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The PRO-Files: Make A Living With Your Fine Art Photography

Most photographic artists spend their formative years practicing the techniques that lead them to produce work worthy of hanging on walls. They master the composition, lighting, and printing techniques that make them great craftsmen, not to mention developing the vision that turns them into true artists. What they don’t typically do, however, is learn the business of selling art.

Photographers can be so focused on the struggle to make great work and get it noticed that learning the nuances of different markets never comes up. It’s the kind of thing we learn by doing, and often by doing it wrong. This is true for all types of photographers, but none more than the artists who sell prints to earn their living.

When the goal is selling prints, isn’t any opportunity to be seen beneficial? Not necessarily. What the right opportunity looks like is different for every photographer, and changes with the stages in their career. What is essential, however, is that photographers first take the time to consider their goals in order to determine where they would like to be in the long run, and thus which avenues are likely to lead them there. When it comes to selling prints, there is one primary distinction to consider: is a photographer aiming for acceptance in the fine art world, or simply looking to connect with the consumers who will buy prints and earn a profit?

Gallerists vs. Consumers

Not all avenues available for selling artwork are created equal. On one hand are the websites and local art fairs that allow photographers to sell prints to a retail audience. On the other are the dealers who promote their artists to other galleries and to a more exclusive clientele. Either is capable of selling your work, but which one should? Can both?

The consumer market requires selling a higher quantity of works at typically lower prices, and finding a niche that is pleasing to a general audience. The biggest benefits to selling at retail are the ability for the artist to set prices, keep all the profits and do it without anyone’s permission. For these reasons, it’s easier for an up-and-coming artist to get their work seen when the audience is the retail consumer.

The gallery world, however, requires access. Breaking through requires developing a premium brand, cultivating a unique perspective, building a reputation and selling works to a smaller clientele through a handful of gatekeepers who take a cut—though that work is typically sold at higher prices. And while artists may expect art dealers to aid them in their journey, the reality is often less collaborative than might be expected. The elemental differences in how work is positioned to these different audiences makes it unlikely that one artist will find success trying to simultaneously follow two paths. Choosing which approach an artist prefers depends on their individual goals, and ultimately becomes an essential part of building a prosperous photography business.

Understanding Market Subtleties

According to career coach and artist advocate Caroll Michels, it’s imperative that a visual artist understand the differences in what a gallery requires and what is needed to cater to the consumer market.

“If an artist spends his or her entire career only catering to the tastes of the consumer market,” Michels says, “it is unlikely that respect and acknowledgment from the fine art world will occur. If an artist’s focus is purely on the consumer market, third party sites might be beneficial, but with most of the sites some sort of fee or sales commission is involved, and prices of artwork tend to be on the very low side. Some social media platforms can generate sales, but prices for work sold tend to be less than $500.”

Third-party retail websites include Society6, Artnet and even Amazon. Many artists market their work to a consumer clientele via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and while gallerists also use social media to market their artists, there is a perceived difference between the dealer doing the selling and the artist. Dealers don’t want competition—especially from the artist selling directly—and they value exclusivity. Serving a consumer market does not provide it.

Equally important to understand are the distinctions within these two worlds. Minor regional art fairs, for instance, provide different customers than major international shows. In the fine art world, pay-to-play “vanity galleries” charge artists fees to exhibit, versus those run by dealers looking to make money with their artists rather than from them. These distinctions influence not only how a photographer may market her work, but also what, how and even why she chooses to create it.

A photographer whose goal is breaking into the fine art world may believe that finding gallery representation is the answer to all her problems. This is an oversimplification. Photographers must find gallerists and dealers whose needs and wants align with their own.

“A primary goal of many dealers is to move work quickly,” Michels says, “and, unfortunately, low prices are correlated with making a fast buck. The pricing policies of many dealers basically reflect the amount of money they think their constituencies will spend on art. Few dealers understand that they could sell more work, and at higher prices, if they took the time to help their clients understand an artist’s vision and the multilayered process and rigorous discipline involved in creating visual art. Most dealers establish a price range based on the hearsay of other dealers or fall into the trap of believing the myth that the work of unknown artists has little value.”

“Often,” she continues, “artists heed a dealer’s self-serving pricing advice, erroneously believing that dealers know best. Advising artists to defer price decisions to the judgment of dealers is a common mistake made by artists and others in the art world.” In other words, know your worth. This is not a problem that’s limited to galleries. Working the art fair circuit may convince a hungry young photographer that her prints are worth less than gallery work, when in reality the only distinction might be that she has catered to the wrong audience.

Achieving gallery representation is, of course, no easy feat. It’s not only a matter of who you know, but more importantly who knows you. “There is absolutely no guaranteed formula about how to crack the fine art world,” Michels says, “but three necessities toward achieving this goal are patience, perseverance and having no expectations of ‘instant gratification’ from marketing efforts. In most instances, instant gratification in the art world only occurs during the creative process.”

Especially when contrasted to the zero-barrier consumer market, working with galleries takes time. And exhibiting in art fairs, while often useful for many other reasons, is no guarantee the artist will get noticed. It’s also not the kind of thing a photographer with gallery goals wants to doggedly pursue year after year.

“When artists are at the beginning stages of their careers,” Michels explains, “exhibiting at local venues can be helpful in providing exhibition experience, but remaining a regional artist can be the kiss of death. It is highly unlikely that an exhibition in a small town will provide the exposure you want from a curator, art consultant, gallery or a wide range of art collectors.”

Michels says that some high profile art fairs can be particularly beneficial because they offer not just sales but also exposure to a gallery type of audience. Beware, however, of fairs designed to capitalize on other prestigious events by simply charging artists to exhibit in proximity of a big show.

“Depending on the venue,” Michels says, “art fairs can be instrumental in selling work, but my particular bone of contention is with secondary art fairs, the ‘wanna-be’ major fairs that are held in large cities and the ones that try to attach their names to major fairs by renting booths in a separate complex but in geographic proximity to a ‘big daddy.’ Similar to vanity galleries but unlike major art fairs, the ‘wanna-be’ fairs charge artists fees to participate. Sadly, many artists agree to this condition but the lackluster results of having invested several thousand dollars to participate in a secondary art fair are quite often disappointing and humiliating. The bottom line: only consider participation in an art fair if all expenses are paid by an art dealer.”

One of the major difficulties in garnering the attention of an established art dealer, Michels says, is that audience’s inherent aversion to risk. “Very few art dealers have the self-confidence to believe that an artist is talented and would be a ‘sure bet,’” Michels continues. “They need to hear it from other people before making a commitment to represent an artist. This type of validation can take a long time to achieve.”

Still, with patience and deliberation, photographers can find success in the fine art world. And her advice toward that end is simple: build a focused marketing approach designed specifically with galleries in mind. “Getting the attention of art dealers requires a marketing plan,” she says, “the purpose of which is to let people know you exist. The marketing plan must include strong support materials, including the design of a well-thought-out website specifically geared for the fine art world.”

Caroll Michels is an award-winning consultant, career coach and artist advocate. Her book, How to Survive and Prosper as an Artist, is available from her website, carollmichels.com. She also founded The Artist Help Network with many additional resources for artists online at artisthelpnetwork.com.

About the author:

William Sawalich made his first darkroom print at age ten. He earned a Master's Degree from The Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California. Along with portraiture, still life and assignment photography, Sawalich is an avid writer. He has written hundreds of equipment reviews, how-to articles and profiles of world-class photographers. He heads up the photo department at Barlow Productions in St. Louis.

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