Competing in the Mainstream Art Market

How are you supposed to be able to sell prints when you have to compete against low cost substandard sources of prints outside of your own country? I was talking to a business owner who is also an artist and hoping to retire soon. As a supplemental income source he wants to have some of his original paintings reproduced as giclee prints. He is very new to the concept of selling prints of his work and actually is new to the concept of selling his artwork altogether. He has always painted as a hobby for his friends and family but based on his talent and subject matter I told him I could easily see a market for his work. As we got to talking about prints, I defined for him what a giclee print was and some of the advantages, especially for someone trying to generate a demand. He was very interested in getting started but he did have some concerns about how easy or challenging it would be to compete with art prints mass produced in other countries, mainly China.

I have heard this concern more than once. Fortunately this gentleman as a businessman was not swayed against undertaking new ventures. Unfortunately I have heard artists embrace failure by stating they can’t compete with cheap prints (and even cheap paintings) not produced in North America and Europe. If you are one of these artists that have even begun to think this way, then now is the time to change your thinking.

I asked another artist over the phone recently why he felt he could not compete since he had expressed the same concern. He stated “Go into any business that sells prints, in the mall, Hobby Lobby or other chain store. All you see is really cheap prints and I bet they aren’t even made here even if the artwork was by a American artist”. I agreed he was likely right in many cases but I also asked him what was his reasoning for assuming he could not sell prints of his work. Was it because these businesses sold prints really cheaply or was it something else. He said that price was part of it but he had tried to approaching some of these stores and they seemed to have little interest or send him through a daunting process of just trying to get his prints seen by their product acquisition department.

Based on what he said I understood why he felt that way but that he was looking at it all wrong. First I asked what he thought his prints were worth. We used a signed and numbered 11×14 as an example placed in a relatively inexpensive but presentable frame and matting. He said he wanted to sell it around $100. I told him that sounded very reasonable. Some artists might price there work less while others at a higher level so his problem was not competing with cheap imports. His problem was trying to sell quality prints alongside cheap prints.

A discerning eye would easily be able to tell the difference but how many people are going to Walmart to look for very high end products. Big chain stores are probably the last place you would want your prints sold unless you want to mass produce them in and try to convince a store to carry your prints. Actually this is done all the time but for most just starting out or not represented by a print publisher it might be wise to start off smaller. Most people who have giclee prints produced of their work are selling them at a much higher cost than a mass produced digital press print and usually for a more discriminating buyer. You should be seeking buyers who want your prints because they stand out, have obvious value. These buyers are looking looking for quality and not just a way to fill a space on a wall. The bottom line, I told him, was not to try to sell to venues frequented by mere consumers but instead he should be concentrating on places where people appreciate and want to buy high quality prints when they can’t buy an original. This might be private collections, art shows and even online. I ended by saying there is nothing wrong with going to a Hyundai dealership but those going there are probably not going there to shop for a Mercedes.

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