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A Frank Look at Money and Venues

On: June 25, 2012
In: Art Biz, How To's, Studio Journal
Views: 348

The Situation: At some point, Dear Ones, every artist who’d like to “sell” is looking for validation. If someone –  a complete stranger, a friend, or even your mom – gives you respectable money for your precious creations, you cross a line from self-pleasuring hobbyist to validated emerging professional. Just like that. And it feels good.

We won’t go into how squishy and dotted that line is, or how many times you may retreat and re-cross it;  sure, then unsure, than sure again of that validation. It can really mess with your head. Not to mention your work in the studio.

Instead, we’ll fast forward to the place where all the problems you’ve solved in order to stay validated are different now. You’re a Selling Artist. Though you may still and forever be “emerging,” the talking points become more about your niche, your ideal customer, your pricing practices, your product families. Art Biz stuff. Besides making the most excellent and meaningful work you can, where are the optimum places for you to be in order for it to be enjoyed and purchased by those who naturally want what you have and have the means to buy it? Where is the Goldilocks Validation Zone?

That last question will never really go away because it involves the agile art market and your fragile toehold in it.  This applies to us all: I don’t care how big of a name you have or market you roll in, agility and adeptness in responding to change are your trusted allies. You will answer and re-answer such marketing questions until you no longer seek market validation.


The Plot Sickens:

A few Art Soup thickeners here: You’re in charge of this selling stuff, every bit of it. Even if you partner with galleries, co-ops, wholesalers, art groups, agents and tour events, you are the partner too.

No pathway is a sure thing.

Going ONLY after money is a one-way ticket to meaninglessness.

Beware of seeking potential validation, which might masquerade as all-promising flattery and/or “exposure.”  You might lose sight of a venue or event’s viability. (I’m looking at YOU quasi-donation pay-to-play garden party.)


The Frank Look: Until recently, I just ran numbers on my actual sales and actual costs venue by venue or event by event in order to understand whether or not each was profitable. It was good insofar as I was able to compare what has happened over repeated months and years, so I could understand how tweaking all sorts of things (staying agile) impacted the bottom lines. I also know my overall annual income and expenses and net profit. But I sensed dis-parity in my “income streams.” What would help me understand where my efforts approached that GVZ and where was I perhaps not making the best use of my time and troubles, or, heavens, where was I spending money on an illusion (and going in the red to do it?)

The key to creating The Frank Look is to leave the world of real sales numbers and just suppose the same gross sales across the board. I started with a flat $2000 in annual sales, so let’s look at that, venue by venue:

Traditional Gallery: No out of pocket expenses.   Commission 50% = $1000.  NET: $1000.

Vanity Gallery: Upfront Monthly fees $48  x 12 = $576.  Commission 15% = $300. NET: $1124

Co-op Style Gallery: Annual Membership = $50. Entry Fees: 4 exhibits x $45 = $180.  Commission 25% = $500 NET: $1270.

But, wait, while the Co-op looks to be the most lucrative of our galleries,  there are soft costs which must be taken into account: namely the volunteer time required to “sit” the gallery and the travel expenses specifically associated with that task (not in getting the work delivered/picked up.) Even if I value that time at a ridiculous $10 an hour, it plays out like this:

Hours to Gallery Sit: 72 x $10 = $720  Travel: 12 x $5 = $60. ADJUSTED NET: $490

So ya gotta ask about the Opportunity Cost of lost studio time as well as applying a more appropriate hourly rate. Seems to me the news only gets worse for the Co-op Style Gallery.


Let’s look outside the galleries. Applying the same flat $2000 sales to shows and art tours….

Regional  Outdoor Show: Costs, including fees, commissions, mailings, transportation, volunteer and booth sitting time = $981.  NET: $1019

Local Outdoor Show: Cost, including fees, transportation, volunteer and booth sitting time = $361.  NET = $1639

Major Art Tour: Costs, including fees, mailings, postcards, volunteer and selling time = $810.  NET: $1190.

