Sunday, June 28, 2009

How to Sell Your Art In Manhattan for Free

Rumor has it that certain Chelsea galleries are renting out space by the hour, in a sort of Recession Special that is allegedly going to help artists make ends meet in these desperate times. They must suppose that there are still a few thousand artists in the city who have not figured out that the only people who come look at, and occasionally buy, your art when you are not represented by a Big Important Dealer are your friends, and you can invite your friends to your studio for free.

But what if your studio happens to be in a Scary Neighborhood, as so many studios are, and your friends with disposable incomes refuse to visit you there? It so happens that there are other options than renting out six feet of blank wall in a failing gallery on a weekend when all the collectors are in the Hamptons. So here is some practical advice, from an artist who has Actually Been There.

On the sidewalk at West Broadway between Prince and Spring, Saturdays and Sundays year-round, that is. You might also try Fifth Avenue near the Met, or Union Square, but I don't personally know the scene, so don't blame me if you get roughed up by the regulars.

1) Stake your space before 8:30 AM.
You will need a folding table or a display rack to do this. Set it up on a section of sidewalk between the foot-traffic zone and the curb. Do not set up directly in front of the doors of any retail establishment; they will call the police and have you removed if you do. Do not leave any objects of value, such as art, on the rack or table while you are off napping in the car or sitting in the café.

2) Do not expect any foot traffic before 11 AM.
Tourists and other people with disposable income sleep late on weekends, rather like you used to do, when you had a day job and a dealer.

3) Shiny, shiny, shiny.
Artworks that catch the eye of tourists and fashionistas need to be bold, colorful, and executed in a recognizable (read: retro) style. Picasso knock-off prints do very well, as do photographs of NYC landmarks. Small paintings of dogs and flowers are also great sellers, as long as you put in enough consecutive weekends to build up a following.

4) Simplicity of display is essential.
Remember, you are competing with the chaos of a Manhattan retail district sidewalk, and all that that implies. Don't try anything subtle or fussy. Use a simple black backdrop and a vertical display format; sandwich boards are the most stable. Bring folding chairs, suitable attire for the weather, a friend and a sense of humor. Make sure that everything is firmly anchored, especially on windy days; find or bring a few large rocks to chain your table to.

5) Be consistent and professional.
Don't share a display rack with an artist whose style is utterly unlike yours. Don't show art from every phase of your creative development. Don't show anything on unstretched canvas, unless you're just there to drink beer on the sidewalk with the other losers.

6) Package yourself.
Have business cards with your website and your store available. Keep works on paper in plastic sleeves. If you can beg, borrow or steal a credit card machine, do so; people spend twice as much with half the consideration if they can charge it. Come to think, you may be able to use PayPal from your cell phone; do the research.

7) Cover your behind.
Go to the website and register for an EIN. It should come in the mail within a couple of weeks; keep it to show to the cops if they pester you with talk of business licenses. Be nice to the other artists on the street, even the Chinese guys selling kitschy framed photos mass-produced in China, and stay out of political and territorial wars as much as possible. Remember: the fiercest battles are always waged over the smallest stakes. A few square feet of sidewalk is not worth a night in jail.

8) Do not expect to be discovered. Especially, do not expect to sell your work for anything like Art World prices.
Works on paper move for between ten and forty dollars; paintings for between fifty and a hundred and thirty. Feel free to price them higher, but be aware that you will be sitting there for a long, long, long, long time.

9) Tell your friends.
You may think you're going to display your brilliance for a world of ignorant strangers and bring them to their knees, but round about three o'clock you're going to be very glad to see a familiar face, even if it's only your brother-in-law the IT guy. Hey, don't IT guys make pretty good money? Do his walls need something on them?

10) Appreciate your day job, if you've got one.
Isn't it great to be getting a paycheck for sitting behind a retail counter in a temperature-controlled environment, or for washing dishes, or scrubbing toilets, or painting houses, or laying tile? Isn't being an artist kind of overrated?

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Anonymous said...

Regarding the Lyons Wier Art Bazaar:

The entry fee, admittedly, is minimal only $20. But charging a commission on top of the entry fee seems gratuitous. Yes, the commission is a lower 20% and not the usual 50% . . . but the Bazaar guidelines state that the artist is then responsible for installing (bring your own tools and materials!) and selling the work (you need to be there from 8am to 8pm--you can't leave or ask someone to fill in for you!) Lyons Wier has little to lose from this approach since they're shoving most of the gallery's normal responsibilities/duties right back on the artist.

