How Your Selling Prices Can Suffer

If You Flood the Market with Art

Q: I'm fairly successful as far as artists go and make my living entirely by selling my art. I don't make lots of money, but I make enough to live comfortably. My situation is that I make art much faster than I sell it, so I'm wondering whether I can increase sales by selling through more galleries or maybe starting to sell online. The two local galleries I work with sell a lot of my art and I'm happy with our relationships, but they don't like this idea much. I want to work with more galleries in other parts of the country. What do you recommend?

A: Increasing the number of galleries that sell your art is a good idea as long as you're careful how you do it. The key is to control the amount of art you have on the market at any given time, the number of galleries that sell it, and where those galleries are. If you saturate the market with too much art or give too many galleries the right to sell it, you can run into problems. Part of your current success is likely due to the way your market is structured, in other words, that a limited amount of your art is available through the two galleries that now represent you, and that's that. You don't seem to be quite at the point yet where if you substantially increase the amount of art you have on the market that buyers will be able to absorb it. If you were, your two galleries would be regularly selling out and requesting more work.

While we're on the subject, you have to consider how important these two galleries are not only in selling your art, but perhaps even more so in maintaining your reputation and profile. Basically, the more instrumental they are in promoting you and keeping your name out there in front of the public, the more concerned you have to be about keeping them happy. If spreading yourself too thin compromises or dilutes the success they currently have selling your art, they'll spend less time selling it, and here's the important part-- less time promoting you as an artist worth owning.

Galleries spend the most time promoting the art and artists that sell the best, not art they don't sell that much of or have a hard time selling. In other words, they'll keep doing what they do for you now as long as your shows continue to be successful. If the buyer stream begins to dry up or they start shopping elsewhere, they'll spend less time showing and selling your art, less time keeping your name out there in front of the public, and you'll not only become less of a headliner at their galleries, but you'll also risk becoming less of one in the overall marketplace as well. So think this through fully before taking action.

You're currently a mainstay at these two galleries. In order to keep things that way, you want to make sure they're in the loop at all stages of any discussions and approve of any moves to expand your market; you don't want to upset them. If you put too much art on the local or larger markets through new galleries, something you can easily do since you have plenty of available art, you run the risk of making it too easy to get. Your hope is that your two current galleries will continue to sell well and that the new galleries will make sales too, but if that doesn't happen, you could end up increasing competition between galleries, spreading the same number of sales out over a greater number of outlets, and compromising your status at your two main galleries. The risk is that they'll lose sales to the new galleries, and that's probably why they oppose an increase in the number of galleries that represent you. So be really careful here.

Your best tact, assuming your two current galleries agree, is to start slow and look for maybe one new gallery at a time in other parts of the country. The farther they are from the two galleries you have now, the better. Talk everything over with them first, tell them exactly what you'd like to do, and ask for their suggestions. You might even see whether they'll be willing to act on your behalf. One gallery approaching another gallery with a business proposition generally carries more weight than an artist approaching a gallery. Plus allowing the galleries to deal directly with other galleries minimizes the possibility of confusion, disagreements or misunderstandings over who gets to sell what where and for how much. Or if they'll let you do it yourself, go for it.

Even though you have plenty of art to sell, start slowly, monitor the impact to your market, and do what's necessary to make sure any new galleries don't compete with your current ones. Wait long enough between each new addition to see how your overall market is effected, especially with respect to that delicate balance between the amount of art you have for sale and number of people interested in buying it. You don't want to go lopsided in terms of supply because in order for your selling prices to hold steady or go up, you have to maintain a degree of exclusivity around your art and not make it too easy to get. Too much available art may begin to give collectors the impression your work isn't selling as well as it once did or that interest is waning. Nothing like that is good for your career.

As for starting to sell online, here's where things can get really seriously sticky. What gets offered on the Internet and who offers it should be determined and agreed upon in advance. Discuss the details of your online profile will all galleries and make sure everyone understands who gets to sell what. The Internet blurs the lines between physical territory, so it's your responsibility (in conjunction with any galleries who represent you) to make sure there's minimal online overlap. Giving each gallery the exclusive right to sell certain works is best; having multiple galleries to offering the same works is something you want to avoid.

You also mention starting to sell your art direct online, but here's where galleries can really get upset. If they don't want this, don't do it. The number one concern of many galleries is that their artists stay loyal, refuse to sell direct, and refer all potential buyers to them. Some galleries allow artists to sell art that's completely and totally different from what's available at the galleries, or art the galleries can't sell or aren't interested in selling like minor works or limited edition prints of originals. Again, clear anything like this with your galleries first.

If at some point you get really famous and can hardly make art enough fast enough to satisfy the demand, then go after lots of galleries everywhere. But as long as you produce art faster than it sells, don't flood the market. Keep the supply/demand ratio relatively constant. Collectors like to believe they're getting something special when they buy art, not something they can get anywhere, at any time and with little effort. Make sure things stay that way.

Additional pointers for artists who make art faster than it sells:

* The more art you have on the market in relation to the size of your collector base, the more downward pressure you put on your prices. For example, if you have 50 serious collectors and 400 works of art on the market, those collectors will be more inclined to shop around and bargain on prices before they buy.

* The more galleries that sell your art and the more that's on the market, the more they'll be willing to negotiate a price in order to make a sale. The galleries may undercut each other at the retail level in order to move more art, and as a result your retail prices may suffer. Do what you can to avoid oversupply scenarios like this.

* Never sell art out of your studio or online at prices less than galleries sell it for. In fact, it's best not to sell any of your art directly when galleries represent you, unless you have permission. There are always collectors who'll want to cut out the middle man and buy on the cheap, and this will only get worse the better known you get. No matter how persistent they get, just say no. Nothing upsets a gallery more than selling behind their back, and if you upset them enough, they might just drop you altogether.

* There's a term in retail business called "rotating the stock" which means regularly replacing old merchandise with fresh new merchandise rather than letting the same old stuff sit unsold for long periods of time. This is as true for art as it is for anything else, if not more so. No matter where your art is for sale, whether online or at galleries, make sure you regularly replace or rotate the current selection with fresh new work, or at the very least with older work that hasn't been seen in a while. You don't want people to see the same art for sale over and over again every time they visit your galleries or your website because they'll begin to think that not much is selling.

* Monitoring your art on resale or secondary markets is REALLY IMPORTANT. If an occasional piece of your art comes up for sale at auction or is offered on the secondary market at prices substantially below what it sells for at your galleries, seriously consider buying it back yourself or having one of your galleries or collectors buy it. One of the easiest ways to hurt your retail price structure (and your reputation) is to ignore secondary markets and not protect your prices.

* If, for some reason, you can't buy back secondary market pieces, never badmouth them. Telling people they're not the right look or medium or are not as good as what you're making now is just as bad as letting them sell cheap or sit unsold. Making negative statements like that reflects on all of your art. For instance, how do potential buyers know that several years down the road you won't be saying the same things about the art that they're thinking about buying from you now?


(art by Felipe Pantone)

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