Computer Arts

Break into the art market

Illustration work a bit slow? Tired of chasing those commissions? Consider the fine-art market as another, potentially lucrative, outlet for your work.

For a long time it was the opinion in the fine art world that there were artists on the one hand and illustrators on the other. The former talked to God, albeit often in a slightly insane sort of way, while the latter were pixel and paint monkeys doing disposable work for hire that no one gifted with true taste and discernment would ever want to look at twice. This is a harsh view, and while it suits some people in the fine art market to perpetuate the myth, the reality has never been quite so straightforward.

Plenty of illustration is created first and only sold to a client later, while many famous artworks have been created to a strict commission. And there have always been artists - Mucha, Millais, Warhol, even Dali - who have created paid work for commercial clients that's been indistinguishable from their work exhibited in galleries.

Now the boundaries are blurring even further, and with print-on-demand it's easier than it's ever been to repurpose work from one market to the other. For a commercial illustrator, this offers the prospect of being able to re-sell work in a whole new market - one that may be gallery based but isn't limited to the gallery scene. At the high end some illustrators and design houses have been selling their work as art for years. (See the 'Selling online' box over the page for some examples.) But they can do this because they already have a name. For newcomers it can be a more difficult market to break into. And some lateral thinking can pay dividends.

The first question is - what to sell? In terms of sales, almost everything has potential. It's just a case of framing it as art, both literally and metaphorically. While you'll need to know your local market almost anything can be sold as art. The second problem is usage rights, and some common sense is required here. Anything that's part of a recognisable brand image may be on thin ice, unless you're lucky enough for it to be iconic and you also have full rights to it. But old roughs, perhaps with some tidying up, are potentially fair game, as is existing work that's been through some customised repurposing. And as a last resort there's always the option of producing work specifically for the art market in your personal style - an option that's worth considering when commissions aren't flooding in and you have some spare time.

Where and why
Art is a very physical thing, and people like to look at it before buying, which is why established galleries can seem to have a monopoly on art sales. But in fact the market includes plenty of other possible venues. At the entry level there's the coffee shop scene. This includes art centres, libraries, book shops, coffee shops and restaurants. The advantage here is that selling your art isn't complicated - it's usually just a case of turning up with some samples and seeing if you can get yourself an exhibition, or perhaps hang a few prints in a corner of a combined show. Keith Cooper, a commercial and fine-art photographer based in Leicester, is a good example of how straightforward it can be: "My exhibition at the Entropy restaurant in Leicester was part of my plan to get my work better known. I met one of the owners of the restaurant at a business event. Networking with other local businesses is a powerful way to get contacts. The restaurant itself was a new one with good reviews. Choice of venue for my landscapes is important, surroundings need to fit my work, and the place needs to attract the sort of clients I'm looking for, and Entropy matched all the requirements. I showed the owners some samples of my work and discussed where they wanted pictures, and what they liked, then chose which prints would go where. It's a three-month show and I've had a couple of enquiries for prints so far."

The moral is that almost everyone can find an opportunity like this in their area. Some thought needs to go into matching the venue to the work, but most venues want something interesting on their walls and will be open to approaches from people whose work may seem to fit. If all else fails, there's the Open House option. Most areas have local artist's associations that promote Open House sales, where you turn your house into a gallery for a short period. The right kind of work in the right area can earn thousands of pounds in sales over a few weekends.

What about the mainstream fine art gallery market? To enter the fine art world is to discover a surreal disconnected reality where TVs sprout antlers, 20-foot-high photos of sleazy hotel rooms sell for tens of thousands of pounds, and people nail chickens to tables and decorate them with neon tubes. But it's not all bad news, and even newcomers and outsiders can sometimes find a way in. The key point here is that there are different levels within this market, and also different marketing niches. In theory you need a portfolio, solid art school references, and an ability to produce obscure high concept art prose about how your work is questioning, exploring, challenging or interrogating something or other. In practice, the artspeak can be hard to avoid - but no one says you have to take it completely seriously. And the hardest part - finding a gallery that will take you on - isn't necessarily as intimidating a process as perhaps it sounds.

Megan Green is an illustrator and artist in New York, who found a way-in through a co-op - an option available in many cities. "An acquaintance recommended that I enter work in a show at a local co-op gallery. I joined for several reasons: I would constantly have to show new work, and I would also be joining a community of artists. The solo show was a given with membership. Reactions to the exhibition were varied. I sold one piece, but the biggest surprise was the opportunities generated by the show. Soon after it ended, I was contacted about several publishing possibilities."

In competition
Competitions offer another way in on the ground floor. Dolores Kaufman has been exhibiting since the 1980s, but has always found direct gallery sales difficult. "I achieved a fair amount of success in showing my work (the first being acrylics on canvas, then black-and-white fibre-based photographs) in both museums and galleries in and around the north-eastern US. Since marketing acumen has never been one of my strong suits, I was fortunate to have a friend for whom it was. She would do the selling for me and eventually ended up running a corporate art consultancy. Now my work is more digital and experimental, and I've found the most useful thing to do has been to respond to the calls for participation put out by the sponsors of group exhibitions and international competitions, like Siggraph, the Digital Fine Art Awards, and also museums like Moca. It's a great way to familiarise the art world with your work, and many of the accepted entries end up as framed prints in galleries or travel in exhibits all over the world. I also exhibit at an online gallery - www.worldprintmakers.com - which promotes and sells work, and is also a wonderful source of information regarding printmaking, both traditional and digital."

The sponsors
Another option is to consider corporate sponsorship. This is difficult without a track record of exceptional work. But it can be worth trying on the off-chance, because success can be so very lucrative. Painter Jeffrey Kroll explains: "Originally I was working with a gallery in LA and I had this idea of doing a print series, to make my work more affordable. Epson had just introduced their new 9000 series printer, so I suggested it to them and they agreed to sponsor a print run to support the paintings, as they had with a photography exhibition at the same gallery. Here in the UK, that led to more discussions with Epson, and eventually the Fontography exhibition, sponsored by The Times." Jeffrey continues: "Through that I had meetings with Nokia - I presented this idea as a cultural crossover, important that it was in the painterly tradition. They knew I had a reputation, so that gave them some security. I think it would be impossible to have done it without that, although if you go to something like the Zoo Art Fair, you'll see a lot of emerging work getting sponsorship there. This may all sound simple, but I think anyone who's serious about art has to get used to a lot of rejection before something like this works out for them. I've been painting since I was 17, and it took more than 20 years of that to get to where I am now."

Putting on a show
The issue here again is networking, and being willing to take a risk. Sponsorship may not happen immediately, but you have nothing to lose by trying - although your work had better be good.

The other angle here is the art fair scene. London hosts around ten major art fairs a year, and smaller fairs happen throughout the UK. It's a similar story in most parts of the world. Some fairs (Zoo, for example), advertised in mainstream art magazines such as Art Review, cater specifically for new and emerging talents. Going to meet the galleries that exhibit and the sponsors that fund the shows can offer good leads.

So how does it all work together? The different examples here all highlight the same points. The first is that enthusiastic networking can be essential. You can do it all on your own, but the more contacts you make at every level, the more opportunities you'll create for yourself. Another important point is that selling your work as art isn't just about making sales, it's another shop window advertising your work and making it possible to find even more contacts. Combined with a website and portfolio it's another way to get noticed, while perhaps also making some money from print sales. The final point is not to be afraid of the fine art world. It certainly is unique and plays by its own rules. But many artists do cross-over commercial work of one sort or another at some point in their careers, and the boundaries are more fluid than many people realise.

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