Building a "Direct" Art Business -- The way artists currently selling $100k/yr are doing it
The most successful independent artists and photographers today won’t be found in magazines or high-end galleries...
Makiko Harris, Art Storefronts member since 2020
...You’ll find them at home – in the studio, or on the computer, running their own businesses that generate $100K+ a year right through their website.
This is an absolute revolution in what’s possible for artists, and today, I’m going to tell you exactly how they’re doing it.
There are 5 things you need to know.
1. A Website Is Not Enough
Give me any product idea and a few days and I'll have a basic website created for that product.
What I won't have is a real business.
The same is true for your artwork. Merely putting it on the internet is not enough.
It’s like setting up shop on the side of a forgotten desert path.
The work can be incredible, your talent off the charts, but without a plan to put it in front of the right people, it will be all but invisible.
While many artists tend to spend large amounts of time perfecting their websites, the reality is that your website is less than 1% of what will make your business successful.
The other 99%?
Jonah Allen, Art Storefronts member since 2018
Before a buyer lands on your website and makes a huge purchase, they'll need to first:
- Discover you, typically via social media
- Become a fan - entertaining behind the scenes content, live videos, and blog posts will help
- Join your mailing list, because you’ve properly incentivized them to do so
- Learn about your products, through your merchandising videos that show off how amazing your work looks, what a metal print actually looks like, etc.
- Hear about your holiday sales – you're running those, right?
In other words, marketing.
Your marketing turns a casual follower into a superfan, and THEN, when they're ready, they come to your website and make a purchase.
No marketing, no purchase.
This is the HUGE missing link for 99% of artists and the reason 95% of all Shopify stores fail.
Yes, your website and its visualization features are important – but ONLY once you are generating a lot of traffic from art buyers who love your work.
For that to happen, you’ll need to do consistent marketing just like every other business on Earth.
But what if you don’t even have a website?
2. Direct. To. Consumer. (The Model That Works)
At Art Storefronts, the core of our mission as a company is to solve the starving artist problem.
This is a problem that has persisted for millennia and has only become solvable in very recent history.
The problem: Artists have traditionally been forced to build indirect businesses.
That is – businesses that depend mostly or entirely on third parties.
Third parties like galleries, museums, art shows, and, more recently, online galleries like Etsy and Fine Art America.
The reason this method will never work: you’re giving control of your success to someone that is ultimately operating based on their own interests.
The gallery decides you don’t sell well enough and doesn’t invite you back. The online marketplace changes its algorithm and knocks your work back to the 35th page of search results for your niche. A pandemic hits and the art shows shut down for 12+ months.
You can see why this model isn’t looked at favorably by most business professionals.
Today, following the massive shift in the art market (more on that later), it is finally possible for you to build a proper, direct to consumer business right from your home.
Megh Knappenberger, Art Storefronts member since 2017
You sell the work, collectors buy the work. That’s it.
For this, you'll need your own, proper art gallery website.
With this method, you ensure YOU earn the most from every sale of YOUR work, and YOU keep all of YOUR customer data (critical for earning repeat business!).
This is how you build your house on rock, not sand.
At least 80% of your sales (preferably more) should come from direct sales.
Note: This doesn't mean we’re advocating you ditch your galleries and art shows today.
Those indirect sources are still useful if they are working for you, but treat them like the gravy – you take it wherever you can get it, but you never rely on it.
And you always assume it will go away, because eventually it will.
3. The #1 Metric of an Art Business
"What gets measured, gets improved." -Peter Drucker
As an independent business owner, you can quickly find yourself drowning in data...
Unique sessions? Bounce rate? Open rate? Abandoned carts? Cost per click?
It’s important to identify and focus on just one or two KEY metrics that will guide your decision-making.
This is how business executives achieve great performance.
After consulting 10,000+ artists over the past decade, we have determined the key metric of art and photography businesses.
It’s the number of quality leads you acquire.
A quality lead is someone who is genuinely interested in your art.
It’s someone you can contact at your will, essentially for free. Someone you can take with you wherever you go because they are not stuck on one particular platform.
For artists, a quality lead is an email address.
It is NOT a Facebook or Instagram follower. In 3-5 years, we may not even be using those platforms any longer. Remember MySpace?
That is why you must acquire leads by getting them off of those platforms and onto your email list, where you can keep in touch with them for years to come – no matter what happens to this or that social media platform.
So, how many leads have you generated in the past month? The past 6 months? The past year?
These numbers are all I need to determine the direction your business is headed.
I don’t even need to look at your art.
If you are not generating a substantial and consistent quantity of leads every month, your business simply will not grow.
If you are in this position right now, it is likely because you have no legitimate marketing strategy.
That’s okay. It’s completely fixable, so fix it.
