Beyond the Painting: Marketing and Selling Non-Painting Art

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by Steven Barnes

The art world has long been about much more than painting and sculpture. As photography, followed by film, video, and a whole range of installation work, has made its way onto the walls of museums and galleries, the demands made by these media on artists, gallery staffs, and museum curators has been constantly changing.

As what Walter Benjamin called “the age of mechanical reproduction” has become more and more of a central focus for both art institutions and artists, the implications of what that means for the art being made—for how it is presented, preserved, and marketed—has proved to be a daunting assignment for all involved.

marketing selling fine art photography
Shifra Future Cityscape 17 Photographic Print

There are numerous questions that artists who work in technologically-based arts need to address. How can the value of a photograph, which can be printed over and over, be compared to the value of a painting, which is a certifiably unique object? How does one go about marketing and selling fine art photography? How can you make sure that films, video, and digitally-based artworks make their way to an audience? And how can a site-specific installation ever be captured in a way that allows it to be recreated into a worthwhile investment for collectors? Artists are answering these questions in a broad variety of ways.

Marketing and Selling Fine Art Photography

Ghosts of War 12 by Shifra
Shifra “Ghosts of War 12,” Photographic Print

For photographers, one of the biggest challenges is to ensure that the work they are producing is seen as art by both galleries and collectors. “It took a long, long time for photography to be considered art,” says Shifra Levyathan, a Tel Aviv-based photographer whose work is regularly shown at Agora Gallery. In fact, she says, it is “only within the last five years” that she has seen photography begin to get the same kind of treatment that painting does in the art market.

That sets up an environment in which artists must promote not only their individual pieces, but must also make a case for the very art form in which they work. One place where Shifra sees a basic misunderstanding is in how the digital manipulation of photographic images has been interpreted by non-photographers. Many viewers believe that digital manipulation simply consists of the push of a button to get the desired look. “Photoshop is a time-consuming art,” Shifra says, “One that requires a disciplined and skilled artist to achieve truly noteworthy effects.”

So how does a photographer make his or her presence known? Shifra has often relied on the competition process, submitting her work to juried events and using that as a way to establish a position for herself. While the inevitable rejections can at times be “soul-crushing,” as she puts it, the process of exposing one’s work before an audience is a skill in and of itself. It is also one that can only really be learned through trial and error, in seeing what works with an audience or competition jury, and what does not. “Talent is only 10% of the equation,” Shifra notes. “The other 90% is due to Lady Luck.”

Useful Article: The Right Way to Enter an Art Competition

For those who hope to make luck less of a prominent figure in the process, there are things that can make your work catch a curator’s eye and position you for greater visibility. Rebecca Robertson, a curator, writer, photo editor, and coeditor of New York Photography Diary, says that the way that a photographer presents his or her work to a potential curator or exhibitor can give a huge boost to the work’s chances of success.

“When I’m looking at work,” Robertson says, “I want to know that the photographer takes his or her work seriously and is ready to be sending it out into the world.” That seriousness factor isn’t simply about nice paper and fancy art portfolios. Of course, those are certainly not going to hurt; however, it is much more important to keep your focus on the quality of the images themselves, and on the story that they tell to a potential exhibitor.
“If the work is strong,” Robertson says, “it will show. And if it isn’t, fancy presentation won’t disguise it.”

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Day Ends With Efforts, 2015 by Riya Sharma
Riya Sharma “Day Ends With Efforts, 2015,” Photograph on Fine Art Paper

After you have landed a place to exhibit your work, there are other considerations about how you should present your photographs to give them maximum impact. “The way pictures are hung makes assumptions about what is being offered,” Brian O’Doherty wrote in Inside the White Cube back in 1976, and that principle is just as valid today. While painters have traditionally used ornate frames to underline the seriousness and aesthetic nature of their work, that isn’t nearly so common for photography. “As a rule,” Robertson notes, “frames for photographs are simple or non-existent.” Once again, the principle of keeping your eye on the images themselves, especially on how different photos relate to each other in terms of size space and position, is important. You are creating an overall mood when you arrange a group of pictures on the wall, telling a story that gives the viewer a coherent sense of your work.

