Musings on Photography

People don’t buy Art

Posted in business, the art world by Paul Butzi on December 11, 2006


Lots of discussion over on Art and Perception about selling, selling, selling. About how crazy artists can’t sell. About how selling is where it’s at, man.

And here’s my contribution to the discussion. It’s free, and it’s worth at least that much. My observation about selling art is this:

Nobody buys art. Ok, that’s not exactly true. There are art collectors, and they buy art. But except for the 6 art collectors, nobody buys art.

The rest of the folks who look like they’re buying ‘art’ – they’re not.

They might be buying decor. That’s when they have a blank spot on their wall, and they want something to cover it up and look nice. They probably want it to match the rest of the stuff in the room. Hotels often buy decor, and so do rich people with big houses, and businesses that want nice looking conferences room walls that complement the big expensive mahogany boardroom table. Sometimes the hoi polloi buy decor, but they can’t afford much so
mostly they buy very inexpensive decor.

They might also be buying social status, by demonstrating to everyone how stellar and advanced their tastes are, and by showing how easily they can buy expensive things without going hungry. Lots of people have concluded that this is the BIG reason why people buy artworks.

Sometimes, people who look like they’re buying art are actually buying mementos. I know a photographer who’s made pretty good money selling nice, big prints of photographs of lighthouses up and down the east coast of the US. Folks go to the beach for their vacation, and they have a wonderful time, and they just want to have a big reminder of their wonderful time, so they buy that big, lovely print of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, and they put it in the den, and everytime they look at it, they’re reminded of how much Chip and Buffy enjoyed bodysurfing, and how nice that cold Chilean Chardonnay tasted when they drank it on the beach at night, with a driftwood fire blazing.

But there’s one category I know about that no one else seems to think of: people who buy artworks because they want to be artists/photographers/painters by proxy. They want to be the sort of person who’s out on the beach at dawn, seeing how wonderful God’s creation looks as the sea breeze starts to stir and the fog starts to burn off over the ocean but lingers in the trees. The problem is that they’ve discovered that at dawn, on the beach, when the sea breeze starts to stir and the fog starts to burn off, it’s often cold and wet and dark and fairly nasty- any sensible person would be in bed, fast asleep, and not out in the cold and wet and dark witnessing God’s creation.

So instead of getting up at 4:30 and hitting the beach before taking a shower, and standing in the cold mist slowly freezing, they stay in bed. And then they buy an artwork made by someone that’s about the experience of being on the beach at dawn, with the sea breeze picking up, and the fog burning off.

If I were selling prints and trying to make a living at it, I’d cover the decor market, and the memento market – they’re easy, because they’re covered by interior decorators, and by the art shops in vacation spots.

I’d cover the ‘status’ buyers, too, by going after the big gallery representation. There’s no hope of selling directly to the status buyers, who want to have the assurance of buying from someone who will make sure they don’t make a mistake.

And then, in the end, I’d also go after the artists-by-proxy. I don’t know how, but I suspect there’s a big untapped market there.

8 Responses

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  1. scotth said, on December 12, 2006 at 4:13 am

    “And then, in the end, I’d also go after the artists-by-proxy. I don’t know how, but I suspect there’s a big untapped market there.”

    I think there are a couple photographers with a presence on the web, one in particular seems to be everywhere, that are doing just that. The approach is a little different than you describe, but I think they are making money from people who want to be them, by offering just that for a price.

  2. Anonymous said, on December 12, 2006 at 6:18 am

    Good points you make, Paul. I hadn’t really looked at the buyer in that light, but I think I almost completely agree with you.

    Mostly because I buy art too, and there are many different reasons why I choose the art that I want to live with.

  3. Anonymous said, on December 12, 2006 at 8:18 am

    Just after reading the post, I pretty much agreed with it. After mulling it over some more, it seems that only buying art for decor, status, or envy is rather pessimistic. Pessimism doesn’t make something untrue but….

    What if we extended “buying” to simply consuming. That takes monetary compensation out of the equation. We make things (art) for our own or other people’s consumption. Would that therefore mean that we only create art because we desire others, or ourselves to have decor, status, or envy?

    Or, do we create art just for the process, and those who consume it can have the not so virtuous bits?

  4. John Ellis said, on December 19, 2006 at 11:38 pm

    ” seeing how wonderful God’s creation looks…” – is that a turn of phrase or a serious belief?

  5. Dave New said, on January 11, 2007 at 10:53 am

    I removed my prior post, because Paul covered it all in his subsequent Part II post. That’s what I get for coming late to the party, and reading the oldest stuff first. 😎

  6. […] people don’t buy art.  And, although I’m sure this is personally disappointing to artists everywhere, this is a […]

  7. […] I don’t doubt that, in the gallery world, there are people who are actually buying a chance to share in seeing an artist grow over time, and appreciate the fact that the artist is committed and want to show a similar commitment to the artist. But honestly, after you get past those two customers, I think people are buying something else. […]

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