At the Community Arts Center in Danville, Kentucky, we just had our best-selling show in at least a decade – perhaps even an all-time record. During the Plein Air Artists of Central Kentucky’s (PAACK) En Plein Air exhibit, the Arts Center sold an unprecedented amount of art. While the show was not a complete sell-out (like you might see in bigger cities with a full roster of art collectors), we were more than thrilled to have moved that many pieces.
This exhibit had a lot going for it – first off, the Plein Air Artists are an amazing group of mostly local (but perhaps I should say regional) artists that meet weekly to paint outdoors April – October (in the winter months they paint indoors at the Arts Center). They had assembled an incredible amount of work for this exhibit. Twenty-four artists brought in around 120 pieces of work to fill the entire Arts Center and almost all of the art had been made within the span of a year – most of it coming to fruition over the Spring and early Summer of 2017!
The artists had been doing their homework. We had a similar exhibition to this during the same time last year, and the work had improved dramatically because the artists had spent so much time honing their craft. It was easy to see that the group was far more confident in their abilities by the quality (and sheer number) of works they turned in to exhibit.
So – we had a group of great artists, they had a lot of great work, but what made this exhibit any different from the other group shows that we’ve hosted over the years? What made this show sell so much better than others? While there may have been other underlying factors, the reason for success – in my opinion – was all about personal connection. These works of art were sold because they made a great connection with the people who bought them.
The PAACK group met in the early Spring of 2017 to set a calendar of where each plein air art-out would occur. For the uninitiated, “plein air” painting refers to painting outdoors in natural lighting. The artist sets up her canvas, her easel, and begins creating art that will mostly be created on-the-spot (with perhaps a few touch-ups or tweaks later in the studio). Keep in mind that these are the Plein Air ARTISTS of Central Kentucky – so all kinds of art are welcome. There have been photographers, quilters, and even a collage artist join the group on their outings. The schedule of art-making lined out all kinds of great locales for the artists to capture. Everything from local farms, wildlife preserves, streams, lakes, and even fellow members’ gardens were covered in the calendar.
Whether the group intended to or not (of course they knew what they were doing), they made great connections at each of these locations. The property owners often came out to see the artists in action as they toiled away in the summer heat, under umbrellas, hats, and no doubt layers of mosquito repellent. Seeing a work of art in progress, of your own property, done on-the-spot before your very eyes certainly sets the stage for a favorable review – creating a perfect storm of “I want that.” Of course, many of the property owners whose homes, farms, or gardens were featured as art-out locations also came to see the exhibit on opening night. You’ll never guess what happened… They bought the art! Not only were featured art-out-site-owners interested in this art, but practically anyone who stopped by to visit fell in love with the exhibit featuring the beautiful bluegrass region in which we live. They liked the exhibit for two reasons – it was excellently crafted and secondly it made a personal connection, reminding them of home. They appreciated these local artists capturing the area they call home in a way that only a native Kentuckian could.
I know that often as artists, we (myself included) tend to try to go completely introspective, creating art that matters only to us with the mindset of “Who cares what others think?” To some degree (disagree if you like) I think that particular attitude can create some of the purest, most genuine art, however, we cannot forget the importance of making personal connections with viewers. If we fail to connect with people on a personal level, we fail to connect with them on an artistic level as well. I’m not only speaking in terms of profitability, but in terms of making art that truly matters –regardless of whether it sells or not. The greatest flattery is that someone connects with your art in such a way that they absolutely have to own it. If you are creating art that is completely introspective and autobiographical and you are being 100% honest in your approach, there is a good chance that someone else out there might feel the same way you do. They might have developed the same aesthetic appreciation as you have. Even if the factors all line up – a great aesthetic, the right size, the right colors, great subject matter, an interesting artist – without a personal connection, the work isn’t going to have the “Gotta have it” appeal that it takes to win the viewer over.
Keep in mind that each of these artists created this plein air work in their own style. I don’t think that anyone “sold out,” and painted in a particular style or method just because they thought it would be an easier sell. No one lost their artistic dignity and tried to turn a quick buck, they just found a great way to connect to their audience in a meaningful manner. They love painting landscapes. I wouldn’t assume that any of these artworks sold solely because the buyer said, “Hey, that’s my house,” but rather that they loved the painting because it was a great painting. The fact that it was a picture of their house might have inched them closer to buying the piece, but trust me – no one wants a bad painting of their house.
If you are having a hard time connecting to your audience (whether sales are important to you or not), stop and think about how you might be able to make your work make sense to your audience. Most likely, you wouldn’t need to dramatically change anything about your style or concepts. Any ground you can make toward connecting with your audience is going to get you closer to the results to you desire.