In 2012, I thought my dreams as an artist were being realized. I was having my first solo exhibition at a gallery in Chelsea, NY. My work was selling consistently with my gallery in DC. I had multiple requests to exhibit and exhibitions scheduled a year or so in advance around the country. I was ticking off goals from my list. It was all I had dreamed about when I first went back to art school in 1996 and again when I decided to get my MFA in 2006.
Yet, I wasn’t happy. In fact, I was exhausted, frustrated, and felt rather like a hamster on her treadmill. The exhaustion came from saying yes to everything in an attempt to achieve it all. The frustration stemmed from being pigeonholed by gallery demands and wanting to expand beyond what I was already making. Overall though, I was feeling disconnected from my genuine self and wasn’t quite sure how to get her back.
“The hamster on the treadmill became a recurring euphemism in how I felt about the “art world” I was experiencing.”
And then, I got sick. It started as a virus and quickly traveled to my eyes threatening my eyesight. I was in the middle of three exhibitions and couldn’t see clearly! Something had to give and my body was yelling at me for a change.
So, I took a step back. A giant step. I went from traveling to my studio in New York City every week (I was living in Virginia at the time) to closing up that studio and taking a deep breath. Granted, I had no choice because healing my eyesight was the primary goal in order to be able to make my work. Slowing down drastically had never been an option until now. Suddenly, I was faced with the question that had been looming for several years, why wasn’t I satisfied?
I started to pay attention to my body, meditating daily and doing yoga. I changed my diet completely. And I began to consider what would make me happy as a working artist.
The “art world” of galleries, curators, and exhibitions is enticing to artists. In art school, it is the end goal. Having a gallery represent your work and build your collector base is the dream for most artists. But it does not come without conditions that the artist must comply to. And if it isn’t in your nature to do so, then you are going to feel confined by it.
One day I met a friend of mine for coffee, who was a successful NYC artist and my mentor. She sat me down and said, “Lisa, everything I have achieved, the museum shows, the commissions, the grants, and opportunities came from my own efforts – not the gallery I work with.”
I was stunned. I thought, like most artists do, that once you have a gallery representing your work, they take over the promotional aspect of your career building your collector base and exhibition opportunities. This new information was the missing link propelling me to free myself – finally! – from my previous mindset, and envision a future of what I truly wanted for my work.
“If I was going to have to continue to put in the amount of effort that I had been and more, then I might as well do it completely on my own terms.”
Truthfully, I was tired of dealing with some gallery owners who were disorganized or did not pay on time. My tolerance level for art world professionals who were not professional at all had reached its limit. I’m a bit type A and not having everything in writing drove me crazy. While I still exhibited my work in the traditional manner (and still do!) I started to look at other options outside the established art world.
I closed the door on individuals who I no longer wanted to deal with and kept my professional circle tight. I started saying “no” to opportunities that didn’t excite me. I reached out to new people that I admired and began some genuine relationships that continue today. And I started to explore new ways of making art that I had been suppressing, simply because what I was already doing was in demand.
At the same time, I moved to a small island off the coast of Maine. This move, to a place surrounded by nature, was the impetus to start fresh and live a more grounded life on my own terms. Running to a studio in New York (a nine-hour drive away) or having curators visit my studio became a real challenge. I began to consider the possibilities of the internet, not only to sell my work but to present it in a way that felt cohesive. This included virtual studio visits, a YouTube channel, online exhibitions, and yes, selling my work online.
I already knew what it felt like to come from a desperate place or to get involved with an opportunity that didn’t feel quite right. Suddenly I became hyper-aware when something did not correlate with my art and my studio practice, deciding to only work on projects that did.
” It felt freeing to honor this empowered perspective.”
What I noticed was that many of my artist friends back in NY were still operating under the old premise of the gallery is god, you should be grateful and never deviate from the work that the gallery wants.
I was seeing, perhaps for the first time, how outdated the current gallery model was and how many galleries were truly struggling. Years before 2020, I discovered that it was standard practice for certain galleries to generate revenue from either artist submission fees or personal benefactors instead of from the sales of the artwork.
This was not a viable business model that I wanted to participate in. Exhibiting institutions that had a budget to show art without the artist incurring further expense became my focus. If I was going to work with a gallery or curator, I wanted to make sure their mission was to support the artwork fully without compromising the artist. I let go of any gallery or exhibition space that did not align with my new outlook and held onto the ones that did.
Then, I did three things. First I completely revised my website so that I could offer art for sale directly on my own site. Then, I started to collect email addresses and wrote a monthly newsletter. Finally, I took my newfound outlook and started researching opportunities online.
Admittedly, at first, they were few and far between. Not all internet art platforms are equal!
I researched curated platforms and signed up for their email list. And then I watched to see how they ran their businesses. When I was ready, I applied to my first one, only giving them some small works on paper to sell.
“A few months later I had my first online sale. I was excited; thrilled in fact.“
When I sold work with a gallery, the gallery kept the collector’s information, plus 50% of the proceeds. Now, I was dealing directly with my collectors, building up a rapport while also getting some very nice feedback.
Other than making my work, connecting directly with collectors is one of the most gratifying experiences I have had! I was hooked.
When Covid hit, I was already selling online with several platforms that I respect as well as from my own website. Consequently, I didn’t feel much of a change in 2020. In fact, when people were still in lockdown several months in, I saw a bit of a boom in my sales. Today, I
have expanded my online platforms and have also started some very satisfying collaborations.
My initial observations that the traditional gallery model was outdated were proving to be true. The events of 2020 have forced many artists and galleries to re-envision the way they present and sell art. While there will always be a need to see art in person, the internet has become the primary resource for discovering and buying art. Whether you like it or not, this is not going away anytime soon.
It took a few years but I can finally say that I have created a business model for my art that is based on integrity, genuine connections, and complete satisfaction. I will never go back to showing my work, either online or in-person, in a way that compromises that integrity or puts me back on the hamster wheel.
Art is a means of freely expressing your unique creative abilities. Why can’t the business side of your art practice be as well?
Here is my advice for selling art online:
- Be patient. It takes time to build your reputation online and in-person! Trust the process.
- Art is meant to be experienced in person. If you decide to sell your work online, make sure you are finding ways for real people to see it in real life. The added benefit of this are the great installation shots you will share with your audience.
- Photograph your work well. Hire a professional if you can’t do it yourself.
- Research online platforms before you place your work on them.
- Go for the curated online platform versus the ‘anyone can join’ platform.
- Never compromise your integrity. It’s all you have.
- Understand the value of working with a gallery or online platform that respects the artist first and foremost..
- Build relationships with curators, gallery owners, collectors, and peers. Nurture those relationships.
- Build your own website’s reputation, not your social media platform – which you don’t own and can be changed by an algorithm at any time.
- There are multiple art worlds. Choose the ones that best fit you and your work!
- 11. Never let a gallery or dealer tell you what to make. If one type of art is selling well but you have a need to try new things, honor that need and make the art that is true to you.
- You are solely responsible for the outcome of your efforts. Decide that your work.is important enough for you to dedicate sufficient time promoting it.
Lisa Kellner is a visual artist who makes paintings, drawings, and installations. She has exhibited and sold her work nationally and internationally. She currently lives on a small island off the coast of Maine, submerged in nature. You can find her art at www.lisakellner.com.