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Should You Sell Your Art Online or at a Gallery?

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You’re wandering around an art gallery and you start to think, “hey, I could do that!” Paintings, photo prints, drawings, quilts; beautiful art lines the walls of galleries and you wonder how your own art can be a part of it. Or, what about selling online? Can you do both? Here on Adventures with Art, we’ve talked about selling art online vs. in-person, but when talking about galleries specifically, it’s a different story.

It’s important to diversify your income and audience as an artist and sell your art both online and at a gallery. Both paths require differing financial plans, networking strategies, and negotiations, which makes it important to know the online world and gallery world deeply.

Selling to galleries and selling online are great options. There’s no reason you can’t do both! That said, they are different worlds and there are important factors you’ll want to take into account with each of them. Let’s dive in!

Understand Your Online Audience vs. Gallery Audience

Your customers will look very different depending on whether they find you online or in a gallery. If you don’t carefully differentiate these audiences, your marketing efforts could flop, which would be a huge bummer. 

Your Online Audience:

When you sell your art online, you’re interacting with a worldwide audience. Aside from the possibility of insane shipping costs, there’s no reason why someone across the world can’t buy your art. 

While niching down is always a great thing to do, it’s easier to cast a wider net online. It’s easier to experiment and find a Facebook group, online club, or forum where your customers live. Online, there are groups for absolutely EVERYTHING. Hobbies, professions, art styles, you name it. 

It’s important to stay true to yourself and your art, but selling your art online is a bit more forgiving whenever you try to branch out and experiment.

Now, let’s talk about networking. If you can network effectively, you’ll build an audience much faster than if you go it alone. Here are some key factors for online networking:

good understanding of social media platforms: when it comes to social media, it’s good to have a presence on multiple platforms, but only mastery of one. You don’t want to fall into the trap of spending so much time on social media that you don’t have time for your art. 

All you need is one strong audience and one platform to connect with other artists. Don’t spread yourself too thin by trying to master every social media platform out there. Figure out where your audience hangs out and virtually go there.

For art, Pinterest or Instagram are great places to spend your time. But, if you like being able to interact with your customers, you might want to consider Facebook.

Using social media for networking and selling your art is about so much more than having a profile and slapping your photos on it (source). No, you need to be engaged. Chat with your customers; post pictures of your art and your process; share regularly.

If you want to make your social media life A LOT easier, check out Tailwind. It has been a huge timesaver for me that has helped me balloon my audience with less effort.

Tailwind is a social media scheduling platform that has built in networking opportunities through their Tribes feature. I’ve had pins go viral just because I shared it within one of my Tribes, which brought in THOUSANDS of views. Tailwind is definitely a tool you need when building an audience. Check out Tailwind HERE.

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Check out Tailwind here!

learn how to make your art look good: you could have created the most beautiful piece of art, but if you photograph it poorly, it will look like crap. It’s REALLY important to have good photos of your art to display on social media, send to influencers, and highlight on your product listings. 

If you feel like you’re a bit lost when it comes to photographing your art, I highly suggest taking photography classes on Skillshare. If you click HERE, you can get a discount on a year of Skillshare, which is a great deal.

I also highly suggest Placeit. I use Placeit all the time, especially for my Etsy stores. Placeit is a website that has a TON of photos that you can use for mockups. Simply plop a picture of your art into the website and it will put it in a beautifully staged scene. Placeit is an amazing way to make sure that your art looks professional.

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Check out PlaceIt here!

be consistent: in the same way that you need to stay in contact with your in-person connections, you need to constantly engage your digital audience. It will leave a bad impression if you only post every few months and all of those posts are advertisements for your art. If possible, post every single day. If that’s too much, aim for posting at least 3 times a week.

And, don’t limit it just to your art listings. Post pictures of yourself making your art, of your studio, heck, of your dog. Your audience will be more inclined to buy your work if they get to know you and love you. Be yourself and share your daily experiences with your audience.

Your Gallery Audience:

Online, you’re selling directly to your customers. When you sell your art to a gallery, you’re essentially selling to a middleman. Gallery owners will look at your art from a different lens than your traditional customers.

Instead of considering how your artwork will look in their house, gallery owners are concerned with how your art will add value to their gallery and how much they can resell it for.

As we’ll talk about in the financials section, gallery owners can either buy your art upfront and directly resell it, or they can sell it for commission, which means that no money is exchanged until it is hung in the gallery and actually sells. We’ll get to this later, but it’s important to know upfront.

If you want to sell in a gallery, it’s really important that you identify galleries that suit your artistic vibe, niche, and style. You need to suit the galleries needs; it’s unlikely they’ll adjust to suit yours. 

Identifying galleries that are a good fit for your art can be challenging. Unlike selling online where you have access to a worldwide community from the comfort of your couch, selling to a gallery will require some in-person interactions.

