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  • Selling Artwork in a Weak Economy

    Economists pretty much agree that recovering from the recent deep recession will likely take years. Credit is tough to come by, the dollar is weak, food and fuel prices are astoundingly upwardly mobile (yuck!), and that perennial bastion of ever-increasing value, real estate, won't be making any sharp upward moves anytime soon. Plus there's that pesky matter of "consumer confidence." Even people who aren't that impacted by the soft economy are more hesitant to spend than they once were.

    The upshot? As you might surmise, none of this has been good for the art market. Art lovers everywhere find themselves with less discretionary capital to spend on that love of their lives-- artwork. Facts are that selling artwork isn't easy even in a healthy economy, and at times like this, it can seem downright impossible. But confronting adversity is a fact of life, especially for artists, and any artist who expects to be successful must continually adjust to prevailing conditions in order to survive. So let's assess the situation and explore how certain adjustments might play out to the upside at this point in time. First, we'll talk money, and then add a few words about expanding markets.


    The number one consideration for any artist in the thick of riding out a slow market and selling less artwork is to get flexible fast, particularly with respect to prices, particularly with respect to adjusting them in an increasingly affordable direction. Typically, when I broach this topic of lowering prices of artwork, I'm met with looks of shock and disbelief from whomever I'm talking to-- dealers, artists, or anyone else involved in any aspect of selling-- like art prices can't ever go down; they must inexorably go up. "Lower prices?" they shriek. "No way!"

    I find this response rather intriguing, if not amusing. Want to know why? Because the exact same people who decry the commerciality of the art world suddenly flip to the money side when they're the ones who might be affected. Where oh where did all those lofty intangible values go now that we're talking dollars and cents? I guess it's not about the money as long as the money it's not about isn't theirs. Hmmm.

    The facts are that artwork is a commodity just like any other, and just like any other, prices fluctuate. And that does not mean they always go up; sometimes they go down. They go up when money flows freely and supply gets tight; they go down when money dries up and studios, back rooms, and storage spaces begin to bulge with the labors of creative endeavor, aka artwork.

    I was at a major department store recently-- plenty more stuff is on sale, and at notably low prices, than it was a couple of years back. I see car ads on TV, especially for those gross disgusting gas pigs-- prices are down significantly there as well. And new home prices? We all know what the deal is there. Big business knows what it has to do to survive; take a lesson from them. By lowering your selling prices, at some point the prospect of owning your artwork becomes simply too attractive for collectors to pass up. Tough times call for tough measures. It's that simple and no more complicated.

    And please oh please don't equate selling prices with your "worth" as an artist. This is not only a monumental miscarriage of ego, but it also significantly compromises your ability to survive a bumpy ride in artland. If you have a painting priced at $2000, for example, and you lower the price to $1200, it's still the same painting, and you're still the same artist. Or am I missing something? I mean talk about reducing your art and artistry to the basest level possible-- this kind of thinking would be it.

    "But how do I explain lower prices to the people who bought me at the top?" you ask. To a handful of artists who jacked their prices through the roof in relatively short time periods when the economy was honking along, this may be a challenge, but for most artists, it's not that much different than explaining lower real estate prices, lower stock prices, or any other prices that have fallen as a result of the current economy. And just because your artwork is more affordable today does not mean it won't go right back up in price tomorrow. Tell them you're responding to collectors who continue to love your art just as much as they did back in the day when they had more money to spend on it, and that you do what you have to do in order to keep them in the game. It's a window of opportunity, a special consideration, a moment in the continuum of your art career, and it won't last forever. There's never been a better time to buy your artwork than right now and there may never be again. How about those for reasons?

    Galleries can use similar approaches. Reductions are temporary. We understand that times are tough; we understand that you love art, and so in response, we're reducing prices-- for a limited time-- to keep your collection growing. We've worked out interim agreements with our artists to make our art more affordable. We realize that money isn't flowing quite as freely as it was a year or two ago; we realize that you still want to buy art, and we're responding to that.

    Once you understand and accept the fact that art prices fluctuate according to supply, demand, and economic conditions-- that they always have and they always will-- your artistic life gets easier. Take it from me-- an art appraiser who's studied the market for decades and watched prices ebb and flow. You can't expect your price structure to stay the same or continue to rise when everybody around you has less discretionary capital to spend, and what little they have, they'll only spend if it's for a really good reason. So be prepared to lower your asking prices, significantly if necessary, in order to keep your art career alive.