That Local Outdoor Show wins: no travel expenses, lower fees, NO commissions.

Are you still with me? Because there’s more.

What’s my Downside Risk?  What if I had ZERO sales?

Traditional Gallery: COST = $0

Vanity Gallery: COST = $576

Co-op Style Gallery: COST = $1010

Regional Outdoor Show: COST = $681

Local Outdoor Show: COST = $361

Major Art Tour: COST = $810

Sorry, Co-op. Yay for Local Outdoor Show! Very respectable, Traditional Gallery.

These numbers are telling me a clear story about comparable and true costs. I ran them for $1000, $3000, $4000 and $5000 sales figures. with no unexpected variations. The themes were the themes. The good got stellar. The not-so-good  dwindled and rotted as other factors came into play.

Most important other factor: the likelihood of selling a certain amount or not. Some venues are undeniably hampered in that regard, others are nearly unlimited in potential, some need to prove themselves.  It’s also fair to consider such things as: In which of these venues do I feel at home? Am I treated fairly and professionally? Is my work given a spotlight? Which of them takes less physical/creative energy to maintain? Which are better for my relationship to my collectors?

It all goes into the hopper, and armed with both The Frank Look numbers and my horse sense about where things go well, I can better determine where  that Goldilocks Validation Zone is now and in future possible exhibition venues or events.

~Liz Crain,  an artist who tries to squeeze meaning out of every effort, whether sublimely creative or calculatedly analytic, yet knows all will be well regardless.






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60 Responses to A Frank Look at Money and Venues

  1. Karen Hansen says:

    Much food for thought… Time definitely IS money, and the older I get, the more I realize it’s true value.

  2. Liz: This is AWESOME! It’s what I’ve been encouraging my Conspiracy members to do and have written a post or two about. But I need to drill it in more and more.

    GREAT job! I’m definitely sending people here.

  3. Great information but what about online sales venues? Etsy…etc.

  4. Liz Crain says:

    Karen: That is exactly my motivation to figure all this stuff out as clearly as I can.

    Alyson: Thank you! I am thrilled to share what’s bloomed from your guidance over the years.

    Michael: Great thinking and of course a person could parse this out in a similar way. I considered adding the online stuff, but it would have made the post too long. As you intuit, there are other dimensions to Etsy-type selling, such as the listing fees. It matters whether you are listing ONE $2000.00 item or 20 $100.00 items. The 3.5% that Etsy takes upon sale would be the same, but if you use PayPal to receive payment, they currently take 2.9% plus .30 each transaction. What if you also do a lot of Re-listing and use Etsy Ads? What about your time to photograph, write copy and edit? What about your time pretty-fying and managing your Etsy Store? What if, oopsie, you go over on your shipping costs, or offer free shipping? What if you belong to an Etsy Team or two and need to do things to satisfy your membership? It goes on and on (as it does for any venue or event as well, I just tried to stick to the basics I could begin to quantify.)
    But the other factors apply too. How LIKELY are you to sell that amount on Etsy? Do you LIKE doing it? Are you getting value for your efforts beyond the money?
    Thanks for adding this facet into the mix!

  5. I am so glad you factored in volunteer time Liz! My main concern about co-op galleries has always been that they would cut into my painting time!
    It’s very interesting that, for all the criticisms of them, the traditional galleries pan out pretty well.

  6. Liz Crain says:

    Hi Caroline, and thanks for your thoughts. It occurred to me today that if our time is *required* as part of the deal in a co-op gallery, we probably shouldn’t call it volunteering because it’s only partly voluntary! Given the choice, I would rather be creating in the studio, too.

    And I don’t feel quite the same about sitting my booth at a show or being present during Open Studios, as that seems more just part of the scenario, but that’s just me.

    I also just LOVE dropping new work off at my traditional gallery and scooting home no strings attached. They EARN that 50% and I know it.

