The Pros and Cons of Advertising

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Investing in one’s career is often touted as a sound business move, an act of confidence in the future, the cost of doing business, taking responsibility – that kind of talk. But, which career investments actually give you a return on that investment? For artists, most would agree that art school tuition was a vital expense, as are art supplies, a studio rental and the cost of creating a Web site to display and promote their work. Other forms of investment are more debatable, such as publishing a catalogue of your own artwork, hiring a publicist or career coach. (Certainly, some artists claim these expenditures are a major part of their success.)

Glendale, Arizona artist Bill Mittag “can’t determine the effectiveness of advertising,” but he still spends $6,000 or so per year on ads in such publications as Art of the West and Western Art Collector. “Every time I place an ad, the number of hits on my Web site picks up significantly.” Even more telling, “when a gallery has a show and puts a work of mine in the ad, I notice that every time that work sells.”

Still, Mittag is not confident that $6,000 or so he spends does much good – “no one has called me up to say, ‘I want that work I saw in your ad,’” – but it is a cost of doing business, of investing in his career, and he worries that not advertising would make things worse.

Placing ads is more associated with the design fields, such as illustration, than with fine art. Patricia McKiernan, executive director of the Graphic Artists Guild, noted that most of the artists in the Guild establish an advertising and promotion budget of between 10 and 30 percent of their gross income, and much of that advertising is in the design field print and online directories that prospective employers use. That sounds like a lot of money, but “if you earn $100,000 one year and decide to save that money instead of spending 10-30 percent on advertising, you won’t make $100,000 again.”

There is no rule-of-thumb sense of the percentage of one’s income that should be reinvested into advertising in the fine arts, but the concept of buying ads as a regular type of promotion is not foreign to some artists. “If I don’t advertise, how will people ever hear of me,” said artist Carl Borgia of Boynton Beach, Florida, a retired accounting professor at Florida Atlantic University, who spends $8,000-10,000 per year on ads in such publications as ARTnews, Modern Painters and Florida Design Magazine. “I have been pursuing art as a business for 10 years and applying the entrepreneurial skills that I have been teaching to my art.” Of those three publications, it has been the non-art one, Florida Design Magazine, that has resulted in the best results, which has included some sales and some requests to appear in shows at art galleries and art fairs.

That makes sense to Caroll Michels, an artist career coach in Sarasota, Florida, who recommends to her clients that they not “buy display ads in art magazines or on their websites. For the most part, the majority of art magazine readers are other artists, who are not in the market for buying other artists artwork. If you decide to purchase advertising space, select upscale consumer and interior design publications.” She noted that one of her clients had invested inherited money in “four full-page color display ads that ran for four months in Art in America. She said that the only response she received was from other artists who thought she was a gallery.”

Belief in advertising often leads to beliefs about how to advertise. Anatoly Dverin, a painter in Plainville, Massachusetts, stated that he only buys full-page ads, because “I don’t want to share the page with another artist; it creates competition. The other artist may use, I don’t know, some combination of red and blue that kills the balance of color in my painting.”

The purpose and nature of advertising is a subject on which there is considerable disagreement, although there is one point on which everyone agrees: One needs to think of advertising as a long-term, rather than a one-shot, effort. To develop name and artistic recognition, the same or similar images must be present in ads that follow one magazine issue after another. Many artists split the costs of advertising with their galleries in advance of an exhibition, and some galleries carry the entire expense, but it is rare for a gallery to pay in full or in part to advertise an artist when there isn’t a show. If the concept is to keep one’s name and images before the public on an ongoing basis, one-shot ads are not likely to produce the desired results. Too, galleries generally have a local audience, and the advertisements they place are likely to be in local or regional publications rather than national ones.

“Advertising, especially advertising with illustrations, effects attendance, not so much sales,” said Bridget Moore, president of New York’s DC Moore Gallery. Other dealers report that ads with reproductions result in a number of telephone inquiries as to price and the availability of works, which also do not quickly translate into sales.

Yet another reason to place ads is purely psychological, according to Edward De Luca, director of DC Moore Gallery, since these notices “massage an artist’s ego,” that is, they let artists know that money is being spent on them and that, in turn, makes artists feel better about their relationship with the gallery. “Artists want to see their names in print and their work being advertised, and they ask us to have ads run in certain magazines.”

Department store owner John Wanamaker once said, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half.” It isn’t any easier for artists or art dealers to know what works and what doesn’t. Asking previously unknown buyers how they heard of you or, on a higher tech level, purchasing software to learn if an email announcement has been opened are among the ways to discover what has had any effect. Like much else in an artist’s career, there is a lot of trial and a lot of error.

By Daniel Grant

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