How do we respond to slowing sales?

Overall, the shows I’ve done this summer have been flat, so it’s time to rethink my strategy.

Home Port, by Carol L. Douglas, available through Camden Falls Gallery.
Where is the art market going? This is a question I ask myself every year at this time. It’s more important this year than ever, since my same-event sales have been flat.
I had an interesting conversation with artist Kirk McBride, after an event I’ve been doing for six years seemed to let all the air out of its tires. “I think there are too many plein air festivals,” he said. He may be right. They’re in every town, and the smaller markets can’t support them year after year. That doesn’t mean the model is bad; it means the market needs adjustment.

(An important caveat: an individual show can buck all market trends, and there may be regional differences in how your own shows are going. It requires a lot of input to decipher what’s happening, which is why I’m asking for your comments below.)

But here are some sobering facts from Artsy, collected in 2019:
Adjusted for inflation, the global art market shrank over the last decade. It totaled $67.4 billion in 2018, up from $62 billion in 2008. However, these are nominal figures, not adjusted for inflation. Do that, and we see a market that’s shrunk from $74 billion to $67.4 billion.
To compare, global luxury goods grew healthily. In adjusted dollars, they went from $222 billion to $334 billion in the same time period. In some ways, a Hermès bag is more useful to a person who already has everything. It’s portable, easy to change, and you can store a revolving collection in the space that a painting takes up.
Midsummer, by Carol L. Douglas, currently on hold.
Over that same decade, the global economy roared, with global domestic product increasing from 3.3% to 5.4%, according to the IMF. That means art sales should have risen. Instead, just the costs of doing business—rent, materials, and time—increased.
I live in a boom market for galleries. Mid-coast Maine—led by Rockland—has been an amazing success. Nationwide, we’re seeing galleries surviving better than small businesses in general. However, we aren’t seeing a lot of new galleries opening. Colin Page’s new gallery in Camden is one of the wonderful exceptions.
I looked into buying an existing gallery earlier this year and walked away. I still might do something similar, but it won’t involve expensive real estate or labor costs. I’m not passionate about selling art, just making it, and that’s not enough to carry a business.
Ottawa House, by Carol L. Douglas, currently on hold.
There’s been a significant change in the model of selling art. We’re no more immune to globalization or to the internet than any other industry. It’s time to face facts: while our educational institutions threw away technique starting in the 1960s, it was always being taught in Asia. Those painters have as much access to the on-line market as do we, and their aesthetic may be closer to what’s wanted today.
“Auction houses are going begging for people to buy antiques and art,” Andrew Lattimore told me last week. “Kids don’t want their parent’s stuff. They want ‘experiences.’”
He’s right, and that impacts artists who sell to the merely well-to-do (vs. the biggest money players, who are buying an entirely different kind of art). The average United States millionaire is 62 years old. Just 1% of millionaires are under the age of 35, and 38% of millionaires are 65 and older. That means that the people with the cash to buy important paintings are of an age to be getting rid of stuff, and their kids don’t want it. Ouch.
Beaver Dam on Quebec Brook, by Carol L. Douglas, available through 

Gallery of the White Plains County Center

Then there are the ethnic patterns of wealth in America. Asian-Americans are the wealthiest Americans, led by people from the Indian sub-continent. Many of these very wealthy Americans are first- or second-generation citizens, so their aesthetic is more attuned to Asia than to traditional American painting.
Is this the death knell for painters like me? Hardly. We need to act as would any other industry in a time of flux. We adapt or die. That means rethinking pricing and reevaluating our sales channels. Perhaps it means a major strategic change in selling.
I’m very interested in your thoughts on the subject. What kind of market did you experience in 2019? What are your experiences with marketing on the internet? Where do you think we should go from here?

Feeling rejected?