  7. Excellent info and a wonderful guide to tweak and apply to personal situations. Thanks for laying it on the line numbers-wise. I always figured that someone, somewhere will get “paid” for the effort of selling but you have made it understandable in a clear formula.

  8. As both an artist and gallery owner, it’s terrific to see this in black and white. What a well-thought out post that every artist should read!

  9. Liz Crain says:

    Thanks Cindy and Jennie! I am glad this is useful to you both and feel free to pass it along. Cindy, your comment made me think of the saying, “Ya gotta serve somebody.” And Jenny, I appreciate your dual perspective!

  10. Sue Pownall says:

    What an interesting and useful post. Thank you so much for taking the time to both wotk it out and then share your findings.

  11. Really interesting and well written! Ive just pulled out of a ‘Vanity Gallery’; currently in a Co-operative Gallery; and sell through Open Studios (starting this weekend!); and a couple of retail Galleries. Everything you said is as I have experienced and with petrol costs so high here in the UK, travel time is a big factor to us! Teaching supplements my income but erodes studio time; rewarding but tiring; planning a book – any thoughts on whether that generates income please?

  12. Daniel Leighton says:

    This is one of the most worthwhile blog posts I have read in a longtime. Estremely valuable info for artists and other entrepreneurs. Thank you.

  13. What a great post! I haven’t done this type of analysis yet, but I did at least figure out that my galleries do better for me than most other venues. Thank you for this info and the easy readability!

  14. interesting break down for sure.. but I have to disagree with one aspect.. the co-op gallery. I’m seriously thinking of going that route for now..

    You mention the time it takes to sit the gallery.. what you didn’t mention is the value of that time.. it is how you use that gallery sittin’ time that matters.

    It allows you to learn sales – study how to sell art before you go.
    allows you the artist to meet people
    allows you to get involved
    even Alyson B. Stanfield talks about getting out there and get involved.
    it allows you to LISTEN to what the public want..

    I don’t think it is all a wast of time/money.

  15. Liz Crain says:

    Good Morning and thanks to Sue, Bren, Daniel, Ginny and abstractsbybrian for stopping by and commenting! This lil ol blog has not seen so much action in awhile. I am thrilled to have provided some useful things to think about.

    Bren, I haven’t done this for my teaching just yet, but I think I know the answer intuitively. If it’s a money loser, then I need to look at the value I get in all the other ways and make a call.

    abstracts, I couldn’t agree with you more! I used my first two years of co-op gallery sitting for just that purpose: getting a feel for it all. In the beginning I was completely nervous! But I learned how to talk about art, sell art, wrap art up, curate exhibits and commune with other artists…I still love that place, but I just might have outgrown it.
    What I’ve meant to do in this post is to shine a light on real costs, so that I can make an assessment with clear heart and mind, no illusions. Why we choose our venues (or they choose us and we accept!) is always about more than the money, and maybe I could have made that clearer. While I believe that co-op gallery sitting is not a “waste” of time/money, it has a very real impact. For you, it’s an asset. For me, because I ran the numbers and have no illusions about it, I think I will hone my selling/involvement skills in other ways… and that’s staying honest and agile. Thank you for making this valuable point. Enjoy yourself out there!

  16. Holly Knott says:

    A great writeup! It illustrates why I have never had any issues with paying a gallery up to a 50% commission for their hard work. Once you factor in travel, hotel, weather issues, possibly no sales, etc., it often seems like the best scenario, depending on your situation and what works for you. Not that there aren’t advantages to these other venues, but moneywise and timewise… Having been a founding member and owner of 2 local artist co-ops, time IS money. I often spent 40-60 hours a month involved in aspects of the business which usually meant little studio time.

  17. Susan Lenz says:

    Excellent article. I hope you don’t mind that I shared it on Facebook!

