A Gallery Director Speaks: The Psychology of Selling Art

Robert Patrick

by Carolyn Edlund

Part Three of a three-part interview with Robert Patrick, Director of Marketing and Wholesale for Linda Jones Enterprises in California, dedicated to the art of legendary film creator Chuck Jones.

 

 

Robert has a long history of curating and producing shows, tours and events, including 12 years as a very successful gallery director at the Walton Street Gallery in Chicago. He graciously agreed to an interview focused on what artists must know about galleries, collectors, selling, and making presentations.

AS:  There is a psychology in getting customers into a gallery. Could you describe that?

RP: Getting people to walk into your gallery, in essence, is about their perception of who you are when they pass your gallery. Yes, it may have something to do with the art they see in the window, a visual attraction, but it’s not just that they are responding to. Without bowing to a New Age aphorism, I believe your gallery has an aura that people either connect with or not. I think it is important that gallery owners/directors are conscious of the subtle subliminal message they are sending out into the world.

You are responsible for establishing an aesthetic viewpoint that will appeal to the person walking down the street as well as to the kind of collectors you want to attract to your business. There are many factors that first come into play here: location, business plan, type of gallery, the demographic of the consumer you desire, etc. But let’s say you have made those decisions; I believe that there are four simple and logical questions that you’ll want to consider.

  • What does the storefront of your gallery say about you?
  • How do you dress your windows?
  • Is it easy to find and open the door?
  • What is the first impression when they enter?

I know it seems simple, but just as you only have a few seconds when you meet someone to positively connect with them, the same holds true for the front of your business. You want it to radiate the same essence that you and your staff do. That essence includes friendliness, intelligence and cleanliness (mind, body, spirit.)

In Chicago, my gallery was on a side street in the Gold Coast just off Michigan Avenue. Our client base was about 70% local, 30% tourist. We left the front door open as often as weather would permit, not only because it weighed what seemed to be 100 lbs., but also because an open door says, “It’s okay, please come in. We welcome you.”

We used our windows to appeal to a fairly broad range of consumer. We were playful when the art suggested it and more sophisticated when appropriate (perhaps a more severe look). Because our windows went down to the sidewalk level, and in Chicago weather often dictated that people often walked with their heads down, we used the lower window space to grab passersby’s attention with lettering or objects that would catch their eye and make them stop, consider, walk in. We made sure that the sidewalk was always swept clean and that the windows sparkled.

Once someone has entered, what is the first thing that happens to them? Are they greeted by a staff member or left alone? What art do you use to introduce them to what they will see throughout the gallery (the window design will also comes into play here). Although regional differences may dictate a different gallery aesthetic, part of what you’re doing as a gallery owner/director is elevating the dialogue about art and leading people to accept and understand new levels of creative endeavor.

One of the great sins of gallery design is placing a barrier at the entrance to the gallery. Sometimes it’s architecturally necessary, but oftentimes it seems deliberate. A tall desk at the front door staffed by a gallerina welcomer, an exhibit wall, or any number of deterrents to the easy access of the gallery can inhibit or outright stop people from coming into your space. I realize it seems elementary, but you’d be surprised how many people fall prey to this easily avoidable hindrance to conducting business.

In Chicago, when a customer entered our gallery they were immediately confronted by a solid railing that separated the staircase to the basement from the street level. They could turn either right or left, but only if they turned right could they then access the rest of the gallery AND then they still had to climb a flight of about 10 deep, low steps to reach the main level. Talk about obstacles! But these were all structural issues that we could not alter, so to make that transition as easy as possible we always made sure that we weren’t looming at the top of the steps waiting to “pounce” on them (our desks were to the back of the space) and we kept the stairs free of clutter. The wall and floor palette was kept neutral which lessened the visual differences in levels. We were sure to place a visually stronger work of art just beyond the lower level to tempt buyers up into the gallery space.

We always opened our crates and shipments to the left of the door, clearly visible to passersby on the street (activity breeds activity, “Look what just arrived in the gallery!” “Something is going on in here; let’s go in, they’re too busy to talk to us. We’ll be able to browse without being bothered.”)

