THE BLOG

Does It Make Sense for Artists to Advertise?

06/27/2014 04:19 pm ET | Updated Aug 27, 2014

Investing in one's career is often touted as a sound business move, an act of confidence in the future, the cost of doing business, taking responsibility - that kind of talk. But, which career investments actually give you a return on that investment? For artists, most would agree that art school tuition was a vital expense, as are art supplies, a studio rental and the cost of creating a website to display and promote their work. Other forms of investment are more debatable, such as publishing a catalogue of your own artwork, hiring a publicist or career coach. (Certainly, some artists claim these expenditures are a major part of their success.)

Glendale, Arizona artist Bill Mittag "can't determine the effectiveness of advertising," but he still spends $6,000 or so per year on ads in such publications as Art of the West and Western Art Collector. "Every time I place an ad, the number of hits on my website picks up significantly." Even more telling, "when a gallery has a show and puts a work of mine in the ad, I notice that every time that work sells."

Still, Mittag is not confident that $6,000 or so he spends does much good - "no one has called me up to say, 'I want that work I saw in your ad,'" - but it is a cost of doing business, of investing in his career, and he worries that not advertising would make things worse.

Advertising by fine artists is an area rife with question marks and the occasional success story.

"My very first ad in the Maine Antique Digest, which cost me $500, resulted in the sale of a $36,000 sculpture," said artist Andrew DeVries of Huntington, Massachusetts, adding that other ads he has placed in that monthly have earned him calls from prospective buyers, some of which led to sales. However, when he took out half a dozen ads in Art & Auction (there was a price discount for buying a series of ads, he noted), he claimed to have spent $20,000 and "got two sales out of it of $1,000 apiece." Advertising is a "tricky thing," he concluded, but he still averages $10,000-15,000 in advertising annually, some years going as high as $35,000 and other years far less.

Certainly, many art publications - some aimed at an artist readership, such as The Crafts Report, Plein Air or Sculpture Magazine, while others target collectors, including American Art Review, Fine Art Connoisseur and Art & Auction - are happy to accept ads from artists. Do artists get their money's worth?

Placing ads is more associated with the design fields, such as illustration, than with fine art. Patricia McKiernan, executive director of the Graphic Artists Guild, noted that most of the artists in the Guild establish an advertising and promotion budget of between 10 and 30 percent of their gross income, and much of that advertising is in the design field print and online directories that prospective employers use. That sounds like a lot of money, but "if you earn $100,000 one year and decide to save that money instead of spending 10-30 percent on advertising, you won't make $100,000 again."

There is no rule-of-thumb sense of the percentage of one's income that should be reinvested into advertising in the fine arts, but the concept of buying ads as a regular type of promotion is not foreign to some artists. "If I don't advertise, how will people ever hear of me," said artist Carl Borgia of Boynton Beach, Florida, a retired accounting professor at Florida Atlantic University, who spends $8,000-10,000 per year on ads in such publications as ARTnews, Modern Painters and Florida Design Magazine. "I have been pursuing art as a business for 10 years and applying the entrepreneurial skills that I have been teaching to my art." Of those three publications, it has been the non-art one, Florida Design Magazine, that has resulted in the best results, which has included some sales and some requests to appear in shows at art galleries and art fairs.

That makes sense to Caroll Michels, an artist career coach in Sarasota, Florida, who recommends to her clients that they not "buy display ads in art magazines or on their websites. For the most part, the majority of art magazine readers are other artists, who are not in the market for buying other artists artwork. If you decide to purchase advertising space, select upscale consumer and interior design publications." She noted that one of her clients had invested inherited money in "four full-page color display ads that ran for four months in Art in America. She said that the only response she received was from other artists who thought she was a gallery."

On the other hand, Cushing, Wisconsin textile artist Jean M. Judd regularly places ads - usually consisting of an image of her work plus contact information - in art publications, including American Art Collector, ARTnews and The Crafts Report, spending $5,000-7,000 per year, or 15 percent of her total yearly income. These ads have resulted in "calls from dealers and commissions from art collectors." Those commissions amount to one-third of her income, she said. "As long as I keep getting enough sales and commissions to keep me fully booked, I'll keep advertising at the same rate."

