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Marketing Yourself as an Artist

We live in a market-led era, and thus it is important to adopt the appropriate skills.

Artists who wander on to stands at art fairs and say “Hello. Do you buy pictures at all?” are unlikely to succeed.

The well-worn caricature of the undisciplined, capricious, bohemian artist who would prefer to drink absinthe in a café than tout work around galleries is even less likely to survive today than in 19th-century Paris (in fact, very few survived even then).

Marketing plans

Have a marketing plan. Know what you are trying to achieve and how you hope to do this.

Have a time frame, and realistic objectives, and decide what you will do yourself and what you need to pay others to do.

Communication is the key; be sure to send regular invitations, by post or email, to all buyers and potential buyers on your database.

Notify them of all events in which you are taking part and any new releases that might be of interest to them. Email marketing and the Internet have made this type of exercise extremely cost-effective: the cost of printing and post can often be avoided.

Some artists are constantly thinking of ways to develop their presentation and image: they look at packaging, fashions in design and the layout of trendsetting magazines, and think how the ideas expressed in these can be adapted to their own use.

Perhaps a particular colour of paper or ink should be used throughout, or perhaps a certain typeface would complement the work. What matters most, however, is the clarity of the presentation. 

Selling your artwork direct

Many artists sell direct to the public as well as via galleries and publishers; as long as each party is informed as to what is going on there need not be a conflict of interests. Quite the reverse: artists who are proactive in developing their own reputations and client lists can be an asset to galleries and publishers.

Depending upon the agreement you have with your gallery, you may get to keep all the sales proceeds when you sell direct (some galleries/agents take a lower percentage on sales artists generate themselves. While avoiding commission of course sounds appealing, some capital expenditure, as well as a lot of time and effort, is normally involved in selling direct.

Some artists enjoy organising open-studio weekends, taking stands at art fairs, etc., as it keeps them in touch with the demands of the marketplace. This direct involvement with buyers can prove fruitful in the development of their work. But there are many ways in which you can make direct sales, and the most common ones are discussed below.

Studio sales

Many artists achieve a high percentage of their turnover at annual open-studio days or ‘artists at home’ initiatives. These are often timed to coincide with other cultural and artistic events in the local area that will attract the right type of visitor, such as festivals, art-college degree shows, local-authority art weekends, and so on. Artists often get together with others in their area, or their studio complex, to produce joint marketing material. It is important to invite clients as well as local gallery owners to open-studio shows. It is also a good idea to send press releases to the media and to make contact with the PR agents for any cultural and artistic events in which you are taking part.

Rented gallery space

If you rent space you have to handle marketing and administration, and you need to have your own substantial client list. The effort involved in mounting a show should not be underestimated: staffing the exhibition; making decisions about publicity; designing, pricing and distributing posters, flyers and invitations; invoicing and accounting; delivering and hanging/installing artwork, etc. Artists are not usually experienced at making these decisions, whereas gallery owners are.

 The main advantage of renting space is that it cuts out the gallery owner’s commission. But commission covers far more than just a gallery owner’s time and wall space; you are also benefiting from:

  • their reputations and loyal clients
  • their expertise in running exhibitions and selling art
  • a contact for future purchases and follow-up sales.

Remember that the more time you put into administration and marketing, the less time you have in which to work at your art. Also, rental fees need to be paid upfront whether the exhibition is successful or not, whereas a gallery’s commission is only payable on sold works.

The terms and conditions imposed by galleries which rent out space vary considerably. Some stipulate that they must approve proposed exhibitions; some provide staff to oversee exhibitions and help with selling, etc. Rented galleries can be either privately or publicly owned.

The rent that different galleries demand varies enormously.

Consumer art fairs

These can range from small local events in church halls to shows that are marketed via the national media and held at household-name venues. There may be just a handful of artists taking part, or there may be hundreds. Consumer art fairs may be cooperative, commercial or publicly funded. Some only allow artists to submit works for exhibition, not ‘middlemen’ such as galleries and agents.

Trade exhibitions

Large gift and interior-design exhibitions give artists the opportunity to reach galleries, publishers, department stores and other trade buyers. They are generally attended by international and UK buyers and are a way for artists to establish a wide range of channels of distribution and repeat business. Some exhibitions have sections with affordable stands to rent, specifically aimed at artists. Organisers are keen to attract new talent each year, and so might even be able to put you in touch with public and charitable funds that will help cover exhibiting costs.

The internet

Virtually every professional business now has its own website, so it follows that a website could play an important role in reassuring buyers and gallery owners that you are committed to your career.

Many artists find that their site generates a lot of business from both new and existing clients. Before you start, it is important to consider what you want the site to achieve and how much time and money you realistically want to invest in keeping it updated. Some artists see their site as a low-key presence on the web that will enable people to find and get in touch with them, and to which they can direct customers to view a selection of their work. Others want a more proactive site: they are prepared to spend time and money staying at the top of search engine lists, and may even have invested in ’secure shopping’ software so that they can make sales over the Internet. 

However, despite the obvious temptations, if you have an agreement with a gallery or publisher it is important that any website you set up is not operating in competition with them.

Field sales

 Most retail buyers will not see a sales person (which in this context is how an artist would be seen) without an appointment, and many will not give an appointment without a referral or recommendation. However, many artists do succeed in selling their work by establishing relationships with galleries and then visiting them regularly with new stock. This type of trading relationship is most likely to develop between self-publishing artists selling reproduction prints and their galleries. Sometimes initial contact is made at a trade show, or the gallery gets in touch with the artist in response to an advertisement or mailshot.

Publicly funded opportunities

Millions of pounds of public money is given to artists in Britain every year. It is important to keep in touch with local councils and their galleries, and to be aware of their arts policies.

Opportunities for exhibiting include publicly-owned exhibition spaces and galleries, as well as galleries that are partially funded by public money, among which are:

  • national galleries
  • regional art galleries
  • spaces funded by local councils
  • arts centres that receive both public money and private sponsorship
  • art colleges and adult-education centres
  • community centres, town halls and libraries.

Also, find out who to contact at your local authority for information on local arts funding.

Publicly funded patronage might include:

  • awards, scholarship programmes and competitions
  • grants for specific projects
  • subsidised studio space or conversion grants
  • exhibitions and exhibition spaces
  • allowing local artists to hang work for sale in public buildings
  • commissioning or buying works for public buildings and schools
  • a policy to develop a collection of works by local artists
  • employing artists to work with schools or prisons
  • computer training and other subsidies (see ‘The Internet’ above).

Exhibiting societies

Exhibiting societies range from small local art circles to well-known institutions such as the Royal Academy of Arts. Some organisations limit their exhibitions to members’ work, while others allow non members to put up work for selection. Membership can be restricted to artists living and working in particular areas, e.g., the Royal Scottish Academy; or it can be based upon artistic specialisation, e.g., The Society of Aviation Artists; or else it is based on a specific artistic medium, e.g., The Society of Wood Engravers. Election procedures vary.

Membership benefits can include exhibition opportunities; informative publications; discounts on materials; legal advice; pages on the organisation’s website and a link to member-artists’ own sites; recommendations and artistic commissions.

Membership of arts organisations keeps artists in touch with each other and broadens their sphere of contacts. Gallery owners tend to visit these exhibitions and often select new artists from them.


You should enter competitions wherever possible. Winning a competition, or being a finalist, is often an important step forward in an artist’s career, getting them noticed by gallery owners. Competitions are usually advertised in art magazines and tend to be organised by exhibiting societies, with prizes sponsored by suppliers of artists’ materials, large companies or commercial gallery owners.#

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