This article is an updated compilation from my newsletters to the art community Noenga.com:
Art market revolution Call for artists worldwide (04/12/2011).
How to sell art online? An attempt to answer the question of the year (04/12/2009).
How to sell art online?
This letter tries to answer one of the most repeated and most popular discussions this year, ‘How to sell my art work online?'
Now, I am aware that as the founder of the Noenga art community platform I cannot be 100% neutral in this discussion but at least I can share my vision and experience with you after many years of nonstop online art promotion.
My conclusion is unfortunately not the most optimistic:
Selling art online has low potential and low ROI (return on investment). Art through social media is very BIG but the art market through social media is still small. The market is relatively small even on a global scale, probably because most art buyers very understandably want to see an artwork in reality and desire an experience. Often they are not just looking for an object, but for a story. Art is not a commodity; emotion plays a huge role when acquiring an artwork. Serious collectors still work mainly through physical networks, galleries and auction houses.
Many online art platforms and galleries don't like to admit this. They promise you sales because selling that illusion helps them grow their databases while in reality, sales are very disappointing. Therefore, you never get to see any concrete sales figures. Just ask them about it ;)
I know this from the inside because I know other art community founders and many online art gallery owners. I think we should be more fair in this and that opportunists should stop exploiting the artists desire to make a living from art. I want to be open in this topic. There is no long-term growth for anybody selling smoke and mirrors. In time, everybody will learn about the truth and the art platforms, online-galleries, marketers, social-media guru’s and art consultants that sell dreams we be forgotten.
So what to do about it
The question remains, how can I sell my work?
Until now with the technology available at this moment, I think the internet should primarily be used for promoting yourself and your work.
The focus should be promotion and not selling your work. If you do that well, it will lead to sales.
Basically it's about hard work and starting to see yourself as a brand. Create an audience using a network of social-media channels and a couple of art platforms. Obviously add social networks like LinkedIn and Facebook to this list but ALWAYS let all these services point to your PERSONAL website. The more active you are on these platforms the more traffic you will generate. Just play the game. If an art platform does not let you expose your personal website or email address, don't subscribe. In general, I consider them a waste of your valuable time but if you want to join, always contact these platforms to ask what they can do for you. You are a member so you have the right to ask. If they don't respond they are not involved with their community and should be taken of your list.
Invest in your personal website
Don’t make the mistake that you can make the magic happen just through Facebook nowadays. A passive online portfolio on Saatchi gallery or Flickr is not enough. Setup your own sales shop service and add your terms and conditions.
Selling online is all about confidence! Would you buy from someone you don't trust? Pay attention to your fans, they are already your potential customers.
Find out about international shipping and work with tracking numbers so you can offer your prospects and clients transparency and a steady deal.
Add your telephone number so people can call you. This creates confidence. Take in consideration series of lower priced reproductions of your works. As much as we would like to sell originals, on a world wide scale there are few people capable of buying one. We have to respect art-lovers with a smaller budget.
Tell your artist story to attract buyers
Add a personal blog to your website and share your story. It's important to know your audience and people also want to know who you are, the person behind the art. If you build relationships of trust, they will have no problems to buy from you on a distance. Remember, people don’t only buy an object, they also buy your story, to be part of it, because they love it or because they wish to share it with the people they know.
Forget about managers and agents that offer to do all this for you paying them a fee. A buyer wants to talk to the artist directly. Creating a wall by using an unknown manager or agent may harm confidence and can make you look very arrogant or uninterested. An audience wants to know about the artist’s thoughts and feelings. Your story and personal attention gives personality to your work and communications.
Openness, direct contact, sharing and super-connectivity are the internet’s strongest points over traditional channels like galleries etc. Use it!
You can be in control
Yes, it’s hard and extra work and it requires promotional and commercial skills from the 21st century artist. But don’t be discouraged because on the other hand, you can receive lots of independence and freedom in return. You can be in control!
I see a lot of talented artists and often find it frustrating that making a living from art is so difficult for many. It just doesn't feel right that art is so hard to generate a decent income with, while something so poor in essence like for example financial products, generates and moves so much money around the globe.
