The Art of the Alternative Art Venue

The Art of the Alternative Art Venue


the Art of the alternative art venue

Alternatives are the new galleries…

Artist and confidence are not words that always go together and especially when the artist is relatively new to selling and exhibiting their work. So this week I pondered the question, what would make it easier for those new and not so new artists to get their work seen without the pressure of attending a full blown show, give them a little confidence, and gently introduce or re-introduce them to the business side of the art world.

But I also need to point out that there are some risks in doing things this way, some of which I have learned all too well over the past three decades of trying to get my own art into public spaces. I have had both success and failure with this particular route, and what works for some people won’t always work for others. It depends on the type of art you produce, the type of venue, the venue owners, visiting clients, and everything in between. You need to do a bit of research to find out if it will be a good fit first. 

But if you are willing to give it a go and you make sure that you are aware of the potential issues it can be a lucrative model to sell your work.

So what’s the model?

Simply put it is about exhibiting your work in alternative venues other than galleries and shows and it could be almost anywhere. 

Café’s, restaurants, the doctors surgery, local shops, local businesses, anywhere where people congregate or there is good passing foot traffic. When I have mentioned this to some artists in the past the question they have most frequently asked is whether or not doing this will cheapen the art or ruin their career in some way, the answer is not really and not at all if you do it right. In fact it can make careers. 

If you are already exhibiting in a gallery you might have to consider whether or not you signed an exclusivity clause, and it is probably worth speaking to the gallery manager before you go ahead with displaying work elsewhere. But on the whole and especially if you are directing people back towards the galleries to make a purchase, many of them won’t mind at all.

Whether or not you sell in a gallery there is one further consideration before we move on to the good stuff, and it is that you need to keep your pricing consistent wherever you are selling your work be it online, in a gallery, or directly, if you charge a dollar here you need to charge a dollar there. I just hope you’re asking for more than a dollar though. 

So what do I need to know?

I am a big believer in getting your artwork seen by as many people as possible and particularly in your own local area. I meet a number of artists and I include myself to an extent in this, and most of us agree that a majority of sales come through online channels from all over the world, yet very few from the areas in which the artist lives. Having said that, three of my neighbours own a piece of my art but only after I did a leaflet drop to say hello!

Alternative venues are not only for those new to selling art and who want to get their feet wet, they can also be good for more established artists too. If you have an unsold pile of work gathering dust it can also be a way to get that work out there, although you do want to show your skills in the best light so if it hasn’t sold because it isn’t your best work then it might be best to let it sit. Don’t use this as an opportunity to sell yourself and your art short.

Why would I do this?

It really depends on what you want from an arrangement where you hang your art on someone else’s wall and what theirs and your expectations are. You also need to figure out if you think you can meet those expectations. Whenever I look at alternative venues it is usually for exposure more than new sales. 

If it is because you want to get lots of new sales then it really depends on how committed the venue are when it comes to promoting the work that you have placed on their walls, especially if you’re not going to be around all of the time. 

Why would a business want to let you hang your art hang on their wall?

Well most businesses probably don’t or rather they have never thought of doing this, but when they do they will have multiple reasons although some will be the wrong reasons.

When I started doing this around 20-years ago most of the businesses I approached said yes very quickly. Some of them said absolutely not, but the ones that said yes felt that it was a good way to beautify their venues and with little to no financial outlay. That was one of my early mistakes, it was all about them and for this to work, it has to work for both of you. 

Over the years I have become a little pickier about where and when I will exhibit in this way. I’ll come on to why a little later. Some businesses though are keen to support their local communities and some even have an interest in the arts more broadly. 

If the presence of your art also means that the business can open for special events such as a show opening and then sell whatever they sell to more customers they might be even keener to give a temporary exhibition a try.

I know a few businesses who now have public art walls. Usually coffee shops where a wall is given over to the art produced by local artists and in some cases from students of the local colleges and schools. The art is switched out frequently and a new show is displayed and that gives their customers something new and interesting to see whenever they visit.

Some businesses might not be looking solely at the commission you might pay them for any art sold, they see it purely as a means to make their premises more attractive to customers without paying out and committing long-term to owning their own art collection. This will come with a downside in that if they view your art with an eye only on the aesthetics of their premises they might not have any incentive to sell any of your work.

