Ask the Art Prof: How Do You Sell Your Art?

"Control" Exhibition

“How do you sell your art?”

There is now a multitude of options for selling your art, many more than existed a few decades ago thanks to the Internet. You have to troubleshoot which venue is most appropriate for you and your work, as different venues will provide different results. My suggestion would be to experiment with different venues and see what works and what doesn’t.

A large factor of selling art is marketing and promotion.  I’ve seen artists with mediocre work doing extremely well because their work was aggressively promoted the right way.  I’ve also seen some really wonderful artists who haven’t done as well because their work wasn’t marketed appropriately.

Below I list the main venues and opportunities for selling your work. Some of the venues below have a highly selective screening process, while others are open to anyone.

Clara Lieu

1) Selling online
Now with sites like Etsy and Ebay, selling artwork online is more popular than ever. When you sell online, you have 100% control over every facet of the selling process, in terms of setting prices, what you sell, etc. This can be great to have so much control over the process, but it also creates a lot of work for you.

I don’t have experience selling on Ebay, but I’ve had an Etsy shop for my fine arts work for about 10 months now and love it.   Etsy is very easy to use, and I’ve sold artwork to people all over the world which has been a lot of fun.  I’m not about to quit my day job any time soon, but I’ve had the chance to sell a lot of artwork that would otherwise be sitting in a closet collecting dust. I sell drawings, hand-pulled prints, digital prints, and sculpture, with the drawings and hand-pulled prints being the most popular items.

The majority of my work that I’ve sold on my Etsy shop has been in the $30-$200 range.  I’m able to make a profit based on selling high volumes of relatively inexpensive pieces, this seems to work well online as most people shopping on Etsy aren’t ready or prepared to plunk down several thousand dollars for a piece of art.

The most challenging part of selling online is that sites like Etsy and Ebay are so saturated with artists that it’s very, very hard to get noticed.  You have to do a lot of marketing and promotion for people to even know that you exist, much less make sales. The amount of time that I spend maintaining my Etsy shop pales in comparison to the amount of time that I spend marketing and promoting it.

2) Open studios events
Every major city will generally have annual open studios events for local artists to participate in.  Generally you pay a fee to participate and then everything else is up to you. When I was just starting out as an artist, I used to live in Jamaica Plain in Boston.  I participated every year in open studios. I didn’t have a studio in Jamaica Plain, so I opted to show my work at one of the group sites that they had for artists.  It was definitely a lot of hard work and schlepping: packaging the art, presenting everything in bins that were easy to browse through, pricing everything, etc.

Open studio events usually get a lot of traffic, and it’s wonderful to get to talk to people and other artists in person about my work-something that you miss out on when you sell online.  I priced my prints, drawings, and paintings in the $20-$90 price range and usually made about $1000 over the course of two days. I even got two major portrait commissions later from people who saw my work at open studios.  The audience is casual, mostly local people who are just browsing and making impulse purchases.   All in all, it’s a great event to do if you’re just getting started.  Like selling online, you get to control every part of the selling process at an open studios event. For tips on how to do an open studios event as an artist, read this article I wrote.

Waltham Open Studios 2013 3)

3) Non-commercial art galleries
There are a lot of different kinds of non-commercial art galleries out there. There are galleries at academic institutions, artist co-op galleries, galleries at non-profit arts organizations, etc. Generally artwork is for sale at all of these different kinds of galleries, but in mostly selling the work is not the main priority of these types of galleries.  Non-commercial galleries will take a smaller percentage of commission, they usually take about 30% commission whereas a commercial gallery will take a 50% commission.

As far as how much you control, at each gallery you’ll likely be working with a curator and/or gallery director who will select the work to be shown.  Prices are usually set by the artist. Non-commercial art galleries are usually (but not all the time) easier to break into for artists. Most artists get exhibitions by having connections with other artists, curators, and gallery directors. That’s certainly the quickest and most direct way to securing an exhibition, and curators and gallery directors like to work with people who they trust and know.

