Sell Art Successfully in Tough Times

This article was written shortly after 9/11, but is applicable today or whenever economic times get tough...

Now is a difficult time for Americans as well as for people in many other parts of the world. The horrific tragedies of recent weeks have further weakened our already faltering economy as unemployment rises and recession appears likely. None of these trends bode well for the art market. Selling art is never easy, even in the most robust of economies, and at times like this, it can seem nearly impossible. But confronting adversities is a fact of life and any artist who expects to be successful must adjust to prevailing conditions in order to survive.

The number one recommendation for any artist trying to ride out a slow art market is to be flexible, particularly with respect to selling prices. Realize that art prices fluctuate according to supply and demand just like those of gasoline, electricity, and other commodities. You can't expect your price structure to stay the same when people all around you are taking salary cuts, losing their jobs, watching their stock portfolios deteriorate, or worrying about their security. So above all, be willing to drop your selling prices, and drop them substantially, if necessary.

This doesn't mean you immediately announce to the world that you're having a 70% off sale, but rather that you monitor the health of the art market on an ongoing basis in order to respond appropriately to changes as they occur. In terms of lowering selling prices, watch for indications that your collector base is eroding or that potential buyers are making more than the usual amount of excuses for not buying art. Decreasing sales volumes and general pessimism regarding financial issues are also key indicators.

If you sell through galleries, representatives or agents, find out how their businesses are going. Ask whether sales are holding steady or decreasing. Find out whether or to what extent the weak economy is impacting their sectors of the art market. Those who represent or sell your art don't usually volunteer this sort of information unless you ask-- so ask. At the very least, addressing these topics shows your concern for their well being.

When their news is not good, assure them that you're prepared to make your art more attractive to buyers. Offer price reductions, time payments, or other incentives that your dealers or agents feel would encourage people to buy your art in spite of ongoing market weakness.

For example, noted Portland Oregon artist, Clyde Leon Keller (1872-1962), took drastic measures to keep his career afloat throughout the Great Depression of the 1930's. During the 1920's, when times were good, his best paintings were selling for as much as $600 each. At the height of the Depression, he had reduced his selling prices to $30-$50 per painting, payable at the rate of a dollar a week. Keller had enough people paying him that dollar a week to support his family and stay employed as a full-time artist.

You most likely won't have to follow in Clyde Keller's footsteps, but his example illustrates the level of resolve and the drastic measures that must sometimes be taken in order to survive as an artist. The suggestions below may help you generate additional income during lean economic times.

** Rent your art. If you can rent out twenty works of art, each for $20 per month, that's $400 per month that you wouldn't have if that art stayed in your studio. Rent mainly pieces that you're less likely to sell outright. You don't want to tie up salable works that can generate significant dollar amounts in short periods of time.

** Barter your art. Successful artists trade art for everything from medical, dental and legal services to meals, pots, pans, furnishings, other artists' art, and just about anything else that they need in order to survive. For instance, offer to hang your art at restaurants or other eating establishments in trade for monthly food allowances. Watch for people getting rid of personal possessions or office furnishings and offer to trade art for whatever you might need. Ask people having garage or house sales whether they'd consider taking your art in trade for items left over at the end of the day. In other words, suggest your art as trade for goods or services whenever and wherever you can.

** Explore part cash/part trade options even when someone wants to buy your art outright. Unless you ask, you never know when a buyer might have something to trade that you really need. The great advantage to trading is that you almost always come out ahead financially.

** Think about producing works of art that capture the essence of particular adverse circumstances such as those we're now experiencing. Works of art that illustrate our current feelings of patriotism, strength, unity, courage, and resolve as a nation might sell well in the marketplace. For example, James Montgomery Flagg's powerful World War I recruiting poster of Uncle Sam pointing directly at the viewer and declaring "We Want You" is one of the most enduring wartime images in American history. At the opposite end of the continuum, works of art that make viewers feel more at peace or more secure may also sell well. Explore timely ideas with friends, acquaintances, collectors, dealers, and other artists. Sketch your thoughts out in storyboard formats and see what kinds of responses they get.

All artists possess skills and abilities to convey emotions, arouse feelings, explore sensitive issues, and make powerful statements with their art. Rather than seeing tough times as obstacles to career success, consider them as opportunities to tap into your creative strengths and reserves. Experiment with new subject matters and techniques, advance your art, and impact viewers' lives in ways that you've never been able to before. At times like this, we all do our part to stand firm, build character, and keep ourselves and our nation strong.

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In these challenging times, artists must explore innovative ways to showcase and sell their art; one strategy is leveraging social media to reach a broader audience. Consider using for anonymous Instagram story viewing, to discreetly follow trends and gather inspiration without revealing your identity, making it easier to adapt and thrive in a fluctuating market.