The principal reason she places ads is that she lives in a remote, rural area ("nothing but woods and fields") and doesn't have the time or means to bring her work to galleries in major cities. Advertising in national publications has brought people from distant states ("as far away as Arizona and San Francisco") to her.

Certainly, many other artists have placed ads in these and other publications to no avail. "My ads in ARTnews have not directly brought in sales, dealers or collectors, so I cannot say they at this point pay for themselves," said San Diego sculptor Maidy Morhous, who also has advertised in Laguna Beach Magazine, Art in America and in the catalogues published by various art fairs, such as ArtExpo and Spectrum Miami, with similar results.

Belief in advertising often leads to beliefs about how to advertise. Anatoly Dverin, a painter in Plainville, Massachusetts, stated that he only buys full-page ads, because "I don't want to share the page with another artist; it creates competition. The other artist may use, I don't know, some combination of red and blue that kills the balance of color in my painting." People only start recognizing your name, said Andrew DeVries, if there is something else going on, such as an exhibition or an opportunity to meet the artist where potential buyers can go in person - "by themselves, ads can't do it all." Gail Wells-Hess, a painter in Portland, Oregon, claimed that certain colors and subjects were "guaranteed to sell" and should be included in ads, such as red poppies in summer issues and "a pear or still-life in the winter." Both Bill Mittag and Jean Judd stated that strong, contrasting colors are the key.

The purpose and nature of advertising is a subject on which there is considerable disagreement, although there is one point on which everyone agrees: One needs to think of advertising as a long-term, rather than a one-shot, effort. To develop name and artistic recognition, the same or similar images must be present in ads that follow one magazine issue after another. Many artists split the costs of advertising with their galleries in advance of an exhibition, and some galleries carry the entire expense, but it is rare for a gallery to pay in full or in part to advertise an artist when there isn't a show. If the concept is to keep one's name and images before the public on an ongoing basis, one-shot ads are not likely to produce the desired results. Too, galleries generally have a local audience, and the advertisements they place are likely to be in local or regional publications rather than national ones.

Different gallery owners have their own purposes in mind when they place an advertisement in a newspaper or magazine, and they may not be quite the same as the artist's. Most long-term, successful galleries rely on a group of collectors to purchase the bulk of the artwork they put on display, and the gallery owners notify this group privately well in advance of an exhibition's start date: That is the reason a show may be wholly or partially sold out before it opens to the public. Few successful galleries get by on walk-in traffic, lured by a notice in the local newspaper, so there are usually other reasons that ads are placed. "Seventy-five percent of our sales come from our mailing list," Sique Spence, director of New York's Nancy Hoffman Gallery, stated. As a result, the gallery's advertisements tend to be black-and-white, typeset and image-less, merely stating the name of the artist who will next have an exhibition and the dates of the show. "The ads we place are a reinforcement for the information sent out to our mailing list." Certainly, advertisements may bring visitors into the gallery who may one day turn into buyers - of the particular artist in the advertisement or someone else. The ads may serve as a reminder to specific collectors on a gallery's mailing list about the event.

"Advertising, especially advertising with illustrations, effects attendance, not so much sales," said Bridget Moore, president of New York's DC Moore Gallery. Other dealers report that ads with reproductions result in a number of telephone inquiries as to price and the availability of works, which also do not quickly translate into sales.

Taking out an advertisement, some dealers believe, also increases the chances of seeing a write-up of the exhibition in the particular publication. The ability to afford a large ad with photographic reproductions is seen occasionally as a sign of success, impressing artists and collectors. With other dealers, ads have greater importance for the long-term viability of the gallery than for the short-term exhibition. "An advertisement attracts attention," New York gallery owner Thomas Erben said. "It secures the gallery's position in the market. People have to see that we are still here. In effect, I'm advertising myself through the market."

Yet another reason to place ads is purely psychological, according to Edward De Luca, director of DC Moore Gallery, since these notices "massage an artist's ego," that is, they let artists know that money is being spent on them and that, in turn, makes artists feel better about their relationship with the gallery. "Artists want to see their names in print and their work being advertised, and they ask us to have ads run in certain magazines."