  18. Kim says:

    Fantastic information! I am reaching a point where I have to make some decisions. When I have my works of art out at a show, my house is in a more livable condition. (not much more, because this is where I do my work and collect/store/prepare the materials I use.) I have got to move some pieces! I would dearly love to sell some. I’ve been approached at times, but sales have not yet occurred. What to do? Also, Liz, I’d like to subscribe to your blog, but I don’t see a link. Is there one?

  19. Liz Crain says:

    Holly: Live and learn, right? 40-60 hours a month is serious impact on the studio!

    Susan: LOVE that you shared…thank you so much.

    Kim: Keep trying. If you’re working with Alyson, so much the better. That mess in the house gets old and selling creates a vacuum in order to make more. You can subscribe to my blog by clicking the icons at the very top right of the page…Thank you.

  20. Hey Liz! I followed a link/recommendation from Alyson and I’m glad I did. Your analyses are very telling and would probably be good for us artists to reflect on at least once or twice a year as a sort of reality check. Of course as can be deduced from previous responses above, each artist will very likely have some of their own particular criteria for valuation. Still, the process is absolutely gorgeous and, like any scientific methodology, almost universally useful.

  21. Liz Crain says:

    Hi Patricia! So glad you’re glad you wandered over this way. Knowing your high standards and scientific mind, I super appreciate your blessing. I felt this method helped in comparing apples and oranges, but you are so right to see how another might want to compare strawberries and kumquats and that it would still work.
    Hope you are creative and well.

  22. Hey, Lovely Liz. Why don’t you put this together in a guest post for Art Biz Blog. Hey, the framework is already here!

  23. Patty says:

    Another brilliant blog, Liz. Your formula is clear and easy to use, and still allows for extras like personality and the value of time. This should be required reading for every artist who needs to make these decisions.

  24. […] Artist Liz Crain took a look at all of her venues, matched them against expenses, and posted the results on her blog. […]

  25. Sari says:

    This is my 2nd year of working with a non-profit…They take 30% in their own gallery, & 20% from shows they sponsor…No volunteer time, no fees…Plus they are the most educated people I have worked with…They reach out into schools & community & I have learned the public art process…I encourage others to seek out non-profits…Of course nothing beats the self-efficacy of your own studio show…But expenses can be high…

  26. Susan Wells says:

    Jeeze! You are a crack up Liz! Alyson sent me here. Thanks for all the number crunching fun. So much for intuitive bookkeeping! My oh-doesn’t-it-feel-so-good-to-be-right self is so happy to hear your financial experience with the Coop Gallery. Our local, beautiful, co-op gallery has courted me for years, but I gently turn them down on account of my suspicions about financial rewards.

    Thanks for sharing. You’re funny.

  27. Thanks Liz … I am also glad, as others said, to have followed the link to your blog. The numbers are really telling and worth thinking about. I will also share this on my Facebook page as I am an “instigator” of a group for the marketing and business side of art.

  28. Janet Glatz says:

    How gratifying to learn that my instincts have been pretty true. I have never traveled farther than regionally; I don’t exhibit in co-op galleries; I do everything I can possibly do myself. I enter only the shows that are known quantities or are highly regarded and in high income or tourist areas. That being said, your article was a good one. Thanks for going to the trouble.

  29. Liz Crain says:

    Hi Patty! So glad you followed your blog-reading nose over here! As you know, “personality and value of time” are in the end WAY more slippery but important to all of this. (Oh and you didn’t jump the gun on FB, you’re just a few time zones ahead! Thanks for that, too!)

  30. Liz Crain says:

    Hi Sari, As it turns out two of my venues above are actually non-profits as well. (There are so many hybrids these days, and not just cars!)
    You make an important point here: part of the value of time/money involvement with THEM may contain a heartfull giving component that perhaps we cannot put a price on. Love that and thanks for bringing into the conversation.

