Artists. Galleries. Brands.
2020 was a game changer for people in the art world, like for almost everybody else.
Traditional galleries will most certainly struggle from now on. But while they will struggle, artists will thrive. The reason is very simple: art galleries used to be the gatekeepers of the art world and they are becoming less and less relevant.
But with great opportunity comes great responsibility. Artists will need to start seeing themselves more like online entrepreneurs, which comes with a lot of challenges.
Art galleries in the traditional sense
First let's ask ourselves why art galleries used to be the gatekeepers in the first place. I think the core reason is very simple: foot traffic. On top of that comes the brand and the associated reputation, but those were always built while taking advantage of the foot traffic.
The (simplified) recipe used to be as follows:
- have a space in a prime location
- take advantage of the foot traffic to sell art
- create a brand and grow your reputation, which will lead to more foot traffic
- back to 2.
Online art galleries work in a similar way, except they use online marketing techniques to drive visitors to their website rather than using word of mouth and billboards to drive foot traffic. But the recipe is the same.
The era of personal brands
We like to blame social media for keeping us glued to devices, but in effect social media is a tool that democratizes content distribution. This means that effectively the middlemen can be removed.
- No longer do musicians need record labels in order to promote and to sell their music.
- No longer do writers need publishing houses in order to promote and to sell their books.
- No longer do visual artists need art galleries in order to promote and to sell their works.
They need two things however. Note that in all the above I highlighted to promote and to sell. Record labels, publishing houses and art galleries are both marketing channels and distribution channels for musicians, writers or painters. In order to function as a sustainable business, one needs both: the (foot) traffic and actually selling something.
In the traditional sense, the core of a brand is a physical shop (or a network of physical shops). A physical location whose look and feel is controlled by the owner. When you enter a McDonald's you know you are in a McDonald's. And when you enter the local art gallery in a typical European town, you know exactly where you are: you see what kind of art they sell, how the place is organized, how the current exhibition is curated.
In the online world, the core of a brand is always a website on a domain you control.
And this is exactly the beauty of the online world: everybody can now create their own brand. You don't need to rent an expensive location in the city center to get the foot traffic and make sales. In fact that expensive location is now becoming more and more irrelevant.
You can build a stronger brand with a $10/month website on your own domain plus social media accounts than you can with a beautiful space in the city center.
Which is why I say that artists do not need galleries anymore. What they need is simply:
- a website (the core of their brand)
- social media presence (the marketing channels)
- online art galleries (the distribution channels)
While this may sound complicated at first, it is actually very easy. Creating your own website, spending some time on social media trying to make connections and selling your works through various online galleries/shops are really easy things to do, although a little bit time consuming.
The only thing you need is to start viewing yourself (the artist) as an online entrepreneur, a small business, a brand. Once that paradigm shift happens, you will start making small steps towards establishing your online presence. And no matter how small the steps are, if you do them consistently the results will come.
Many musicians realized this. Many writers realized this. Visual artists are now starting to realize this.
I think the more an artist thinks in these terms, the more successful he can become without selling his soul to galleries or spending his life hoping to even be noticed by one.