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Art Consultants: Seven Secrets Every Artist Should Know

Lynn Basa

Like many full-time artists, one of my income streams is through sales to art consultants. In fact, I no longer show in galleries but sell directly through independent art advisors. These are art professionals who work with corporate, healthcare, hospitality and other market sectors to guide them through every aspect of purchasing art, whether it’s one piece for over the reception desk or 400 reproductions to put in hotel rooms. A good art consultant is like a Velociraptor. They’re out there constantly hunting and competing for art buyers so that you don’t have to. All you need to do is find them.

Lynn Basa

Secret #1: Build Your Own List
I should let you know right now that I’m not going to give you a contact list. Not because I’m being coy or territorial, but because the first secret to being successful at this is to customize your own list based on what kind of work you do and then make targeted, individual contact with the art consultants who specialize in that kind of work. If there’s one generalization that can safely be made about art advisors, it’s that they hate to receive portfolios from artists who haven’t done their homework. It’s a waste of their time to handle them; it’s a waste of your time and money to send your work out into the void or, more specifically, the wastebasket. First impressions matter, and the first impression that carpet-bombing your portfolio makes to art consultants is that you don’t respect their time or understand how the business works.

Art consultants are so numerous that the challenge is how to not end up working with so many that you don’t have enough supply to meet the demand. My strategy has been to build relationships with 20-25 who are a very good fit with my particular style of work so that I never have to compromise what I want to make. One of the most refreshing things about selling work through art consultants is that you don’t have to give them an exclusive like galleries often demand. They’ll ask you to because they don’t want their offering of artists to overlap with their competitions’, but unless they’re selling enough of your work to give you a steady, livable income, you should politely decline.

Secret #2: Be Selective
Because there are a lot of art advisors, you can (and should) be selective about the criteria you use to qualify them. What I look for is an impressive client list, and I need to like the quality of the work of the other artists they’ve dealt with. All of this can usually be found on their web sites the old-fashioned way by Googling “art consultant” and “art advisor.” Do the leg work and keep your eyes open. When you see a restaurant, corporate lobby, hospital or hotel with beautiful artwork in a design magazine or in the real world, contact the interior designer or architect and ask who was the art consultant on that project. Most of the large framing companies have art-consulting arms (and don’t assume they only show the generic work inside the rectangles in their showrooms). Ask other artists outright. When perusing the web site of artists whose work you like look at their resume or gallery page to see if they’ve listed the art consultants they work with.

After you screen consultants for quality and compatibility with your aesthetic, check their web sites for instructions on how artists should submit work. If there are none, send them a short e-mail introducing yourself as an artist who came across their web site and sees an affinity between your aesthetic and theirs. Then ask how you would go about submitting work. I always include a link to my web site inviting them to preview my portfolio to see if there’s a reason for further communication. This is actually a Trojan Horse because by then I’ve already done a ton of compatibility research and know that when they see my web site they’ll get the obvious connection between what I make and what they sell and probably want to go to the next step of having me send more information. As a teaser you can also attach one or two JPEGs (NOT your entire portfolio) being careful that they are formatted to download fast and fit on a computer screen. And while it pains me to say it, make sure the resolution is low enough so that it can’t be reproduced by anyone unscrupulous. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to put a watermark or copyright symbol on it while you’re at it, at least until you’ve established trust.

Secret #3: Follow-Up
This must be a secret because so few artists do it! Unless they’ve specifically told you they’re not interested, there’s nothing wrong with reminding them that you’re still out there by sending them images of new work at one- or two-month intervals. More than once I’ve gotten a sale because images of my work had just landed in a consultant’s inbox the same week they were looking for work for a big project. Every time I send out a mailing I make at least one sale. If it doesn’t work that way for you, it likely means you haven’t made the right fit between your work and what those particular art consultants specialize in selling. You need to take a step back and rethink your strategy.

There’s always that fine line between being persistent and being a pest. If I don’t hear back from them for two weeks after my initial contact, I follow-up with an e-mail saying something like “I hope I’m not bugging you but I wanted to make sure you got my e-mail a couple of weeks ago and had a chance to look at it. I’d love to work with you if you think my work would be a good fit with your projects.” If I don’t hear from them after the second follow-up, I put them on the back burner to contact in 6 months or when I have new work. But that’s my personal comfort level. I know more aggressive artists who seem to be doing very well.

Keep in mind that art advisors are in the same entrepreneurial boat that you are, so make follow-up a two-way street by sending them leads to possible projects. If you find out that there’s going to be a big new hotel, convention center, or hospital built, forward that to one or two of your favorites. You don’t want to be promiscuous about it, though. Art consulting is a tremendously competitive field and it would water down the specialness of this favor if they found out you had sent it to 15 other firms.

Secret #4: Make It Easy for Them to Find You. Art consultants don’t represent artists like galleries do. In order to stay competitive, they constantly need fresh blood. In her book Becoming a Corporate Art Consultant, veteran art advisor Barbara Markoff devotes a lot of ink to helping would-be art advisors figure out how to find artists because, as she says, “I describe the stable of artists an art consultant has as their ammunition to close a sale. Finding artists that your competitors do not have is critical.” Markoff suggests these target-rich environments for finding artists:

1. Attending art festivals
2. Investigating local artist organizations
3. Networking groups
4. Exchanging information with other gallery owners
5. Looking at poster catalogs
6. Attending trade shows such as the West Coast Art and Frame Show
7. Visiting galleries while traveling
8. Posting inquiries on your website
9. Social networking sites such as LinkedIn
10. Looking at websites of artists and other galleries
11. Asking your artists for introductions to artists they know.
12. The Guild.com

Lest it doesn’t go without saying, this is a veritable playbook of where we should have our work to make it easy for them to find us. Notice how galleries do not loom large in this list. Unless they’re dealing with big-ticket artworks, independent art advisors for the most part prefer not to work with galleries because they’d have to split the commission if that’s how they’re making their fee. For those consultants who are getting paid a retainer or flat rate by their clients, they’ll negotiate a discount with the gallery to pass onto the client. The majority, however, make their fee from commissions off of the sale and framing services.

