Promoting Artwork: Context, Context, Context

In promoting your work, you always need to consider your context. Knowing your audience and understanding the “feel” of a room can make all the difference.

What was the last work of art you loved? Do you remember where you saw it?

A new study, Art in Time and Space: Context Modulates the Relation between Art Experience and Viewing Time, by Brieber, Nadal, Leder, and Rosenberg, indicates that the answer to that question may lie in the context in which you viewed the piece. In a computer lab, viewing high resolution photographs on a screen, participants were less likely to appreciate the images than those who viewed the same images in a museum. How does that relate to you when you’re promoting your art?

In this article, we’ll discuss lessons in marketing artwork that every artist should know, particularly how context can impact the way people interact with art and how to use this knowledge to promote and sell your art.

Megan Harmer speaking with a guest at Agora Gallery
Artist Megan Harmer speaking with a guest at her opening reception at Agora Gallery.

So why did participants in a computer lab engage less with the art than museum goers? Here’s something that may shed light on the issue: in the study, the most significant differences of interest and engagement came when participants were shown complex images: those images which required some effort and thought to engage with or decipher. Lab viewers simply dismissed more complex images, moving on impatiently, while museum viewers were likely to take their time analyzing and deciding what they could make of what they were seeing.

This comes as no surprise to us at Agora Gallery. Think about it – when you’re on a computer, how often do you click, scroll, or exit from a tab or window? It’s second nature to simply “move on” when you’re in that environment. However, when you’re in a museum, you’re also in a different state of mind. You’re there to stop, think, observe, and enjoy.

Here at Agora, we see viewers interact with art on a daily basis, and we have certainly learned how much context itself can enhance the interactive experience. But you can’t just rely on a beautiful space: you have to use your strengths and context to open a two-way interaction with your audience. At Agora Gallery, the staff makes a point of nurturing a friendly and welcoming atmosphere, offering our professional knowledge and expertise to interested visitors. We’ve certainly noticed how this helps viewers relax and enjoy the art.

How to Understand your Context

Now, none of this means that you need to have your work hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in order for to be appreciated! This study is a sign of something that many of us probably know on an instinctive level: Context is Key. What is context? Well, in short, it’s the who, what, where, why and when of your artwork promotion.

Who is your audience?
What are they interested in?
Where is your audience? / Where are you trying to promote your art?
Why is your audience there?
When, or what time of the day, are you trying to promote your work?

Related: 6 Things You Can Do To Promote Your Art →

When you’re showing your work, you’ll want to give some thought to where you are: what mood is your audience likely to be in? How much time do they have to stop and interact with your work? What do you know about them? In art-focused contexts, you can expect your audience to have more authentic interest, but out in the rest of the world, things can get trickier.

Shifra, Those Who Crossed My Way 14
Shifra, Those Who Crossed My Way 14

ther hand, an artist showing her work from a booth at a horse fair will notice that there are far fewer people interested in art. They’re passing her right by – even though her works are abstract masterpieces!

Does that mean you shouldn’t show your work at non-art events? No. It means you need to adjust your “sales pitch” at these non-art centric events.

Let’s revisit the artist at the horse fair. Imagine that her works are actually all equestrian portraits. Well, she’ll certainly fit in better. While most people at this horse fair aren’t there to buy art, they’re certainly willing to stop and talk about horses. And that’s where good promotion, interaction, and marketing all come into play. You can promote your work anywhere if you have a good idea of your context, how it affects your audience, and how to connect your art to the event at hand.

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Guiding the Conversation

No matter where you are, it is always important to engage with people who express an interest in your work, because you never know whether the person you’ve just met might turn into a long-term collector of your work. For example, Biddy Hodgkinson went to a dinner party arranged by a friend of hers and got chatting with a man who worked in the cathedral of her city. Her enthusiasm for her work and her ability to connect it to other relevant topics of interest led him to suggest that she apply for the Artist In Residence at Lincoln Cathedral, which she eventually was awarded the position of.

Did Biddy overwhelm her conversation partner? No. She was sensitive to the nuances of the context and the conversation; her work deals with the themes of death and decay, and she was quick to notice the precentor’s interest in this topic, which came up naturally in conversation. Biddy knew that promoting art isn’t about forcing your art into any conversation, but about noticing when it can organically be introduced to people who have expressed relevant interests.

Biddy Hodgkinson, Dear, Mixed Media on Canvas, 35.5" x 31.5"
Dear, Mixed Media on Canvas, 35.5″ x 31.5″ – Biddy Hodgkinson
Biddy’s works are all inspired by death, time, and decay. She used this theme to connect with her conversation partner, with very successful results!

Let’s go back to our hypothetical equestrian artist at the horse fair. It’s fair to assume that her guests have some interest in horses. So how does she start conversations with people who pass by her booth? Not by talking about her painting materials or her interest in art history, but by talking about her subjects: the horses. What is her personal connection with horses? Why does she paint them? That’s what her audience wants to hear. When she’s at a booth at an art fair – that’s what she’ll want to talk about her artistic style and her materials.

