A dear friend just had a miserable weekend not selling art work and I couldn’t sleep without writing what I understood about poor sales. This is the letter I sent my friend, but maybe it can make a difference to others as well. Maybe you have had a poor sale and need to find a way back from the crushing experience. Perhaps you know someone else who does. This is what I wrote. I hope it helps:
My heart aches for you. And so I’m up at 2am of my first night free from the stresses of my own holiday sales when I was imagining I might actually sleep in for once. But I’m glad I’m up writing you because I care about you and I wanted to have something to say if I possibly could make a difference in how you feel.
It is dreadful mustering the courage to present your work to the public and then not getting any positive feedback. It is crushing leaving that experience feeling as if this were a referendum not just on your work but on you personally. And as strongly as it can feel like that I just wanted to tell you that a poor sale like this has nothing to do with you personally, your value as an artist, or the work itself.
It is hard not to compare your poor sale to the decent sale had by that other artist, but this is also a wrong comparison to make. It may seem as though you both were competing for the same dollars, that there is some qualitative scale that can be applied to you both and you just didn’t measure up, but that is false. The people buying that person’s paintings were almost certainly never in the market for your work. They were not your audience. They didn’t simply like that other artist’s work better. Odds are they didn’t understand what you had. The people who understand and like both your work AND that other artist’s work you can probably count on one hand.
So if it was either/or, the simple truth is perhaps that your audience just didn’t show up. Imagine going to a Classical Music concert and trying to sell Rap CDs. Or a Hip Hop concert trying to sell Opera….. Sometimes if not always a poor sale has everything to do with who showed up and NOT the quality of the art presented.
But a sale always feels like its a comment on your own worth as an artist. A good sale and we feel restored, a poor sale devastated. I’ve been on both sides of that. The hardest thing to remember is that its not a reflection on you or your artwork, ever, as much as its a reflection on the audience. The fact that you have work in big museums says something, and also, perhaps, that this other artist does not. While it only seems like a sale event is some sort of popularity contest and that there are winners and losers, you have to remember that there is a major difference in who is judging.
And the fact that your work is collected in museums means that it appeals to at least that specific arbiter of quality. You have to accept that this means it is probably the exact opposite of mainstream popular. You might even have to accept that work good enough for museums is chosen precisely because it manifests technical and conceptual mastery that is extraordinary. Its NOT ordinary. And therefor it also probably isn’t popular. The run of the mill person in the streets probably won’t get what you are trying to do, what you are attempting to communicate. If you were aiming for being understood you’d perhaps need to speak another language, NOT aim so high, actually aim to be understood rather than anything as complicated and accomplished as your work truly manifests. Because the divide between being understood by the majority and being understood by the ones who actually care about what you care about should never be underestimated.
People who go to museums want to be challenged. They go there because being exposed to work of that quality is uplifting and makes us see the world in new ways. And people who buy the kinds of work that museums collect are investing in that quality, whether they understand the work or not. But this is the exact opposite of who buys art at a pop up show for the holidays. People who are out shopping for the holidays want something accessible enough to give as a gift, meaning it doesn’t challenge them, or merely something that fits in their own home and goes with the furniture and the color of the walls. They are buying decoration for their home, not investing in art. They are buying eye candy not artistic quality.
The only thing you have failed to do is give them what they want, or even what they are capable of understanding. And the only mistake you made was expecting a sale like that to bring in the sorts of people who were going to buy your work in the first place. The courage you had in setting out your work was never going to be rewarded, because the people who were showing up were simply not even capable of talking your language.
So who the hell buys art anyway? The truth is that for most people art is simply a luxury and it doesn’t matter to them. If it does its only there to entertain but has no lasting value. Lets say that is half the people out there, and they would never show up for an art sale. Its either too expensive for all the good it does them or it never registers for them as an interest. They are not even tempted.
So maybe the other half of the population could potentially be interested and the question is whether they will or they won’t. This gets narrowed down to the folks for whom this particular art can appeal and those for whom it can’t. The higher you aim the fewer they will be. For some folks who might actually buy your art the issue is one of budget. They may simply not have the money to get what they like. Art is not a luxury but its too expensive. They might afford a trip to the museum every year or two, but the most they will include in their own homes is prints and work that pops up in yard sales, student sales, and other affordable venues.
Perhaps the biggest determination is whether they already buy your artwork. Imagine you are speaking a language that is so selective that only a handful of people understand it. Those are the people already familiar with your work, who care enough to understand it, and they may or may not want to own it. Buying art is not like buying cereal at the grocery: No one really needs it, unless…..
That ‘unless’ is the biggest thing to learn. No one will buy your work unless they feel it belongs in their lives, and the paths to getting them to feel that way are obstructed at every turn. The single most important way that your work belongs in someone’s life is that it already does. Its a switch that has to be flicked, and once it is in the ‘on’ position you have to fight to keep it on. When the switch is in the ‘off’ position that itself is almost proof to that person that it doesn’t belong. An absence of evidence sometimes counts as evidence. The human psychology is simply that the things which matter are the things that ALREADY matter. And putting people in that position is the single greatest challenge we face.