The Customer Experience…

I mentioned earlier that I am now a little pickier in choosing venues to display my work at and whilst I haven’t shown over the past couple of years, whenever I have done in the past I have made sure that I would be able to occasionally visit the venue in a professional context.

Ask venues if they would be prepared to hold an opening of the exhibition if you are placing a number of works with them, and most of them will agree to host an evening and perhaps open a little later. If customers are coming through their doors for an opening it gives the business some additional footfall. 

Some of the larger businesses mightl host a reception and could provide snacks and refreshments for those who come along, and they will usually have staff available who will be networking with those who do turn up, but it should be a two-way thing. In the past I have turned up to some of these events and the businesses were clearly using the artist to bring people in and then completely forgot that the artist was also attending the event. 

If they have large mailing lists many of them will also send out an invitation to their customers and you could potentially use the invitation to give those who do turn up a small discount, or exchange it for a small signed print or gift when they arrive.


finding the right venue for my art

What and where to try…

Banks…

Local banks were once keener on getting involved in local activities, today small local banks are closing rapidly and being replaced with online banking. Corporate policy also often dictates what they can and can’t do, but just occasionally you will come across a suitable bank who will engage with this type of activity. 

It makes sense to hold an arts evening for banks and especially if your work is priced on the higher side. Bank staff would at least be on hand to talk about their own finance options but if your work is priced on the lower side of the scale, the cost of having staff stay behind probably isn’t going to be worth it to them.

Coffee Shops…

I know that in some places the big coffee chains work with local art schools and communities but this is not consistent across all regions and all stores within a region. Independent coffee shops though might be more receptive to the idea particularly if they are in tourist areas. If your local Starbucks or other franchise doesn’t already have a public art wall, ask them if they would consider it. Some coffee shop owners might not have thought about doing this but art and coffee just seem to go hand in hand, or maybe it’s just that I’m addicted to both coffee and art. Ask, you never know they might say yes!

Cafés…

Cafés can also provide plenty of foot traffic to view your art but you have to be careful with the type of art you display and where the café display it. Aromas in cafés tend to linger and grease and food stains can add the type of mixed media effect that you just don’t want on your artwork. 

Where the work is displayed can also cause problems particularly if it is in reach of tables where children sit and who are often issued with crayons and colouring pages while they wait for their food to arrive. Chair backs can also rest heavily on lower hanging works. Another rookie mistake I made in the past when four large prints became an extension of a colouring book. 

Local Businesses…

Local businesses who have a waiting area or foyer make particularly good exhibition spaces, and if the business is participating in any local arts events then they become even more relevant. 

They may have a steady stream of influential business types going through their offices each day but again remember that their core business will not be selling your art. Corporate offices will be more likely to be using your work for the aesthetics or to support various arts programs, but if you get your work in a more prestigious business it really can help to elevate your career if the right people see the work.

Here’s a little tip for those of you who create pet commissions, ask your local veterinarian if you would be willing to display a few pieces together with some business cards and maybe consider donating a proportion of your profits to an animal charity too. You might want to consider turning up at a few dog and horse shows too. 

Churches and other places of worship…

My local Cathedral often displays the works of artists and more recently held a Turner exhibition which was extremely well attended. Places of worship though are good for reaching your audience, so long as your work is sensitive to the faiths and beliefs of those being represented. Again you could add a charitable element to selling works in such places, some churches also have significant involvement with the arts. 

High-end gift shops…

We have all been to coastal resorts and other tourist areas and we have all spent lots of time and often money in many of the more upmarket gift shops that often carry ranges of home décor items too. As many of us work in print on demand it gives us a unique opportunity to purchase these products at base cost or ask the shop to order those products from our own print on demand stores when they receive an order. 

Offer the shop a discount so that they can make some profit on each piece sold, and if they purchase a number up front for display purposes, give them a code which takes your artists commission off completely or provide them with the products on loan whilst they build up sales. 

