It should be said that ‘art as research’, ‘art as speculation’ and ‘art as product’ have their respective places and contexts. You might sometimes come across people that have a rigid idea of what art should be and, ironically, these same people tend to consider themselves ‘enlightened’ and ‘leading’. The truth, in this matter, resides more in flexibility and openness. There are simply different purposes for different types of art and they all have particular contexts that suit them. As we have already pointed out, trying to sell ‘art as research’ makes little sense and confuses one art purpose for another. Nor is there a hierarchy here. One purpose is not ‘purer’ than the others. Their relationship is horizontal and they are equal in their respective contexts. The key is to be clear about what you want to make and to understand the consequences. If you make ‘art by research’, then be prepared to either live by residencies and/or build a secondary career to pay your flat or mortgage rent. If you are a recent student, you are likely to encounter this problem when you first move into a commercial environment. However, artists from other backgrounds, perhaps with no formal training in fine art or design, often hold rigid ideas garnered from things they have read about the art industry. And to repeat, this is often made ten times worse if they have been ‘selected’ for something in the past (before handing over money, of course), such as an art award, art book or some other invention by an exhibition designed to play on their pride and sell them far too much space at a ridiculous price and in full knowledge they cannot sell. Key here, wherever you are in your career, is that you must eradicate as much speculation about sales as is possible before you go in ‘big’. Most artists spend their careers making ‘art as speculation’ and some get by because their product is generic. But if only they would realise that stepping more towards ‘art as product’, and away from speculation, would bring greater business rewards.
One thing unmentioned above is online sales. Few artists sell their work directly from their own website. They nearly always have to rely on a third-party platform today, which is why their own website fails to generate sales. The biggest problem for online sales is the impossibility of doing individual and specific marketing research, which is key to future growth. In essence, you are uploading everything on speculation continually but so are millions of others, often with all kinds of strange presentations. Magnify those numbers over ten or twenty years and the numbers will be staggering, the art work possibly reaching into the tens of millions. If anyone ever finds you, it will be like finding a needle in a haystack. And it is impossible to stand out from the crowd too because you have no control over the coding of the third-party website and its design. The other issue is that you never really meet the buyer. The buyer might live on the other side of the world. Great, you think, I’m international. But key to maximising sales is to have a detailed knowledge of your market and their needs. Conversely, you also cannot find out why someone clicked away from your page or never even clicked on it. Artificial intelligence will always be calculation, quantitative then, because computers are oversized calculators. And privacy laws and device features mean that digital tracking is going to be limited over the long period. But in a face-to-face environment, you have access to intricate qualitative data from unique individuals, especially those who walk away from your display without saying anything. Online sales work by taking speculative work and casting the net as wide as possible, which, according to all probabilities, will likely result in some sales, even big sales. If you can put a product in front of ten million people, the numbers should tell you that there is going to be a match somewhere! But it will be almost impossible to turn these opportunities into a real science. In reality, you are part of the third-party website’s own marketing strategy as they hone which products the algorithm should put in front of their clients. They are maximising their sales through this process. If you paint pictures of boats and boats are a hot sale that month, a third-party website does not care about the specifics of your boat pictures and what makes them unique, they only care about boat pictures, no matter who makes it. The irony here is that they are using the very strategy that you should be using to maximise your own sales. And that involves cutting down speculation and guesswork through a detailed understanding of what your market wants and then playing it back to them. If you do this, you will reap similar rewards.
//CODA// I am also of the opinion that artists and designers should avoid third-party website builders, such as Wix and Wordpress et al. As someone interested in design, you should be in full control of your website production. It is very easy and cheap to get hold of ecommerce code online these days (for under $25) and upload to your server host. You only pay once and not a monthly subscription. You own the code too. It is also very easy to learn CSS, which is the coding language that controls the look and design of a website. It means that you can modify the bought code to your own specification. There are hundreds of self-help videos online. In this way, you stay in control and are free from price increases and other such updates and plug-ins, some of which cost extra. I strongly encourage you to go down this route and learn this important aspect of design. It will reap future benefits for you.
Extract from A Guide to Selling Art by Dr C G Barlow. Copyright © 2022 C. G. Barlow.