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  • Turn Art Lookers into Art Buyers

    I go to a lot of art openings and typically don't hang around all that long at any one gallery. I look at the art and when possible have a few words with the artist, after which it's on to the next show. I recently had a chance encounter with an artist whose opening I had been to several nights before. We exchanged pleasantries, and I mentioned how much I enjoyed the show. The artist thanked me and as we were about to part, asked somewhat cryptically, "Did you look at the art?" with emphasis on the word "look." Without thinking, I answered, "Of course," but then felt a curious twinge of guilt as I walked off wondering, well... did I really look at it? Yes I did, but the artist's implication seemed to be that perhaps I didn't look at it long enough. Hmmm.

    So I got to thinking-- what does it mean to "look at the art," and even more to the point, what does it mean to look at it enough? Enough according to whom? Who decides when enough is enough? More importantly, what does it mean to look at art enough-- to become so captivated or excited by it that you want to know more, and the more you know the more you think about buying it? And how does looking at art progress to buying art? I guess the only way to answer these questions is to consider the "act of looking" from the artist's perspective as well as from that of the viewer (and potential buyer).

    Let's start with the artist. If you're an artist, whose responsibility do you think it is to assure that when people look at your art they look at it "enough," and even more importantly, that their experience of looking is a productive one? Would it be theirs or yours? Right. Yours. And whose responsibility do you think it is to make sure they continue to look at your art for as long as possible? Right again. Yours. You see, we live in a world where people are free to look at whatever they feel like looking at for as long they feel like looking at it, and take whatever actions they want to based on what they see-- or think they see. Options include looking longer, learning more or hitting the road. If you're among those artists who prefer viewers looking longer and learning more, your job then becomes enticing them to do exactly that.

    I'm amazed at how many artists believe that viewers are the ones responsible not only for looking at their art long enough to appreciate it, but more importantly, educating themselves about it entirely on their own. They believe anyone who really wants to buy their art has to want it badly enough to invest the time and energy necessary to achieve threshold levels of understanding and appreciation. Are these artists thinking the viewers are supposed to do all the work-- even work to buy it-- while they sit back and hope for the best? It makes hardly any sense for artists to require total strangers take of time out of their busy lives to commune with their art, get up to speed on their own, and ultimately prove how much they want it in order to be gifted with the privilege of ownership.

    Now consider the viewer. As you might expect, people who look at art tend to see things differently than artists. Sure, the hardcore vortex of an artist's fan base wants all art all the time, but how about the rest of us? Most viewers are taking it easy, visiting galleries or browsing online, casually looking the art and basically having a good time. Or maybe they're early for their restaurant reservation or an appointment, and walk into a gallery to pass a little time against the backdrop of the art. Or maybe they accidentally land on an artist's website and like what they see. One thing they rarely do is set out on these adventures determined to come back with some art. Generally speaking, art has to absolutely nail someone for them to stop in their tracks, shut up, stand still, and give it more than a passing glance-- either in person or online-- which frankly doesn't happen all that often. (Take you, for instance. You see plenty of art. How often do you stop? Precisely. Not that often.) So on those occasions when people do slow down or stop to look at your art, you have to be ready.

    The truth is that most encounters with art are fleeting, and most people, unless they're presented with really good reasons to continue looking for any significant period of time tend to move on. What kind of reasons? Reasons they can understand and identify with, ones that elucidate them about the art and reel them in for more-- reasons YOU the artist provide-- or else they're off to the next work of art or artist or gallery or website or hors d'oeuvre or dinner or whatever. Yes, once they slow down, it's your job to keep them slowed down, hopefully to the point where they become so entranced with your modus, they'll ultimately want to take a piece of you home, aka buy a work of your art.

