Help Desk

Help Desk: Selling Unconventional Work

Help Desk is where I answer your queries about making, exhibiting, finding, marketing, buying, selling–or any other activity related to contemporary art. Submit your questions anonymously here: All submissions become the property of Daily Serving.
Help Desk LeaderI work for a gallery that has become known as a place for artists to take risks. (While this is exciting and great, it is also frustrating—especially for the owner of the gallery, who has been in business for around 20 years and whose patience and enthusiasm, and subsequent income, is waning as a result of these artists’ unconventional and less-popular work.) How do we use that to our advantage? Also, I want to see the gallery do well, but don’t really know how to pitch new work to potential collectors. Any tips?

Probably one out of every ten or so submissions to Help Desk seems slightly…off. Usually, with a little digging, I can figure out if the query is fake (people, please find another hobby), but in this case I don’t have much to go on. Assuming this question is real, it leaves me with doubts: Why don’t you know how to pitch work to collectors if you work in a gallery? Didn’t the owner teach you? Twenty years in the biz seems like long enough to figure it out.

Nina Beier. The demonstrators (Broken Rope), with Haim Steinbach, 2012; Installation view at The Artist's Institute, New York.

Nina Beier. The Demonstrators (Broken Rope), with Haim Steinbach, 2012; installation view at The Artist’s Institute, New York.

But setting aside my initial skepticism, I see that the answer to this inquiry has merit for both gallery employees and independent artists who are looking to make a sale. How can you sell your work if you’re not making dentist-office-friendly paintings?[1] Can your work be challenging and still be marketable? The short answer is yes, but your client base is admittedly going to be much smaller than it would if you were producing seaside watercolors. You might have to work a little harder to make people appreciate what you’re doing.

First things first: What’s the story? Everyone has a good story to tell, and if you don’t already know the stories behind these artworks, you’re going to have to dig them out of the artists themselves so that you can communicate them to potential collectors. Why? Because people love to have the behind-the-scenes intelligence about everything, and art is no exception. Connecting a potential buyer to that information creates an affinity for the work. How many times have you seen good work become great through the story of its creation? I think business people call it “value added” or some such thing, but we’re going to call it “intrinsic worth.” Please note that I’m not suggesting that you or the artists should be disingenuous or dishonest; most art, especially unconventional work, has an interesting history—you just want to tease this out.

Nina Beier. The Demonstrators (Hanging Receiver), 2012; Chair, poster, and glue, 19 x 20 x 34 inches.

Nina Beier. The Demonstrators (Hanging Receiver), 2012; chair, poster, and glue, 19 x 20 x 34 in.

What makes a good narrative? Well, some of the same notions that might go into an artist statement would work here: information about the process; why the artist has chosen this medium or format; how long the artist has been producing works like this; the concept and inspiration behind the work; any funny or engaging anecdotes; etc. You’ll have to do some research (consider the gallery’s artists as your subjects), but if you ask the right questions, you should be able to gather oodles of information about the works in the back room.

Next, you’re going to have to frame this information in the right way. If you’re not a writer, I suggest you hire one or two people who understand the craft of storytelling; they can help you design and shape an attractive narrative for each artist. If that’s not possible, consider picking up a copy of Wired for Story, which pertains to fiction writing; the main portions are equally applicable to crafting narratives for other purposes. “We think in story,” claims author Lisa Cron. “It’s hardwired in our brain. It’s how we make strategic sense of the world around us.” In particular, I recommend chapters 1, 2, 4, and 6.

Nina Beier. Modify, as needed, 2011; Installation view at MoCA, Miami.

Nina Beier. Modify, As Needed, 2011; installation view at MoCA, Miami.

I also want you to go out and buy You, Inc.: The Art of Selling Yourself. Despite the discomforting title[2], it has some really good tips for communicating ideas, listening and speaking to clients, and relating to others, all of which will serve you very well when introducing work to collectors. (Go ahead and make a new cover for it out of some old wrapping paper or a grocery bag, and no one need know you’re reading marketing advice.) Additionally, consider taking a look at How to Start and Run a Commercial Art Gallery. Chapter 15, “Collectors: Where to Find Them: How to Keep Them,” will be of especial interest to you, though you may want to read some additional chapters on publicity, advertising, and maintaining a professional community.

On a final note, I also want you to talk very honestly with the gallery’s owner before you embark on this one-person quest to save the gallery. There’s no sense in launching this campaign if she is about to retire or move on to a second career. And if she plans to stay in the biz, then you should be communicating with her about your concerns and your plans. I applaud your commitment to the space and to the arts, and I want to make sure that your time and energy will be well invested in this endeavor—and that you’ll get support and credit from your boss. Risky, unconventional work has a place in this world, and kudos to you both for trying to help it find a permanent home. Good luck!

[1] There’s nothing wrong with these—my dentist proudly displays some original paintings in his waiting room. I think they are awful, but I am thrilled to bits that he has chosen to support the arts rather than just indifferently hang some mass-produced prints from Ikea.

[2] Personally, I’m always mortified by the idea of having to “sell myself,” and I think most of the artists I know want nothing to do with “personal branding”—it feels tacky, shameful, and completely odious. However, in the interest of keeping this gallery afloat (and you in rent money), I think you should check out this book.