Once a viewer makes a connection with your art, how then is the process of selling a photograph different from that of selling a painting? While a painting is a wholly unique commodity, a photographic negative or digital file can be used to create an unlimited amount of prints. How the photographer decides to limit the number of copies he or she is willing to sell becomes a major component of the overall process. “The decision to limit an edition size is basically a marketing strategy,” Robertson says. “Since rarity drives value, the thinking is that a smaller edition will make a print more valuable. So if your goal is to make the most money from selling work, you should think about whether you would make more selling a few higher-priced works or more lower-priced works over your lifetime.”

Twice a year, Agora Gallery hosts Illumination: An Exhibition in Fine Art Photography. Click here to view this year’s exhibition photos and video.

Marketing and Selling Installation and Video Art

These issues can be even more complicated for artists who work in film, video, or installation art. First off, while a photographer can easily send out a portfolio that gives a fairly accurate look at the quality of his or her work, artists who produce videos or films face an uphill battle.

It is one thing to ask a potential curator to look through a portfolio of photographs, and quite another to arrange a situation in which a potential exhibitor can view a group of videos or short films. The burden of explaining the concept of your work to people who might exhibit or buy it is much greater for film and video artists, since often they have to fill in the gaps for people who have not seen the work in its entirety.

Marina Abramovic during “The Artist Is Present” performance at the New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Source:

The complexity does not stop there. While painters and photographers have to deal with the contingencies of hanging and arranging their images, film and video artists have to negotiate a series of technical demands in order to present their work to a viewing audience. Robertson notes that such issues as how many power outlets a gallery space has, where a projector or video screen can be mounted, and what area of the room is best suited for viewers to spend several minutes grouped before and after a video viewing, are all things unique to showing this media: issues that a photographer will likely not have to deal with.

Similarly, the question of marketing and selling can get far more complicated for video artists.. For many, the actual sale and reproduction of their work is, at best, a subsidiary part of how they make a living. Often, the best route is to take on commissions for work, or to obtain a residency at an arts institution. This, however, is something that normally comes as a result of having already had established oneself and one’s work by showing in some kind of public forum, whether a gallery, museum, or other type of independent arts organization.

Artwork from Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 2

Perhaps even more difficult to sell, at least in a traditional sense, is installation art. Since the site-specific nature of much installation art makes it highly difficult to transfer to a private residence, it can be an incredible ordeal to market this art form as buy-able.
Sometimes, an installation’s material pieces, along with a written plan of the installation, can be sold as a single unit to a collector, but usually installation artists have to take a more piecemeal route. From Matthew Barney selling separate pieces that were used as backdrops in the Cremaster film series to Marina Abramovic marketing photographs of herself in several of her performance/ installation pieces, many installation artists have found that one way of supporting themselves is to take a sort of a la carte approach to selling their work.

The ‘sold’ object takes on a double life, becoming at once a memento of the larger work it comes from and a piece of art in its own right. With the advent of computer-generated work, crowdsourced art, and work created specifically for mobile apps, the issues surrounding technologically-based art are sure to grow even more complicated in the coming years. However, the strength and adaptability of a new generation of artists will allow them to keep on finding new solutions to those issues and clearing a path to even more ground-breaking work.

With the advent of computer-generated work, crowdsourced art, and work created specifically for mobile apps, the issues surrounding technologically-based art are sure to grow even more complicated in the coming years. However, the strength and adaptability of a new generation of artists will allow them to keep on finding new solutions to those issues and clearing a path to even more ground-breaking work.

If your medium is installation or video and film, please share some of the marketing and sales issues (or, maybe, successes), that you’ve come across.


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2 responses to “Beyond the Painting: Marketing and Selling Non-Painting Art”

  1. Elizabeth avatar

    I would like to be invited to your photography openings and talks. Thanks very much.

    1. Agora Experts avatar

      Dear Elizabeth, we would be delighted to see you at our openings and other events. It looks like you’re already on our mailing list so you should be getting all of the invitations delivered right into your inbox. If you’re not getting them, please check your spam folder or shoot us an email at