Somebody Likes Your Art, Now What?

You wanna sell art and make money, right? Of course you do. So let's get busy...

Customer #1 walks into Triple-A Fine Arts Gallery. He points to a painting and says, "I like this one. Can you tell me something about it?"

The owner says, "The artist just won the Madeline Flugleheimer Award for Partitioned Concept at the Vittorini Quadrennial, and she'll be included in a forthcoming survey on spatial incrementalism to be published this fall by CHLORMA."

Unfortunately, Customer #1 doesn't know much about art (like 99.9% of the general population). Even though he likes the painting, he has no idea what the owner is talking about. Confused, intimidated and nearly speechless, he nods, smiles, thanks the owner, turns around and walks out. OK. That sale's never going to happen.

The problem? Rather than start slowly, gauge the customer's response, and talk about easy-to-understand stuff like the colors, the images, the subject, the inspiration, how the gallery got a painting that big up the freight elevator without bumping it, or how tall the ceiling is in the artist's studio, the owner makes obscure references that only those few people who monitor the art world minute by minute can understand.


In walks Customer #2. She looks around the gallery, points to a small sculpture, and says, "I like this one. Can you tell me something about it?"

The owner says, "The artist works in reconstituted resinous paraffin composite. Her sculpture demonstrates the fungible essence of boundary."

Unfortunately, Customer #2 doesn't know much about art (like 99.9% of the general population), has no idea what the owner is talking about, continues looking around for another few moments just to be polite, and then leaves. OK. That sale's down the toilet.

The problem? Rather than talk about easy-to-understand stuff like how long the sculpture took to make, what makes it so shiny, how long the artist has sculpted, what special techniques the artist uses, or why the sculpture is shaped or sized like it is, the owner obliterates the questioner with technical art words.


Example #3 actually happened-- a TV interview. An artist is featured in an exhibit at a local museum. A TV station does a live remote from the museum for their morning show and the reporter asks the artist about his art.

Reporter: "So these are aerial photographs of huge drawings that you make in the sand on the beach, right?"

Artist: "Yes. I make them and then the tide washes them away."

Reporter: "Interesting. Tell the viewers a bit more."

Artist: "It addresses perceptions of permanence versus impermanence and ultimately the temporal essence of existence."

Reporter: "Wow. That's deep. And there we have it from the museum. Now back to you at the news desk."

That interview's history.

Unfortunately, the reporter doesn't know much about art (like 99.9% of the general population), has no idea what the artist is talking about, no idea how to respond, can't keep the interview going and so abruptly ends the segment.

Rather than talk about easy-to-understand stuff like aerial photography, how long a drawing takes to make, how many people it takes to make one, how he hangs out the side of the plane to get the pictures, how he prints the photographs so large, how little time he has to take the pictures before the art washes away, or how the photographs are the only proof that the sand drawings ever existed, the artist instead goes inscrutable. The really sad part is that to buy this amount of air time on TV in the form of advertising costs thousands of dollars at least. The artist got this interview free and could have made far better use of such massive exposure than he did.


Get the gist of these all too common encounters? In case you don't, here it is: The overwhelming majority of people know little or nothing about art. But they like art-- I've never met anyone who doesn't-- and they could possibly be convinced to buy art given the right set of circumstances. However, people only buy things they understand; they don't like to be confused, and they don't buy stuff that confuses them. So if someone shows an interest in your art and you respond by confusing them, chances are excellent that they'll retreat rather than try to unconfuse themselves.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to learn to talk about your art in language that just about anybody can understand. You see, when someone understands something and it's something they care about, they'll want to know more. If as they get to know more, they realize that they care about it a whole lot more than they first thought, they'll want to incorporate it into their lives. If the "it" happens to be your art, you make a sale.

I can think of no business where product presentation is so consistently, universally and unbelievably convoluted as it is with art. For example, you go to a car dealership to buy a car. Does the salesperson talk about the principles of engineering, chip technology and physics that allow the onboard computer to regulate fuel consumption for maximum acceleration? NO. He says the car goes from zero to 60 in 4.5 seconds. When you shop for an iPod, do you get an explanation of how the MPEG compression systems and subsystems reduce file sizes to enhance storage capacity? NO. You're told how many songs the iPod holds. It's a car and it accelerates really fast. It's an iPod and it stores lots and lots of your favorite music. That simple.

You can do the same with your art. No matter what your situation, make your introduction quick, uncomplicated and easy. Always assume that people know little or nothing about art, and go slowly. For instance, here's how Martin Lawrence Gallery introduces the art of Keith Haring: "Keith Haring believed in art. He believed in its power to transform lives. Perhaps more important, he also believed that art was capable of engaging and enriching the spirit." This works; it's a total oversimplification, but it works. The good news is that anyone can grasp and appreciate those statements; they're all that's necessary to perk potential buyers, hold their attention and progress one step closer to making sales. Yes, they start the conversation at a very elementary level, but by doing so, they keep people in the game.

"Oh, no," you say. "I can't do that with my art. That's crude, debasing and insulting. I refuse to dumb my art down. It's way more complicated. I need time. I have to explain it in depth so that viewers really appreciate what it's about."

You are so absolutely wrong. Of course your art is complicated and of course you have plenty to say about it. But save it. If you want people to identify with and establish meaningful connections to your art, and especially if you want them to buy it, assume they know little or nothing about art, go slow, go easy and talk on their level. Force-feeding explodes brains; you're not making foie gras here. So take it easy; there's plenty of time to get complicated-- later-- and only when asked.

Do you remember way back when you were 5 or 6 or however old you were when you decided you wanted to be an artist? You had no idea what fungible boundaries were, did you? All you knew was that you loved art, you loved making it and you wanted to make art for the rest of your life. And you still do, right? Something deep inside you compels you to do it, right? THAT is what you talk about. THAT is how you introduce yourself to people. Don't maul them with balderdash; hook them with passion, conviction, dedication and some enticing descriptives about what makes your art unique. I have never met an artist whose art-- without perhaps a few questions on my part-- I have not been able to distill and translate into a sentence or three that normal ordinary everyday human beings without higher art educations can understand, latch onto and identify with.

No, I'm not done. You know what boggles me? The legions of artists who play to the same exact supersaturated art world pinhead with their jargon-drenched better-than-you MFA attitudes. I mean, give it a break. You're like carp bloodying themselves over a stale bread crust that someone tosses into the water at the end of a dock. Reach out to the other 99.9% of humanity; they like art too. And guess what? Many of them have discretionary capital to spend on it. Try it. I know you never learned in art school how to talk to ordinary people about your art. But that's OK. It's not too late to start.

You're probably muttering, "There goes that bonehead philistine Bamberger again, treating art like bananas in the produce section." Wrong. I'm not saying you don't have every right to confuse the living daylights out of people. Of course you do. Go for it. All I'm saying is that for anyone who appreciates art, yours in particular, and who wants to feel like they have a grip on whatever it is that they're trying to get a grip on, be a sport and give them that grip. You don't have to throttle them with minutiae in order to validate yourself. Quite the opposite, the true test of your intelligence is figuring out how to make a complex message simple. You're still the same artist, you're still just as good-- and so is your art-- no matter what you say or how you say it. Now go forth and sell.

divider line

Current Features

Services for Artists and Collectors


  • artbusiness on Facebook
  • Artbusiness on Twitter
  • Artbusiness on Instagram