Some Do Not Do’s When Selling Art

Another title for this post could be “Prairie Dogs Can’t Sell Art.” Please read on.

My wife and I attended Septemberfest in Midland, Texas, which is an annual outdoor art festival on the grounds of the Museum of the Southwest to enjoy an afternoon of art and music. We also enjoyed watching a young child of about 6 dancing his little heart out in front of the stage. He wasn’t a scheduled performer, but he still took a bow and received clapping from the audience. That held our smile longer than anything that day.

As we made our way through the booth exhibits I couldn’t help but think about some of the Do Not Do’s when it comes to selling art that I learned from two marketing books written by Jack White, titled: “The Mystery of Making It” and “The Magic of Selling Art.” Before I elaborate on these books let me first tell you about what we experienced at the art festival.

One of the first booths that we went to was by an artist working in graphite pencil with western subject matter. We said hello to the artist first. My wife asked if she was the artist. I asked where she was from. The conversation was one sided. I took a liking to one of the small works of a well drawn horse head located at the bottom edge of her exhibit. I said out loud how I liked it. My wife also mentioned out loud which work she liked. I continued to look at the other artist’s work and then went back to the horse head drawing and said to my wife again out loud and pointing with my arm extended and finger pointing “I like that one!” The artist never got off her perch she was sitting on, nor offered to pick the work up so I could see it better, nor told me anything else that would tell me about the work, or why it was created or if it had any special meaning. NOTHING!! Helloooo, anybody home?? I can just imagine the artist saying in her mind “Oh I hope he buys it.” My wife did buy a set of $5 note cards from her to send to her brother. Actually she didn’t buy it from her, she just selected something off the card display rack and handed it to her to purchase it.

Another exhibitor was talking on her cell phone. She momentarily stopped to make some mention about her jewelry work and that it was done in sterling silver (I think) at which point she went back to her conversation on the phone.  OK. Bye, Bye.

Then we came upon an exhibitor with handcrafted wood boxes with different inlays of wood. We like boxes. Boxes with lids and drawers oh my! You can’t help but lift one to see what’s inside. The artist was sitting back in his booth. Never said a greeting, hello, welcome, thanks for stopping by, get out of my booth, drop dead. NOTHING!! However, I did learn he wasn’t mute because before we left his booth I did over hear him say to another artist, “Well, it looks like things are slowing down.” Good grief Charlie Brown.

Another exhibitor exuberantly popped forward and said “If there’s anything I can help you with, let me know,” and then quickly retreated into the recesses of their exhibit booth. Kind of reminded me of a Prairie Dog, who popped his little head out of his hole in the ground, sensed danger and retreated. Prairie Dogs can’t sell art either.

The above examples are of what NOT to do if you want to sell your work. My wife bought the note cards and I also bought a necklace for my wife at the festival, but that’s because she already has a good eye for jewelry, when it’s well made, at a good price and even better when it’s at a bargain price. I like that. But, the sell didn’t happen because of any special assistance on the part of the artisan.

I wonder how many of the above artists belly ached over how awful sales were and that they’d probably never be back to this festival because of people who have no appreciation for art. Where’s the appreciation of those who paid their fee to attend the festival, have to park a considerable distance and then walk some more through the maze of tents on a hot afternoon and then when we do come to a particular booth, we’re ignored? I know it costs artists to go and do these kind of shows, and it’s a lot of work to set up, but they decided to be there, so drop the attitude that those who attend should all bow and hail booth number 10 in the southwest corner. (Don’t know if there was such a booth, but sometimes you get that feeling of attitude floating around in the air although you do get some pleasant breezes by artisans who at least try.)

Perhaps this comes from artists who are gifted at their craft, but terribly lacking in knowing how to sell or jump-start a conversation. We’re not talking high pressure used car salesman tactics. No one likes to be sold. No one says, I’m going to go and be sold a car. Or I’m going to go and be sold a painting. No, they say I’m going to go and “Buy” a painting or I’m going to go and “Buy” a car. Effective selling is helping a person to buy what they want and be happy about doing so while giving them reassurance that they’ve made a good decision and that the art is going to enrich their life.

That’s where the above mentioned books were eye opening and instructive. The author, Jack White is a professional artist and was selected as State Artist of Texas in the 1970’s. He’s also husband to artist Mikki Senkarik. The first book I read was the Mystery of Making It. The heart of the book is the story of how with his guidance he catapulted the sales of his wife’s paintings starting in 1990 and went past three million in retail sales for her before the year 2000.
I also learned something about how much work to show at a time that actually helped to increase sales and what number of works caused sales to drop.
Then I read his Magic of Selling Art.  This is where he teaches you how to ‘soft sell’ and do so without ever resorting to lying to your customers. Basically it’s how to engage visitors to your exhibits or shows by asking them questions that can’t be answered with yes or no. Too many artists and even gallery personnel will greet a customer with “Is there anything I can help you with?” The general reply is “no we’re just looking.” They cut you off so as not to be sold. But if you ask them a question such as “Where are you folks from or with so many attending the festival where did you find a place to park? That’s a lovely necklace or handsome watch, where did you get it? Essentially people like to talk about themselves when someone else genuinely wants to know. A dialogue is started and in the process you may get to know their likes. They see you smile at them. They start to like you. Ask another question. What kind of art do you collect? If they linger looking at a piece ask: What do you like about that piece or where are you thinking of hanging this little gem? Essentially you’re working them towards closing a sale without their being “sold.”

I liken the advice from Jack’s books, not to that of a bald headed man trying to sell amazing hair growth tonic, but to someone with true to life examples in the art of selling. His and his wife’s experiences and what worked for them, written by an artist for artists. By the way, Jack also has a full set of hair.

Here’s the link to review his series of books on his wife’s website that if you’re an artist or in any field in which you have to sell something, you’ll benefit from reading.

In an upcoming post I will write about his book “The Mystique of Marketing Art on eBay” and my own recent experiences following the advice I learned in this book.

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