Wheedling, Needling, and Pleading not Allowed 

Thankfully I didn’t stumble into a profession that required me to order products wholesale, fill a shop, and sell it all for a profit. I’ve never had my finger on the pulse of the buying public. Even in the art world, what is much revered and admired and therefore marketable is often baffling to me.  I’m aware that this probably puts me in the "unlikely to succeed in sales" column.

So when the title of a column in a recent magazine asked “What Sells Your Art?” it grabbed my attention. OK – what does sell my art? If only I knew I would stand to sell more paintings, and that would be most agreeable.  But does anyone really know the answer? Actually, I was nervous as I was poised to read the article, thinking the author would point out that I myself - an "unlikely to succeed in sales" type woman - am expected to sell my paintings.

I’ve read many articles with tips for artists to improve sales. An online gallery newsletter suggested I could sell more paintings if I were to foster a “relationship” with potential customers. You know -  meet for dinner, visit a gallery together, even educating them about art in a subtle way – all the while endearing myself to them and making my paintings irresistible. To me, this seems disingenuous, time consuming, and self-serving.  If a customer and I happen to become friends, that’s great. But my experience has been that some customers who relate to my art don’t necessarily relate to me personally, nor I to them. Frankly, it just seems a bit too “chummy.” And I’m already challenged to find enough studio time. So I’ll stay in my rut, forming a friendship because I really like a person rather than hoping to lure him into becoming a collector of my own art.

Author Robert Reed who wrote “What Sells Your Art?” for the Professional Artist magazine shared that “What people will pay for something is a measure of the pleasure it brings them. “ He goes on to say that sometimes the art brings a story to a viewer. Other times the viewer brings their own story to the art. However that happens, the more personal the story, the stronger the link between a viewer and the piece of art. That makes sense to me. A story, no matter how simple, allows a viewer to make a connection to a painting, and that is what sells artwork.

That reminded me of the experience of my friend Betty a co-owner of an art gallery that represented a popular artist. Every gallery opening for this artist was crowded, with a party atmosphere. The artist spoke with viewers about his work, telling short stories about each painting. Betty overheard a story about a painting the gallery had had for some time. After the event, Betty said, “I never heard the story about that painting before!” The artist smiled and confessed, “People love to hear something that gives meaning to a piece of art, and I sometimes embellish or even invent stories about my paintings.” Invent a story? I would never dare do that for fear I would be asked to repeat it in 6 months – or 5 years! I had better stick to the real deal here, easily remembered and repeated.  

I once spent a hot, dusty afternoon taking photos of local farmers staging an old style threshing demonstration 10 miles from town. I ultimately painted a rear view of three local “threshers” gazing across the fields and displayed it at a local art show.  A man looked at the painting only briefly before announcing, “I want to buy that painting.” I wanted to say “Wait wait! I want to tell you about these men!" Even though he had already said he wanted to buy the painting, I foolishly blurted “You might want to know that these local farmers are…..”  when the buyer interrupted me to say, “This reminds me of my father.” That day I learned that a buyer who finds his own story in my painting doesn’t need to hear mine.  I had nearly spoiled his connection with my painting by imposing my own story.

My efforts to sell are admittedly low-key. I think that a painting often sells itself. A customer will either buy it or not.  It might be best to be available, but stay out of their way. Wheedling, needling, and pleading might well make visitors avoid my space the next time. It seems to me that having good exposure, name recognition, and hanging my best possible work for display is more effective than a sleek sales technique. Being genuine, open, and approachable goes a long way toward putting viewers at ease so they linger at my display and stop again at my next show. In the meantime, I'm going to polish up on my story telling skills.