Yesterday morning, over coffee, an artist friend and I were discussing the advent of e-commerce to the art world. She, like myself, has work online and is a keen observer of this new way of selling art. I've always been an optimist at heart and reported encouraging, if not spectacular, sales over the Internet, not to mention the positive image and interest such exposure generates. My friend was not so upbeat. It occurred to me that perhaps I have been presenting an overly optimistic view of the brave new world of art marketing the Internet presents. Therefore, with that in mind, let me present a more balanced view. Two caveats here.
First, although the trends in terms of e-commerce look favorable over the long run, and the potential exposure is ENORMOUS, likewise, the competition is enormous too...much keener than we think of when contemplate traditional art markets. In the past, galleries have tended to insulate artists from the market forces at hand. Space was limited, and because of overhead, exclusivity was a must--thus prices were high. Those who won gallery representation (or obtained an agent) saw their work go for comforting prices. But online galleries do not have a personal relationship with their artists, and because they can feature a virtually unlimited stable of extremely talented (and even some not-so-talented) artists at very little expense to themselves, any remnant of exclusivity is a paper-thin charade as transparent to the viewer as their computer screen. And for this, online galleries want a commission (often as high as the traditional 50%) off the top.
Without this protective shell of marketing savvy, artists find themselves having to set up their OWN galleries, learning (or paying for) the HTML walls and virtual storefront windows which showcase their work. But even at that, they are not guaranteed a walk-in business because they find themselves situated on a virtual AVENUE of all-but-identical artists' galleries of every stripe that is miles long and stories high. And across that Avenue, are your virtual galleries representing hundreds of other artists without Web sites.
Second caveat--with this kind of competition, art prices are bound to fall. But on top of that, the clientele is different. Whereas traditional galleries cater to a very upscale, art-literate collector with fairly deep pockets, as computers and Internet connectivity filter down into the middle classes and even lower middle classes, the bargain hunter begins to dominate the market. And even those who CAN afford traditional gallery prices, in shopping online, are not going to pay more when they can pay less. Thus comparison shopping for art, practically unheard of in traditional art markets, becomes very much a reality.
I was stunned when I first opened my site to hear from online artist friends that my prices were too LOW. Yet my instincts told me they were about right, and I DID (and still DO) sell. Not only that, but other artists I know with very reasonable prices, were ALSO selling online. Yet, by the same token, my friends were right. My prices were LOW, but only insofar as TRADITIONAL art markets with their high overhead and the resulting heavy commissions were concerned. With my own Web site, I had NEITHER of these factors at hand. However (speaking of hands), on the other hand, I had a tremendous amount of TIME invested in setting up, and most of all PROMOTING my Web presence. Being a Realist painter, my clientele was not as upscale or art-literate as traditional galleries draw. Many of my buyers were computer newbies. And given the trends appearing on the e-commerce horizons, this is likely to be even MORE the case in the future.
So, what does this mean for the struggling online artist? First, make every effort to stand out from the pack. Make your virtual gallery not just GOOD but in some way SPECTACULAR. Second, the artwork has to be spectacular too. And third, with all this spectacularity booming around you, keep your EGO under control, and with it, your prices. Remember, you are NOT yet famous, nor (realistically speaking) ever likely to BECOME so (during your lifetime at least). And finally, don't think traditional art markets are going to necessarily dry up and blow away. Look upon your virtual gallery as your key to the front door markets. Just don't expect that key to be made of solid gold anymore.