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Ask the Art Professor: How Can an Artist Bypass Galleries and Sell Directly to Their Audience?

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"In the age of social media, do you have any tips for artists who want to sell directly to their audience? How do we artists get above the noise and reach our audience? I would like to bypass the gallery system all together. Online stores like Etsy are popular, but it is more for crafts than fine art paintings."

There are basically two ways to sell art directly to your audience: 1) in-person, at events like open studios and art fairs, and 2) selling online. While in-person events can be lucrative for artists, they generally occur only annually, and therefore cannot provide a steady flow of income. For this reason, the vast majority of artists now sell their work online. Essentially, anyone with an Internet connection, a computer, and a printer has the ability to sell their art online.

Selling art independently compared to selling through a gallery is like night and day. Art galleries can sell high-priced items to art collectors. The gallery does all the work for you, and they take a 50 percent commission. When you sell independently, your items will need to be priced lower, and your audience is much broader. You have to do all the work, but you receive 100 percent of each sale.

While it's highly attractive to receive 100 percent of each sale, the caveat is that selling art online on your own is a tremendous amount of work, as you are responsible for every single detail. Setting up your shop, sustaining your shop long term, and promoting your shop is incredibly time consuming. Most artists don't realize just how much work is involved in having an online shop. To get results, the shop has to be constantly maintained, and promotion has to be ongoing.

Below are some concrete actions you can take when you are starting from scratch. Once your shop is more established and you have built a substantial following, you'll be able to get more ambitious and sell larger, higher-priced items.

1) Aim to make money on volume.
If you price each piece for $100 or less, you will sell a much greater quantity which will add up over time. At these prices, customers are also more likely to purchase multiple pieces at once. The most popular items in my Etsy shop are works around $40 each, and on several occasions I've had people buy 3-4 pieces at a time. It doesn't hurt to have a few high-priced items in your shop, but keep in mind that online shoppers generally don't spend hundreds of dollars on a single piece of art. The most expensive item I've sold in my Etsy shop was an $150 intaglio print.

2) Sell small works.
Most frequently, the artwork that sells is small, around 9 x 12 inches. Although there are exceptions, most artists don't sell 4 x 6 foot paintings online. Remember that the vast majority of people who buy art online are not affluent art collectors. Shoppers are usually purchasing the artwork for their home, and for the average person, fitting a 4 x 6 foot painting into their home is not likely to be an option.

3) Stock at least 100 items, and continually add new ones.
Maintaining this kind of inventory may seem intimidating at first, but this strategy is highly effective and is well worth your time. A wide inventory will sustain a customer's attention, as they are much more likely to stay and browse through your shop. On top of that, with more items your items will show up more frequently in searches. Demonstrate that your shop is lively and active by adding new items, which gives customers a reason to come back to see what's new.

5) Set up your shop on an established retail site.
On a large retail site, you will reach many more customers because people do searches for specific items that lead them to your shop. When I tried to sell on my personal website, I sold nothing. On Etsy, almost all of the purchases have been from people who found my work through a search on Etsy.

6) Keep your art cohesive.
When I first set up my Etsy shop, the majority of my inventory was my fine art work, which is very dark and somber. I also had many still life watercolor paintings leftover from art school, so I put these items in my shop thinking that they would probably sell better. On the contrary, the fine art work has done very well, while none of the watercolors sold. My resin sculptures of anguished faces were significantly more popular than the pretty pictures of plums and peaches. In retrospect, I realized that the watercolors were extremely generic and common, while the fine art work was much more distinctive and specific. The watercolor paintings were actually a distraction in my shop, being stylistically too different from the fine art work.

7) Promote in consistent increments.
Think about your shop like a plant that you need to water once a week. Spread out your promotional announcements evenly over a period of time. Aim for a minimum of once a month, and no more than 1-2 times per week. When I have a lot of news to share, I put it in a queue and release new information incrementally. If you promote too much all at once, you risk losing your audience because people get annoyed when they are bombarded with too many notifications. On the other hand, you want to promote often enough that people don't forget about you. Send out your announcements via the main social media networks, and use multiple networks. It takes time (usually years) to build a substantial following on social media, but it is well worth the investment.

Ask the Art Professor is an advice column for visual artists. Submit your questions to clara(at)claralieu.com

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