Conversation with an Art Publisher

An interview with art publishing executive Donna Levan, on what artists should know about working in the industry.


Painting of a taxi and the NYC High Line in watercolor

“Hector’s Diner Under the High Line” watercolor, 21″ x 15″ by licensed artist Tim Saternow


Donna LeVan is the Vice President of Publishing for the New York Graphic Society Publishing Group, the oldest and largest publisher of wall décor in North America. She brings 30 years of creative and product development experience to the role, having directed the creative process at several advertising agencies, the Chicago Sun-Times, The Creative Black Book,  Portal Publications, NobleWorks, and most recently, NYGS.

For the last nine years, she has been instrumental in the growth of NYGS and its expansion into new product formats and new markets.  In addition to managing the art, design, and product development areas of the company, Donna sources, directs, and selects the art for both the NYGS and Artbeats publishing divisions, and consults with both artists and customers on trends in the home décor marketplace and how those trends translate into the imagery selected for publication.

AS: You are constantly balancing your line to give your customers what they want, while remaining profitable. What is the biggest consideration for an art publisher?

DL: No publisher can remain competitive and relevant unless they are able to consistently offer their customers the right product at the right price. It is a simple enough formula, yet one which presents complex challenges in that the criteria which define “right product” and “right price” are forever evolving.

Art publishing is a trend-driven business, thus we are continually analyzing and re-evaluating what themes and styles are selling, what wall décor formats are selling, and what available technologies we should be utilizing to create our products efficiently. In this economy, it is not enough to keep up; we need to be several steps ahead in order to succeed. The publishers who have done well during these challenging times are those who embrace change and are constantly in motion.

AS:  How do you decide which artists to publish in your line?

DL: We publish art for several lines and in multiple formats including prints, posters, canvases, wall decals, and a variety of other printable substrates. Some of our lines are sold to framers (who add finishing and packaging, then re-sell the works to retailers), and some of our lines are sold directly to retailers. Popular themes and styles vary from line to line and format to format, but the core need for strong decorative designs with commercial appropriateness exists across the board.

We often receive submissions from artists whose work has high artistic merit, but that is more appropriate for the gallery world than for the middle-market retail environment. We’re in the business of making a consumer product – wall décor – so the pieces we publish must have broad appeal and must make sense for the end consumer. And we are looking for artistic quality, but salability is of equal importance and is our number one selection criteria.

AS:  What are the most popular categories of images for NYGS?

DL: We publish a wide variety of themes including abstracts, florals, landscapes, coastal/tropical, kitchen and bath, photography, wildlife, novelty, fashion, botanical, vintage, juvenile, and many others. Some themes do fall in and out of vogue, although fresh and exciting interpretations of any home décor theme will definitely get our attention and the attention of our customers.

AS:  What are some of the trends are you seeing these days in the market?

DL: We are currently seeing a big shift toward contemporary styles with updated compositions and unique design elements. Typography-based imagery is in great demand right now, as are abstracts that have a colorful and whimsical aesthetic (we sometimes refer to these as our “happy abstracts.”) There are several noteworthy trends in palette as well. Neutrals featuring layered and heavily textured monochromatic tones are dominating the domestic home décor market, particularly those with a vintage vibe.

Simultaneously, foundations of gray paired with bright sorbet colors are strong in Europe and have definitely been growing in popularity in the U.S. market. Other trends we’re seeing include the mixing, matching and deliberate clashing of floral and geometric patterns, mid-range to navy blue hues, muted antique-inspired metallics, and the color coral (expected to grow in importance through 2012.)

Trends, by their very nature, constantly change. Successful artists keep on top of what’s current by doing their homework online, in stores, at trade shows, etc. I strongly advise artists to make frequent visits to retailers selling our works to see what has been purchased by them and how it looks in that environment (eg., which designs stand out in the crowd, which designs would you be drawn to as a consumer, which designs are actual shoppers inspecting and buying, can you imagine your work fitting into the collection you see there, etc.)

AS:  Can you describe some of the characteristics of your most successful artists?

DL: We are fortunate to be working with many artists and agents who truly understand our business and who have become essential to our continued success. These artists are the ones who create fresh, exciting, and appropriate imagery that is on trend and in demand – and they do it on a regular basis. We present hundreds of new images each month to our core customers (who are always looking for “what’s new” and “what’s next”), so we rely greatly on those artists who are fast, prolific, and tireless. Flexibility is also a common quality of our best-selling artists, as our customers will often want alterations to existing works and those who respond quickly to needs for customization, files, clearances, and commissions are ultimately well rewarded for their professionalism and efforts.

AS:  How much money can artists in your line expect to make?

DL: Most of our artists are paid on a royalty basis, meaning they are given a percentage of the money we make selling their images to our customers. The royalties earned vary greatly from artist to artist, and range from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars in each calendar quarter. Those who earn royalties on the high end of that range typically have a very large quantity of images in our lines at one time, as it’s unlikely for just a few images to earn royalties of that magnitude.