In the end, there’s an audience for nearly everything. The trick is finding it.
The Red Vineyard, 1888, Vincent van Gogh. It was sold to Anna Boch for 400 francs in 1890. Courtesy Pushkin Museum, Moscow.
“I like paintings with buildings in them,” a non-artist friend told me yesterday. “Scenes are beautiful, and I appreciate them, but if there’s a few cottages by the shore I can imagine the lives of the people who live in them forever. It’s more interesting over the long haul.”
I was driving at the time (with Bluetooth, of course) back from picking up paintings at What’s Nude in Boothbay Harbor. I try to send them two paintings every year. A naked person on the living room wall isn’t to everyone’s taste, but every once in a while, someone will express an interest in one and off it goes.
In the evening, someone else mailed me two images of really odd paintings. “My friend does some stra-a-a-a-nge art,” she said. I couldn’t disagree, and yet they were on their way to a juried show.
Ward in the Hospital in Arles, 1889, Vincent van Gogh, courtesy Oskar Reinhart Collection.
Recently, I wrotethat all art criticism is by nature subjective. That’s never truer than in a particular gallery or show. There, a single juror usually holds sway. There are also factors about which we’ll never know, like where we live, our subject matter, and the media in which we work… or if we’ve somehow offended the gallerist or organizer in the past.
It’s very easy to lose your nerve after a string of rejections, especially in the dead of winter when most show apps are made. Keep on persevering. One never knows what the outcome will be.
“A lot of what we sell is popular because it’s pretty and unchallenging,” says a fictional gallerist in a so-so novel I’m reading. “I do well out of those artists and that means I can keep stocking artists whose output is actually meaningful.”
Wouldn’t we all like to meet such a gallerist in real life! But the truth is that accessible, pretty, and unchallenging does sell most quickly.
The Round of the Prisoners (after Doré), 1890, Vincent van Gogh. Courtesy Pushkin Museum, Moscow.
‘I, for my part, know well enough that the future will always remain very difficult for me, and I am almost sure that in the future I shall never be what people call prosperous,’ Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo.
Legend has it that Van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime, to fellow artist Anna Boch. This is not true. Vincent sold several works, but his income from painting was never sufficient to support him.
“Nothing would help us to sell our canvases more than if they could gain general acceptance as decorations for middle-class houses. The way it used to be in Holland,” Theo van Goghwrote back.
The Church at Auvers, 1890, Vincent van Gogh. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
Theo was an influential art dealer in his own right, and was able to further the careers of Impressionists like Claude Monet and Edgar Degas. But championing his brother’s ‘strange’ artwork was beyond even him.
Of course, the great barrier was that Vincent was painting farther into the future than his peers. His work wasn’t accessible to the contemporary Parisian in a way that Monet’s and Degas’ were. He had an authentic voice, and it got in the way of his sales.
In the end, there’s an audience for nearly everything, but the great career dilemma for the painter is to find it.

The high price of selling art

A gallery is worth every penny of the sales fee you pay it.
Dyce Head early morning, sold at a plein air event.
“Can you address the issue of [sales] commissions?” a reader asked. “Perhaps what we as artists should expect in return for whatever percentage commission is being asked? My interest in this stems from the fact that our local art guild is charging 40% commission on pieces in member shows. I think that’s too high for a group of artists who are, for the most part, hobbyists and amateurs, and for what we artists receive in exchange for that commission. I should note that we also pay membership dues every year.”
I got a call from a gallerist who represents me last week. He wanted to follow up with a buyer who’d expressed an interest in one of my paintings, and wondered if I’d agree to a small markdown to close the deal. He’s doing exactly what a sales agent should do: working hard to bring both parties together in a deal.
Wadsworth Cove Spruce sold at a plein air event.
He pays rent in an expensive building, pays and trains assistants to work for him, and advertises. He keeps a database of customers and constantly works it. When paintings sell, he packs and ships them. He’s earning his 50% of the selling price, which is, by the way, a pretty standard retail markup. The alternative is to sell the painting myself, and that’s a lot of work.
Member shows like the one my reader asked about are a time-honored way for painters to get their work out into the marketplace. I’ve done many of them, both as a student and as a member of plein air groups. In my experience, the organization just passes through the sales commission of the hosting venue.
I’ve shown in university shows, which charged no commission at all (and paid a stipend). I expect to pay a commission of around 25% if I sell through a restaurant. Plein airevents take between 25-40%. In return for that you get the imprimatur of the place, follow-through, sales closure, exposure, and hospitality, in greater or lesser measure.
Curve on Goosefare Brook sold through the Ocean Park Association.
Non-profit, artist-run galleries (cooperative galleries) require a monthly rental fee and volunteer work hours. In some cases, there’s a nominal sales commission as well. In exchange, they provide wall space, openings, and a place to hold events. Many of them are respected galleries.
Then there’s the so-called vanity gallery. These arose because there are more artists wanting to show in perceived ‘hot’ markets like New York than there is gallery space. Wherever there’s a shortage, there’s an entrepreneur happy to spin your pain into money.
Vanity galleries offer artists a temporary balm for the slings and arrows of outrageous rejection. They’re expensive, and they won’t get you discovered. No reputable gallerists are searching them for new talent. A traditional gallery takes its cut after the sale; the vanity gallery takes it up front. That means the traditional gallery works to sell to customers, whereas the vanity gallery works to sell to artists.