Many of the smaller independent shops will like the less risky approach because they don’t have to keep any stock until they know exactly which pieces sell, and as the products available from Fine Art America and Pixels are of a very high quality, they will have a much better fit with the other products on display. This year I plan on placing my latest seascape series into one of these stores in a coastal town in Wales who have taken pieces from me before. Worked well last time, let’s hope it does this time too!

Hospitals, Dentists, and Doctors,

Anywhere there is a waiting room is fair game to display artwork, well almost anywhere. Hospitals, dental surgeries, doctor’s waiting rooms, all have constant footfall and it really does help when the right art is displayed and makes people feel more relaxed. 

Edvard Much’s The Scream might not be appropriate for a dental surgery or other health related space but landscapes of local scenes and often calming abstracts will have a good fit with many places. 

Perhaps any work sold could include a percentage of the cost which supports the local air-ambulance service or will go towards buying new equipment and art therapy supplies, and if you are an artist maybe you could offer to join art therapy sessions or speak to patients whilst they are in hospital about art in general. It’s not the best idea to use that interaction with the patient as a sales pitch though, but if they do ask you can always leave them with a business card.

Other ideas…

If you move into exhibiting in one of these spaces it is always a good idea to build up a rapport with the staff working there. Sometimes taking in a box of donuts will remind staff that you appreciate their efforts or offer staff an added commission for any work that they do sell. It’s all about building relationships. Staff are more likely to engage if they’re getting something out of the sale too, they become champions of your work if you look after them well enough. 

Collaborating with other artists in your area can be a good idea too but as I have written previously, collaboration is a two way thing and shouldn’t be interpreted as one of us will do all of the work while the other collaborator does nothing.

Joining together with another artist means that you could approach a business with the idea of holding a joint show and the business will benefit from having a range of different art on display. Working together also eases the load as sometimes and especially if your display is popular, work can soon mount up. 

When it comes to collaborating you could also approach local galleries who might be interested in outsider events at alternative locations. They will have their own client lists and can also add a touch more professionalism around marketing, and who knows, they might just become interested in your work if it sells enough. Even if they don’t participate you should invite them along anyway. 

We will get to the specificities around terms you might want to look at applying very soon, but making sure that the work is displayed along with details such as how to contact you or how to purchase the work is also something that you have to consider.

I have seen artwork in cafés and restaurants which has been placed by local artists and there is no indication at all that the artwork is for sale. So make sure that whatever you agree, there is some provision to at least display your business cards or some way of making sure that everyone will know that your work is for sale.

Create good quality business cards, leaflets, and flyers and also provide something that can hold those leaflets. Acrylic wall mounted leaflet holders can be picked up relatively inexpensively online. Amazon and eBay are great places to pick these up from but make sure that they are the correct size for your marketing materials. Folded up price lists that are just squeezed in never get picked up.

Leaflets containing a small selection of your works or highlighting some (but not all) of your greatest achievements and a short artist bio together with details on how to purchase your work would be useful to have in place too.

You might want to consider leaving some comment cards with ‘what do you think of my art’ type questions and leave it to the person filling out the comment card to decide whether or not they want to keep their details anonymous. If they decide to leave their details you could enter them into a prize draw or send them a discount code.

Always have a photograph of you somewhere on leaflets next to your artist bio, that way they will know that they are dealing with a person and might recognise you the next time you pop into the venue. 

Email Sign up box…

What with those pesky data protection laws that we all have to consider these days, email lists are useful but can also become problematic if we don’t hold people’s data or process that data in the right way.

If you include a tear off strip on your leaflet so that people can leave their email address with you, let them know that you won’t be using that data to sell on (and don’t sell it on), and you will only send them details of offers and new works and/or enter them into a prize draw. Let them know that they can also be removed from the mailing list at any time if they contact you too. 

Provide a lockable box ideally bolted down with a small opening at the top and make sure you check the box and add the email addresses to your database regularly. You could if the venue allows it, also offer a giveaway and draw a random email address out of the box to perhaps win a signed print of your work.

To look after the email addresses consider using a good online email list service so that once you have added the new address they will automatically get sent any new emails. Most of the good online surveys and email list builders will offer a free list builder platform usually capped at a couple of thousand addresses, but make sure that the email list provider does not harvest people’s email addresses for their own benefit. The good ones will also offer an unsubscribe option so you don’t have to worry too much about handling those who might unsubscribe. 