    More price-related suggestions for generating income during lean economic times:

    * Offer affordable options for buyers, artwork under $500, for example, or even under $200. Don't make the mistake of ignoring small sales and focusing all your attention on large ones; a steady stream of small sales can easily add up to a livable income.

    * Sell on the installment plan. Ten buyers paying you $50 a week or a couple of hundred dollars a month on installment plans means you're making $2000 per month.

    * Rent your artwork. If you can rent out twenty works of art for $30 each per month, that's $600 per month that you wouldn't otherwise have if the art sat in your studio gathering dust. Confine the rental pieces to those you're less likely to sell outright. You don't want to tie up salable works that can potentially generate significant dollar amounts in short periods of time.

    * Barter your artwork. Successful artists trade art for everything from medical, dental, and legal services to meals, pots, pans, furnishings, other artists' artwork, and just about anything else you can think of. For example, offer to hang your artwork at restaurants or coffee shops in trade for monthly food allowances, or at hotels or bed and breakfasts in exchange for rooms, or at retail stores where you shop. Keep an eye out for people selling furniture or household items and offer to trade artwork for whatever you might need. Ask people having garage or house sales whether they'd consider taking your artwork in trade for items left over at the end of the day. In other words, suggest your artwork as trade for goods or services whenever and wherever you can.

    * Explore part cash/part trade options even when someone wants to buy your artwork 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, assuming you can use what you're trading for, you almost always come out ahead financially (as does the person you're trading with).


    Thanks in large part to the Internet and art fairs, art markets have steadily evolved from local and regional to national and international. The global nature of today's art trade allows artists to present themselves and their art to far more markets than ever before, with minimal investments and efforts on their parts. And considering the relative health and growth of various economies around the world as compared to ours, there's no better time than the present to explore international opportunities for showing and selling your art.

    Now this doesn't mean you take random shots in the dark or trot out the same old portfolio no matter where you go or whom you talk to; you've got to think your presentations through and target your marks. You know what's in it for you what's in it for them? That's the big question. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to make your art relevant to the circumstances at hand, whatever those circumstances might be.

    There once was a time in our history, not too long ago, when Americans walked on water, and whatever we did, stood for, or produced was automatically deemed worthwhile and the envy of everyone else on the planet. This is no longer the case. To be specific, American art is no longer internationally sought after simply because it's American art. If anything, the opposite has increasingly come to pass. Sadly, our current political administration has done us no favors with respect to our standing in the rest of the world, and so it's up to you as an artist to show that we still belong, we're still relevant, we still want to reach out, and that our art continues to embody values that are meaningful not only to us, but to everybody everywhere. In fact, if anybody can help get us out of this mess, it's our artists.

    We know what the problems are; we know what we have to do to make things better. If your art, your statement, your message, your theme can somehow communicate that Americans want to make amends, repair the damage, and bring people together, then you stand a fighting chance of moving some merchandise and paying your bills. I realize this is a pretty airy-fairy line of thought, but clawing our way back into the good graces of our fellow human beings is not exactly a bad idea. And using your artwork as a vehicle to convey sentiments, make friends, establish networks, and build bridges, with the ultimate intent of improving our relationships with people around the world just might contribute to your financial survival in these difficult times, and just might offer hope (and art) to former friends or allies who currently see little or none.

    Suggestions for expanding your markets:

    * Get involved with galleries or dealers who do art fairs, preferably those who already have established profiles in Europe, Asia, and other healthy and expanding markets where art fairs take place. But even dealers and galleries making first forays into new markets are good to get involved with.

    * If you don't have gallery representation, get involved with fellow artists who have friends, relatives, or connections overseas, and create a unified plan of action with the ultimate goal of throwing yourselves a show in another country.

    * If you don't know artists who have friends, relatives, or connections overseas, online art websites and networking websites offer excellent opportunities to establish relationships, and make organized attempts to show art overseas-- either your art goes there, their art comes here, or both.

    * Whatever you do, make it relevant. Make it newsworthy. Make it worthwhile for others to come and see. Make it about more than art. Make it an opportunity to dialogue, to connect, and to ultimately solidify those connections through art-- your art.


    Artists possess unique talents and abilities to express emotions, arouse feelings, explore sensitive issues, and make powerful statements with their art. Rather than view tough times as obstacles to career success, consider them opportunities to tap into your creative strengths and reserves, and to expand your sphere of influence. Impact someone else's life with your art in a meaningful way, and you just might make yourself a sale.

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