Monday Morning Art School: How to price your work

For some artists, the hardest thing in painting isn’t drawing or color-mixing but how to price their work. Charge by the square inch, of course.

Keuka Lake Vineyard, 30X40 by Carol L. Douglas, is available through Kelpie Gallery

A proper price is the meeting point between how much you can produce of the product and how much demand there is for it. If you can’t keep your paintings stocked, you’re charging too little. If your studio is full of unsold work, you’re either charging too much or not putting enough effort into marketing. Your job is to find that sweet spot.

Art sales are regional. If you live in a community with an aging population and a prestigious art school, you’re going to have low demand and high supply. If you live in a booming new city, you will have more demand and prices will be higher.
Art is not strictly a commodity, however. A painting’s value depends on the artist’s prominence. Most artists are terrible judges of their own work, seesawing between believing they’re geniuses and thinking they’re hopeless. Such subjective judgments hinder their ability to price their work.
Art festivals are a good way to establish a price history. I don’t miss them, however.
Don’t assume that because you labored for a long time over a piece, it is more valuable. Your challenges are not the buyers’ problem.
You can simplify the problem by setting aside your emotions and basing your selling price on the size of the piece and your selling history. How do you do that if you’ve never sold anything before? Survey other artists with the same level of experience and set your first prices in line with theirs. Visit galleries, plein airevents and art fairs. If you see a person whose work seems similar to yours, find his resume online and check his experience. Know enough to be able to rank events. Painting in Plein Air Easton is not the same as painting your local Paint the Town.
Charitable auctions are a good way to leverage your talent to help others. They provide a sales history to new artists. (But they aren’t tax deductible contributions.)
Striping (Heritage) 6X8, by Carol L. Douglas, is available through Camden Falls Gallery.
Let’s say you gave an 8X10 watercolor of the Old Red Mill to your local historical society, which turned around and sold it for $100. Great! You have a sales history (albeit a limited and imperfect one) from which to calculate prices. Just figure out the value per square inch and calculate from there.
Square inch is the height times the width. That means your 8X10 painting is 80 square inches. Dividing the $100 selling price by 80 gives you a value of $1.25/square inch.
To use this to calculate other sizes, you would end up with:
6X8 is 48 square inches. 48 X $1.25 = $60
9X12: $135
11X14: $240
12X16: $315
In practice, my price/sq. inch gets lower the larger I go. This reflects my working and marketing costs, some of which are fixed. If you started with my example, above, a 3X4” painting would more reasonably sell for $3 a square inch or $36, and a 48X48” painting for $.75 a square inch, or $1700. But that sweet spot between 6X8 and 16X20 are a fixed cost/inch, rounded off for convenience.
My price list is on Google Drive and I can access it wherever there’s phone service.
Charity sales are known for seriously underpricing work, but it’s better to start low and work your way higher. Periodically review your prices, and make sure you have a copy with you at all times, because people will ask you about paintings at the strangest times. I keep mine on a Google sheet I can refer to from computer or phone.
Once you have a price guide, it should be absolute. I adjust it slightly for family members (or more likely just give them the painting), but I use the same price structure in events and galleries.
You should continuously update your prices based on your average sale prices for the prior year or two. The goal of every artist ought to be to sell at constantly rising prices. When you find yourself “painting on a treadmill” to have enough work for your next show, it’s definitely time to charge more. Each time you show, your work will be better known, and over time your prices will rise.
The marketplace favors fair, consistent pricing. I charge the same amount everywhere I sell. I don’t want to undercut my galleries.
And I don’t explain my prices, for the most part. Does anyone ever tell Christian Louboutin that $995 is a bit much for a pair of platform suede pumps? No; they either understand Louboutin’s market or they don’t buy designer shoes.

Should you lower your prices?

Basic economic laws shape the art market. That doesn’t mean lower prices make for more sales.

Dead Wood, by Carol L. Douglas

Yesterday a reader sent me this, which says that if demand for your work is modest, you should lower your prices. I am not an art appraiser like Alan Bamberger, just an artist who makes and sells art. But my own experience tells me otherwise.

