The world of fine art photography exists in the lofty shadows of the photography industry, it’s secrets hidden behind an air of elite mystery. While endless tutorials on how to make a living as a portrait photographer can be found with a quick google search, how to make a living as a fine art photographer remains a more nebulous subject. Last year, award-winning Fine Art Photographer Jason Matias made $60,000 selling fine art prints, and he’s taking away some of the mystery by sharing part of his journey — and solid advice — for budding fine art photographers who want to do the same thing.
Matias graduated college with a master’s degree in Organizational Leadership; he’s also a veteran. So, it came as a surprise to him that finding a job in the area of his major was such a difficult prospect. Like many young people in the workforce, he was overqualified, under-experienced, and too young to be taken seriously in his chosen career field. To make a living, Matias fell back on photography, a hobby that had earned him money in the past.
With the mindset that he would only use gear that would pay for itself, he began selling prints for $200-$300, realizing before long that this audience and price point were not going support him. Putting his degree to good use, Matias began treating his fine art venture like a proper business, and the lessons he learned while graduating from selling $200 prints to selling $5,000-plus prints that hang in hotel lobbies and upscale restaurants apply not only to business practice and marketing but to mindset and goal setting, as well.
According to Matias, the first thing a fine artist must do is cultivate the right mindset. He said, “I’ve stopped calling myself a photographer… and I’ve stopped using the word picture altogether because anyone can take a picture.” Rather than calling himself a photographer, he is an artist, and rather than selling pictures, he is selling artwork.
Matias recognized that what his clients buy is not paper and ink, but the experience the viewer has while enjoying the image, and the perceived status that comes with owning a piece of fine art. Once he’d recognized the inherent value of his artwork, he had to create the right mindset about his clientele. A phrase that Matias used of his own approach is, “I’m selling a luxury product to an affluent audience.” He came to the conclusion that his friends and family weren't part of his audience, and places like coffee shops and restaurants that hang the work of local artists on the wall with a little hand-written price tag dangling from the corner were not a good place to display his art. Affluent clients are not likely to look for fine art pieces in the diner on the corner, and work that is hanging in a diner on the corner is not likely to be considered "fine art," even by the patrons.
Once an artist has recognized the value of their work, cultivated the proper mindset, and made the decision to sell it, the next step is getting to know their potential clients. According to Matias, social media is a great tool for this, but not in the way most photographers have come to view it. Rather than using social media as a means of exposure and networking, Matias finds social media a great place to conduct market research. Who buys and owns fine art? Where do they spend their time and money? What events do they attend, what jobs do they have, and where do they vacation? The more an artist understand the market and his clients, the better chance he has of fulfilling their desires.
Knowing his clients means knowing what they expect when buying a fine art piece and, for a high-end market, this means ditching metal prints, canvas prints, and any materials that are commonplace, low quality, or easy to find. A high-end market desires a high-end product, which means expensive production methods such as boutique printing and handmade artisan frames. Steps like this elevate the experience of the artwork, making it more unique and scarce, which is something his clients value.
Having become knowledgeable about what the ideal client looks like and what they want, the next step is marketing to them. Matias uses a three-pronged approach to marketing, and listed these tactics in order of their effectiveness:
- In-person networking
- Big-business style marketing
- Social media
Matias approaches social media the way a corporation would: with an eye for the data. He finds potential clients that fit within a defined market segment, such as career fields that earn enough to have a disposable income, and looks for signifiers that these people would be a good fit for an investment in a fine art piece. Using social media for the data, rather than the exposure, means that Matias can use a platform like Instagram to search for qualities his target market possesses or subjects they are interested in as pre-qualifiers of their suitability as clients. Rather than advertise his art on social media, it has become a fertile stalking ground for potential buyers.
Big business style marketing extends far beyond a particular use of social media and into the realm of email marketing and top-of-mind advertising. Matias makes sure to keep in touch with people, always following up on emails and cultivating potential relationships. Efficiency is a key component in big business style marketing, and spending hours on social media learning about clients isn’t always efficient, so Matias mentioned the efficiency of looking to big data companies as a way to gather information.
The catch with social media and big business-style marketing is that the artist must pay careful attention to what is working, and make adjustments based on ROI. If sales from one area don’t earn enough to justify the time and effort spent, that’s a bad return on investment. From Matias’ experience, nothing beats in-person networking. He mentioned a restaurateur who has become a client, spending over $30,000 on art to decorate his restaurants, because Matias walked in and told the owner that his décor could use an update.
To grow sales, Matias says that setting clear, quantifiable goals is crucial. Rather than saying something vague such as, “I want to sell more prints this year,” artists should make goals that sound more like this: “I want to make a $20,000 sale this year.” Having goals that are clear naturally leads to finding pathways to reach them, whereas vague goals mean vague actions.
A Note on Galleries
Nothing says “I’ve made it,” quite like having one’s work displayed in a gallery. There are things to look for, according to Matias, if gallery showings are on the goal list. If a photographer is serious about making good money as a fine artist, artist co-ops and kitschy galleries that sell trinkets to tourists should be avoided because they rely on foot traffic, rather than a dedicated sales teams and client lists, to sell art.
There are three things Matias notes as “must haves” when considering approaching a gallery:
- A great sales team
- Black book
A gallery with a great reputation should also have a stellar sales team that is knowledgeable about art, the trends of the market, the artists they represent, and the tastes of their clients. Such a gallery should also be in a desirable location and have a list of clients — a “black book” — with the contact information of clients they serve. This list is used to inform potential clients when work comes on the market that fits their tastes, to notify them of showings, and bring in regular clients who collect certain types of work before they’re forced to compete with other buyers. If an artist is considering approaching a gallery, these three things should be considered.
Finally, and possibly most relevant to the artists themselves, is this question: how do I know when my work is good enough? While answers to this question are always a bit vague, Matias says that chances are, when the artist has developed a recognizable visual signature — a voice — that permeates their work, they’re probably ready to begin shopping their work to potential clients. Be prepared to make sacrifices for the long haul, though. One thing Matias was very clear about was that making a living as a fine artist requires hard work, dedication to creating art, and commitment to your career as a business, so hours spent mindlessly in front of the TV or playing a game on the smartphone have to be removed in order for the artist to be productive and efficient.
Making $60,000 a year by selling fine art also requires an investment of time before it becomes a reality, so don’t give up your day job… at least, not right away.