I have been a full-time artist for over 20 years. I’ve had periods in my career where I easily sold many, and I’ve had periods when sales were slow. And yes, like everyone else, I love getting well paid for what I do. But that’s never the reason I create my work. However, inevitably, after a show is over, I’m asked, “Did you sell a lot?” And no matter what the sales might have been, that question always makes me cringe because the answer never comes close to enlightening anyone about anything.
Katie Ohe, a very successful artist with a very long career, once wisely told me that “what defines an artist is the need to be an artist”. You become an artist because you need to create all the time. Because anything else you try to do feels insignificant and empty. Because not a day goes by where you don’t actively crave time to use your tools to add something new to the world – whether it’s by pencil, paper, paints, clay, computer, or power tools.”
Artists live in a world of creation and what interests us is what we can create next using the experiences we’ve accumulated through all we have created before. Most of us fantasize about hiding in our studios and having the luxury of selling our art only to support the creation of new artwork. Selling is never the ultimate goal; it’s a means to create more.
So, if someone asks me about a show or about my career, I’m always puzzled by “Did you sell a lot?” Did I sell a lot? Is that really what you’re interested in knowing? I realize that people wish me success and that, some times, that is where that questions is coming from. But my honest answer is that the question has no relevance. And the answer has nothing to do with me, or the world, and proves nothing about the quality of the work. It also closes the conversation. It tells me that you have no interest in the quality of the work itself. Your only interest is in its marketability. It ignores all the thoughtful considerations that went into creating it.
If the artist says, “Yes, I sell tonnes,” what does that mean? Does it mean she spent a lifetime getting her work out there and that it’s finally collectable? Does it mean it matches the colours that are trendy in this particular home-decorating era? Or maybe it means the subject is neutral enough that people feel comfortable hanging it in their homes. If the artist says, “No, I didn’t sell much” what does that mean? Does it mean the work is no good? Does it mean the artist is poor at marketing? Does it mean his work is not yet understood or recognized? And frankly who gives a damn?
Selling a lot may only be a sign that the work somehow fits into the most common taste denominator where the artist is exhibiting. It may say that the economy is in good shape since artists, like cleaning ladies, are among the first to suffer when the economy tanks and the last to recover when the market improves. But one thing is for sure: sales don’t have anything to do with the quality of the work.
When you look at the work, ask yourself the some questions. Is the work technically well executed? Is what the artist presenting profound? Does it move you emotionally? Has it enlightened you, excited you, encouraged you to wonder? Do you see that the collection is thoughtfully working toward a theme?
In a society that over values money, it’s easy to confuse selling with quality. I see a lot of poorly executed shallow artwork that sells, and a lot of magnificent inspired work that doesn’t sell. Personally, I prefer to create the latter and hope that people recognize its worth.
As Gail Gregg says in her blog, How to talk to an artist ,” if you are a person who appreciates art but doesn’t know much about what it means to create it, the first thing to do when you attend a show should be to stand quietly in front of a work, look carefully, and think about what you’re seeing. When you consider that it can take weeks, months—even years—to make an art object, looking hard is the respectful thing to do.” Once you have actually taken the time to look and feel the work, interesting questions will naturally come to you. You might ask:
- What were you most excited about in this new series of work?
- Did you have a clear intention when you started this series?
- In what ways do you feel this work has progressed in comparison to the last series?
- What are you trying to share with us?
- Is there an artwork here you are most proud of? Why do you feel that way about this one?
- How do you know when the work is finished?
- What has inspired the work I see here?
- Do you know where you might go from here in your next series?
Some of those questions I borrowed from “Asking artists questions” by Carrie Brummer, but I think Gaill Greeg put it best. “The best question would be one that helps me think more deeply about my work and makes me see connections I hadn’t, or puts it into a broader context.” Personally, I just wish to have a meaningful conversation about art and life. And, art being full of depth and meaning; it should not be too hard.
We all ask the wrong questions sometimes and we all forgive each other for that. If you have asked me about my sales in the past, don’t worry. I’ve heard it so many times I honestly won’t remember it was you asking. So come to my next show! Don’t feel embarrassed. Let me tell you more about the creative process, the thinking behind the work, and together I’m sure we’ll discover aspects of my work that neither of us at first imagined.