To make a general but true statement: There are as many ways to sell art as there are artists. We all consider galleries as the primary mode for art sales. Less well known artists, those that have representation and those that don’t, must find other means to support their practice. Let’s do the math. Even if an artist has a gallery show every 18 months and sells out said show, how much can they make? If a single show returns $100,000 in gross sales, that is $50,000 for the artist (and the artist must cover their production costs). At an average of 2 shows per 3 years, that comes to 33k annual income from the shows. If the gallery sells work at fairs and out of the back room, then maybe you could raise that to $50,000 a year. The artists and dealers that read Atlas (aka The Choir) probably know all of this but lets just use this as a reminder: artists are mostly not living off their art. W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy) has conducted a large scale survey to record these figures. Sharon Louden’s recent book talked about the many paths towards sustainability for artists. And even still, it was the tip of the rapidly melting iceberg.
Let me tell you about an artist that is trying something different. Tanja Hollander’s Are You Really My Friend? (the Facebook portrait project) is the subject of a 2017 MASS MoCA show. Her work has been shown extensively around the Northeast, primarily at Carroll & Sons (Boston) and Jim Kempner (NYC). There was an insightful recent piece in The Atlantic about the project and dozens of articles and news items as well. Tanja has been working to fund her project through Beacon Reader and various forms of crowdsourcing. Shooting portraits all over the world costs money you know.
Recently, she launched Act Fast Friday, which started as a weekly sale of a single print at a greatly reduced price. After 3 weeks, Tanja decided to do something radical: give away her art. Act Fast Friday became a donate-what-you-wish art funding campaign. The artist would produce each week’s print when the orders were complete. I recently spoke with the Tanja about her decision to give away her art and “democratize the art buying process”.
Tanja Hollander: I was staring at an empty bank account and looking into a long cold winter in Maine. I knew I needed to launch another fundraiser in January, but I really wanted to try something different. I have been studying how people respond to images on social media, and tried to figure out ways to turn “likes” into sales. Simultaneously, I have been more and more fed up with how the art world works and functions. I’m tired of keeping track of editions, I’m tired of begging for checks from sales, and I’m really tired of not being able to make a living even though I have never worked harder in my life. So all of these thoughts collided. I though; I have thousands of images I can sell, why not just do that? Make my own rules instead of play by the ones the art world created? A few weeks into launching AFF, I watched Amanda Palmer’s TED talk, and she inspired me to give work away for free. (I also just learned yesterday (!) there is a whole movement called the gift economy.)
I have been fundraising from the very beginning of AYRMF and while it’s exhausting, it’s also rewarding to be able to connect to so many people and have them become part of the success of the project.
JB: And has AFF been successful as both the fundraiser and an engagement experiment?
Yes, on both accounts. It has been my most successful fundraiser to date. I have shipped almost 100 images, which is amazing. The demographic has been wide as well and that makes me happy, too. People who have been on my mailing list for years, but I haven’t ever heard from them bought images. The demographic ranges from students to curators. I have also met new people and folks are sharing the images and idea, which has been great.
I look at social media as one giant experiment. Sometimes ideas work really well and sometimes they flop. It usually takes tons of repetition before an idea gets any kind of traction on social media. You will notice I post and repost the same images so they stick in people’s heads. And for AFF I designed the website with post-it notes, the audience engagement aspect of AYRMF . I want to keep bouncing back and forth between analogue and digital, for the audience to recognize my handwriting. Something that rarely happens anymore, right? I hope I am creating collectors that are buying the images because they love them, they like the story and they like supporting an artist.
As far as moving forward, we’ll see if I can keep it up while I’m traveling. It’s really hard to just stay on top of email from the road, let alone redesign a website and promote it every week! But I really am invested in this and figuring out how to tweak it as time progresses. I’m not sure I can explain how liberating it is to be in control of how my work is sold and distributed.
JB: It seems increasingly rare to me that artists have a good relationship with how their art is sold. It is invigorating to hear what you are doing with AFF. I know it is a tough question, but here goes: would you recommend that other artists go down this same road?
TH: Yes, absolutely. I think the more artists in control of their careers and finances, the better. Having an exhibition is a line on a resume, but not necessarily a sign of financial success. I’m not saying this is easy or for everyone, but I am really happy I am spending time and money re-investing in myself instead of depending on someone to do it for me.
-Jeff Bergman March 2015