Artists are always asking me how to sell more artwork, how to get their prices up, and how to become more successful. Usually they assume that they will improve their income if they improve their painting skills, but after a certain point, that’s simply not true. It’s no more true than a great restaurant’s improving its recipes a little bit more and thinking that means it can raise prices and sell more food.
I learned a critically important lesson at a young age, when I started writing a column for the radio magazine I had just founded. I went from being a complete unknown to being somewhat well-known within a year, and each year, as my exposure grew, I saw my business grow in proportion to the awareness created. Then when I released my first book, awareness grew even more, expanding beyond the industry to some small level of consumer awareness because I’d been on national network TV and the Home Shopping Network for my book, and on hundreds of radio shows and in over 400 newspapers. It grew even further when the TV show Newsradio wrote an episode about me and my radio magazine (you can see it here). The more my perceived importance grew, the more my business grew.
If I were to ask most Americans to name a famous artist, they would probably say Monet or maybe Norman Rockwell, or even Thomas Kincade. If I asked them to name a famous living artist, I’m not sure what names I would hear. Unless they are tuned in to the art world like we are, they probably wouldn’t mention people we consider icons today. Those artists are famous within the circle of artists, but are not famous to most Americans.
Consumers are drawn to importance and celebrity, not necessarily because celebrities are better at a particular skill than someone else (other than PR). I still cannot tell you what Kim Kardashian is all about, but her fame is making her extremely wealthy. Money is drawn to celebrity and importance. People will wait in line to spend money at the restaurant of a celebrity chef like Wolfgang Puck, when the food next door may be equally good at half the price. It’s true of all things. Celebrity sells.
Most art dealers will tell you that sales in the art world are frequently driven by perceived importance. Either a consumer will visit a gallery because that gallery handles a name they already perceive as important, or they will be swayed to purchase based on statements like “This artist is hot.” “This artist is getting critical acclaim.” “This artist’s prices are soaring.”
Though most artists want to believe that quality will outshine brand name, that is very rarely true. Brands outsell non-brands. And brands are built by constant exposure over decades, usually intentionally and with non-stop advertising, but occasionally simply due to “showing up,” being frequently seen over a long period of time.
Importance and celebrity not only help sell artwork and increase pricing, they operate like a perpetual-motion machine. The more you are perceived as important, the more you sell and the more you’ll be invited to the right events. And, of course, the more that happens, the more your celebrity increases.
The process of branding is somewhat complicated, and there are a lot of elements to doing it well, but it is indeed a process, and it can be achieved through advertising and publicity. I’ve watched unknowns become well-knowns in a few short years because of it. Most collectors won’t think of what you’re doing as paid brand-building because in art magazines, the ads tend to be perceived as part of the content.
The strength of your sales and collectability are directly tied to the strength of your brand and your perceived importance or celebrity. Brand in art is really about trust (“Is it good?” “Is there critical acclaim?” “Do other collectors like it, and are they buying it?” “Are prices going up?” “Is it a good investment?”) Trust is built in branding much as it is built with new friends. It requires a lot of time together for people to come to know and trust someone new. The more you are seen, the more comfortable they become with you, and the more you gain their trust. That is the essence of celebrity-building.
There are four kinds of celebrity: local, niche (e.g., art collectors) national, and worldwide. For some, being the best-known artist in their town is enough to fuel their sales. For others, it’s about being nationally known, either by a niche group like art collectors or by all consumers — something that, of course, is harder and more expensive to achieve. And of course there is worldwide awareness as well. All are possible, based on the amount of effort you are willing to expend, but few artists become important without making an intentional effort. All the celebrities I know started with orchestrated PR efforts, advertising, and by doing something that got them a lot of attention fast. Stunts are a powerful way to get people talking about you. Do you think the feuds between Donald Trump and Rosie O’Donnell just happened? Probably not. It was invented by some great PR expert.
Consider what you can do to build your brand, your celebrity, and your importance. It rarely happens overnight, and it is a beast that dies if it’s not constantly fed. That’s why celebrities always want the press writing about them. Out of sight is out of mind. Building your perceived importance, and therefore your brand, will have a huge impact on your career.