Book Review: Selling Contemporary Art: How to Navigate the Evolving Market

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When one refers to the business of art, certainly in the context of artists, the focus is on artists as businesspeople, not only creating artworks for sale but marketing, promoting, exhibiting and selling this art. However, the skills in this realm that artists need to learn are similar, and sometimes identical, to those of art dealers and gallery owners, which makes Edward Winkleman’s recent gallery-oriented Selling Contemporary Art: How to Navigate the Evolving Market (Allworth Press) a useful addition to an artist’s bookshelf. (Full disclosure: Allworth Press also is the publisher of my books.) The author of How to Start and Run a Commercial Art Gallery, Winkleman looks at a variety of changes in the selling of art over the past decade that are likely to make a difference in whether a gallery thrives or closes, and what he has to say to dealers is often quite applicable to artists who sell on their own or through a gallery.

The changes he describes – the power of the Internet, the growing prevalence of art fairs and the globalization of the art market, for instance – probably are not news to readers, but he offers specific recommendations on how to position oneself in this evolving environment. “Most galleries located in English-speaking countries are so confident of English’s dominance that it is the only language they use of their sites,” he writes. However, he views as a “forward-thinking approach” the ability of those in non-English-speaking countries to navigate a Web site in their own language, such as Chinese in China or Arabic in the United Arab Emirates, which involves the acquisition of translation software.

Another recommendation is not to assume that what is done in the United States is done everywhere else. Google is the go-to search engine in the U.S. and Europe, but Yandex is more popular in Russian-speaking countries, as is Naver in Korea and Baidu in China. “Yandex and Bai, for example, favor social media pages over standard websites, which may mean you want [your] Facebook page to be always up to date, and…even multi-lingual.” Maybe not just Facebook, since “Kontakte is the dominant social network in Russia, and QZone is the dominant one in China.”

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Selling Contemporary Art: How to Navigate the Evolving Market by Edward Winkleman, Allworth Press. 344 pp. $24.99.

This book is aimed principally at gallery owners, small to medium-sized operations at that. They face stark competition from what are described as “mega-galleries,” which have large exhibitions spaces in different countries and who pick off rising talents from smaller galleries. They also must compete for admission into costly and prestigious international art fairs, wehre a growing percentage of art buyers go to shop. Who you know, or who knows you, matters. “Having served on a selection committee for a fair,” Winkleman writes, “I can confirm that proposals from galleries that no one on the committee knows, especially if they are located in major art centers, rarely received more than a cursory review.” True for galleries and for artists, too. What gets artists into galleries is their connections – who has a dealer’s ear and can vouch for them, who that the dealer knows and trusts will make an introduction – rather than the inherent quality of their work. Nothing new in this, although it is interesting to read the whining of a gallery owner rather than that of an artist.

Winkleman’s goal is to offer ways that the small may compete with the large, much of which is highly applicable to individual artists: Communicate more clearly and more often with the public about what is being exhibited; use strategic keywords to improve the chances of being found in online searches; develop a more public presence, through speaking engagements or online, which allows one to literally “seize the microphone” away from those with deeper pockets and more prestige. In effect, “you do not need to wait to be crowned as an industry leader to speak up and share your ideas.” With regard to making oneself known to those who may affect one’s career, he recommends “[m]aking sure they have heard of you, by visiting…galleries, introducing yourself, asking them questions…and ensuring you add them to your mailing list….”

He distinguishes between seeking public and art world attention to what one is exhibiting and the older assumption that a positive critical review will drive sales. Based on his own survey of collectors, a review in a newspaper or magazine “influences what they collect very little.” That should calm typical artist anxieties a bit.

Throughout Selling Contemporary Art, advice intended for gallery owners may be of use to individual artists. A dealer needing immediate one-time financial backing in order to pay a hefty entry fee to take part in a prestigious art fair might contact a good client to front the money, getting paid back through art fair sales. Similarly, an artist looking to pay a foundry might also contact a friendly buyer, offering terms that reimburse the backer in cash from sales or in artwork. A dealer needs to stay abreast of what the artists they represent are doing in their studios and pasting online, and artists need to keep their galleries informed of new work they are creating, rather than posting images on social media and hoping their dealers are paying attention.

In general, understanding the challenges of art dealers and gallery owners will help artists understand and negotiate their relationship with them. The goal of both artist and dealer is sales. However, the more artists learn some of the skills and techniques of dealers, the more likely they are to not need them.

By Daniel Grant

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