals to buy your art on a regular basis is not an easy job.
An art dealer once told me, "No art sells itself." And he's right, but that doesn't mean you hawk it like timeshares or used cars. Selling your art is not about tactical maneuvers or strategizing on markets, but rather about capitalizing on those moments when people are impressed enough, for whatever reasons, to stop, look, and maybe even ask you a few questions. You see, some of these people will be thinking about buying, so to increase the odds that they slip you simoleans, you have to present and contextualize whatever art they're looking at in ways they can understand and appreciate, and transition them from lookers to owners.
People like to believe that they're doing the right thing when they buy art, but since most of them don't know much about art, you have to help them. They need conviction, courage and understanding because owning art is not easy. Take Joe, for example. Let's say Joe buys a piece of art. He takes it home and hangs it on his dining room wall. Several weeks later, he invites Mary, Susie and Bill over for a dinner party. So the four of them are seated at the dining room table, rapt with culinary delight, sipping fine wine, chortling it up and swapping gossip, when Mary points to Joe's art and asks, "Is that new?"
"Yep," answers Joe.
"Where'd you get it?" asks Mary.
Joe's answer has to satisfy Mary, Susie, and Bill.
"Really," says Bill. "Who's the artist?"
Joe's answer has to satisfy Bill, Mary, and Susie.
"That's interesting," says Susie. "I've never seen anything like it. What's it about?"
Joe's answer has to satisfy Susie, Bill, and Mary.
Poor Joe's on the spot, isn't he? He sure doesn't want to look stupid in front of his friends, going out and buying art he can't explain. Not only does he have to explain it, but if he's like most people who buy art, he also wants to impress his friends and acquaintances with his discerning taste and sophistication. Furthermore, tonight is only the first of many times that Joe will be required to defend his art. For as long as he owns it, all kinds of people, many of whom know even less about art than Joe does, will ask all kinds of questions, and Joe will want to sound like he knows what he's doing when it's his turn to talk.
Silly as this sounds, it's what art owners go through-- and one of the main reasons why so many people are afraid to buy art-- they're worried about being embarrassed by what others might think, say, or ask. Not only do they have to justify their art to themselves, but also to anyone who sees it and has questions. The Joes of the world want to own your art, believe me, but they need your help first. You have to show them how to defend themselves-- give them the ammo, the confidence, the protections they need to fend off doubts about whether or not they're doing the right thing if they buy it.
The good news is that most buyers need only the basics; you don't have to get complicated. Since most people don't know a lot about art, they don't need a lot of explanation, and-- here's the crucial part-- they don't want a lot of explanation because they confuse easily. Consider, for example, the sentence, "My art is about trees." This entry-level statement is clean and simple; it explains an artist's art in a way that anybody can understand, and people who don't know much about art will go surprisingly far with it. The artist doesn't have to say how the art is about trees, why it's about trees, where the references to trees lie, or what trees mean to her. Viewers will take those five words, run with them, apply them to the art, find the trees in there somewhere, and feel like they know something (and they will, in their own unique ways). Then they'll turn to their friends, point, and say with complete confidence, "Her art is about trees." See how this works?
Suppose you have no basics, you have no idea what your art is about-- it just happens. Fine. Then talk about what happens, what inspires you, how you start, your process, how you make it, what you use, how you know you're done, and so on. Again, keep it simple. For instance, say "I make my art entirely out of things I find while hiking in the hills." Believe it or not, this is enough. People digest that statement and apply it to the art until they get it (they don't have to know everything-- just enough to feel good about what they're looking at). They look at your art, try to imagine your hike, how you look for things, how you decide what to keep, how you sort it all out, how you arrange it into art, and so on. All you have to do is suggest; plant the seeds. The viewers will do the rest. They come to their own conclusions, and most importantly, feel confident that they understand the art (and they do, in their own unique ways).
One thing to avoid is being vague, saying stuff like "different people respond to my art in different ways." Of course they do, but so what? Far too many artists use this copout, which does nobody any good-- it leaves viewers wondering whether or not their responses are "right" and it leaves the artists with no sales. People want a little structure; they want starting points. Then when they respond, they feel like their responses "make sense." Basic information also makes art harder to dismiss. It connects people up and gets them involved. Think of how fast you dismiss things as you go about your daily business, especially things you have no information (or too much information) about. You don't want that to happen with your art. You want people who stop and look to stay stopped for as long as possible.
Perhaps the most important key to "selling" your art art, both literally and figuratively, is giving people reasons to care. With all the other stuff out there for people to care about, why should they care about your art? Why do you care about your art? That's a great place to start. If you can convey and convince in a simple sentence or two why people should care about your art the way that you care about it-- you make sales.
These same principles apply when explaining and showing your art to galleries-- a little more in depth, of course, but essentially the same. For you to get a show, gallery owners have to feel extremely extraordinarily confident that they can sell your art. Just like you, they have to convince their customers that your art is worth owning. Each time you meet with a dealer in hopes of getting a show, that dealer will be listening carefully to everything you say, how you say it, and trying to figure out if or how they can effectively relate that information to prospective buyers. They have to take what you give them and transform it into persuasive sales presentations. Understand? Not even dealers can sell your art without your help.
I see plenty of great art by plenty of successful artists every day, and one characteristic that the overwhelming majority of these artists share is that they've figured out how to distill their art down so simply and directly that even I can understand it. Sure, these artists are perfectly able to go deep when they have to, and they do-- all the time-- but they know that the more people who can identify with their art on whatever levels, the more rewarding their art careers will be.