However, I’ve gotten shows at non-commercial galleries just by contacting the gallery director and submitting my work to them. I once got a solo show at an artists’ co-op gallery just because I had entered one of their competitions.  I didn’t win the competition, but they liked my work and asked me to apply for a guest artist solo show. Many artist co-op galleries require membership, in which you pay a monthly fee and are guaranteed a solo show at the gallery every two years or so.

Trustman Gallery at Simmons College

4) Commercial art galleries
There are commercial art galleries at all different levels.  There is everything from the small, local gallery to high end galleries that are at the top of the food chain in terms of selling art.  At these different kinds of galleries, clients can range from people who want a painting that will match the color of the sofa in their living room all the way to powerful clients who purchase art for their personal art collections or for the sole purpose of donating the art to a museum. The major advantage is that a commercial gallery’s primary objective is to sell the art. Commercial galleries have an established audience and clientele, and they will do the marketing and promotion for you, which can be an enormous advantage.

One of the drawbacks of commercial galleries is that you will probably not have much control over the kind of work that you’re showing and the prices. At the beginning of my career before I knew better, I once got into a heated argument with a commercial gallery director over the pricing of one of my oil paintings. Remember that commercial galleries are focused on selling, so they will sometimes exert pressure on artists to show certain kinds of work. One of my colleagues once told me that when he wanted to switch from making his popular city paintings to something else, his dealer “had a heart attack”.

Unseen & Unknown at Bromfield Gallery

The more prestigious the gallery, the more difficult it can be to get into as an artist, and even more challenging is to get representation with a gallery.  In general, most artists get into commercial galleries (especially the high end ones) by having an artist who is represented by the gallery recommend them.  It’s very rare that a gallery would take on an artist from an unsolicited submission, and most galleries refuse to even consider unsolicited artist submissions.


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Related articles
“How can an artist bypass galleries and sell directly to their audience?”
“How do I leave my gallery?”
“How do I approach a gallery?”
“How do museums select artists to exhibit? What is museum quality work?”
“How do I know I’m ready to start selling and approaching galleries?”
“12 Ways to Prepare for Open Studios”

10 thoughts on “Ask the Art Prof: How Do You Sell Your Art?

  1. I sold a painting of a tree to my mom’s friend for $300. She’s been a fan since I gave her a painting of a pregnant nude as a gift. I think sometimes you have to give works away for free in order to sell your works.

  2. Very informative article, Clara. It’s refreshing to hear solid advice from an experienced artist/educator such as yourself re: how and where to sell work. Too often as artists we’re told this subject is “taboo” when essentially, it’s a practical means to sustain ourselves, and give incentive to make even more pieces of new work.

    • I totally know what you mean about the subject of selling your art being “off limits”, especially in art school. I’m not sure why the culture is like that, but I think it’s an important conversation to be having, as in the professional world it is certainly one way to sustain your studio practice.

  3. Good ideas. Another consideration is art festivals. I have been making my living
    selling at art fairs as well as galleries for twenty years. Once you get above the
    small craft fairs, the quality is gallery level.

  4. This is such a good resource! I’m a second year undergrad in Australia (at the Australian National University) and while I adore my art school and my lecturers there isn’t enough of this discussed. Thinking about marketing yourself is sort of encouraged but I feel like it should be a more important issue that’s discussed within the degree. Otherwise I just feel I’ve been given all these beautiful techniques and then cut adrift. I really love your website for this very reason (and as a drawing and print student I’m crushing pretty hard on your drawings).

  5. I’m a really good artist but I don’t know how to approach or be professional when going to a big company or business to sell my work what should I say to them? do I bust in the door and say who wants it? I really don’t want to waste my talents I’m 20 yrs old and I’m ready to move forward in my future I don’t want to be stuck as a security officer forever I want to enjoy and cherish my talents I don’t know how to find people I can use as connections should I bring my art in on a canvas or just naked right after its finished?what should I offer a company that has chosen to represent me? I don’t know what to do someone help please!

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