Bamberger bases his argument on something known in economics as the ‘supply relationship.’ This refers to the correlation between price and how much of a good or service is supplied to the marketplace.
The higher the price of something, the less demand there will be. As its price goes up, so does the opportunity cost. The consumer elects to do something else with his or her money.
More work than they bargained for (Isaac H. Evans) by Carol L. Douglas
At the same time, producers make more of things when they can get a higher price for them. There is a point at which it is no longer cost-effective to produce a product for market, and producers go offline.
At some point, supply and demand meet. This is called the equilibrium point. Suppliers are selling everything they produce and consumers are getting everything they demand. In truth, capitalism is a little messier than that, and the market constantly pushes prices around—upward when there’s more demand, down when there’s little demand.
All flesh is as grass, by Carol L. Douglas
A great example of this is the lowly tomato. Back in Rochester, NY, where they are plentiful, I used to buy a basket of them for $2. Yesterday a friend bought a single tomato for the same price. Tomatoes are hard to grow in Maine. The lack of supply drives up the price.
That’s classic economic theory and it’s amply borne out in goods and services marketing—in things like gasoline, Ford F-150s, child care, etc. It is not necessarily true in luxury goods. There, the matter of perceived value mucks things up. Unlike tomatoes, paintings have no easily-quantified value. The price set for them is purely subjective. The late Thomas Kinkade is an unfortunate example of this.
In some art forms, supply is inherently limited by the time and skill of the makers. This question has been resolved in some areas of art. Music and photography, for example, can be reproduced infinitely. It hasn’t been solved in painting. I will make a finite number of paintings in my lifetime. When I’m gone, that will be it.
Packing oakum (Isaac H. Evans), by Carol L. Douglas
That doesn’t make artists immune to larger economic forces. In fact, as a luxury good, painting is the first thing people cut back on in hard times.
My prices were set in collaboration with a gallerist who sells my work. She knows the market and where I fit in. I keep them consistent across venues. Most professional artists do the same.
An artist may make work that is beautifully executed and explores the art questions of its time and place. It still may not be monetarily valuable because he or she hasn’t shown it where buyers congregate.
As my friend Bobbi Heath likes to say, if you’re not selling paintings, it’s because not enough people are seeing them. Don’t lower your prices; don’t be down on yourself as a failure. Just work to be seen in more places.

Asian with a twist

Carpentry with one's brother involves lots of second-guessing. (Photo by Sandy Quang)

Carpentry with one’s brother involves lots of second-guessing. (Photo by Sandy Quang)
My studio is in a retail area on Route 1, but I’m also less than three miles away from Camden Falls Gallery. To sell from my studio would violate my non-compete agreement.
A few weeks ago, Howard Gallagher, CFG’s owner, told me he thought it would be a good idea for me to keep hours in my studio. That opened the door to a mini-gallery of sorts.
Unfortunately, my studio is too beautiful to convert to a store. It has natural-finish shiplap walls, large sliding glass doors, and radiant heat in the poured concrete floor. I don’t want to damage the woodwork, and I don’t want permanent display walls. These are almost insurmountable limitations in designing a display system.
Practicing my "open" sign.

Somehow, my “open” sign looks backwards.
For those few areas where there are uninterrupted walls, I ordered a STAS cliprail system. This will let me rearrange paintings without constantly pounding nails into the woodwork. There are only about 20 running feet of wall space in the studio however. That means I will need additional display walls. However, I want to take them away when the season ends, so I don’t want to attach them permanently to the room.
I had an idea for the panels, but no way to attach them to the open beams. Then my brother Robert showed up. We toddled down to the lumber yard together. Between us, we figured out how to make a false moulding set off from the beam with spacers. It required just six wood screws set into the beam, and it is solid as a rock.
It will be interesting to see if this works.

It will be interesting to see if this works.
Both of us are decent craftsmen, but neither of us totally trusts the other. I surreptitiously checked his angle measurement on the ceiling. After I set the spacing for the screws, I noticed he came back and double-checked them.
“Measure twice and cut once,” I told my son.
“Measure once and re-check everything your sister does,” my brother told him.
What is particularly painful about this is that I had a set of booth walls that I finally got rid of last December, after having stored them in my garage for years. They served me well, but I just didn’t need them anymore.
The panels hanging in place. They're pegged at the top, and can come down and be stored.

The panels hanging in place. They’re pegged at the top, and can come down and be stored.
We finished before dinner and the panels actually looked better than I expected.
“It looks kind of Asian,” I mused.
“In a Home Depot kind of way,” responded my nephew.
True, but really not that bad.