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Pick a radius in which you’re willing to travel and search for galleries that would be a good fit. Once you do, let the networking begin. Here are some things to consider when networking with a gallery:

a lot of the sales to a gallery come from connections: gallery owners take a risk whenever they decide to display or buy your art. If they buy your art upfront, they’ve invested a lot of money in the hopes that they’ll be able to get a return someday. Regardless, gallery owners are using precious space in their galleries where other art could have sat. That’s no small thing.

A lot of galleries will be more comfortable buying art from people they know and trust (source). If you have connections with a gallery, use them. If you don’t, it’s really important to start nurturing them.

understand your customer’s customers: the goal of a gallery is to sell your art to someone else. In order to be effective with your networking, you need to be focused on the correct end goal, which ISN’T to sell your art to a gallery, but for the gallery to sell your art to one of their customers.

Think about what will happen if a gallery takes a chance on your work, but it never sells? This won’t reflect well on you to the gallery owners and you’ll have a hard time selling future work to them.

Be intentional about figuring out who your customer’s customers are. Who goes to the gallery? What type of art typically sells best? Align your networking with what will make the gallery successful and you’ll have a much better shot of getting your art seen, appreciated, and sold.

Get Familiar with the Financials

Before you dive into any business, it’s important to know the numbers. Most of us, myself included, have been caught in the trap of getting excited about an idea and taking it to the next level before actually understanding what’s involved from a financial standpoint.

The finances of selling online:

We live in a world where we want to open our computers, find what we need, buy it for a good price, pay no shipping for it, and have it arrive in two days. Hey, I love living in this type of world, especially when my phone charger dies. But, this type of world doesn’t always work well for artists. 

I sell a lot of my art on Etsy, which is a great platform for artists who want to reach a more understanding customer base. When we go to Amazon, we expect fast delivery and free shipping. When we go to Etsy, we expect handmade items that might have delayed processing times and higher shipping rates.

There was a period of time when one of my print providers had a huge backup. My customers weren’t even phased. They happily waited 4 weeks for their orders, even after paying for shipping. The expectations are different on Etsy. So, if you’re an artist who needs to charge for shipping and wants a little bit of flexibility with your processing times, Etsy is a great choice.

Now, let’s talk about the financials specifically. We’ve alluded to shipping costs, which can be a LOT depending on how big your art is. If you’re selling large paintings, for example, you won’t only have high post office costs, but you’ll also need to spend money on shipping materials. 

Those are costs you’ll need to factor in and consider.

You’ll also need to factor in fees. No matter where you sell your art online, you’ll have fees of some sort. In fact, Etsy often gets complaints from artists about how high their can be and how they keep climbing. But, even if you avoid fee heavy platforms like Etsy and Amazon and start your own website, you’ll have website maintenance costs and high payment fees whenever your customers pay with their credit cards. 

A good rule of thumb is to pick your desired selling method, calculate the fees and costs, and simply bake them into the pricing of your artwork. That way, you’ll always know what your profit is and you won’t have to stress out about covering your costs.

Fees and costs aside, you DO have a lot of control over your money when you sell online. As we’ll talk about next, this isn’t always the case when you sell with a gallery. One of the most important things to keep in mind when selling online is to price your artwork appropriately.

Don’t get sucked into undervaluing your art just because other artists are.

There is a LOT of stolen and low quality art being sold online. It’s one of those things that really gets under the skin of us artists who are selling in an ethical way and spending a lot of time and energy to do so. Aside from the fact that selling someone else’s art as your own is wrong, it also makes it REALLY hard for legitimate artists to price their work.

If you aren’t careful, you could get sucked into a spiral of lowering your prices, trying to beat out the competition just for a few sales. Don’t do it. You’ve worked hard on your art and, even if it results in fewer sales, you shouldn’t underprice it. 

Eventually, the scammers will be found out and disappear. Eventually, you’ll grow a loyal audience who knows that the prices you charge are worth the value they’re getting.

Customers expect a good deal when shopping online, but don’t let this trick you into underpricing your work. Stay firm on making high quality art and charging high quality prices for it.

The finances of selling with a gallery:

One of the big benefits of selling to a gallery as opposed to online is that art gallery owners know what good art is worth. If you price your art accordingly, they won’t bat an eye. 

This doesn’t mean that you can sit back and let the pricing work itself out. When you’re focused on an online platform, your job is to be a good salesperson. When you’re focused on a gallery, your job is to be a good negotiator. This is more of a business-to-business relationship than it is a business-to-customer relationship. 

Once you get to the point where a gallery is interested in your work, solidify your pricing, desired commission rate, and the costs you’re willing to take on. That way, you can appear educated and confident in your negotiations, which will help you put yourself in the best position possible to create a win-win situation for you and the gallery.

Firstly, let’s talk about commission rates. A gallery will take a portion of the sale of your painting. Basically, this is the price you pay to “rent” the gallery wall’s space and benefit from their foot traffic and marketing.

This commission rate can be anywhere from 25%-50% (source), which makes it really important for you to negotiate.

If you’re giving up 50% of your profits, what are you getting in return? 

Is the gallery paying for framing, or is that a cost you’ll have to absorb? 

