Photo by Adli Wahid on Unsplash
Emilie Trice is a writer, curator and artist based in Denver, Colorado. Her writing has been published online by The New York Times, The Paris Review, Artnet and Artforum, among other outlets.
Selling art can be an art form in and of itself.
“Always be closing” is a mantra that’s not often associated with the visual arts. However, if you are an independent artist, you should adopt this mentality because every interaction is a possible future sale. And there’s nothing wrong with that attitude. Exposure doesn’t pay the rent, so sales are a necessary part of a thriving studio practice and any sustainable art business.
Telling a story is the key to many art sales. The collector, often, is not just buying the artwork, but they are also investing in you. There are usually additional triggers that lead to a sale. Speaking from personal experience as an art dealer, I’ve sold art to collectors because they attended the same university as an artist, or because friends of theirs also own a piece by said artist, among many other reasons that had little to do with the actual artwork itself.
Of course, the collector must actually like the artwork. Still, the difference between buying a work they like by X artist vs. buying a work they like from Y artist can boil down to details that are not always obvious in the physical work of art, but rather emerge in conversation about the artist’s practice and/or process, their personal background, and other biographical details.
This brings us back to the concept of “telling a story,” which is a critical part of making art feel important. “Telling a story” requires beautiful photographs of the work, access to the artist’s background, their creative vision, and a personal connection to the artist and their process. Generally, this is the gallery’s job—and the reason galleries take, on average, 50% of the sales price as commission.
However, if you are an artist without gallery representation, you can also do this for yourself—especially in the current digital landscape. There has simply never been a better time to be an independent artist.
While there is no silver bullet to closing an art deal, there are some tried and true methods that can help get the deal done. Below, we outline some important practices used by independent artists, art dealers, and professional advisors across the world, based on extensive research, as well as more than a decade of first-hand experience.
Take beautiful (and accurate) photographs & videos of your art
Photography is one of the most important marketing tools for selling art. You should not only take photographs of every individual work you create, but also installation shots of the works hanging in a clean space, or in a domestic setting (this can help your would-be buyer envision the work in their own home.)
You will also want professional photographs of your work for your personal archive, as well as any future publication or press requests. You will need images with a resolution of 300 DPI for print and 72 DPI for the web. All artwork should be professionally photographed before leaving your studio, even if it is en route to a gallery. Anything is possible in transit, or once the work is out of your possession, so it’s always best to photograph your art while it’s still in your studio.
Make sure to employ proper lighting when taking photographs of your work, and ensure the pictures are color corrected if necessary. It is recommended to use a tripod when photographing artwork. If this sounds like a lot of extra work, consider outsourcing this particular task to a professional. It’s an investment in yourself and your career.
Artwork Archive allows you to upload image files up to 30MB and as many as ten images per artwork.
Taking videos of artworks is another great way to document them, especially for 3D pieces or complicated installations. Once you have a video, add “branding elements” to it, such as your name and website. Then post your video to Youtube or Vimeo and add those links to each work in your Artwork Archive account.
You can then embed these videos in your Artwork Archive public profile, adding to the story you’re telling about each piece. YouTube is among the most popular search engines on the web, so it’s recommended to have a presence there in order to increase your online presence.
The internet is your gallery, so make sure that wherever your work is displayed online, it’s presented beautifully and with proper details. All of this will allow you to tell the best story about the work and yourself as possible.
Publish your artwork prices
Price transparency used to be nonexistent in the art world, but times have changed (understatement of the year!). Ever since the onset of the pandemic, when the art world was more or less forced to embrace digital marketing, there’s been a seismic shift in how galleries (and artists) promote and sell artwork.
Before Covid, prices were rarely listed—anywhere. Now, nine out of ten art buyers prefer to see prices online, according to the 2020 Art+Tech report which surveyed international art collectors.
Price transparency makes buyers feel confident that they are not being fleeced, which is obviously important in order to establish a good rapport. It also mitigates expectations and doesn’t waste the buyer’s time.
If you are unsure of how to price your artwork, read this article on how to price your work consistently, which is critical for a sustainable art business.