Two things bother me most about this plan: 1.) The artist takes on the role of gallerist/dealer and pays for the privilege of doing so. This smacks of the vanity gallery approach. 2.) Lyons Wier is essentially abdicating responsibility for anything that could be considered studied, coherent gallery program. First come, first serve, the highest selling artist gets a solo exhibition regardless of whether or not the work is suitable for whatever vision they (Lyons Wier and whoever) might have possessed for the gallery. (I understand that the art business is, at bottom, a business but this move essentially pisses on the traditional role of gallerist.)

The Art Bazaar is a bad move. It is raw and rapacious without even the slightest effort to pretend otherwise. It is a tacky maneuver intended to cash in on the inherent hard-working nature of artists, not to mention our inherent career desperation. Ostensibly, it could be argued that it offers some exposure to the artists and perhaps it could foster a sense of community amongst the participants. (Boy, I'm really reaching here, aren't I?) But the benefits to this approach are minimal at best. Avoid it, I say.

(Full disclosure: I am posting this comment of several blogs who've touched on this topic. Please forgive me if the sentiment isn't entirely unique to one blog.)

george said...


“Shiny, shiny, shiny.” Love this – funny and entertaining! Here is a possible entr'acte for you. Have you given a thought to filling this out and sending it and more like it to magazines?

One point I missed. How would you go about dealing with the kibitzer who wants to "discuss" your work?

Steppen Wolf said...


Great post...

"Picasso knock-off prints do very well, as do photographs of NYC landmarks. Small paintings of dogs and flowers are also great sellers, as long as you put in enough consecutive weekends to build up a following. "

Nice one...


Pretty Lady said...

George--kibitzers are a godsend! They rarely buy any art themselves, it is true, but they provide a safe zone for shy potential buyers to sneak in under cover of distraction and stare at their object of desire for the 10 or 15 minutes it may take them to make up their mind.

Few people want to stand there under the gaze of an eager, desperate artist who needs that forty bucks to pay for groceries.

Is there a magazine you'd like to suggest which might be interested in this sort of thing? Preferably one with which you have a personal connection, and can offer a recommendation?

Pretty Lady said...


This information is all literally, verifiably, experientially true. Dog portraits in particular are a potential gold mine.

Spatula said...

Bwah! I have been thinking about cat portraiture because it seems to combine 2 things I love - painting and cats - and 1 thing I need, money. Might be an enjoyable way to make a buck!

Chris Rywalt said...

"Shiny shiny shiny" -- I love it.

george said...


Sorry, but I have no personal knowledge, experience or recommendations to offer. I remember decades ago having read several artist magazines (I actually made an attempt at trying my hand at painting – watercolors no less). Perhaps one of them:

Contact data and submission information should be available on line. The readers of these magazines are usually artistic tyros/amateurs and your insights and observations should be of interest to them and therefore the magazines themselves. Sorry I couldn’t be more help but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t build up a small portfolio of articles. You could always take parts of them of give them a tryout on your blog.

Anonymous said...

This story is not funny and pretty lady is not pretty.

She seems to be all about truthin' so...just sayin'!

Anonymous said...

BTW Pretty Lady: Are you an expert on shilling that fake Picasso junk & giving advice about selling dog portraits to SoHo tourists because that's what you do??

I would just offer this small bit of advice: If a person wants to make money go out get experience or a trade and find a job. If you want to be a painter or artist work hard, gather support and pay your dues. That's how it works. And it's not about making money...

Anonymous said...

fyi: Correction I meant to say in first post that Pretty Lady's advice is not pretty; not her. Didn't intend to impugn her personally.

Pretty Lady said...

BTW Pretty Lady: Are you an expert on shilling that fake Picasso junk & giving advice about selling dog portraits to SoHo tourists because that's what you do??

Anon: Type the word 'irony' into Google. Or else check my bio and see what kind of work I do. And don't be such a jackass next time.

Anonymous said...

I am a famous artist. The only advice I would offer - anonymously mind you - is to believe in yourself and your art completely and to never ever waiver even when the chips are down. COMPLETE AND TOTAL FAITH.

Pretty Lady said...

Anon 6/28: I believe in myself just fine. I no longer believe in art, however.

Enjoy your fame. There are some things I'm not willing to sacrifice in order to get it.

damer said...

Good food for thought here... It is interesting to read comments.

Claudia and Sergio Olivos said...

Good information pretty lady! We are two artists living in the Washington DC area and have often contemplated driving up to New York to try our luck on city streets... your article was well written: engaging and informative. Question: would we need a NYC tax id number?
Thank you and best of luck!