Art market revolution, call for artists worldwide
Noenga.com newsletter, 04/12/2011 – Author Misha Stoutenbeek.
At Noenga, December is a month for reflection. A moment to look back and analyze the art landscape internationally ‘both online and offline’ and to draw conclusions. With those conclusions we try to look forward and serve our artist community.
Transparency in online art business
From the comments and reactions to the newsletter mentioned above, we analyzed about 500 of them. From the reactions coming from artists, roughly 85% agreed with our conclusions to a very high extent, while in the reactions coming from art market professionals (online marketers, consultants, agents, managers, online gallery owners etc.) 80% strongly disagreed with the conclusions. This was not a surprise since selling the illusion of successful easy online selling is their core business. When they agreed is was in the spirit of, indeed, selling art online is difficult but that's exactly why the intermediaries are so important and necessary.
This was the opposite of the effect I was hoping for. So to those who disagreed with the conclusions, I sent an invitation to prove me wrong, promising I would openly publish a promotional article about their business and successful online art sales results with the only requirement being, that the names of the artists and specific sales results would also have to be mentioned.
Wouldn’t that have been great marketing for these businesses? Well, out of around 50 invitations we send we received not one reply! Again, that was not a surprise. Probably no one had figures worth showing.
Selling dreams, smoke and mirrors
It surprises many people that as a business development sales professional and founder of several online art communities, I speak so openly about these negative tendencies. A considerable amount of project-founders asked me if it would not be better to be more quiet about it, basically a polite why don’t you shut up request. The answer in short, I execute my profession in the field of agricultural commodities like cocoa and coffee. An important part of being good in that profession is about making trade transparent and traceable for buyers and consumers. So I’m used to open up things for all stakeholders in a value chain. Be the change you’d like to see in the world, right? Well, I’d very much like to see the same level of transparency in the art market but instead, I see a lot of selling dreams, smoke and mirrors.
The Old VS the New
Through the years in my blog articles, social-media discussions and email correspondence, I’ve exchanged many thoughts on how the ideal online art platform would look like and how to turn a social art network into a successful art market platform. I have analyzed and summarized all the feedback and ideas and when creating a blend from it, it leads to a model in which artists, art-lovers, but most of all the traditional art industry (curators, museums, auction houses, art-shows etc.) are being brought together. Apparently, the majority of artists still believes that one can only make a living from art, if the traditional art market organizations are involved.
Personally I think online art sales results are so bad because the traditional art industry is still too much involved! The online art market nowadays is nothing more than a digital copy of the traditional physical art market, with this difference, that it does not focus on a small wealthy group of buyers but on the masses. We are using old fashioned sales models that worked for different target groups in the past, which are now in a digital form for a new generation of art-lover.
Traditional art market is failing
I ask myself, what do traditional art market leaders and influencers even know about the new artist generations? They claim so much knowledge but what do they even now about how people look at the art world nowadays, do they even care?
Ask any regular person on the street or an eighteen-year-old about how he or she thinks about art and most probably they will include a vomiting gesture mentioning remembering the last work they saw somewhere, was sold for many millions of dollars. Also they will probably add that their eight-year-old brother or sister could have made that work. People don’t care anymore. They became punch drunk, because out of the last twenty art news items most of them talked about extreme money, market dynamics and art elite activities.
Money became the norm. When in a group of people an artist is being asked, ‘what do you do?’ and he or she answers ‘I am an artist’, probably the first next question is ‘Huh? Can you make a living from that?’. If the artist has to respond no or hesitates, the group will most probably not take it very seriously.
Financializing of the art world
With prices like we have seen over the past decades’ art became admired not for its quality but for its price. The free art market players (speculators) became the new arbitrators of taste. The ‘free market’ speculation, unfortunately, has redefined art and the price of a work has become part of its function. That is the result of a corrupt system. In my view, you are not an artist because you sell or not, but because you are a creative soul.