Develop your mailing list and subdivide it into categories
Your mailing list is among your most valuable assets and should be cultivated and nourished like a victory garden. Every person you meet needs to be put on your mailing list. If they unsubscribe, that’s ok. You never know who recently moved houses and needs some new art, or who is looking for an important gift, etc. This may be online marketing 101, but it bears repeating—your mailing list is among your most valuable assets.
To build up your mailing list, you will need to network. There is simply no getting around this. During Covid, networking is obviously difficult in person, but there are plenty of online forums you can join to help you increase your community. Do some research, attend as many events (virtual and IRL) as possible, and be prepared to describe your work in three sentences (the dreaded elevator pitch).
Once you have combed through all of your contacts and developed your mailing list, set up a calendar for regular newsletters. Once a month (or once every two months) is plenty. Make sure to include beautiful images of your new artworks in each newsletter, with full details such as dimensions and prices. Add your social media links and include prompts (or “calls to action”, ie CTAs) such as “visit my studio!” or “request a catalogue!” (if you don’t yet have a catalogue of your work, see the next step).
Finally, subdivide your mailing list into categories. Eventually, you should have some press contacts, some dealer contacts and—most importantly—some VIP collector contacts and curator contacts. Make sure to denote these contacts as such. Then you can tailor certain messages to each group, to make sure they are receiving the most pertinent information for their particular interests.
Artwork Archive has a built-in CRM (contact relationship manager), so you can tag each contact appropriately, group them for bulk mailings, and create reminders to reach out (or follow up) that sync with your calendar. Artwork Archive’s CRM also records what information you’ve shared with whom, such as private rooms, inventory lists and portfolio reports. Here is an overview of how artists can use Artwork Archive’s CRM to grow their networks and create lasting success.
Hire a writer to write about your work and publish a catalogue
If no one is knocking on your door, begging to publish your artwork in a book, it’s their loss! Do it yourself. There are plenty of options for self-publishing these days and many of those are print-on-demand, saving you a lot of upfront costs.
If you’ve followed the steps, you already have beautiful photographs of your work. (Reminder: for print, these images should be 300 DPI and Tiff or Jpeg format.) It is also recommended that you hire a writer to draft you a smart, yet accessible, catalogue essay to include in your catalogue. This will go a long way in telling your story, which is key to any sales strategy. Art is not just visual, it’s also emotional, and you should use every tool at your disposal to get your artwork’s message across.
These catalogues are sales tools. Blue-chip galleries often publish catalogues to accompany exhibitions, which are then mailed out to VIP clients. They are important to have on-hand for studio visits, art fairs, etc. and will make you appear both professional and polished. Include your biography and CV in the catalogue. If you’re not sure how to draft a professional artist CV, read this guide. It’s also recommended to include a photo of yourself at work in your studio or in front of an installed piece.
Hiring a writer with some art world experience is also a great way to grow your network if your budget permits. Otherwise, you can seek out art history graduate students who will likely work for a smaller stipend in order to grow their publication CV. The process could also reveal things to you about your own work that you weren’t even fully aware of, which is a great exercise in itself.
Host a ‘private’ studio salon for potential buyers and VIPs
Galleries have openings in order to stir up business. If you don’t have a gallery, that’s ok! Your studio can function as a DIY gallery—if you put a little effort into making it a welcoming space.
Inviting a small group of collectors or art lovers to your studio for a private viewing can ultimately create new relationships and strengthen existing ones.
Even though we’re all now living in the digital age, artwork is still best when viewed in person. And, artist studios still have an air of mystery and romance. That being said, before inviting anyone to your studio, make sure the atmosphere is hospitable. That includes providing seating, refreshments, and ensuring that your studio is accessible for those who might have difficulties climbing stairs, etc.
Also consider the lighting, the temperature (do you need a space heater?), and background music. You want everyone to feel comfortable and inspired. After your event, make sure to follow up with all attendees by sending a personalized thank you note. If your studio is in a shared space, invite your studio partners (or neighbors) to take part. If they invite their networks, the likelihood of forging new connections (and closing more sales) becomes that much greater.
Offer digital renderings to interested clients to seal the deal
Unless your potential buyer is intending to ship your artwork directly to a freeport (where it will languish in a crate until they resell it for profit), your artwork is likely going on a wall. Once you’ve confirmed interest in our work, ask your potential buyer to send you a photo of the wall they have in mind, with dimensions. Then you can render your artwork into that photo, to scale.
