finding a market for art

June 08, 2007 in Art as a professiontopics:

Seth Godin and I seem to be on the same wavelength: his post today on pricing models is eerily similar to notes I scribbled down yesterday on potential markets for artwork. I’ve been struggling lately with questions of how to price my artwork, and what markets I should go after. After spending the morning doing research on line, I was getting up with sitting at my desk, so I grabbed my notebook and sat out on the deck to think.

the art market continuum

I sketched out this little diagram of prices. On the left is cheap art: $20 and less. This is land of posters, microstock, greeting cards, and licensing. You put your art down here, and you are going after the volume. Problem is, you are also banishing your work to the Land of Cheap Art, a placed filled with puppies with huge eyes and babies sitting in cabbage leaves — a place few ever escape.

Just to the right of it are online communities like Etsy — craft-oriented artwork that sells between $20 and $100. Etsy is a fascinating place, filled with great artists making beautiful handmade stuff. But the prices are low. Etsy seems to be going after the traditional art fair market: a place where you can wander around looking at beautiful art, and come away with a nice souvenir for $50 or so. I think they may be hitting a sweetspot for online art sales: with prices that are low enough to enourage people to take a chance at buying art they’ve only seen as a JPEG, but high enough that the art still has the feel of quality. Only question is, does this generate enough sales to make it worthwhile for the artist. Can you make a living in this market?

Then on the far right is the expensive stuff. This is art selling from the high hundreds to thousands of dollars, in small exclusive editions to small exclusive groups of people. Because of the price, this is art that needs to be sold, usually in person. It requires the artist to either do some kick-ass relationship building, or to hire a professional networker to do it for him (also known as a gallery).

I’ve been struggling with where to place myself on this continuum. I’d like to be somewhere in the middle: selling my work for enough money to make a living, but cheap enough for normal people to afford. However I don’t know if this market exists. My gut tells me that it does, or at least, it should. But I fear I may be like Mulder, wanting to believe in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence. Maybe the way to go it to pick the high end or the low end, and dedicate all your energy to making it work. I’d love to experiment for a while, trying different products for different markets. But art markets are very insular, and once you place your art in one of them, it is really hard to leave. If you sell your stuff for $50 on Etsy, it’s tough to convince a collector that it’s worth $500. Likewise, if you try to sell though galleries, they would not look kindly on you undercut your own prices.

I don’t have any answers yet, just a lot of questions. All of these questions is what drove me outside yesterday, to sit on the deck with some iced tea and my notebook, stare at the trees, and think. I think I need to do a lot more of it.

Addendum 7/2/07:

Holly Becker of Decor8 has graciously offered to post my questions about these different art markets on her blog. Check out some of the great comments from a range of artists.

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