    The solution? Here's one that goes a long way towards solving the problem. You or your gallery or website or social networking pages provide a brief written introduction that enables anyone to grasp or understand or appreciate your art on some fundamental level really fast, no matter who they are or how much or how little they know about art-- from average Joes to MFAs. And make this introduction instantly accessible with a simple mouse-click or within arm's reach of the art, like say on a gallery's front desk, at the entrance to your studio, or on main image pages of your website. Keep your intro brief, and please oh please, avoid bombastic blather that requires an art education to decipher (nobody likes being talked down to). One to three paragraphs of one to three well-worded sentences in plain English that ordinary people can understand and latch onto will be abundantly adequate to incite enthusiasm for your art. Don't worry-- if informed or educated individuals have more complicated questions about your art, they'll ask. It's always best to start with the basics and let the viewers transition the conversation into more complicated territories. Most will be more than satisfied with that.

    Think of this introduction to your art like a movie trailer or the liner notes or preface to a book. Convincing someone to pay to see a movie or buy a book is remarkably similar to convincing someone to buy your art. In both cases, the first thing most potential buyers do is watch the trailer or read summaries of what a book's about. The more compelling those introductions, the more compelled they are to see the film or buy the book. The same goes for art. When it periodically slows people down, next on their agendas is to want to know more-- like what exactly are they looking at? And if there's a quick concise answer at hand, chances are excellent they'll read it, and if it's convincing enough, they might even act on it. People who feel like they understand what they're looking at-- assuming it resonates with them in other ways as well-- are far more likely than people who don't understand it to stick around long enough for you or your operatives to get busy and convince them your art belongs in their lives.

    Otherwise if it simply sits there unexplained, either online or in real life, those who slow down for a closer look won't stay slowed down for long. Why? Because once they're done looking, there's nothing left for them to do but leave. And don't expect them to ask for help or plead to know more. Why? Because many people who go to galleries (or wherever art is for sale) don't even know that asking is an option, and many of the rest feel awkward or afraid to open their mouths for fear of saying something uninformed or stupid. Or if they're looking online, they're reluctant to make contact because they're afraid of being pressured or spammed with emails or that the art might cost more than they can afford. So please-- give them a fighting chance to understand, appreciate, decide it's time to make contact and hopefully end up buying your art.

    Forget this mindset that people who look at art are required to get educated about it on their own. That is a lose-lose proposition, and so outdated and elitist as to be laughable. Maybe in the good old days you could use that tact to stupefy tinhorns into buying ("If I can't understand it, it must be good"), but not any more. The business has changed big time. Art buyers are no longer naive enough to believe that artists and/or art dealers possess mystical inscrutable knowledge that can only be comprehended if they tremble in deference, ask no questions, nod in agreement, and open their wallets and buy. Plus now that we have the Internet, they've got zillions of options and opportunities they never had before.

    In fact, confuse today's buyers and they're instantly off to the next venue. They want to know what they're getting, why its significant, how it's priced, what it means, who made it, what the resume looks like, what the prognosis is for the future, and more. Most importantly, they want to feel like they've made intelligent choices, that they understand the art, that it adds to their lives and that they're getting good value (tangible as well as intangible) for what many consider to be "investments." And last but not least, when their friends come over for dinner and say stuff like, "Bob, is that art new?" Bob will share his knowledge (starting with the introduction he read at the gallery, in your studio or on your website), and proceed to overwhelm his friends with his discriminating good taste and sophistication-- and irrevocably emerge a winner-- which Bob could never have done without your (the artist's) help.

    Several hints for crafting compelling copy:

    * Your introductory might address typical responses viewers have to your art. If you're like most artists, you already know what people like about it and what types of questions they commonly ask. So make it easy for first timers, feed them those answers up front, and save them the time and trouble of struggling to figure out why they like what they're looking at.

    * Have a one or two sentence description or explanation of each work of your art, and be specific-- specifics are easier to grasp than generalities. Your description can be about anything-- color, shape, size, materials, technique, medium, inspiration, mood, thoughts, justifications, beliefs, the music you listened to while you made it, why you made it, where you made it, how you made it, how long it took to make, and so on. Keep it simple; keep it clear; write it in such a way that you make viewers want to know more.

    Remember-- nobody owes you or your oeuvre one nanosecond of attention. It is your duty and yours alone to convince people that what you communicate through your art or what your art stands for is significant, meaningful, worth paying attention to, and noteworthy enough for them to make it a part of their lives. It's that simple and no more complicated.

    artist art

    (art by Robert Kelly)

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