I honestly don’t believe in a new model, an online model in which the traditional art market is too much involved. I see them as the root of the failure of the online art market. Sticking to their hierarchy, in a new era, we slow down innovation and progress.
There is no middleclass in the art market and it’s for a reason. The driving forces behind the art-market simply have no interest in it. I found a complete lack of willingness among traditional art market leaders to actively participate in online art platform initiatives. I had talks with art organizations all over the world, from top to bottom. I found a general disinterest towards creating an open platform where young, unknown and emerging artists get a real chance to reach out.
I was also surprised by a huge lack of strategic, long term vision about how internet and other digital technologies are affecting the art world. They saw threads instead of opportunities, probably because these changes in no way serve their interest. The art market establishment does not want things to improve or change. The internet has never been really welcome in their world. They prefer things to stay the same.
The end of museums?
A good and dramatic example of the above is the following. I had ongoing talks about online marketing/advertisement with the director of a major Museum in Amsterdam which struggles with its amount of visitors from the millennial generation. When I gently mentioned how innovating their online presence could have a positive effect on reaching this group, they made firmly clear that their interest is not a ‘flashy website’ but to ‘sell more tickets’.
Apart from the fact that I was not talking about a ‘flashy website’ this was an extremely short sighted comment that one would not expect on this level. I was shocked.
I predict that if museums maintain this type of thinking they will slowly fade away in the coming two decades. Why shouldn’t they? After all, the museum as an institute has only existed for a little longer than 200 years. I don’t see how relying on walls, entry tickets and old fashion marketing techniques they can remain in the era of the digitalization. Many of them are in need of funding and on top of that find difficulties obtaining content because they have to compete with hedge funds and oligarchs in the international art market.
I mean, isn’t it already over with the Louvre that opened a McDonalds ‘restaurant’ in its museum late 2009 and sold its name to be used by Abu Dhabi. Many entrances of large American and European museums, nowadays show impressive walls with the names of their funders but actually lack the names of the true founders. I think that Robert Hughes, with his - The Mona Lisa Curse (Winner of the 2009 Grierson Award for Best Documentary on the Arts) did a great job in making a statement where the traditional art market now finds itself.
There is hope
These are sad developments but let’s not be too depressed about it. What did the traditional art market establishment ever do for the millions of talented artists and art-lovers anyway? What did they really do in terms of support, education, creating opportunities and stimulating talent all over the world. Why is art still one of the most unregulated markets in the world?
As my friend Frans van der Beek ones wrote: ‘’In the regular high-end gallery, museum-world a select group of curators and the like determines what is art and what is not. They decide what the people may see and buy. This is ok when it concerns historical cultural heritage. When it concerns art however, these curators are self-appointed authorities, limiting the opportunities for many artists. Talking even more idealistically, one could argue that historical cultural heritage should not be locked up behind walls and entry tickets at all but should be part of the public domain.’’
Why is it that hardly 1% of the artists can make a living with their work while massive profits are being made by the auction houses, investors, speculators and collectors? Houses like Christies and Sotheby’s have sold over tens of billions of dollars of poor quality art. Why is it that for example in Spain, most big exhibitions are now being organized by big banks? Many banks stepped into the game of company art collections taking things even further out of balance. Art is the only market -along with drugs- without any form of regulation. The documentary ‘The Great Contemporary Art Bubble’ by Ben Lewis shows brilliantly how this market works and to where it is heading. A must-see for anyone interested in the topic.
Including the traditional art market in new online concepts would create a new wall between the creators and the public. Every attempt to include this old fashioned establishment in the online art world, would be like inventing a digital version of what already is. There is no leap forward in that!
Wake up call
Artists, galleries, collectors and art-lovers worldwide please wake up, stand up, realize the present art market system keeps the global art community poor and imprisoned. This is not democratic and it’s nothing even near a true fee market!
And if we start a discussion about how the online art-market should evolve, let’s talk about true innovation instead of keeping those in place that were never capable of bringing the global art community what it really deserves.
The true revolution in the art-market would be bringing down the walls of the past and the present and unlock the full potential of the new.