People tend to unsubscribe for a couple of reasons. You are either sending too many emails out, or what you are sending out offers no real value. Monthly emails are good and it cuts down the work you need to do to prepare the email, and it means that you will have more to say when you do send out the emails. Add value and make the emails interesting, never be spammy, and look after people’s addresses and you will quickly start building up a good sized list of potential clients. 

The most important thing to cover is that whenever you do collect email addresses make sure that the addressee has given explicit permission for you to use the email address for the purposes that you have told them you will, and also let them know exactly how they can remove or unsubscribe from emails and make this step very simple.

I will be covering email campaigns in a future article so if you have any good ideas let me know and I will feature the best ones right here on this site. 

Frequently visit your display…

Staff often haven’t got enough time in the day to do what they are supposed to be doing so visiting the venue not just to collect the email addresses or orders but to replenish stocks and supplies of business cards, art, and leaflets should be done as regularly as possible.

Sometimes the venue might make your visit more of a formal occasion and will ask if you could maybe spend an hour or two talking about your work to customers, if they do it’s a little like a book signing event for an author. I love turning up to these events because I can get direct feedback about my work and understand what people would like to see in the future. 

Take a few pieces of paper with you too and some drawing supplies and give out quick signed sketches you have created in front of the people you will give them to. I always do this and if children are present I ask them to draw a shape and then I finish it off for them by turning it into something else and then I sign it. Kids love seeing things like that. 

Use context…

One of the smartest marketing campaigns I think I ever saw was back in the days when I tried to play golf. I mean I really did try but being left-handed and owning a set of right-handed clubs didn’t help. Having said that I don’t think it would have mattered that much if they had been tailor made for me.

A local artist had managed to wrangle a show at a popular local club where he displayed his work depicting some of the sport’s greatest golfers. Instead of handing out business cards he had his contact details printed on to a golf ball and gave them away with a few wooden golf tees. 

What he had done was use the environmental context to theme his marketing so this is something you might want to consider too. Perhaps not using golf balls but having some items featuring your work printed so that they can be used as promotional gifts/business cards. They needn’t be expensive, just a token of appreciation for stopping by. Coffee shops think coffee mugs or coasters, just make sure that it all ties into your art. 


alternative art galleries

What to look out for…

It all sounds exciting having a show without the formality that traditional art exhibitions bring but as with anything there is often a darker side and if you are totally unprepared, it can cost you dearly.

What you never want to happen is to arrive at the local coffee house and hang your art on the wall and bring the wall down in the process. Wherever possible I leave the hanging to the owner, or I use temporary portable display stands or pre-existing hooks. 

Make sure that the venue has some insurance too but sometimes you will have to make a decision if the owner asks that you leave work at your own risk. It is then for you to decide if you can afford the loss if something does go wrong. Remember those kids with crayons in the local restaurant and my four prints, it was an expensive gig. 

Have a written agreement which clearly states the terms, duration, what happens in the event of an accident and things such as where and how the art will be displayed. It doesn’t have to be long, one side of paper is usually sufficient, but make sure that payment terms are definitely included.

If the venue owner sells your work and makes the transaction on your behalf you will want to know that you will receive your part of the payment in a reasonable time.

You might want to consider adding that your display shouldn’t be altered without your consent and make sure that you do not interfere with the core business of the venue, especially when swapping out artworks. Sometimes you may need to visit after the business has closed for the day to swap out works. 

If the business has a website or they send out newsletters ask them if they will include your details on the email, and also ask if they would consider running special events. You need to absolutely ensure that your details and the fact that your work is for sale are clearly displayed at all times, and it is worth making this an absolute requirement of any agreement and get it in writing. 

Once you are both happy, have a go at writing a press release. Local newspapers might just pick the story up and bring in some new customers for both of you, or if they have a local art critic maybe they will review your work. 

It has to work for both you and the venue. Offering a good percentage of the sale say somewhere in the region of 25%- 30% could make the difference between making sales and not making sales. It has to be worth it to the venue, they are after all giving you wall space and footfall and it is still 20% less than you need to give to a gallery. 