I would advise new artists to be patient and to have realistic expectations about their earnings. It takes time to build momentum and volume, but the upside potential is definitely there. Further, artists new to this should remember that wall décor is but one category in the vast world of art licensing opportunities, and should be considered just one component of a complete licensing program that enables them to leverage the same imagery across a multitude of product categories.

AS:  What is the most common mistake made by artists new to art licensing?

DL: The issue that comes up most often when we’re working with new artists is their ability, or lack thereof, to provide us with high-resolution, reproduction-quality files of their work. There’s a lot of confusion over digital file types and sizes, and very often we find that artists have sold their original works before having a proper digital file of the works prepared.

Wall décor is often reproduced at very large sizes – 24×36, 30×40, 35×35, etc. In order to print at that size, we need digital files that were prepared to that print size at 300dpi (a common error is thinking that any 300dpi file will work, when in fact a 300dpi file made to be 5×7 inches in size cannot be enlarged to 30×40 inches – there’s simply not enough data captured in the file.) There have been many times that we have had to cancel publication of someone’s art at the eleventh hour due to the unavailability of an adequate file. Obviously, that’s a situation we would prefer to avoid.

We have an in-house digital photography studio and can assist artists by shooting their originals ourselves, but often the originals are not available and it’s not always practical to ship them back and forth. I would recommend that any artist seriously interested in licensing their work to large-format categories seek the advice of a professional digital photographer to ensure that they have files of all of their work archived and that those files are appropriate to the needs of the publisher.

AS:  How should artists go about submitting their work for consideration?

DL: There are formal submission guidelines on our website, but in short, submissions may be made via snail mail or email. If by snail mail, color printouts are recommended in addition to a disk and an SASE must be included if the materials are to be returned. Under no circumstances should artists send unsolicited original works.

All submissions are reviewed within a couple weeks of receipt and if we think the work is a good fit with our current needs, we’ll get in touch to discuss next steps. Unfortunately, our busy schedules don’t allow us to respond to every submission, even though we greatly appreciate the interest. Also, artists should not be discouraged if they don’t get a response from us. Every publisher has a market niche and very specific needs dictated by that niche. Just because a submission isn’t right for us, doesn’t mean it won’t be right for someone else and it certainly doesn’t mean that the work itself is not of value.

AS:  Anything else you’d like artists to know about NYGS?

DL: Only that we consider artists to be our most valuable resource and our creative partners in this business. Without them, we couldn’t do what we do, and we are extremely grateful every day for the amazing talents who choose to be a part of our journey.


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  1. Thanks for the very informative interview with Donna LeVan. I learned a lot from the interview as always. The questions asked are almost always the ones that I would have asked myself if meeting with Donna myself.

  2. Thanks once again for another outstanding conversation interview submission from Mrs. LeVan. I continue to learn so many new things here on Artsy Shark & from proven business professionals in the corporate design world.

  3. Thank you Charles and Jean –
    It was really a pleasure to have Donna agree to an interview with me. In full disclosure, I did rep for NYGS a few years back – and I know it to be an excellent company. I totally respect the work she does and her knowledge about this market. I’m glad to hear that it was helpful to you.

  4. Pleased to have found you via a LinkedIn discussion. Appreciate articles like this and have added artsyshark to my resource list. Look forward to reading and learning more!


    • Thanks, Debra. Art publishing, and art licensing in general, are areas that many artists don’t know much about. Hopefully this will help guide those who want to get involved in this income-producing industry!

      • Hello I have been approached to upload my art and licensing documents detail as follows.
        Artist Name Donna L. LeVan, VP CreativeArtist
        Company Masterpiece Art Gallery,Street Address d/b/a East Coast GraphicsCity, State, Zip 4950 South Santa Fe AvenueVernon, CA 9005

        I have been scammed before and always try to verify if the information seems contradictory.
        Dear Sam,
        I’d like to see some of your work. Please email both abstract and contemporary pieces to my email. I’ll then get back with you with my comments and proceed from that point.
        Thank you,

        Larry Winter
        L&B Home Decor
        9314 Forest Hill Blvd
        Wellington, Florida

        • Hi Sam, I don’t know Larry Winter (although the company L&B Home Decor is listed in search and is in the location stated. They have been in business 11 years.) However, I do know Donna LeVan and in checking her LinkedIn profile, I see that she is in fact the head of Creative at East Coast Graphics. This looks legit, but I would suggest you get on the phone with both of them to feel out whether the situation seems right to you. Then proceed carefully with any offers to make sure you are in agreement, and seek legal advice if necessary to review contracts or if you have other concerns.

  5. lorelei lucas says

    is there a way to find out if the NYGS website is going to be updated soon. There are no catalogs available online since 2009 – are they no longer displaying on line or providing catalogs?

    • Hi Lorelei. We no longer publish printed catalogs of our collections — the cost of the catalogs was very high and the industry has changed a great deal over the last several years (very few of our customers were still using the catalog to make their selections, so it just didn’t seem like the best way of marketing ourselves.)
      We now sell our various lines in person — we meet with key customers regularly — and we often customize and commission works to a customer’s specific needs.
      If you need specific information of some kind, don’t hesitate to shoot me an email and I’ll be happy to help if I can.

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