  31. Liz Crain says:

    Susan Dearest, We must be on the same Funnybone Wavelength, so thanks for tuning into that.
    I’m a Certified Financial Planner and Commercial Loan Officer in my former (and SO misguided) working life, yet I still can’t help it with the number crunching.
    But numerical bottom lines are just one part of the mix. Our Suspicions – arising from our gut-sourced knowing – I’d assign a larger part of the pie; but we need the whole pie. Scientist to Artist, we want it all! Happy Day.

  32. Liz Crain says:

    Hey Marsha, I’d love to hear the insights and feedback from your FB page and group, as the more the merrier in this conversation. Thanks.

  33. Liz Crain says:

    Hi Janet, You just put in words what has slowly been developing as an overarching guideline or even a Mission Statement for me as well. I find I prefer the higher end shows and REALLY love the ones that feature mostly Ceramics. All good to know, right? You’re so lucky your instincts led you to the right choices…I needed bottom line proof, but it has saved me from running too deeply down some rabbit holes. Good for us!

  34. Roxane Lessa says:

    Terrific article, Liz. I have been trying some of the same venues myself over time. I guess every artist has to do this leg work to find out what works. My local show has really paid off, and I’m still looking for the galleries that will sell my work. Co-op was ok, but if I travel, I’m only doing big, well-known shows with a great track record.

  35. Wouldn’t some venues still be worth if you sold a lot more there? I’m thinking if you go out of town people would be more likely to buy because the work is new and different. I often will buy from people out of town because I know I can’t just go by their studio whenever I want.

  36. Liz Crain says:

    Hi Roxane and Inge, I appreciate your insights and have sort of put them together in my mind: If you have a hunch (like Inge’s about going out of town and/or perhaps selling more) then the only way to be sure of that is “do this leg work” as Roxane says.
    The big point here is in having no illusions about it. Each one of us will necessarily have differing results as we throw differing numbers and Other Factors into the hopper, but let’s actually DO that!

  37. Thanks so much for putting this info together and with such humor. It created a clear picture for me. I have often thought about trying other types of venues and was wondering about all of the costs. Thanks also to Alyson for highlighting your post!

    The one thing I wanted to mention about working with a gallery in terms of cost are presentation expenses. Some galleries want your work framed to a certain level which the artist often pays for. Then if you don’t sell it(and with a shelf life of about 3 years) you are on the hook for quite a bit of $$. Figuring out that part of the cost puszzle is daunting for me and many other artists that I know.

  38. Mckenna says:

    Yes… please – somebody has to address the on-line sales issues.

    For example, with my pricing structure, I would NEVER make a profit from an online venue. Every piece would need a separate photo and that alone (with my retail mostly being sub-$100) would take all the profits out – let alone the back and forth emails and then the time to package, address and affix the label for shipping… UGH… NO profit at all can come in such lower-end priced items. However one goes about it, finding a new buyer for every piece you create is costly, but online is truly wonky. Adding insult to injury – it won’t help if you send something that is a totally different color then what they saw on the monitor they have set-up. Yikes.

    Even higher price items are a challenge on line – people are quick to click and buy some music, electronics gear, maybe even a set of drapes, but they have a much harder time buying “art” outside of the traditional retail environment. And the more expensive the art, the more likely they want to touch/view the item and experience the sense of confidence (credibility) found in a polished atmosphere with a knowledgeable staff of consultants in a gallery setting.

    On-line is a Catch 22. The more expensive, the less likely a sale, the less expensive the higher the per sale costs.

    Liz – YOU have a great gift in getting out clear information. I do hope you will be able to take a little time to address the “esty” model.

  39. Thank you Liz for bringing the illusions into reality. (smile) I’m looking forward to reading more about on-line sales.

  40. Sara Post says:

    Well said, researched. I do wonder about the innumerables– the advantages that do not correspond directly to $. So many ways that I show/sell my artwork lead to other opportunities– commissions, exhibits, even direct sales (I include the dreaded co-op with that group). the bottom line is really important– that’s how we live to paint another day–but the value of free advertising, publicity, a consistent way to keep work out in front of people is important to me, too.

