Should You Pursue Sales Through Online Galleries?
by E. Marie Robertson
Long ago, in the olden days before the Internet existed (yes, I AM that old), artists sold art out of galleries and festivals and fairs and “alternative spaces” like cafes and hotel lobbies. Art-buying was pretty much always an in-person process. We artists convinced ourselves it wasn’t so commodified as, say, buying a can of beans. With art, we told ourselves, people came and looked closely at our work. They absorbed it. There was something about it that sang to them. They “got” us. And then they wrote a check.
But there has always been this other story. The one where the couple at the art fair stands in front of a truly amazing piece of artwork for nearly an hour, having a loud disagreement as to whether that shade of green will even work with their sofa. The one where a prospective buyer asks if you have a piece “like that one, but horizontal” because he really needs to “just get something over the fireplace before Sunday.” Impersonal, task-based, commodified. Not our ideal, but an element of our reality nonetheless. People buying beans, not meaning.
That’s what the idea of selling artwork online felt like to many of us on the first pass–impersonal, commodity-based, without the opportunity to form any kind of artist/patron relationship. In reality, the “beanification” of artwork by selling online is nowhere near a “thing.” In fact, if you work it right (and I do mean WORK), it can be an opportunity to create an even stronger personal relationship with people who do truly appreciate your art—but more about that in a later post.
Should you sell art through one of the burgeoning number of online galleries? The answer is “it depends,” both on the kind of work you do and your goals.
Online sellers are constrained by the market, just as many brick-and-mortar sellers are. Vango, a San Francisco-based online art gallery, notes in its curatorial policy statement, “We want every piece to be successful on Vango. To that end, we curate work based on whether we have an appropriate audience to guarantee the work’s success … If your piece is not accepted, we are not necessarily saying it’s “bad” or we don’t like it. We’re saying that we don’t have the audience for it at this time and accepting it would harm the overall artist community.”
Heather Robinson, a visual artist living in San Francisco, maintains a very active gallery showing schedule for her work, but has also ventured into online sales through Vango. “There is so much art there it can be hard to be seen unless you spend a lot of time and effort pursuing it,” she explains. “I have sold a couple of pieces (through) Vango, but it’s been a long time. I think they are at least trying to be receptive to artists’ needs.”
Santa Monica, CA’s SaatchiArt and Vango offer artists 70% of a work’s sale price and assist with shipping, marketing and record-keeping, outstripping what many brick-and-mortar galleries are willing to do for the artists they represent. UGallery, which has offices in New York and San Francisco, offers a 50/50 split. All three make a concerted effort to promote their artists within the confines of their online homes. But all of the websites also offer prospective buyers the opportunity to search work by generic theme, price, size and shape. And Vango has an iPhone app for collectors that lets them take photos of the areas in which they want to place artwork and then search for work that … wait for it … matches the color palette of the space.
In the final analysis, selling art online can possibly put your work in front of new audiences that are primed and ready to buy, but there’s no guarantee that your work will be an online success. Cutting through the noise is crucial, but so is maintaining marketability. A “get rich quick” scheme it is not.
“I always hear stories of people selling but I do not know any personally,” confirms Robinson.
So if your goal is to make lots of money easily … insert sad trombone here. Not going to happen. But if you want another methodology to potentially get your work in front of people who just might buy it, then an online gallery could be useful for you. Your work is bound to come up in someone’s search at some point, and who knows—you might be the exact fit for their souls, or their sofas, and which it is might not actually matter.
In the words of the artist at the art fair who eventually accepted a hefty four-figure check from the arguing couple in the first paragraph, “I can appreciate a piece all day long. But if it just sits in my studio forever, what good is that?”
“Art Galleries, Art Sales and the Internet: A Survey,” ArtBusiness.com.
“Art Makes a Move Online,” by Scott Reyburn, The New York Times Online, May 18, 2014.
“Small Retailers Get Good News as Online Art Sales Double, per Hiscox Report,” by Annie Pilon, Small Business Trends, March 25, 2016. http://smallbiztrends.com/2016/03/online-art-sales-double.html
E. Marie Robertson is an artist, writer and flair facilitator living in Anderson, SC. Her studio, Art-in-Progress, specializes in photo, video, mixed reality and encaustic painting, and provides mini-retreats and workshops for artists interested in expanding their creativity and tapping more deeply into their authentic voices. Her blog, ArtLifeNow, offers practical and tactical advice for artists.