A Frank Look at Money and Venues

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 thoughts on “A Frank Look at Money and Venues

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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?

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

  6. 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.

  7. 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!

  8. 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.

  9. 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!

  10. 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.

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

  13. 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!

  14. 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!

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

    1. 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.

  17. 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!

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

      1. 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.

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

  19. 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.

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

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