Is Your Art Just Free Décor?

There are all kinds of places where you could show your work.

Coffee shops would love to have your art!
Salons would fawn over it!
Professional offices would think they’d died and gone to heaven!

©Claire Watson, Giant Pacific Octopus, Tofino BC. Ink and watercolor, 9 x 12 inches. Used with permission.

©Claire Watson, Giant Pacific Octopus, Tofino BC. Ink and watercolor, 9 x 12 inches. Used with permission.

This is great news for you, especially when you are just starting out. It’s a stamp of approval when public spaces want to show your work.

Almost every artist does the “free” circuit. It’s where you get your toes wet.

These seemingly low-risk venues offer a venue for you to learn how to:

  • Properly prepare and price your art for installation
  • Curate a body of work because not everything you have made is fabulous and looks great together (Sorry)
  • Install your art correctly
  • Promote your art in a brick-and-mortar space
©Cindy Wilson, Lopez Island Hillside. Batik on cotton, 26 x 16 inches. Used with permission.

©Cindy Wilson, Lopez Island Hillside. Batik on cotton, 26 x 16 inches. Used with permission.

In addition, live venues test your conversational and and negotiating skills. There’s rarely a formal agreement in these venues, but you’d be wise to add that to your list of learning opportunities.

Because these non-art venues are considered less serious than galleries, many artists put very little effort into the process. After all, you’re looking for (here comes the e-word) “exposure.”

You deliver the work, install it yourself, add labels, and then, when the time comes, deinstall it and take it home.

Or perhaps the date for deinstallation is left open.

Six months fly by and your work is still there. The owners and patrons have gotten used to it. They quite enjoy having the nice backdrop. The owners don’t want to see it go, so they aren’t responsive to your attempts to communicate with them.

Your art show has turned into free décor.

Let me be clear that I have nothing against showing work in these places. As I said above, I think they are training grounds for many artists.

What I am against is you missing out on possibilities. Decorating a space for free.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There are three ways to benefit from showing your work in non-art spaces.

1. Ask for a trade.

If you could benefit from what the venue offers, trade your art loan for their products or services. People need to know the value of your art.

2. Structure your agreement as a rental or rent-to-own.

Charge a small monthly rental fee that could lead to purchase if the renters don’t want to give up the work. Be sure to use a detailed written agreement that spells out all of the terms.

©BJ Lantz, Sitting Still. Oil and mixed media on cradled birch panel, 30 x 30 x 1.5 inches. Used with permission.

©BJ Lantz, Sitting Still. Oil and mixed media on cradled birch panel, 30 x 30 x 1.5 inches. Used with permission.

A quick Web search uncovered an art venue that leases art at 3-5% of the retail price, with the possibility that 75% of rental fees could be applied to a purchase.

3. Approach the installation as if it were full of possibilities.

Any venue is less serious if you believe it to be. If you don’t do anything but install the work, you have only yourself to blame for poor results.

To ensure your art is more than decoration, treat every venue as an opportunity for professional advancement. Learn how to improve on the list of opportunities at the top of this article.

To that list, I’ll add two last pieces of advice. First, get to know the staff. You can’t be there all of the time, but they are. They are a potential salesforce for you.

Second, be visible at the venue. Frequently.

This post was first published in 2014 and updated in 2018. The original comments have been left intact. 

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51 comments to Is Your Art Just Free Décor?

  • The default of “free decor” for exhibiting in such venues is so true. And yet another aspect is even more disturbing: Even if your purpose is achieved, and a patron or customer WANTS to buy your work, they may find the process daunting. I’ve tried many times to learn more about an artist after seeing their work in a restaurant or store, and I’ve always been stymied. Most of the staff will know nothing about the artwork, and even less about the artist. It’s even harder to actually try to purchase the piece. Even if the artist has left postcards, price sheets, etc., no one will know where that stuff is. I love your “rent to own” suggestion. It’s like an affordable–and subtle–lay-away plan!

  • I just finished a show at an upscale restaurant where the exhibit normally lasts for a month. The owner asked me to extend for another month. The best part is that I sold several paintings! The restaurant handled the sales for the cost of the credit card fee. The only downside is they did not provide me with the names of the people who bought the work. That’s something to work on for next time.