Offering a higher percentage means that they then have some skin in the game, make it worthwhile for both of you and the staff and you might just be surprised how lucrative this alternative venue business can be. 

When not to do this…

There are times when alternative venues just don’t work at all so you will want to know what red flags you should be looking for. Here are my top four, there are other but these seem to be more common. 

  • If the venue won’t allow you to display your contact details or business cards or if the venue move your art work without telling you then it is time to say no. 
  • If you visit the venue and notice that staff are way too busy to think about selling your work then it could be a signal that it isn’t the right venue for you. 
  • If your gut tells you it is not a good idea then trust your gut and don’t do it. 
  • I mentioned earlier that doing this alternative venue thing will not necessarily damage your art career, any positive exposure after all should be seen as a good thing but there are just some venues that you definitely don’t want to exhibit in for whatever reason. It could be that they have received some harsh reviews or have had a recent public relations scandal, so make sure that you do your own due diligence to start with. 

The alternative venue…

There are so many alternative venues that you could pick that it would be impossible to list them all, but hopefully this article will at least have given you a little inspiration if you are wondering where you might be able to get your work seen other than online or in a gallery. 

When starting out just don’t set your expectations too high and make sure that it really does benefit both you and the venue and more importantly, know that the venue could have 80,000 visitors a day and your art still might not sell. Serendipity as always, right piece of art in the right place at the right time with the right set of eyes seeing it, I’m a big believer in serendipity. Equally they could have a dozen customers in a day and your work will sell regularly. 

There are so many artists who have done this without success but equally there are many artists who do this and make a sizeable income from doing so. I have had a measure of success and also a few disappointments, but the thing is, you just never know who will walk through the doors of any venue. 

It also gives you something else to talk about and promote on social media. Consider boosting a few posts and target a local audience, or even offer to share costs of a joint paid post with the venue. 

It could be a small micro-brewery, a restaurant, or anywhere. You have to look around and to coin a cliché, think a little outside of the box sometimes.  

If you are still worried that this will cheapen your career then don’t be. I know more than a few relatively well-known artists who started out this way and still continue to do it. The venues might become more exclusive over time just as gallery representation will, but the art world is so very different today than it was thirty-years ago and alternative spaces can now be seen as the trendy thing to be exhibiting in especially in some regions and art districts.

Some venues will ask you to pay rather than taking a commission but again, they have no skin in the game once they have been paid and selling your art becomes an even lower priority for them. 


support independent artists in 2018

Do you have an alternative space?

I would be really interested in hearing from businesses who would like to support independent visual artists by offering a space to display the artist’s work for sale, so if you have a spare wall and are keen to engage with the independent visual arts community, get in touch with me and I will promote you on this site and through my social media channels on Facebook and Twitter. You can email me at: mark@beechhousemedia.co.uk contact me through the contact form on this site, or reach out to me on social media, or even just leave a comment.

If you are based in Staffordshire, England, I would be more than happy to come and speak to you about promoting local artists and some of my artist friends from further afield and who sell via print on demand. It’s so important that as an artist I support other artists, and it is so important that businesses and the wider community support artists too. Geography shouldn’t be a barrier to great art. 

Even if you could offer space for only a limited time, I am sure there are many artists out there who would want to work with you. 

If you are an artist who would like to be involved, let me know. Perhaps we can collectively champion public art walls in even more places. 

About Mark…

Mark is an artist and blogger who specialises in abstract and landscape work. He has also produced numerous book cover commissions and also specialises in creating artwork for use in TV and films. His work is sold around the world and in more than 150 retail locations across the USA and Canada including, The Great Frame Up, Framing and Art Centre, and Deck the Walls. 

You can see Mark’s latest portfolio and buy his work together with a range of art collectibles from https://10-mark-taylor.pixels.com or on Fine Art America. All of his Fine Art America and Pixels sales go towards maintaining this site in order to help other visual artists and art buyers.

You can also follow Mark on Facebook at: https://facebook.com/beechhousemedia and on Twitter @beechhouseart

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