I have been selling my work for almost 20 years, beginning with naive oil pastel paintings, then ceramic figurines and wire jewelry, handmade cards, and eventually, the work I do now.
As an artist, you dream of galleries coming to you, begging to represent you and your brilliant work. But, for most of us, it is a very different experience. We venture out into the art world without maps, having no idea where to go or how to talk about our work. I still don't have a map, but I thought I would write about a few lessons I've learned.
The first time I approached a gallery (unannounced), I brought a few examples of my weird oil pastels of stylized naked women, sometimes depicting my young feminist idealogy. The owner bluntly informed me that my work was not a good fit for the gallery. She said, "Our clients like to buy things that will look nice in their homes." I quickly shuffled out with my invisible tail between my legs. However, I sucked up my pride, went to another shop (not gallery) and found the owner happy to accept my linocut-printed cards on consignment. The lesson: Don't expect to be accepted by the first gallery you approach. Prepare for rejection and know that your work may fit in certain venues, but not others.
A couple of years later, I had apprenticed with a ceramic artist, and had a box of ceramic figurines. I was still heavily influenced by the women's movement, but these were more celebratory. Having moved to Albuquerque, I took them to the local women's bookstore, where the owner took them all and gave me a sound lecture about pricing. She pointed out that, by pricing my work so low, I was not only paying myself poorly, but also underpricing other artists. We put fair prices on the work, and they all sold. The lesson: Compare your prices to others in your market. We all need a fair wage.
Around that same time, I was making wire and bead jewelry. I took my collection to a really cool gift shop in Madrid, NM (one of my favorite places.) The owner was very kind to discuss pricing with me, and she accepted my work on commission, and it sold well. I continued to supply her with jewelry until I moved back to WA 8 months later. After a while, I couldn't reach the shop or owner. A friend went to the shop for me to find that it had closed. I was never paid for the items I left there. The lesson: Be cautious about leaving your work where you can't monitor the sales. Make sure you have a written contract with items and prices listed for your records.
For many years after that, I only sold at a cooperative gallery in Seattle and at independent shows that I arranged at cafes. If you are just starting out, this is a very good option for getting your work seen. Look for cafes and restaurants that have rotating art shows and ask for an appointment with the curator. Take photos of your work and remember that your art is going to represent the business while it is hanging. Choose businesses that are more likely to accept your work. Don't take edgy art to a conservative tea shop, for instance. The disadvantage is that you are responsible for all promotion and sales. But most cafes don't take a commission, so it gives the artist a great way to sell art at low risk. Some will even allow you to hold an opening party, which is a great opportunity to network.
After working in mosaic for a few years, I heard about a gallery in Seaside that specializes in mosaic. My husband was leading a field trip there, so he took one of my mosaics to the gallery. This was my first time putting work in a real gallery, and the owner was kind enough to alter my mosaic to make it gallery-ready. She removed the eye-hooks I had screwed into the top and replaced them with d-rings on the back. Then she painted over the mess of grout I had left on the back. The piece sold fairly quickly, and I received a check in the mail. The lesson: Always use d-rings and woven wire for 2-D artwork. Make sure it looks neat and tidy on all sides (even the back.)
-Be prepared to set your pricing. It helps to go in with a price in mind, and negotiate from there. Most galleries take 50%, so know how little you are willing to accept. If you know you can sell something for more than you will get from the gallery, it may not be worth it. On the other hand, selling at a gallery looks good on a resume, you reach a new audience, the gallery promotes you and takes care of taxes, and your work will look much nicer than it will on the wall of a cafe.
-Be professional. (Do as I say; not as I do.) I tend to talk too much out of nervousness, openly express my insecurities, and sometimes realize my work isn't ready to hang. Just recently, on one of those days where I was one step behind all day, I took work to a gallery without any d-rings attached. I had my screw-gun with me and ran (literally) to a hardware store, the second one I had gone to that didn't carry d-rings. I bought some drawer-pulls that resembled d-rings and tried to attach them back at the gallery. They broke. I did all of this with the gallery owner tending her customers around me. I am still working through my shame.
I hope some budding artist stumbles across this and learns from my mistakes. Good luck!