08/18/2010 07:30 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Can E-Mails Replace Printed Exhibit Announcements?

Cutting costs is the byword of our time, but it is not always clear which expenditures are essential and which can be eliminated more painlessly. For instance, a growing number of artists and art galleries are experimenting with getting rid of printed and mailed event announcements and flyers. It is a clear source of savings and allows people to feel ecologically-conscious. In the digital era, too, a paper trail can seem superfluous, and modern, online forms of communication have offered a variety of other ways for people to be in touch. What remains to be seen is if the buying public responds to e-announcements in the same way they do to printed ones.

"We just started doing email announcements of our shows this past September," said San Francisco gallery owner Rena Bransten, "and it's a big cost savings." The old flyers, which needed to be designed, printed and mailed, cost the gallery between $30,000 and $36,000 per year. The gallery still hires a designer to create eye-catching announcements, but otherwise the "email announcements cost almost nothing."

Other art galleries are experimenting in this area, too. New York's Maxwell Davidson Gallery began sending out email announcements for all its exhibits in the beginning of 2009, in addition to printing and mailing the traditional flyers to its list of collectors, critics and other interested parties. Based on turn-out at openings and sales, the gallery has been attempting to ascertain which type is most effective. Maxwell Davidson's costs for those flyers are similar to Rena Bransten's, between $2,000 and $3,000 per month, and "in the future, we will separate out which of our shows get mailers and emails and which will only get emails," said Cara Marino, the gallery's registrar.

"I would like to switch completely to email announcements," said Kat Parker, director of the Rhona Hoffman Gallery in Chicago, noting that "a lot of people say they don't want paper or anything else sent to their homes." When enough people claim they don't want regular mail, perhaps the gallery will make that switch. Until then, it will continue to both mail and email flyers, not saving any money but casting its web more widely.

To a certain degree, the move toward email-only communication is becoming less of a choice for gallery owners and, by extension, for artists. Fewer and fewer actual and prospective collectors offer their traditional home addresses and home telephone numbers on those sign-in books at the gallery desk or when they meet dealers at galleries or art fairs, preferring the more anonymous cell phones and email addresses. Jessica Martin, a painter in Healdsburg, California, stated that between one-quarter and one-third of her mailing list is email addresses only, and she claimed that "the Internet is the primary source of information for more and more of the people interested in my work." The artist sends "physical announcements" - postcards and flyers - for major events, such as solo exhibitions but emails for everything else (inclusion in a group show, updates about her career, notices about newly produced paintings, new galleries representing her work). When people on her mailing list move, the postcards are often returned by the postal service, "but people keep their email addresses, so they get the information anyway."

These modern forms of communication allow would-be buyers to be more accessible wherever they are and whatever they are doing, and it is also a way of being "green" by opting out of the cut-down-trees system of information dissemination.

Sometimes, of course, round-the-clock accessibility sounds better than it actually is. "I called up one collector on his cell phone to ask, 'Are you still interested in that $35,000 painting?' and he said, 'I'm in the bathroom now,'" Louis Newman, director of New York's David Findlay Jr. Fine Art, said. "Another time, I called up a collector who told me that he is in his doctor's office." After that, Newman specifically began to request land lines when asking for contact information of gallery visitors and collectors. Those kinds of awkward moments occur with increasing regularity these days. "It's not a big deal," said Andrew Witkin, director of Boston's Barbara Krakow Gallery who has had similar experiences. "Everyone's polite and understanding."
Few galleries have jumped headfirst into cell phone and online-only communications. "We use emails when we send announcements out to critics and the press, telling them that a show opens in x-number of weeks, for instance," said David Lieber, director of New York's Sperone Westwater gallery. For regular visitors and their clientele, however, the gallery mails out postcards, flyers and invitations, which is a major expenditure, between $100,000 and $150,000 per year. "There is something unique about an announcement for a show. It's a piece of ephemera connected to the show that you can hold in your hand."

No one really sings the virtues of $150,000 ephemera, however. Sperone Westwater pays to print and mail announcements because the gallery doesn't trust people to read and save emails. "People wake up to 50 emails in their inbox every morning, and the first thing they do is look for the ones they can delete," Lieber said. "I routinely delete batches of emails." He also doesn't bring a date book to the computer in order to jot down exhibition openings, and even the emails Lieber doesn't immediately delete he rarely keeps for more than a day or two. A printed announcement, on the other hand, takes more looking at; it can be left somewhere that he will see it again or attached by magnet to the refrigerator door. If prospective buyers at the gallery or at an art fair booth only offer their email addresses, "we'll ask for more information, and we usually get it."

Next to the crowd of emails stuffing inboxes, an interesting piece of regular mail can be a treat. Several art dealers noted that a postcard can be unique in look and texture, while emails tend to be more alike than different. "The feel and typography is different with every one of our announcements," said Ron Warren, director of the Mary Boone Gallery in New York, noting that "emails have a sameness to them." Being unique has its price, however, as each gallery card may cost $5 to print and mail to people on its 3,000-person mailing list.

To a certain degree, there may be a generational divide in the email vs. regular mail discussion. "Clients who are 45 to 65 need a postcard or something that they can hold in their hands," said Deborah-Jean Harmon, director of the San Francisco art gallery Hang Art, while younger buyers prefer emails, text messages and Tweets. Hang Art, which features local, emerging artists and sells to a younger clientele, also communicates through social networking sites, such as FaceBook and MySpace. "That really brings people to openings, keeps the buzz going, keeps us in the scene," she said. Slowly, the gallery is weaning itself off of printed mailers, down from 7,000 postcards per month (costing almost $2 per postcard) to between 2,000 and 3,000. "It's earth-saving," and money-saving, too.

Sending out a large number of emails at one time - the term of art is an "email blast" - is usually forbidden by Internet Service Providers, such as Yahoo! and AOL, requiring artists, galleries and other small businesses to hire an email marketing service, of which there are dozens around the country. The costs are generally low and based on usage: Constant Contact, which is based in Waltham, Massachusetts, charges a $15 fee for sending up to 500 emails per month, $30 for between 501 and 2,500 emails, $50 for 5,001-10,000, and on and on. The San Francisco-based Vertical Response has a $10 fee for up to 500 emails in one month, and Benchmark Email in Long Beach, California charges $9.95 for up to 600 emails per month, $12.95 for up to 1,000 and $19.95 for 2,500. All of these email marketing service companies provide JPEG templates on which one may create a new message or announcement, along with images, hyperlinks and the opportunity to group lists of email contacts (for instance, only recipients living in Illinois and Indiana) for blasts that are more targeted. They also offer other services that might be useful, such as whether a particular recipient opened an email or just deleted it outright, whether the recipient linked to another site from the email and if the email bounced back because the address is no longer valid.

Phillip Hua, a painter in San Francisco, stated that he uses the Belgian-based, which charges $3.75 to send out up to 500 email newletters per month. "I let people know about special events, such as open studios or exhibitions, and new works I've completed and updates on my artistic progress," he said. "I want to remind people that I'm still here and that, if they are thinking about purchasing artwork, they should think about me."

In the gallery world, a rule of thumb says that dealers need to make seven "touches" for every sale. Those touches now come in many forms, from the traditional face-to-face meetings to calls to mobile, office and home phones, email as well as regular mail, texting and tweeting, and any combination thereof. New technology allows more ways to keep in touch, with each of these forms of communication having their own weight with different audiences.