Even in 2010, I think people are still afraid to go into an art gallery. They’re afraid they may not ‘get it’ or they’re afraid they’ll be deemed ignoramuses. Part of that fear is due to the intangible quality of art, part is due to the galleries themselves, both of which seem to be problems that should be our priority to dispel. Collecting art is one of the greatest joys a person can experience, whether it’s a fifty dollar print or a five million dollar painting, it doesn’t matter, it’s the act of acquisition and ownership that make it so unique. It says so much about you; it helps tell your story, it enriches your life experience.

AS:  Selling art is like selling an intangible item. What are your thoughts about why people purchase art?

RP: Two questions should determine whether a work of art is right for you: Do you love it? Can you afford it?

Fortunately, I am an altruist. I want to believe that people buy art for the same reasons that I do, because they love it and it enriches their life. Obviously that is probably not always the case. There are those that need something for “over the sofa” and those who “only buy for investment” (oh dear!) But let’s not talk about them, let’s talk about the collector who looks at a work of art and says, “I understand what the artist was saying when they painted this,” “I empathize with the emotions expressed in this work of art,” or it may be as simple as “That painting is really beautiful, it makes me happy,” (beauty for its own sake.)

It does not matter what genre, what medium, what level of taste. All that matters is that they have formed a connection with the work of art, because the artist was able to successfully share an emotion or idea, and that is important to the viewer right now.

I recently saw three exhibits at LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) all in one day: the John Baldessari retrospective, an exhibition of Thomas Eakins’ sport paintings, drawings and photographs plus an exhibit of Catherine Opie’s photographs that depicted high school football players and teams.

Each artist had their own story to tell, each artist told their story in a fashion unique to them and each artist’s body of work spoke to me directly, personally, just as it did to my companions, but oftentimes we each heard something different because we, the viewer, collector, what-have-you, bring our own experiences with us when we look at art. Could you ask for anything more wonderful than that?

Don’t miss Part One and Part Two of Robert Patrick’s interview series.

 


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Comments

  1. I just loved the bit about collecting art being one of the greatest joys a person can experience. I bought my first painting earlier this year – what a rush. I want to buy more but I am watching my finances, I know this will be temporary and look forward to my next one!
    I also agree about galleries being intimidating. I am an artist and studied art so I know a bit, yet even I find it sometimes a bit scary going in!

    • Karen, Thanks for commenting. I feel the same way about collecting. Art makes me happy too!

      • As an artist and a gallery owner I experience so many things. For me it seems all or nothing where I live as an artist and gallery owner.
        I came from the Hamptons NY and was influenced at a young age.
        Now in the Fingerlakes, most buyers commission my work or buy in 3’s and 4’s. I also opened an antique store that adjoins my art gallery..let me tell you, it is a challenge…my advise to shoppers and collectors…start the conversation with “how can we help each other” sounds simple enough…but it really can open some doors, or focus on them, let them know you want them to experience something special…I don’t always connect, but when I focus on them instead of me, sometimes I make a nice impression and a nice sale…now for naysayers…sometimes I have to tell them what they want!

        My art is such a gift to me, I enjoy painting, it, sharing it and selling it! I have a Art Gallery, antique shop, and rentals that I would love to share in the way of business, residence, or both! ,If yoy are in New York…stop at La Place Art Gallery and Nellie’s antiques and we can share our love of art and perhaps help each other out! Elizabeth Zieler (Liz Zieler) google liz zieler..thank you!
        Thanks for reading!
        Hope it helps, hearing my own words helps me! Liz

        • Thanks for sharing your experience and your challenges, Liz. I like the fact that you often tell collectors what to buy – actually, that makes very good sense!

          Carolyn

  2. I love the thoughts about making every possible thought to bring in the clientele and not be off putting. But best of all buying the art of someone who put their soul into a painting is like having them share their experience with you and best of all you get to enjoy it everyday! Or at least that’s the way I feel about buying art.

  3. Mind, Body, and Spirit is one of the greatst ways of explaining how tou sell you art work.

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  2. […] thank you artsyshark (carolyn edlund) for the opportunity to share some of my thoughts on art, artists, & art galleries.  i’ve really enjoyed the experience & all of the wonderful artists i’ve spoken with.    here then, is the final installment. […]

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