A Gallery Without Walls: Selling Art in Alternative Venues

by Margaret Danielak

“This book is about selling art in alternative venues and in innovative, cost-effective ways” based on the author’s experience as an artist’s representative. What I like most about this book is that it opens the door to nontraditional sales channels, so you are not competing in the same sandbox with everyone else.

The most successful alternative venues for selling art are “private homes (including my own), rental galleries or warehouse spaces, high-end restaurants, furniture galleries and showrooms, outdoor art shows, medical offices, wine shops, and law firms.” Outdoor shows work best for small pieces. “If you produce high-end, expensive or large work, however, an outdoor event may not prove successful.”

“Cross-promotion with other businesses is a very low-cost way to gain more exposure for your artwork… Offer to co-host a reception for your clients in a store” at a time when their traffic is slow. Danielak held an ‘Art Tasting Event’ in a wine store on a Sunday afternoon, pairing the wine with regions represented in the art.

The author also holds Art Teas in her home. “Do not invite every one of your clients—be selective. Inviting a smaller number of well-connected people is more important than having a large quantity of people. You want to be able to give individual attention to your guests.”

“The artists I represent need to be able to speak with enthusiasm about their artwork since they will be featured during at least one Art Tea event… Being true to yourself and enthusiastic about what you are creating will permeate every aspect of your presentation. It will shine through to potential collectors and will affect all of your marketing efforts… Your greatest asset in promoting and selling your art will always be yourself—your love of art, your ability to create it, and your formidable imagination.”

The author cautions to maintain a selling atmosphere. “Never hold an art event where the food and wine are located separately from the art. Have the art in full view of the food and wine… Most artists do not understand the value of their opening event… Many artists turn their reception into a party or a family reunion and ruin the possibilities of sales. An opening reception is meant to expose new and existing clients to new work and to sell that work… Arrive early for your reception. Serious collectors want first pick. Be there to greet them. They will be impressed…. Your opening reception is your single best opportunity to sell your work, when all of your collectors are there in the room with you. The vast majority of sales will happen in the few hours leading up to the opening and during the opening. Don’t blow it by turning it into a private party.”

On another practical selling note, the author strongly advises having a credit card merchant account.

Be flexible about showing the artwork. “Some of my guests appreciate the fact that I am willing to show the work several days before and up to two weeks after each event. I do not keep the work up indefinitely, however. Art sells better when it is rotated regularly.”

Offer a range of price points. “Showing a variety of artwork at a variety of prices increases your chances of making sales. It is also less intimidating to your first-time clients…. For a Spring Art Tea event, I priced some original work from $40 for small paintings to $900 for colorful acrylic paintings of the Huntington Gardens… One generally cannot command as much for a small piece as for a large piece.”

The author provides some practical advice on hanging artwork. “It is best to hang at eye level—53-55 inches from the floor to the center of the image… Restaurants often have a wall where you are forced to hang the work very low. For example, you may need to hang your artwork according to how it will look when people are seated rather than standing.”

“If an event is successful at a particular alternative venue, try to schedule your shows in the same location during the same month or weekend each year.” The author notes that each venue seems to have a prime area “from where you consistently make sales of your work… It seems to be different for each place we exhibit… You just have to find the sacred spot by experimenting.”

Of course you will have to promote your event. “The most effective single piece of advertising that I’ve ever done was the postcard that artist John Paul Thornton and I created for his one-man show—Bearing Witness.” This resulted in a $13,000 sale to one of the artist’s existing clients. “The client, who had never seen the original, was afraid the painting would sell prior to the opening and did not want to wait to buy it. The painting was sold, therefore, solely on the basis of the postcard invitation.”

Encourage word-of-mouth promotion. “Write a personal note on your invitation when you send it to current clients to remind them to bring their neighbor or friend. Collectors who love your work are often happy to promote it.”

The author also writes about obtaining press coverage. “Find out their deadlines… Attach a press release… and two to three images (JPEG format) of the art… Let the editor know how to reach you… Send the editor the hard version of all that you sent electronically. In addition, send him your show invitation.” Afterwards, Danielak strongly recommends thanking the editor for publicizing your event. “If you live near the editorial offices, take your thank-you note with a bottle of wine (or muffin basket, etc.) to the newspaper’s office… If you thank the editor, he will never forget you.”

“Be sure to leave out a guest book at each of your events. Collect the contact information and add those people to your ever-expanding mailing list to invite to future events.”

“Consider every sale a good sale—sales breed sales.” When people see a red dot indicating that a piece was sold, “they will often say, ‘I would have bought that piece if it were not already sold!’ … Two possible responses are… ‘I’d be happy to show you other similar works. They’re not even framed yet’ [or] ‘Would you like to discuss a commission based upon this painting? I can create one for you in any size you like.’” Keep notes on your prospective client’s interests and follow up with them periodically.

“As much as 80% of your future business will be from your current clients… Several of my clients have purchased so much artwork over the years that their walls and other display areas are full. As an artist, you could recommend to your clients that they rotate their art collection to bring new energies to their home or office, or perhaps to correspond with the changing seasons.”

“Create business cards that feature your work. I created a … business card for my father that features one of his lovely watercolors. During an office visit, he happened to hand one of these cards to his doctor. Later that day, the doctor logged into my website and then emailed me, asking if he could see a few originals. Within the week, the doctor, who has known for years that my father is an artist (but had never seen his work), purchased two large watercolors.”

“Networking is one of the most important aspects of selling… Expand your contacts—join organizations. People love to buy art from people they know because it becomes part of the story they tell their family and friends about the pieces in their collection.”

Collectors can buy for pleasure, for status, or as an investment. “The art collectors whom I know love to learn about artists—their history, their career—and they find it thrilling to chase down the best work created by those artists. Collectors appreciate being informed about art and are on a never-ending search for ‘that special work of art’ to round out their collection.”

The author explains the difference between an art representative and gallery representation. “An effective art rep is like a film agent; each performs a similar function. Unlike a gallery, art reps usually represent a small group of artists. I represent only seven… The gallery concentrates on making sales to anyone who walks through the door. If the gallery is representing 200 artists, the owner of that gallery will not have much time to concentrate on you, your career, your issues, and your individual needs.”

She offers some advice for artists seeking representation.

“One of the biggest mistakes artists make is trying to market their work with insufficient inventory… Art reps, dealers, and gallery owners need to see your best work as well as large inventory. They need to know that if they sell a few pieces, there will be more available… Try to create pieces in a series, where the pieces are exactly the same size, feature similar images, have a common theme, or, when displayed, create the feeling of a series.”

Do not hijack someone else’s reception. “One of my pet peeves is when an artist whom I’ve not met previously approaches me at a sales event to talk about his work. Sometimes he even comes armed with a portfolio. Gallery owners, reps and dealers usually have only about two hours during a reception to sell. If there are 20 pieces of art in the exhibition, 10 pieces will need to be sold in the first hour, 10 in the second hour. One sale will need to be completed every six minutes to sell the entire show!”

Alternatively, artists can use the techniques in this book to sell their own work. “Every day I see opportunities to for artists to sell their artwork. I see businesses that need art on their barren walls, for example, and stores that need sculpture in their windows.” The Catch-22 seems to be that you need to develop an invitation list of qualified buyers to make the sales events successful.

Danielak, Margaret. A Gallery without Walls: Selling Art in Alternative Venues. Nevada City, CA: ArtNetwork, 2005. Buy from Amazon.com