Selling Artwork in a Weak Economy: Volume 1


Economists pretty much agree that during recession, Credit is tough to come by, the currency is weak, food and fuel prices are astoundingly upwardly mobile, and that perennial bastion of ever-increasing value, real estate, won’t be making any sharp upward moves anytime soon. Plus there’s that pesky matter of “consumer confidence.” Even people who aren’t that impacted by the soft economy are more hesitant to spend than they once were.
The upshot? As you might surmise, none of this has been good for the art market. Art lovers everywhere find themselves with less discretionary capital to spend on that love of their lives– artwork. Facts are that selling artwork isn’t easy even in a healthy economy, and at times like this, it can seem downright impossible. But confronting adversity is a fact of life, especially for artists, and any artist who expects to be successful must continually adjust to prevailing conditions in order to survive. So let’s assess the situation and explore how certain adjustments might play out to the upside at this point in time. First, we’ll talk money, and then add a few words about expanding markets.
The number one consideration for any artist in the thick of riding out a slow market and selling less artwork is to get flexible fast, particularly with respect to prices, particularly with respect to adjusting them in an increasingly affordable direction. Typically, when talking about this subject of lowering prices of artwork, one meets a shock and disbelief from whomever you are talking to– dealers, artists, or anyone else involved in any aspect of selling– like art prices can’t ever go down; they must inexorably go up. “Lower prices?” they shriek. “No way!”
This response is intriguing, if not amusing. Want to know why? Because the exact same people who decry the commerciality of the art world suddenly flip to the money side when they’re the ones who might be affected. Where oh where did all those lofty intangible values go now that we’re talking cash? I guess it’s not about the money as long as the money it’s not about isn’t theirs. Hmmm.
The facts are that artwork is a commodity just like any other, and just like any other, prices fluctuate. And that does not mean they always go up; sometimes they go down. They go up when money flows freely and supply gets tight; they go down when money dries up and studios, back rooms, and storage spaces begin to bulge with the labors of creative endeavor, aka artwork.
When you visit department stores– plenty more stuff is on sale, and at notably high prices, than it was a couple of years back due to recession. Big business knows what it has to do to survive; take a lesson from them. By lowering your selling prices, at some point the prospect of owning your artwork becomes simply too attractive for collectors to pass up. Tough times call for tough measures. It’s that simple and no more complicated.
And please oh please don’t equate selling prices with your “worth” as an artist. This is not only a monumental miscarriage of ego, but it also significantly compromises your ability to survive a bumpy ride in artland. If you have a painting priced at $2000, for example, and you lower the price to $1200, it’s still the same painting, and you’re still the same artist. Or am I missing something? I mean talk about reducing your art and artistry to the basest level possible– this kind of thinking would be it.
“But how do I explain lower prices to the people who bought me at the top?” you ask. To a handful of artists who jacked their prices through the roof in relatively short time periods when the economy was honking along, this may be a challenge, but for most artists, it’s not that much different than explaining lower real estate prices, lower stock prices, or any other prices that have fallen as a result of the current economy. And just because your artwork is more affordable today does not mean it won’t go right back up in price tomorrow. Tell them you’re responding to collectors who continue to love your art just as much as they did back in the day when they had more money to spend on it, and that you do what you have to do in order to keep them in the game. It’s a window of opportunity, a special consideration, a moment in the continuum of your art career, and it won’t last forever. There’s never been a better time to buy your artwork than right now and there may never be again.
Galleries can use similar approaches. Reductions are temporary. We understand that times are tough; we understand that you love art, and so in response, we’re reducing prices– for a limited time– to keep your collection growing. We’ve worked out interim agreements with our artists to make our art more affordable. We realize that money isn’t flowing quite as freely as it was a year or two ago; we realize that you still want to buy art, and we’re responding to that.
Once you understand and accept the fact that art prices fluctuate according to supply, demand, and economic conditions– that they always have and they always will– your artistic life gets easier. You can’t expect your price structure to stay the same or continue to rise when everybody around you has less discretionary capital to spend, and what little they have, they’ll only spend if it’s for a really good reason. So be prepared to lower your asking prices, significantly if necessary, in order to keep your art career alive.
Price-related suggestions for generating income during lean economic times:
* Offer affordable options for buyers, artwork under $500, for example, or even under $200. Don’t make the mistake of ignoring small sales and focusing all your attention on large ones; a steady stream of small sales can easily add up to a livable income.
* Sell on the installment plan. Ten buyers paying you $50 a week or a couple of hundred dollars a month on installment plans means you’re making $2000 per month.
* Rent your artwork. If you can rent out twenty works of art for $30 each per month, that’s $600 per month that you wouldn’t otherwise have if the art sat in your studio gathering dust. Confine the rental pieces to those you’re less likely to sell outright. You don’t want to tie up salable works that can potentially generate significant dollar amounts in short periods of time.


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