The people who will buy our work are almost always the people for whom it already matters, especially those who have already purchased it. The further you travel away from the eye candy of the masses the fewer people you will be speaking to. And the harder it becomes to understand what you are saying the fewer people who don’t already understand your work will be tempted to take a chance. If your art does not have curb appeal, go with the furniture, match their sofa, then the only possible way it can be valued is that it already belongs in their home.
Not all paintings are equal, but not all paintings are even paintings. Some stand apart as art in their own right, have value independent of where they are placed, and others have value only because they fit where they are. This is how art gets to matter for people.
The only conclusion you can make, and the most difficult thing to remember, is that its not about you or your art. The audience is either prepared for what we are offering or they are not. If some artists try to please the audience, appeal to more folks by lowering the bar, that may be fine for those artists, but their success is no measure of our own. It has no reflection on us what so ever.
It is almost impossible to make a living selling quality art. Its never truly appreciated, and the time and effort, the sheer talent involved in making it, will never be rewarded out in the public. You can’t sell real art to the public unless you are willing to get almost no money for it. And you can’t sell it at all unless it somehow already belongs in their lives. And maybe that is a question of marketing. I suck at marketing, but the one thing I do know is that building your tribe, the ones for whom your work matters is the only way forward. Building your community takes time and effort itself, sometimes even as much as making the work does.
You can’t expect random customers to get real art much less pay for it. The only stuff that stands a chance of mass appeal has curb appeal. And it is no crime to make work that does not have that appeal. It might even be a better sign of quality, in fact. Too many artists aim low, and it sometimes feels we are being punished for it. The audience is not being educated on issues of quality. Eye candy is being shoved at them and they simply don’t know any better.
What they can’t understand they won’t like, and what they don’t like they won’t take the time to understand.
The public is lazy, and the harder we make it for them the less response we should expect. That is the only lesson you should take away from this. A bad sale is not about you, it is some defect in the audience, if defect is the right word. Maybe deficiency is better. They lack something. There is a gap between what we are doing and what they can handle. And sometimes it is not worth lowering our standards to be understood. Mostly they won’t even meet us halfway. What a poor sale is not is that it serves as a comment on the quality of the work you do. It doesn’t and you should never take it that way. You can either make the work you believe in or the work that will sell. The higher you aim the bigger the difference between those things.
I’m starting to ramble here, but I couldn’t sleep, knowing the torture you are going through. I hope this helps. Lets do lunch soon. I believe in you, and I care enough to be up in the middle of the night to write this to you. That, at least, is proof that you matter and that what you do has value.
Gotta try to get some sleep!
Hang in there ❤
You’ve got me worried now that I’m just producing trashy eye candy which has curb appeal because I usually do well at Artisan markets and craft fairs. I like my work and have never felt I’ve just left the bar low but now I’m worried that is the case. I want to produce good work that can be taken seriously but I also want to sell to the mainstream. Are you saying I can’t do both?
You should never apologize for doing well or being popular. And it is NOT the case that quality and popularity are mutually exclusive. Its just that the quality may be unrecognized in favor of more accessible things. It is not often the case that we are popular because of quality. Curb appeal does not mean an absence of quality, just that quality is not necessary for it being liked.
Of course some artists DO sell out and give the public exactly what it likes and nothing more. But many popular artists attempt to raise the bar as well, to challenge the audience to seek more. Unfortunately curb appeal is sometimes distracting enough that quality flies under the radar. So this is a good question: Can you be challenging at the same time as appealing? I think it IS possible, but maybe its a difficult thing to pull off.
And remember, the audience getting what they get is NOT a reflection on your own attempts to raise the bar. Its just that if you give them something easy to like they may quit there and not look at the more difficult things you are expressing. That is not your fault. Some will get it, its just that most will probably not.
And that’s okay, I think. There has to be a place for ALL of this. The things that are not easy to like just remove the perch for a lazy audience. For the most part the audience gets out of it what they put into it, and an accessible format broadens the scope. Weren’t the plays Shakespeare put on designed for mass entertainment as well as being the very best in literature? If we aim this high we may not have the skill of Shakespeare in also appealing to the masses, but I admire those who try. I also recognize that not everyone wants to be challenged by art, and that’s okay too. Artists need to serve them as well.
It may also be the case that some folks are structurally incapable of seeing art as more than entertainment, which is perhaps a HUGE thing. I am sitting on an essay that explores this, maybe to be published later this week. And if that is true, that some folks will never get what we do as anything more than simply eye candy, that is exactly as high as the bar goes for them. That is a real question to ask, and it seems a lot hinges on how it gets answered: What is the responsibility of artists if a huge segment of the population has a belief structure that makes art a luxury and which at best is only there to entertain us?
More on that later 🙂