SELLING YOUR WORK: Far Afield? Or Close to Home?

There are pros and cons to being a ‘local artist’, and many artists opt to ‘get out of Denver’ as quickly as they can. But there are deep reasons to building a local audience first.

I got an email newsletter from artist and writer Robert Genn. I always enjoy his thoughts on making and selling art. He’s a good writer, and a thoughtful one.

Today (insert link here) he tells why he decided to skip a local market, and developed more distant venues to sell his paintings.

I felt the same way when I started out with my art. I feared that ancient ponies and bone awls would never find a hold in a traditional New England marketplace. I did a few local shows, just to prove to myself I needed to go further afield. And then I did just that.

But I’m here today to eat my words. (I do that a lot.) There are lots of good reasons to start local. And I’ll give you suggestions on how to make it work.

You’ll learn how to talk about your work.

“I hate talking about my work!” “I don’t know what to say.” “My work speaks for itself.” “I’m shy–I just can’t talk to people!” I’ve heard–and said–these words so many times. Let’s cut to the chase. Art rarely ‘sells itself’. Somebody has to talk about it. If it’s not you, then it has to be your gallery or sales rep.

And how are they going to know what to say about it unless you give them a clue? If a thousand artists paint a picture of a tree in a field, then how will someone decide yours is the one that goes home with them?

If you believe that artistically knowledgeable people can tell the difference between your tree and 99 others, or a thousand others, or 10,000, then you’re going to have to be the absolute best painter out there.

In reality, many collectors aren’t looking for ‘the best out there’. They want to believe the one they like best, is the best one.

And your job is to tell them why your painting is the best for them.

You can do it with credentialing–art school degrees, awards, honors, solo shows, etc. You can do it with publicity–press releases, getting your work published and exhibited, etc.

The easiest thing, of course, is to just tell them. You share your technique, your process, your story. Whatever works best to connect them to your work. (You know I vote for ‘story’, but if it feels safer to start with ‘process’, go for it.)

Of course, a gallery will do this for you. But who tells the gallery? Yup. Y-O-U. I got practice talking to my customers. By the time I talked to gallery owners, I was comfortable and confident.

You’ll discover what people love about your work.

I talked easily and readily about why I loved my work, once I got used to the notion. It’s when I shut up and listened that I found out why others loved it.

What other people say about your work is powerful. People overhearing someone else saying something wonderful, is even more powerful.

People saw things in my work that astonished me. As they told me how it affected them, what it meant to them, I became even more dedicated to making it. I realized I need to make it. And others need to see it.

That’s hard to do when your work–and your audience–is a thousand miles away.

And it’s powerful to be able to say to a prospective gallery, “This is what people say about my work….”

You’ll perfect your booth, your display, your signage, your entire presentation.

Let’s say you do get that perfect out-of-state show with the oh-so-sophisticated audience, or the super duper gallery with the big name artists roster. What will they say when they see your awkward framing? Your lack of support materials?

What do you do when your far from home and realize you’re missing a critical piece of your booth? It’s one thing to run home and grab it. It’s another to be looking for the nearest Home Depot at night, in a cab.

Doing local shows was an education. I learned the hard way how to streamline my set-up and breakdown (as much as I can with jewelry cases, table top AND wall displayed items!) I learned they hard way what was essential and what wasn’t. I learned through practice the best ways to display my work.

And then I did my first big out-of-state show. When I did, I hit the ground running. (Well. Running, yes. But there was still a lot I had to learn!)

You’ll generate enough money to keep going.

Getting into an out-of-state art exhibit was exhilarating. It forced me to get good images of my work, and to go looking for opportunity.

But it wasn’t great for sales.

It was a small but steady stream of local sales that kept me going. My local collectors supported me just enough for me to always take the next step. And that was really all I needed.

You’ll learn that you are responsible for your success.

Local market or farther afield, it still takes dedication and work to build your name as an artist. It’s easy to say, “Oh, no one around here appreciates good art” or “People here are too cheap to buy real art.”

I would have an easier time believing that, if I didn’t hear artists from around the world say this. All. THE. TIME.

We all like to blame others when our efforts don’t fly. I do! I want to blame everybody except myself.

I know we can’t control everything. I know we can’t command success. I know sometimes even the best efforts fail.

But we are responsible for doing the best we can.

As I learned how to do better–as I knew better–I did better, and I got better. My presentation improved. My ideas grew. My self-promotion got better. I learned how to believe in myself, and my art.

And I found it a lot easier to learn how to do that, with local venues and local customers.

The biggest reason I’m glad I started local?

When times got hard, I had a safety net.

When the recession hit, and the sales at big shows fell off, when galleries were closing left and right, my local audience saved my ass.

In all the years I’d bemoaned the lack of a ‘local audience’, my small band of collectors and supporters was actually growing quietly and steadily.

My open studios became more successful. My sales at state craft venues climbed–the League of NH Craftsmen’s Annual Fair; the League shops: the Sharon Arts Center. Each year, just as sales tapered off at one venue, another would leap ahead. (For various reasons, my work tends to ‘cycle’ in popularity. Instead of despairing when sales falter, I now know to sit tight and come back with new work in a year or two.)

I now feel honored and supported by my local community.

As I said in my article about local self-promotion, publicizing your successes goes a long way to building that local audience. But I’ve learned it’s well worth the effort.

With the ease of discovering new markets and venues on the Internet, I don’t feel any artist is limited anymore to a local market. But I wouldn’t discount them, either.

Put your eggs in both baskets, and see what happens.