Walking the invisible path

March 1, 2015

An artist I respect recently thought of a scheme to get  people to buy her work. She sells inexpensive sweepstake tickets and has a draw, giving away several artworks a year this way.

It is clever. Artists need to be as creative in their promotion techniques as their work these days.

I am still enmeshed in an ongoing moral dilemma about doing the promotion needed to sell my art or not. Early in my career, selling went without effort. I had a show, I sold work. People came to visit, they saw something they liked they bought it. I had a stand at a quality juried art fair and sold work easily.

For some reason that all changed when I moved to another culture. Here in Holland, it was years before I created a good social network, but even then it couldn’t compare to being naturally embedded in my home town, Pittsburgh, where the people I and my parents knew, loved and valued art.

Here in the Netherlands, the shows I had sold little, people walked past my stands at the various mediocre standard fairs I did attempt to do (and then mercifully stopped with) , and there is only one friend of ours who, every few years, sees my work and falls hard for a piece and actually buys it.

Because I’ve known a modest degree of professional recognition and success, I refuse to take the low sales figures personally. My work, if anything is growing in quality and depth. The factors have more to do with a different mentality here in northern Holland about art, and buying art. And many artists I know are fighting an uphill battle with this and the fallout from an ongoing financial crisis here.

In the last years, I’ve argued that the path of selling  art was not for me, but it never really feels resolved. I hear about my friend and her sweepstakes tickets, putting in everything she has to be able to make her art, and I feel doubt about my own stubbornness in refusing to use the social media, in promoting my work more actively etc. One main difference is that strictly speaking, I don’t have to live from my art anymore. People who have chosen to survive from their art have harder decisions to make. But I do miss the feeling of having something the society values and will pay for. And it would certainly make my day if my work were to start selling again. Unlike most socially engaged artists, I still seriously paint and draw. And this creative work is the source I draw on to move out into the society and share my skills, and knowledge of the creative process. It is fundamental to it.

Yet writing this makes me realise that I’ve made a healthy decision for me-  I’ve stopped doing things which weren’t working, and which didn’t make my heart sing. But doing so also has severed me in some ways from my old tribe of struggling artists. It landed me in ‘the place between’- when the old wasn’t working and the new hasn’t yet materialised. But I think each of us who rejects a path that no longer fits us is forging a new way, for ourselves and for others to follow at some point. Each step on the invisible path creates a new way forward. But on days like today, it is lonely and uncomfortable.

Luckily there are artist friends I can still toss these dilemmas around with. And also people who have arrived in a similar place to me like Milenko Matanovic who says,

Long ago I decided that making art for galleries and museums was not going to serve my notion of making communities and society more meaningful, liveable, and beautiful.


9 Responses to “Walking the invisible path”

  1. Hi Sarah, I think that if you don’t need to depend on sales of your art to make a living, then you are much better off as an artist. Don’t put yourself through that torment! If you needed to get sales, you might be tempted to make art that you imagine the buyers might like. No, I would say: you’re the artist; the buyer is not an artist. For all you know, the buyer might simply be looking for a blue painting to match his or her blue curtains! It’s very easy to get discouraged. Finally, from the social media point of view, I reckon it’s mostly artists who produce quantity rather than quality who do well. ie a recognisable style, lots of similar works – it’s not necessarily good for the artist’s soul ?

  2. This is heartening to hear from a fellow artist, thank you, Eoin. Yes, I totally agree with what you’ve said about the dangers of market values overtaking artistic integrity, and I’ve been thinking and writing about that for awhile.
    Interesting point about who does well on social media artwise. I hadn’t thought about it that way.
    I will go back to my new watercolour crayon series with a more peaceful heart. Thanks.

  3. Patricia G Says:

    It is good to get positive response from others to your work & have insight into their feelings about a piece. You do what you do because you want to but interest from others can be rewarding in many ways, not just financially. It is good to share with the widest audience, not just artists and gallery goers. Make connections with people who will be interested, for all sorts of reasons not just to buy.

    • I basically agree with what you are saying. And it is a good argument for getting one’s work out there.

      In my experience, though, the effort, and often cost,required to reach more people require some sort of tangible return in the long run.
      Otherwise you get emptied out by all the people liking your work but not going that extra little bit to buy it.
      Or the people who have a relative who ‘paints too’ and want some kind of endorsement from you. They aren’t genuinely interested in your work and they often demand exclusive and much attention.That’s all fine, occasionally, part of the deal, but after several decades of it in different forms, one chooses for something more mutually rewarding.

      That is why I enjoy sharing my work here.

  4. flissw Says:

    it seems to me that the basic reason for wanting to sell one’s artwork is that it might enable you to do more, get better at it and so on, rather than having to squeeze it in as a ‘hobby’ between other activities that you do to make a living

    • That is certainly one good reason to sell one’s artwork. And I’m not against selling at all, I love it when my work sells.

      I visited your site and liked your work very much. I like the rhythm and movement in your ink drawings of shadows from the wire sculptures.

      • flissw Says:

        Thanks Sarah. Those ink drawings are an experiment – at last the rather fragile (and dusty) wire sculptures cluttering up the place have a purpose 😉

  5. This is a very interesting post and a situation that I think a very high percentage of artists find themselves in. Being well-known doesn’t always guarantee sales either, and as an earlier respondent Eoin says, the buyers are not generally artists. I would go a little further and say that while some buyers undoubtedly have a good ‘eye’, many do not and are really looking for something pretty that fits with their new decorative scheme. As an artist it is often hard to resist to pull towards making ‘commercial’ work – safe, decorative pieces for the suburban lounge wall; but I do think that it is vital to ones own artistic integrity and personal well-being to make the work which interests you, as with many things in life, if you find it interesting,there will be someone else out there who will do also and it goes on from there. As a freelance curator I have worked with many artists of differing calibres, sometimes work sells and sometimes it doesn’t, sometimes it is the most suprising work that sells and the work which most would assume would sell doesn’t. The art buying public are fickle. Personally I think that the best work is created by artists who are interested in their subject and enjoy what they do and this shines through.

  6. thanks paisley, I appreciate your thoughts on this. I agree that one can’t predict what will sell. Buyers, trends, etc are fickle. And yes, it ultimately comes down to make the work that feels true for oneself. In my experience you are right, that good, interesting work will attract interested people.

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