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. Wow, a great straightforward breakdown! Thanks. I’ve come to similar conclusions over the years. Not much to add that others haven’t… the importance of knowing the overall gross takings should be higher at certain types of venues than others. And for the online comparision, I find a lot of that is about efficiency and type of product. Efficiency as in good admin/studio practices for online listing and efficiency as in making the kind of product in a time constraint that justifies the price (low or high).

    I still dabble with trying things again – a new local show, trial run with a co-op idea – but hesitantly. My time is worth more money now!

    1. Thank you Tina for your insights into this. You’re absolutely right about the venue type driving the possibilities for greater sales and hopefully greater income; one needs to be aware of that. As for online sales, yes, it sure seems to go better with efficiency all round. I have more to say about online coming up!

  2. Thanks, Liz, for this information. I haven’t read all of the posts, but want to add: not all galleries are the same in the way they treat artists. We have a local gallery that’s gorgeous, but their reputation for payment is not good. Make sure you ask other artists represented in a gallery how satisfied they are with the relationship.
    Our coop is an exception (Brattleboro Clay Works) in that it is also where we work, so no time is “wasted” sitting the showroom.

    1. Hi Marilyn,
      Thanks for stopping by! You make a great point about galleries being straight-up with the business end…and there are horror stories out there. That’s part of being treated professionally for sure.

      I LOVE the idea of a co-op studio-with-gallery. I bet it’s a great place to be and hopefully lucrative for you all. I wish I had one nearby! Us clay folks are good at working AND socializing…

  3. hi liz,
    great post, it’s nice to see it all written down so clearly. i guess i can weigh in on etsy only to say that it’s even more complicated by the fact that online sales (or more specifically online notoriety) is a cumulative result of time. statistics on etsy traffic in general suggest a staggering amount of people but putting up a store will result immediately in “zero” traffic. as time passes and one lists and relists (amongst other strategies) potential customers will accumulate much in the same way that one’s facebook “friends” amass. i only mention this to suggest that figuring out what kind of sales to expect will only be a snapshot in time. regardless, there’s a bottomless pit of time to photograph, write descriptions, list, relist, etc. to contend with. the dangling carrot is that some day your shop will go viral for some unclear reason and the masses will descend on one’s shop and buy up everything in sight… i’m not holding my breath.

    1. Jim, You absolutely SAID it. I’m in the midst of writing that guest post about online selling for Alyson Stanfield and am trying to make it dispassionate and not a total downer….Yow.

  4. 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.

    1. Hey Al,
      Thank you for taking the time to write and spell this out.

      This is the thinking and analysis that, for brevity’s sake, I merely alluded to in my post (the Goldilocks Validation Zone and Other Factors to apply horse sense to) but of course, of course,of course it’s not to be skipped over! It’s how we put our knowing in motion.

      Plus, you have said it so much more succinctly than I could! Thanks for sharing your expertise. I’m printing out your comment!

  5. 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!

    1. Hi Ron,
      Can’t wait to see how this discussion continues over on your blog! It sounds like you were moved to put down on paper the complicated aspects of the economics of our art endeavors, as I was. It’s a sort of “Hey…..wait…just…a minute” moment – or at least it was for me.

      I’m curious to see what sort of “tangents” you go off on as well, as this is a rich multi-aspected topic….and the comments are bound to be fascinating too. I got so many because Alyson Stanfield at ArtBizCoach wrote about this and linked to it….so here’s the link to HER post and comments….
      (BTW, your booth and work looked delicious and you would have sold wonderfully last weekend at the ACGA Clay and Glass Festival in Palo Alto! Dang.)

  6. 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.


    1. 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.

  7. 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!

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

  8. 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.

    1. 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!

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

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

  10. 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.

    1. 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?

  11. 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!

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

    1. 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!

  15. 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.

    1. 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.

  16. 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.

    1. 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.

  17. 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…

    1. 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.

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

  19. 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.

    1. 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!)

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