What’s the reputation of the gallery and their sales history? 

Would the exposure and notoriety you would get from showing your art in this gallery justify a lower profit?

Understand the gallery and what you’re willing to profit or lose in order to be a part of their family of artists. 

As you’ve probably noticed, we’re talking about commission rates, which usually come into play AFTER something has sold. This is a HUGE difference between selling online verses selling in a gallery that you need to be aware of. 

Yes, there are times when a gallery will buy your artwork upfront, but it isn’t the norm. When selling to a gallery, be prepared to wait a while before seeing any money from your art.

Getting your art into a gallery is a huge win that should be celebrated, but it might be a long time before you see any profit from it, if ever. Just because your art is on a gallery wall doesn’t mean that it will be guaranteed to sell. No, your art could sit in the gallery for months and never sell.

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Understand your gallery’s timelines and terms. Most galleries will have a time limit, after which they take your artwork down if it doesn’t sell. 

Of course, a gallery will do everything possible to get your artwork to sell. They want it to sell as much as you do! If it doesn’t, that’s money lost for them, as well as you. That said, it might not work out, which is something you have to prepare for.

Marketing Your Art Online vs. an Art Gallery

Selling your art doesn’t work if it doesn’t, well, sell. Once you decide to sell your art, you’re diving into the business world and need to build the skills necessary to handle it. A lot of artists are blindsided by how much work it is to run a business surrounding their art. Instead of creating the art they love, they’re wondering how to write effective copy that will drive their customers to buy their work. Or, they’re begging galleries for meetings in any effort to make a few steps of progress.

Marketing your art might be something you never enjoy. That’s ok. It’s something that needs to be done for the sake of your art.

What you need to do to market your artwork online verses in a gallery is VERY different though. One might appeal to you more than the other depending on your previous experience with marketing and how hands-off you want to be with your business. Let’s dive in.

Marketing Your Art Online:

Unless you hire a team that can run your business for you, when you sell your art online, everything is on your shoulders. Social media posts, advertisements, networking, pricing, shipping, store setup; that’s all on you! 

Don’t get overwhelmed. You’ll learn as you go and likely enjoy parts of it. That said, these ARE things you’ll need to learn. 

If you’re just getting started with marketing your art, here are some books I highly suggest that have helped me on my own journey:

Work Energy: Finish What You Start and Fearlessly Take on Any Goal by Jim Harmer

War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield

This is Marketing: You Can’t Be Seen Until You Learn to See by Seth Godin

Art, Inc.: The Essential Guide for Building Your Career as an Artist by Lisa Congdon

Social Media Marketing Mastery 2020:3 BOOKS IN 1-How to Build a Brand and Become an Expert Influencer Using Facebook, Twitter, Youtube & Instagram-Top Digital Networking & Personal Branding Strategies by Robert Miller

I also HIGHLY suggest getting a subscription to Skillshare. Skillshare has a wide library of classes SPECIFICALLY about marketing your art online. For example, “Building an Etsy Shop that Sells,” and “Getting Started with Twitter for Business.”

With just Skillshare alone, you’ll have access to an insane amount of knowledge about how to get your online art business off the ground in a way that will set you up for success. If you click on the banner or click HERE, you’ll get a discount on a year of Skillshare.

Online marketing might seem overwhelming at first, but it’s definitely something you can learn and master. Just take it one step at a time. Take a class on Skillshare and see what you learn; set up a social media profile and make your first post; learn about Etsy and whether it’s the right platform for you. Overtime, you’ll learn the skills you need to be successful, so be patient.

But, if the idea of learning marketing has you completely overwhelmed and ready to throw in the towel, let’s talk about how galleries can ease some of your burden.

Marketing Your Art at a Gallery:

One of the HUGE perks of selling your art to a gallery is that they’ll carry the marketing load for you. 

Remember those commission rates we talked about? Well, part of the reason why you’re giving up so much profit is because the gallery is doing a lot of the marketing work for you. They’re the ones giving you a high traffic area to display your work; they’re the ones schmoozing customers and convincing them to buy; they’re the ones making sure that your art is shown in the best light possible to make a sale.

Once you get your art into a gallery, you don’t have to worry about selling it. Even though you’ll give up some profit, this is a great option for artists who don’t want to worry about marketing and selling their art on their own.

Selling Your Art Both Online and in Galleries

We’ve talked about a lot of pros and cons both for selling your art online and in galleries. They’re very different worlds with different rules that require different skill sets. That doesn’t mean you can’t do both though! 

I believe in diversifying your income. You don’t want to be relying fully on a local gallery in your town, only to have the deal fall through. You also don’t want to be selling fully on Etsy, for example, in case something should happen to the platform in the future. 

Make a conscious effort to sell your art in a few different ways so that your career and profit are stable. My advice is to get started with 1 path at first so that you don’t get overwhelmed. Once you get established, start branching out. There’s no reason why you can’t see success selling both online and at a gallery. Get creative; keep learning; and never sacrifice your art for money.

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