"The Artist's Guide to Public Art: How to Find and Win Commissions" by Lynn Basa

Because Chicago is a world business capital, many international businesses have large offices here. Big companies work with art consultants who are often looking for local artists to give regional identity to those companies’ collections. Having a good web site is a given, but you also need to get on local artist databases as soon as possible. The Chicago Artists’ Coalition has one artists can join that’s long been a go-to for out-of-town buyers. The City of Chicago maintains the Chicago Artist Registry. ArtSlant, an international on-line network, has a section for Chicago artists. Beyond the shores of Lake Michigan, there are a bajillion on-line registries. Some of which are effective and legitimate to outright scams. Getting on as many good ones as possible would not be a waste of your time.

Because art consultants are constantly trolling for artists you will start getting cold calls from them. Yes, that’s right. You don’t always need to cold-call them. They will cold-call you. Recently, an artist told me that she periodically gets e-mails from art consultants saying they saw her work and want to talk to her further. She said she deletes all of them because she assumes they are spams. (Whereupon I asked if she could forward them to me from now on!) Yes, there is a weird phishing spam going around that’s easy to recognize because it’s some BS about someone who saw your work on-line and they’re moving to London but they’ll send you a check blah blah blah, but more than half of my golden art consultant contacts have come from them contacting me. The real ones are easy to check out because all you need to do is go to their web site and if it looks legit call them back and get a sense of what projects they’re working on and where they think your work might fit. Ask them how they found out about you so you can track where your most effective marketing is taking place. If I still have a flicker of doubt, I will call one or two of the artists that they’ve worked with.

Secret #5 Brand Yourself
I know that talking in commercial terms about art is taboo but I’m going to say it anyway: You need to brand your work. Think of it as editing your portfolio. The less of a hodge-podge it is, the easier you’ll make it for the art consultant to appreciate and sell your work. You can still have different bodies of work, but be intentional about which ones to show which art consultants based on her market niche. And don’t ask the art consultant to do a portfolio review. By the time you show her your portfolio it’s got to be all tailored, groomed and shiny. She’s your client, not your art professor.

Secret #6: Be Flexible
The demand for certain mediums and price points will fluctuate depending on the economy. The fact that any image that can be digitized can be printed on almost any substrate as a giclee*, means that you can sell inexpensive multiples of your originals. In addition to paper, images of your 2-D work can now be printed on ceramic, glass, fiber, aluminum, bamboo, acrylic, you name it. If your medium is so tied to your message that the intent of your work would suffer if reproduced on another material, that’s okay. Just make that clear to the consultant. It will limit how much of your work she can sell — partly because you should raise the prices of your originals to offset the loss in cashflow from not doing multiples — but how you feel about your work is priceless.

Another form of flexibility that not all artists can stomach is that you will be asked to do commissions on variations of your own work. Like, “Can you take this section from this other painting and put it over here on this one?” or “Could you do that same painting but make it bigger and square?” I used to feel a twinge of resistance about these requests, but after revisiting my work a few times in response I realized that I not only enjoyed it but was learning a lot from recreating something I had made spontaneously the first time.

Secret #7 Have Your Act Together
Quick! What’s your artist’s net for a 20″ x 24″ print? Don’t know the answer to that off the top of your head? Then you, my friend, do not have your act together, according to Markoff. Before your initial approach to a consultant, you should have the following materials ready:

  • Images of work available for sale (remember, low-rez JPEGs only)
  • “Artist’s net” (i.e. wholesale is 50% of retail) pricelist divided by format (i.e., originals, giclee, substrate)
  • Resume
  • Artist statement

Public art installation by Basa

Find out in what form the art consultant wants to see your portfolio. Markoff and many others prefer 3-ring binders because they can spread out the work on a table for their clients to mix and match. Some only want to use your web site while others need JPEGs in an e-mail or on a CD. Keeping track of what you’ve sent them when and in what format adds up to one heck of a bookkeeping chore. I’ve hired a studio manager to keep up with it all.

No names please. Unlike a gallery, art consultants don’t want their clients to see the names of the artists they’re showing them until they sign on the dotted line. They remove the temptation from the client to go around the art advisor’s back directly to the artist and cut them out of their 50% (usually) commission. And when you do get a call from an unknown prospective client, casually ask them how they heard about you.

Whatever material she needs, get it to her right away. Lisa Boumstein-Smalley of Chicago Art Source says that clients are typically calling her at the last minute in a panic to get something on their walls. Even though the art is the first thing people see when they walk into a room, it’s usually the last thing that’s planned for. In such a fast-paced business, artists who can keep up will get repeat sales, those who need their hands held will soon be road-kill.

This should be enough to keep you busy for a while!

* Giclee: A recently made-up word for “ink-jet print” that sounds more arty and expensive.

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Lynn Basa is a full-time artist living in Chicago. She teaches in the Sculpture Department at SAIC and is the author of The Artist’s Guide to Public Art: How to Find and Win Commissions.