If you’re part of an exhibition in a gallery or museum, it’s reasonable to assume that the people who approach you are interested in a discussion, even an extended one, about your work. The best response is to be open and enthusiastic, and to be willing to take the conversation in whatever direction the potential buyers are interested in.

At an art fair people are more likely to stop by briefly, so it’s important not to make them feel pressured or uncomfortable. You can try to engage them with stories about the pieces on display, and show an interest in what they’re doing at the event. Are they enjoying themselves? How far did they travel to get here? These lighter topics of conversation can gently encourage them to stay a little longer and engage with the art. Once you’ve got them hooked, then you can start incorporating your work and process into the conversation – but remember to regularly gauge their interest level and back off if they seem uncomfortable or overwhelmed.

Getting Noticed

Wherever you’re showing, give some advanced thought to how you can encourage people to give your art the attention it deserves.

At a gallery reception opening, you can trust that interest in your work will arise organically. Visitors are specifically there to see art and meet artists, so you can feel welcome to introduce yourself to guests and answer any questions they may have for you. It is important to do some networking and self-promotion, of course, but your art will often do its own ‘marketing’ in that respect. But, if we go back to our artist at that horse fair, she’ll be putting a good deal more effort into her sales pitch.

Jimmy James Kouratoras and his works
Does your artwork have an interesting theme? Jimmy James Kouratoras’s paintings are influenced by the Maori People, and he brought a bit of Maori culture to his exhibition.

Make sure your work is eye-catchingly displayed. Whenever possible, keep it close to “the action” so that it’s within eyeshot of the focal point of the event. Of course, try to balance this so that you’re also not too close to distractions from your work. You want to grab the event-goers’ eyes, and you want to keep those eyes on you.

Let’s suppose you’re setting up a booth at a street fair:

Stay close to the action: Set up near a popular food stand, near an entrance, or somewhere else guests naturally gather.

Keep away from distractions: Stay away from fire-breathers, live shows, or animal attractions.

If you’re at an event that isn’t directly related to art at all, you can offer to give a painting demonstration, or simply consider live sketching so that passersby can see what you’re doing. This is a great tactic to get a potential buyer to stop and engage with your stand. Be ready with friendly comments and anecdotes about the paintings on display and the event, if relevant. Smile at people as they walk by.

Patricia Queiruga discusses her artistic process during Portal to Enigma exhibition
Patricia Queiruga discusses her artistic process during Portal to Enigma exhibition

Get a Feel for the Room

You also need to take into consideration how busy everyone is around you. In a museum or gallery setting, visitors are generally happy to take their time. They are there to learn, observe, and appreciate; they’ve dedicated the time for it. But at an art fair, even though it’s an event dedicated to art, many visitors may be more concerned with getting through all the rooms or floors – ticking everything off their ‘to-see list’ – than they are with actually appreciating individual works of art.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be showing your work at art fairs. In fact, art fairs are some of the most profitable endeavors artists can partake in. What it does mean, however, is that you should adjust your expectations accordingly.

Think of it as a two-way process. You’re reaching out to help the passersby get into the right frame of mind to appreciate your art. For their part, they will sometimes respond in a friendly, interested fashion, and they’ll be willing to give you and your creations their time and attention. Don’t insist that they do all the work in the interaction; you have to meet them halfway at the start. Think back to the study we mentioned earlier: if they’re in a ‘computer lab mindset’ they might not be able to respond in the right way, so you need to do what you can to help encourage the ‘museum mindset’ that you want.

Of course, it won’t work with everyone, and you shouldn’t let that worry you. It’s not a failure on your part; it simply wasn’t the right context for those people.

Related: 6 Tips to Sell Your Art →
There are always ways to encourage your audience to notice and appreciate your art – but it takes skill to get them into that mindset. It’s natural to think that it’s the viewer’s job to be paying attention to everything around them. After all, you’re interested in your work, so why wouldn’t they be?

Context_TellUsNo matter how innovative and brilliant their work, all professional artists have to engage in marketing their work as part of the job. It might not be the reason you became an artist, but it will help you make art your career.

Remember that study we started with? What’s the takeaway? You cannot rely on the strength of your work alone. You need to approach potential collectors in the way that is best suited to the context and the mood they’re likely to be in.

However great your work is, no one can love it if they haven’t seen it – and sometimes people need a little extra help to see what’s right in front of them! 

 

Remember the importance of context when promoting your work. When used right, exposing your work to a variety of contexts can be the best way to introduce yourself to new buyers and fans. 

With over 30 years of experience, Agora Gallery offers artists the opportunity to present their work to a broad range of national and international art collectors and buyers. Looking for an opportunity to enhance your career? Visit our Gallery Representation And Artist Promotion page for more information.

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