Using Social Media
These days, the most obvious way to let people know that you make art is by promoting your practice on social media. It’s free to use, fairly easy to figure out, and can start getting your work on people’s radar immediately. I know lots of artists who had never shown in a gallery before, but who were able to generate business solely through their Instagram account.
Personally, I prefer to follow social media accounts that reflect an artist’s unique personality, and which don’t just feel like a grid of paintings. Taking a more casual approach to your social media posts will also free you up to just be you, and will alleviate the fear that you need to craft an image on social media that isn’t true to who you really are. Beyond simply posting about your artwork, there are lots of ways to bring your social media audiences into the fold of your practice. I strongly believe that anything art-related can (and should) be posted, whether it’s a formal review of your work, an event flier about an upcoming group show, or a candid snap from your senior crit.
While social media is amazing for reaching a large audience quickly, another effective way to put your work on people’s radar is to physically put yourself out there. This means being as social as you can be, and always introducing yourself as an artist first and foremost—even if you’re paying the bills by waiting tables, answering phones, or teaching four adjunct classes at your local community college.
What it comes down to is that you are your own best marketer. Simply letting people know that you make work will lead to questions about what it is, and where it can be seen. In turn, this creates an opportunity to invite someone into your studio to see what you make.
Using Your Website
Having a website to showcase your work (especially your available work) is also a necessity. You don’t need it to be fancy, just factual. Personally, when I’ve decided to seek out an artist’s website, I’m ready to get down to business. I want to see clearly labeled photographs of individual works, an up-to-date CV, any relevant press, and a brief statement that sums up their practice. In my opinion, the best artist websites are easy to scroll or click through, so an interested viewer can browse between artworks without difficulty.
Documenting your work
If you don’t have a good camera and can’t take great images of your work, find someone who can. You must resist the temptation to only document your work via your smartphone’s camera. If you can’t afford a professional photographer for every piece you make—and many artists can’t—do a trade. Ask a photographer friend if she’ll trade documentation of your work for a piece or two. There are lots of creative ways to help yourself along that don’t have to cost a lot of money.
If some of your works are difficult to photograph, make sure there are plenty of detail shots available on your website so the viewer can get a sense of the work’s surface and overall composition. Also, include photographs from multiple angles. If your goal is to get people interested in your art through images, they need to do a good job showcasing the work, in all of its nuanced glory.
One more note on documentation: always make sure each artwork has been photographed before it leaves your studio. Who knows what will happen to your career in 10 years, and what that one specific artwork will come to mean. Down the line, you may need documentation of the piece for your first museum retrospective. Or, you may never see the work again because the collector won’t let it leave their house. Either way, you’ll want an image on file for your catalog raisonné.
The easiest way to make your work available to potential buyers on your website is by putting up a simple statement like: “For inquiries on purchasing an artwork, please contact me at [your email address].” For this purpose specifically, always make sure your contact information is clear, up to date, and easy to find on your site. If someone finds you online and becomes interested in purchasing a work, don’t add friction to the process by burying your email address.
If you want to get fancy, you may choose to sell your work through an online store. This is a bit more difficult to set up, and if you plan to let customers pay for works right through your website, you’ll end up giving away a percentage of your profit to payment processors like PayPal or Square. However, enabling website visitors to make purchases without directly emailing you does have its benefits. For one, detailing your available works and their prices in an online shop allows interested buyers to easily see which of your works are for sale, and get a sense of your prices without the awkwardness of emailing to inquire. Either way, as you design your website, be sure to separate your store from the documentation of your work, so your website doesn’t feel like a digital garage sale.
Having an online store dedicated to selling cheaper items (such as editions, prints, zines, pins, t-shirts, or posters) can also help to get your name out in the world. A lot more people can buy a $5 zine than a $500 painting, after all.
Selling Through Galleries
When working directly with a gallery, know that you’ll have to split the profits from any sales. Generally, the gallery will take about 50% of a work’s sale price. While it may seem crazy to give away half of your money, galleries will be able to get your work out to a larger audience than you’ll be able to reach on your own. They may also be able to sell a drawing that you would have sold out of your studio for $200 for $2,000, since they know their clients’ interests best, and can help lend credibility to your practice.
When you get the chance to work with a gallery for a group show, art fair, or via the gallery’s online store, make sure you get all the details of the relationship in writing. Ask them for a consignment agreement that covers the price that they’ll list your work for sale at, the length of time they’ll have your work on consignment, the terms of sale, and how any potential discounts will be shared. If a work is sold by a gallery, you should also expect to receive a form with the buyer’s information so you can keep it on record in your own files. Check out “documentation” below (in the pricing section) to further explore what should be on any consignment agreement or invoice.
If you’re ever asked to a do a commission (for example, a portrait of a collector’s dog, a sculpture in a particular location, or a performance for a collector’s wedding, etc), the first thing to do is to make sure the terms are written down and agreed to. You’ll also want to make sure that once the work is started, there can be no refund on the down payment, and that once the work is completed, the work cannot be returned if the collector doesn’t like it.
Once a contract for a commission is signed, you should always require a 50% down payment of the final sale price. In my opinion, this is non-negotiable. In the terms sheet, it should also be stated that if the commission is canceled, changed, etc, the down payment is non-refundable. And while it’s possible to change the scope of the commission while it’s in progress, make sure your contract notes that any changes could result in charging the collector extra money to cover your time and any additional expenses.
Often, art shows can take place in hotel rooms, coffee shops, bank lobbies, or at friends’ houses. In these instances, there might not be a huge opportunity for sales, since it’s more of a curatorial undertaking. But who knows what can happen! Whenever you loan out your work—whether it’s for a casual show at a friend’s pop-up store, or for something more established—make sure you get or provide a consignment agreement. This agreement should always detail the length of the loan, and (should a sales opportunity arise) the details of how a transaction can work. For instance, will the friend who’s hosting a show in his living room take a percentage of the sale if their roommate buys your work?
You can gift your work to anyone you want, even institutions (although there’s no guarantee that they’ll take it). Often, nonprofits, cultural institutions, or friends will seek out artists to donate works for their fundraisers and benefits. This is a great way to get your name and work seen by a larger collector base and raise money for a cause you care about. And, you can write off the value of the work when you do your taxes. If you make a gift of your work for one of these occasions, always try to negotiate a ticket or two to the event, as these are usually a great opportunity to network.
With anything that’s leaving the studio, you’ll want to have a proper paper trail and documentation (think: high-quality photographs) of the piece or pieces. And, even with gifts, you’ll want to keep records of the transaction. Your career will be in a different place in five, 10, or 15 years and the more information you have at your disposal about who has your works, the better.