If you have no idea how to do this, fret not! Read this step-by-step guide to creating digital renderings to scale using Photoshop. If you don’t have Photoshop and don’t want to incur this added expense, you can hire a freelance digital designer (or undergraduate student) to create renderings for you, usually for a nominal fee.
Digital renderings are often the final trigger in an art sale. Allowing the client to “see” how a piece would look in their own space, to scale, takes the guesswork out of art buying, saving your clients precious time.
Negotiate the price and then send a professional invoice
If your client makes an offer that’s less than the asking price, don’t despair. A 10% discount is entirely acceptable in the art world. That being said, some buyers might assume that, because they are buying from you directly (rather than through a gallery), they are entitled to a 50% discount or more, since they are (technically) not paying the gallery’s commission.
Stay true to your value. If a client pushes you for a massive discount, it’s ok to walk away—if you cave once, that client will likely always expect the same size discount and that could actually cost you money in the long run.
Once you’ve settled on a price, send a professional email that includes an invoice number, all the artwork details, an image of each piece, the original price, the discounted or sales price, sales tax (if applicable), and your contact details, as well as the buyers. This invoice, or “proof of sale,” is crucial for establishing provenance, so invoices are an incredibly important part of an artwork’s life cycle.
Artwork Archive automatically generates invoices that include all the above-mentioned information, as well as integrated payment options via Paypal, so your buyer can simply click on the “web invoice” and pay directly through the web, using a credit card or their own Paypal account.
It’s also recommended to include a sentence or two on your invoices to protect yourself and your intellectual property. Such a sentence could read: Title does not pass until payment has been received in full. Copyright remains with the artist.
You can also add the industry-standard shipping caveat, i.e.: Shipping and insurance while in transit are the responsibility of the purchaser.
If you have an Artwork Archive account, these sentences can be added in the “notes” section of your invoices so they will appear on your invoice. It’s wise to create a payment due date. The industry standard for remitting payment is two weeks.
Nothing leaves your studio until your invoice has been paid in full. If your client needs to pay in installments, that’s perfectly acceptable; however, you should hold onto the work until the invoice is fully paid. Artwork Archive also allows you to insert partial payment buttons in your web invoices and will track payments (and remaining balances) for you automatically.
Once the invoice has been paid, you can send the client a physical copy of the invoice, marked as “PAID IN FULL”, along with a physical Certificate Of Authenticity (COA) of the piece, with your signature (as the artist). Artwork Archive allows you to generate COAs immediately with the click of a button.
Sending these documents is the professional way to close out a sale and ensure that your buyer has all the documentation they need (and would get from an established gallery).
Help organize shipping and installation to ensure a smooth delivery
If the buyer is local, and the piece is small enough so you can easily transport it itself, it’s fine to deliver the artwork yourself. For larger pieces, however, you should not be responsible for transport or installation—because it is a liability, for you.
Do some research on local shippers and ask your peers who they recommend. Add these businesses to your contact list and tag them as shippers. When you offer a client to help arrange shipping, simply email this group of contacts with the following information and questions:
Provide the following:
- Artwork details and image(s)
- Pick-up address and contact phone number
- Delivery address and contact phone number
- Any special instructions for packing and crating
Ask the following:
- Cost to install on-site
- Extra cost for insurance while in transit
- Delivery timeframe
Once you have two or three quotes, pick the best one and send it on to your client. Once they confirm, let them know that the shippers will bill them directly.
If the delivery is local, you should offer to be on-site for installation, which will give you a chance to build rapport with your client and scope out any other walls of theirs that may also be in need of (your) art. Make sure to either ask for installation shots of the artwork once installed, or take them yourself, and ask permission to publish them on your website.
If the buyer would like to remain anonymous, you can simply caption these installation shots as “private collection.”
Send a hand-written thank you note
A little personalization goes a long way, especially in this hyper-digital, automated world. If you haven’t already, send the buyer a catalogue of your work. Let them know how much their patronage means to you and your career. This can help turn a one-time buyer into a long-lasting client.
"Practice makes perfect" and that's true in sales, too. While some of these steps may seem uncomfortable at first, the more you do them, the easier they'll become! Sign up for Artwork Archive's newsletter to get articles like this delivered to your inbox every week.