Do the marketing. Start making decisions based on whether they will help you acquire leads or not. Chart out your new leads on a graph – monthly, if not weekly. You will be amazed at the difference it will make to your sales over time.
4. The Prototyping Mindset
In this section, I’m going to talk about the superpower you likely don’t even realize you have.
But first – at some point, someone, somewhere spread the word that artists need to "focus on one niche" and go all-in on it.
That if it doesn’t work, they’ve failed – or just haven’t "tried hard enough yet".
If you’ve found yourself following this train of thought, remove it from your head right now because nothing could be further from the truth.
When you study, as we have, the most successful independent artists selling over $100K annually, you find something remarkable. They did not listen to that bit of shoddy advice for a second.
In fact, they did the exact opposite. They iterated their way to success. When one niche didn’t work, they introduced another. And another. One day, something hit – BIG.
Jeff Waldorff, Art Storefronts member since 2017
The ability to do this is a superpower.
In any other business, in any other industry, prototyping new products is a massive undertaking. Engineering, modeling, and manufacturing all have to come together in a costly and time-consuming process just to test out something new.
You, as an artist, are completely free of this limitation.
Prototyping a new product for your business is as simple as creating a single painting in a different style, or photographing something new.
This allows you to rapidly “prototype” your way to success. And you’ll need to do it, because rarely, if ever, will you find an artist who has become a massive success by selling the same work they started out creating.
There are always little pivots and iterations along the way. Always.
Take that knowledge and run with it. Get your work to the market FAST, and don’t be afraid to change things up and explore new markets until something resonates with buyers.
5. Get Ahead of the Massive Shift in the Art Market
Did you notice it?
Over the course of the events of 2020-2021, practically the ENTIRE art market shifted online.
This was a transition expected to slowly develop through 2030, and it just happened in a single year.
This is incredibly positive news for every fine artist and photographer who is trying to build their own business.
Prior to the shift, so much art sold in-person through traditional venues like galleries and shows that you had to have some kind of physical presence in these locations in order to generate substantial sales.
Now, the opposite is true. And it’s here to stay.
Habits have changed, and the eyes of the average art buyer have been opened to the pleasure and simplicity of buying artwork online.
The unfortunate consequence of this is that artists who refuse to adapt will find themselves financially crushed by these new circumstances.
The biggest, best-selling artists out there today are the ones that were already doing their own marketing and taking the online market very seriously years ago.
Some of them are now selling $300-400K/year without the assistance of a single gallery.
Mathieu Laca, Art Storefronts member since 2016
They saw the future and prepared for it, and it's not too late for you to do the same.
Now that you know this, does it mean you will automatically, personally benefit?
Not unless you do something about it.
What do you need to do?
Conceptually, it's very simple: Become amazing at running a direct, online business.
Start by sorting out your mindset. Accept the future of the art market, and muster the determination to get ahead of it.
And don't just get ahead of the market, get ahead of the problems success will introduce.
Those successful art sellers who learned how to do marketing and are thriving today are also facing new challenges.
For example, with higher volumes of sales comes heavier print fulfillment needs.
The overall admin work that your business generates will increase, and so you’ll also need software to automate and simplify as much of it as possible.
Eventually, you’ll need to hire some form of assistant to help you with your marketing and administrative functions so you can focus on creating.
It is wise to think ahead and solve these problems up front to avoid major growth barriers down the line.
Because it’s one thing to launch a business, another to get consistent sales rolling, and yet another to fully scale it into the deep 6-figures.
Is your business even ready for that kind of growth?
As you can see, missing the big picture means you will find yourself band-aiding things together over and and over again as you grow. You'll also be neck deep in admin work, rather than being able to enjoy the fruits of your labors.
One last important piece of advice: building your own, direct business is not something you will be great at in one month.
It will take time. But therein lies the arbitrage of this moment.
The art market has just shifted. The opportunity is here and now.
Five years from now, things will look very different. The direct model will be more obvious, and the extra competition will make it harder to get off the ground with a new business.
You need to have your online business well in place by that point, so that you’re not one of the many who will be stuck on the sidelines struggling to adapt, insisting the "old ways" of selling art will come back eventually.
Instead, adapt to this shift, embrace it, take advantage of it.
Follow EXACTLY what the art sellers who are already earning $100K+ a year online are doing, and see where you can take your art/photo business over the next 3-5 years.
- The 7 Cornerstone Features Your Website Needs to Sell Art Online
- How Artist Megh Knappenberger sold $200,000+ in her first year
- A New Standard in Fine Art Print Fulfillment (Print-On-Demand)
- The Journey: Learning How to Sell Art Online
- Introducing Live Wall Preview with Augmented Reality Feature
- "A New Type of Company": The Letter Our Owner Sends to New Customers on Day One
- Art Storefronts Is Not a Marketplace, We're Something Better
Art Storefronts Is the All-In-One Art Business Solution
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