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Selling Art in Difficult Times

I don't suppose there is anyone who could have imagined all the chaos, fear, death, and strangely enough, all the political division created by this global pandemic. I'm not going to get into all of that, but from our point of view, as small creative business people, there is a whole lot we can learn from the year and a half of this horrible disease. Aside from the physical and societal impact of Covid-19, there have been huge impacts on our businesses as well. Now that we have a fourth wave of infections racing around the country, Bogdan and I can't help but wonder what we would do if shutdowns become necessary again in the Autumn.

I don't believe things will come to catastrophe, since we now have a vaccine, but it's still a good idea to play out that scenario as a risk-management exercise. What would we do if there were another forced shut-down? Are we any better off now than we were two years ago? What have we learned, and what have we implemented, to vaccinate our business from this type of disaster?

So let's look back at the past year or two. What we learned was that, through the worst of the bad times, there seems to have been a large part of the population that shifted, started working from home, self-isolated, turned their lives online, and didn't suffer a great deal financially. People who started working from home pivoted, ordered things on their computers, home schooled their kids, created virtual work spaces, and actually saved a lot of money. Many of these people, since they were spending so much time at home, began projects around the house, beautified their homes, and sought out entertainment and enrichment online. Home Depot did great, so did platforms like Zoom, Netflix, and Amazon. Even through shortages and chain supply and delivery issues, these businesses thrived. Reports are that artists who already had the infrastructure and presence to sell online often did as well or better in their 2020 sales than before the pandemic began. It stands to reason actually, since people were interested in beautifying their home environments. They bought more art to make their home life better. Since many had less opportunities to travel, and fewer options for spending money, they not only bought more art, but often they bought better art.

This was a wake-up call for us, since in our art business, we really hadn't built that online presence to the degree that we could benefit from this sudden shift. We had websites, and online stores, but virtually no content available, and nowhere near the reach we needed. So we sprung into action. Ok, perhaps you couldn't characterize our response as springing... but we did stir a bit. We overhauled our websites and online shops. We started marketing like crazy, filling social media feeds with our faces and our artwork. We created new content online through YouTube vlogs, video and audio podcasts, and this blog that you're reading. We joined online groups of artists and art collectors, we participated, joined in, commented, and did some guest appearances. We did all that in the past year and a half, and have noticed that we are slowly building a base of followers and collectors. Did I mention the word slowly? While I'm super proud of the work we've done, it stands to reason that others did the same thing. So although we've hugely increased our public outreach and marketing, the competition for people's attention has risen exponentially. Still, no regrets, it was something we had to do.

So here we are almost two years later, and I'm not sure we've inoculated ourselves much against disaster. Our sales have started to rise as people began to venture out again, but our sales have all been from walk-in clients. We've had more people come in who have checked us out online before their visit, which is encouraging, but since the pandemic began, I've not had a single online sale from my website. Nothing has really changed, other than that our marketing efforts do seem to have made us more "visible". While I'm certainly proud of that achievement, I'm not seeing any shift in the way people are buying art from us. The problem is of course, if there were to be another shut-down, or if people decide to self-isolate through this next spike in new Covid cases, we're screwed.... again.

But that doesn't stop us, right? We're creative, positive, and inventive entrepreneur types. We'll just start again from where we are at the moment, and build on that foundation. The trick for us now will be to find effective, and by that I mean measurable, strategies to not only market our art, but to advertise as well.

Consider that the Small Business Administration suggests that small businesses invest 7 to 8% of their gross earnings into advertising. Internet research I've done indicates that most of us only fork out 4 to 5% in reality. I haven't finished the year, but so far we've only done about 1%. Are you seeing the missing puzzle piece yet? If marketing is an umbrella for all the things I do as a business to get the word out about myself and my product, then advertising is but one part of that overall effort. And that one slice of the pie should be, at a minimum, between 5 and 10% of my gross earnings.

For me the real struggle is not shoveling out the money to advertise, but rather knowing where to shovel. I think many of us conflate the terms marketing, sales, advertising and publicity. I think they could all arguably be part of marketing, but the other have very different strategies and outcomes. If we can agree to use marketing as the larger term, the umbrella under which the other terms shelter, then what do the other terms mean? I look at any marketing strategy as forward-looking. While marketing as a whole enhances the knowledge of and presentation of my art and my career as an artist, advertising becomes the precise steps that I take to present and sell my paintings, and enhance my visibility as an artist. So there may be any number of advertising campaigns employed to achieve one marketing goal. So then what is publicity? Well if advertising is forward-looking, then publicity is about right here, and right now. If advertising is about planning, then publicity is about responding. So let's just talk about advertising. I mean planned, calculated, and measurable ad campaigns. What does that look like for an artist?

When I complete a painting, there are certain steps that I must go through before that canvas is ready to sell. Once I commit to having finished the piece and the signature goes on, then I have to have the artwork photographed. Once I have the images edited, I can then enter all of the particulars about the artwork into my database (in my case, Artwork Archives). So I have to measure it, price it, describe it, date and title it, keyword it, create a certificate of authenticity, and place it within any series/collections, editions, or subcategories I may have established. Only when all hat is done, is the piece ready to sell. Ideally, as part of the overall preparation of the artwork, this would be a great time to determine an advertising strategy for the piece too. This is a 30x40 inch acrylic abstract on canvas, produced in 2021, called Cow Power, and in my "Farmyard Resistance" series. It sells for $1,000, and will create a Google Ad campaign of $50 over two weeks, create a PIN in Pinterest, and pay for a 1/4 page print ad in the local neighborhood magazine. All told, say I decide that I will spend $100 on advertising the piece in the first month of it's creation. I will also place it in Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc... As well as in my webpage shop and featured in my monthly newsletter, but those free marketing efforts won't be included in my advertising campaign.

The problem is that I don't think I'm quite ready for all of that. One of my biggest problems with spending money on advertising is the need to have the infrastructure in place to support it. I often see artists trying to do the right thing but end up throwing their money away. If I spend $100 on advertising my new painting, but don't have it available for sale, then I'm wasting cash. If I want people to buy the work, then it must be available to the people who are reached by the advertising. For example, if I create a Google or Facebook ad for my painting, what is my expectation? Do I think customers will see the ad, log off their devices, get in their cars, and drive to my studio to purchase the canvas? Is that likely? Whereas, if they see my ad, click on a link to the item for sale on my website, they can purchase it right then... Isn't that what I wanted to achieve with the ad?

Am I So where I think I am with my creative business, is that I'm at the point where I need to spend money and time building traffic to my website, before I try to promote individual sales. Right now there is so little traffic to my site that I wonder if customers are having a hard time finding me, or navigating the webpage. I want to try to spend the next month or two working the kinks out of that system, and seeing an increase in the number of people who find me. Once I determine that there actually ARE customers out there who want to buy my art online, then I will start to spend advertising money to target them with specific pieces to purchase. What do you think? Am I on the right path?


“Conversations for Freelance Creatives” is a weekly blog/vlog/podcast that creates a community, a conversation, between creatives in all sorts of fields at all sorts of levels.  We want to discuss what we’re learning, what we’ve experienced, and whom we’ve met in our journey of running a freelance creative business. John Bishop is a visual artist living in Houston, Texas. His work is largely abstract, and explores how to turn mythic, archetypal symbols into individual experiences allowing us to see them in a new way, with fresh eyes. Bogdan is a videographer and fine art photographer who constantly seeks to stretch the boundaries of traditional photographic work, with the added flare of his artistic eye.  Both artists’ work can be seen online, or at their studios at Silver Street Studios, 2000 Edwards Street, in Houston.

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