Monday, November 15, 2010

The Art of Sales from Susan Sales

On my birthday, November 4th, I received a long-awaited phone call. I had a delightful conversation with Susan Sales, a self-taught painter who began her art career more than 25 years ago with the creation of two hand-painted pillows. Now her works are in corporate and private collections around the world and have adorned the covers of numerous magazines including House Beautiful, DECOR and most recently the 2008 Neiman Marcus Christmas Book.

I was introduced to Susan by Todd Guttman, an artist and my former co-worker at an advertising agency in Dallas. Susan was busy the last couple months getting ready for her show, Big Game, that recently opened at the Chiaroscuro Contemporary Art gallery in Santa Fe.

Her great sense of humor and her cheerful voice made me believe that she is maybe just a little bit older than me. Yet, she has over two decades of experience and can offer lots of helpful advice for aspiring visual artists.

Susan attributes a lot of her success to pure luck and being at the right place at the right time. However, as Donald Trump pointed out, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” I think it is true for everyone. Susan definitely worked hard to make it to the art world. She doesn’t have a formal art education, and it was hard to build connections with the art professionals and galleries. She started her artistic career at 38 years old as a fabric painter. She moved from LA to Santa Fe, a city with over 300 galleries at that time. She opened her first studio near the bakery, and the delicious smell of fresh bread attracted lots of folks as bees to flowers. People randomly popped up at her studio and she was happy to show them her work.

After consistent networking, sending her cards to the galleries and spreading the word about her work in the community, she was offered to exhibit her art at two galleries simultaneously. For example, one of her friends from interior design industry introduced her to a gallery owner. That gallery owner came back a year later and offered her a show. Eventually, Susan chose the gallery that gave her more freedom in creative expression.

After I hung up the phone, I suddenly saw a lot of parallels between Susan’s secrets of success and advices that Donald Trump shared in his book “Think Like a Champion.”

Thus, Donald Trump says “Stay Focused.” Susan mentioned when she moved to Santa Fe and opened her first art studio, she was extremely focused and treated her art as a new full-time job. However, it took her two years to get comfortable with the idea of becoming a full-time artist. She used to work in the real estate development industry during the day and was making art at night. When she moved to Santa Fe, she didn’t kill her days in the café drinking coffee and daydreaming. Instead, she stayed in the studio and experimented with paints. She discovered how to make smooth and shiny surfaces on the paintings, and it became her competitive advantage at that time. In addition, she pointed out that artists should never forget about the value of networking and self-promotion.

She said it is very important to love what you do and being passionate about it. That’s another piece of advice in Trump’s book – you should have a passion. Susan loves the process of working with paint and experimenting with various materials and patterns. We spend at least thirds of our lives working, and if we feel miserable at work, we feel that our lives are miserable too.

She recommends young artists to send their portfolio to the interior designers and to contact real estate developers. Drive around your town and look for rising apartment complexes and business real estate. Then call the developers and ask them about their interior design partners.

Susan said, “I was never shy about painting commissions. People don’t live in a gallery space.” Thus, you need to make your art available to them. Hotels, restaurants, office buildings, and luxury apartment complexes are the great venues to expose masses of people to your art on a consistent basis.

She mentioned that many corporate clients have a budget which is often fairly limited. If they pay too little, but still want the original artwork, you can choose less expensive medium, for example watercolors or gouache on paper. Sometimes, it makes sense to donate artwork to the church or another public institution. It creates goodwill, gives you a great exposure, and some tax benefits. Yet, when you donate the artwork, try to get money back to cover the cost of your materials.

She admitted that the art market nowadays is very different from when she started. It is harder to sell art today. However, you can keep your prices low as a starter, and this becomes your advantage. Many well-established artists struggle with sales now because their prices expected to go up.

If you are worried that there is too much competition among artists, below are the final words from Susan. “Do you know how many people are in the world? Don’t worry about it.” There are millions of people who need to fill out their homes with the artwork and you can always find your niche.