"Self-Commissioning" Art Rarely Works

Make it for You, Not Them

Q: I spent a number of months on a painting dedicated to a female military pilot who died in action. I offered the finished picture to a women's military history organization, but they weren't interested. They said it didn't fit their format. Since this is more of a museum piece, I need ideas on how to get it exhibited so that the public has a chance to see it and an institution can buy it. If I sell it, I'll donate 20% of the proceeds to a war memorial fund. The painting is priced at $15000; print reproduction rights can be negotiated separately. Enclosed is my resume. Any suggestions?

A: You've made a number of assumptions and errors in judgment here that impact your chances of selling this painting, especially to in institution. To begin with, you decided entirely on your own that the piece was necessary and appropriate for this organization without asking them first. You knew nothing about the organization's acquisition policies, acquisitions budget, or whether they show or purchase any art in the first place. With no advanced notice, you painted the painting, presented it to the organization for sale, and they told you that it didn't fit their format.

To begin with, you should have researched the organization in advance. If it turned out that they regularly exhibit or acquire art, then you should have proposed the idea for the painting ahead of time, perhaps with sketches and a synopsis about it's significance-- like the way authors query publishers with ideas for books or articles. That way you could have gotten the organization's answer up front before investing all that time and effort creating the art.

Most likely they would have turned you down regardless, or maybe they would have asked you to donate the painting instead, or if by some chance they liked your presentation, asked for more information or otherwise offered to continue the conversation. In any case, whenever you have a specific endpoint in mind for a specific work of art, make your intentions known to those parties before beginning the project, assuming that's where you want it to go. At least, you'll get a response (keeping in mind that no response is also a response). At most, you might get suggestions or recommendations on how to proceed.

Another problem with the way you offered the painting is that you set your goals too high. According to your resume, you're relatively young and inexperienced as an artist. Unless you have an established track record of exhibiting at and selling to museums and public institutions, your chances of cold-calling any significant organization and selling them a relatively expensive work of art are small at best. Accomplishments like getting your art into these types of places accrue gradually during the course of an artist's career as the artist receives greater and greater recognition within the art community. You've got to work your way up to major commissions and large sales while setting your immediate goals at more realistic levels.

Referring to your painting as a museum piece further complicates matters and is not a judgment you should be making. Those kinds of assessments are better left to critics, curators, and similar art world professionals. Also, when you decide on your own that a piece of your art is important to the world as a whole, you tend to overlook "less important" opportunities to show or sell it-- ones that might actually work. Your painting is certainly important to you and it represents a significant accomplishment in your career, but that doesn't automatically mean it can only be exhibited or sold under special limited circumstances.

Continuing with this list of obstacles to getting where you want to go, the fact that you had no direct connection to the woman portrayed in your painting, other than reading about her and identifying with her, also reduces your chances of successfully showing or selling the art. For example, do you think that just because you read about our current President, are impressed by their life story, paint their portrait and offer it to the National Portrait Gallery that they'll buy it or even accept it as a donation? Highly unlikely at best. Museums and institutions almost exclusively acquire portraits painted by famous artists, preferably executed firsthand with the subjects as sitters, and commissioned either by the sitters themselves, their families, or groups or organizations that the sitters were closely involved or affiliated with.

Fortunately, you haven't wasted your time creating this painting. It's a wonderful piece that reflects how the pilot's life has impacted you as an artist and as a woman. The public can read her story anywhere, but they can only get your interpretation of that story from you through your painting. A possible idea on where to go from here might be for you to paint a series of related pictures, perhaps focusing on other women of note, and work towards showing them all together at a gallery or exhibition space.

Your point of view and message you want to get across will have more impact when presented in a series of paintings rather than in a single piece. Also keep in mind that an isolated portrait tends to advance the cause of the subject while a series of portraits tends to advance the cause of the artist. Notwithstanding the significance of this portrait, perhaps the main cause you need to advance right now is yours.

Regarding the marketplace and this painting's $15000 asking price, your resume indicates that you have no solid track record of selling any art in this price range. You're aiming too high once again and are asking for too much money without being able to justify or demonstrate that you regularly make sales at or near this price point. You've got to start out at more sensible levels, preferably comparable to what artists with similar experience and accomplishments to yours might charge for similar works of art. Also think about producing a wider variety of work in all price ranges so that anyone who loves your art (or this painting in particular), but can't afford your largest most significant pieces, will at least be able to afford something.

One final point. Spending two years on a single work of art is not cost effective. It's fine if you're independently wealthy, make an adequate income from selling other art, don't really care whether you sell anything or not, or have sufficient outside sources of income. But if you have to sell art in order to survive, limit the amount of time you spend on each individual piece so that you can hopefully reach a point where you generate enough art and enough sales to pay your living expenses and support yourself as an artist. Sometimes you have to compromise your dreams and aspirations in order to realize immediate short term goals which in turn will maximize your chances for significant success down the road.

jennifer elek

(art by Jennifer Elek)

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