  41. Nat Solomon says:

    Dear Liz,
    great article. We are all in your boat as artists as we search for common patterns in our clients who buy our painting or pictures. We search to reach for definitive answers as to who our target market is. We are not afraid to spend money for our art even if we have none. Keep on trucking!

  42. Liz Crain says:

    Christine, one reason I wandered off into the world of ceramics is exactly the excellent point you make: all that matting and glassing and framing GOT to me. The cost of excellent framing can make pricing very uncomfortable. And it hurts if the frame gets banged up in transit, hanging, storage. I feel your pain! Seems to me if a certain gallery demands a certain sort of framing which is more than you normally pay, the extra would be a cost of doing business there, no?

  43. Liz Crain says:

    Jacqueline, I’m gathering all the insights I can into an online post. It gets messy there really fast!

  44. Liz Crain says:

    Hi Sara!
    Totally agree that creating a presence and buzz is important and oh-so-hard to place a concrete price on. Love your calling it all “the innumerables!”
    I guess you’d agree some venues are buzz-ier with opportunity, but it’s hard to know where, when and why, so we keep hoping and plugging away. Sometimes for years. It’s a completely moving target as venues change, WE change, our artwork and what we want from it changes, yadda yadda yadda.
    We just do the best we can with it all and knowing a bottom line or two can’t hurt…then we go do what we do.
    For that matter, see you this weekend, doing what we do!

  45. Liz Crain says:

    Thank you for your happy spirit and warm words, Nat! I’ll keep on and expect you to as well.

  46. Liz,
    Thanks so much for this article. I recently had a piece accepted to a show in another state and calculated the costs of being present for that opening. I decided the trip was not a good idea. Thanks for the validation and for some food for thought for the future.


  47. Liz Crain says:

    Hi Alexanna, I appreciate your point here about travel costs (oh, and shipping the work, too.) I have a ceramic art buddy who shows her larger than life figurative works internationally… and she frequently travels to the openings in places like Taiwan, Korea and China. She’s not independently weathy, works teaching most of the year, and just has made this a priority in her own career. I have never asked her about the expenses involved and I think I just might.
    I’m with you because I tend to stick to regional shows…maybe a 3-hour one-way radius? (Never put THAT into words until now!)
    Thanks for sharing your websites, too. They are quite exciting.

  48. Ron Philbeck says:

    Hey Liz, Just wanted to say how great this is. Thanks for the comment on my recent blog post. I’m planning on writing more about all this and going off on a few tangents along the way. I’m going to link to this post so folks can get over here and see your breakdown on it all. It is something I wasn’t inclined to do so it’s really cool to see. Great to see everyone getting in here on the comments too!

  49. Al G. says:

    Excellent article. I’m no potter but I’ve studied and lived economics and business all my life. The article assumes flat/same sales of $2k at each venue. Great for comparison but not valid unless the numbers are the same at all venues. If a major regional show is not generating more sales (thus more profit) then I’d have to consider that a “bust”. The more the investment in the show the more you expect in sales. If a “major” show can generate $4k instead of $2k in the same amount of time, then that is a big difference. The same for co-ops. I’d tend to agree that the time you spend in the co-op needs to be offset but again, if the sales are worth the effort (greater than $2k) then you could find that is a better alternative.

    In addition, shows open the possibility for new opportunities. In Ron’s post about his recent show he found a new wholesale venue for his pots! That is a tangible asset that should be factored in.

    Based on this posting it seems the price for products is wholesale. Even if the artist sells at retail his costs (real and opportunity) offset much/some of the difference between wholesale and retail. The KEY is to find venues that reduce that gap in either costs of the venue (total cost) OR in increased sales compared to the costs.

    The key is to NOT look at just the costs. You have to look at the sales per cost. Looping back to my opening statement: The use of the $2k for comparison is great but should not be reality. You’d expect more sales if the costs (out of pocket or opportunity) are greater.