    I have another show in a non-traditional venue ( a brokerage firm) that should be fun. They host an opening reception, and I figured that the people entering the space have a bit of money to invest – why not in my art?

    As mentioned in the post above, the buying process should be well defined, so that when someone wants to buy something, it is easy to do so.

  • Yes, these opportunities have increasingly become a question mark in my mind. Last year I installed a dozen of my paintings in a local bistro for about nine months. It clearly was a way for them to decorate their walls. One nice thing is that they had a wine tasting dinner and invited me to talk throughout the dinner about my art. It turned out that my friends occupied most of the venue…and rather than buying my art they bought wine from the purveyor. But it was a to good experience get up in front of folks and do that…and I did get lots of good feedback then and throughout the “showing”. I never sold any pieces via that venue….and I noticed that many of the pieces had a certain amount of dust/soot collected on them, probably from the kitchen fumes…easily removed. If I were to do this again it would be with the following conditions: convenient location, help with the hanging, good traffic flow. One major side benefit for me is that it a place to hang my work, rather than putting them in my closet. (I’m fairly prolific, so that’s a real plus.)

  • Great tips Alyson for those non gallery venues.
    I have 5 framed prints in an upscale lodging room. They have been there for over a year with no sales or nibbles. I want to move them out but now it feels awkward.
    The rental idea is terrific. The hotels pay a monthly cable TV service for their guests rooms. Buy it, rent it or show it for a specific amount of time. It should be time specific and a win-win for all parties.

    • Paula: Be sure to hop on the webinar on Thursday. In the meantime, call the lodge and say: “Gosh, my prints have been there for a year. I’ll bet you’d like for me to come pick them up.”

      If they say No, you can negotiate a new deal.

  • We have shown in gallery venues, non-gallery venues, & a few (only 2) museum shows so far…

    Tips on non-gallery venues: the hair salon paid us monthly rent, we sold a large original work, the unsold works came home smelling of hairspray(which actually is pleasant & came out after a while)…

    the restaurant gallery hybrid: the works came home smelling of food, they were too busy to handle sales requests(but we were there so often we handled them), we got a huge amount of attention & met our entire neighbourhood(massive traffic because of the cafe & the long open hours)…

    The busy busy public library show curated by an arts org for us:turns out the wall space was nice but we hadn’t noticed it was on the way & in proximity to the heavily used bathrooms…Our incredible pieces came home smelling like bathroom(ew) which came out after a few months…I actually had placed Febreze car gadgets behind both paintings beforehand because I was worried my oil paint smell would trouble the library air…Turns out it was needed for the other thing…(I sprayed Febreze into a paper towel then placed it into a plastic bag with holes in it when the works came home to air out the bathroom yuck smell after…) No sales during the show, but both pieces got some serious reviewers to write about them, which ended up in both being collected much much later…(oh guilt, I didn’t give anyone a commission on these because it took so long…Hmmm…)

    There were more, but I think that’s a good start for now…Hope this helps somebody else…

    • Sari: Thank you for sharing those experiences. And . . . EW is right to the bathroom smell! Who would have thunk it?

    • Sari, I wouldn’t show in a salon again after all of the hair that came home on my paintings. I did thin back in the 1990’s. If the shop is designed in such a way that the work is not so exposed, then I might consider it.

      • Carol, Thank you for your model! Good advice!

        I say hair salon because it sounds better…Honestly it was more of a barber shop…Husband(artist Joseph Grove)gets his hair cut there($30 it ain’t a fashion hotspot)…So the hair is short mostly & we got no hairs despite the works were oils in fact(though unvarnished at the time so maybe that helped)…

        About hanging devices-the Library had this…First, know that the works tip slightly forward, & the wire or rod creates a visual blip at the centre of the piece…The tipping effect means the painting loses light…This was significant for us…My mother & her friend understood this one day when she visited & had the library folk reset all their lights to better catch the paintings…She also had them replace a burnt out bulb…But wow it made a difference…Prior to her fix, the slight tilt gave a less light look & I couldn’t understand why the works looked so sad…

  • I think the rental idea is a good idea, as it benefits both parties, even better if it’s for a certain amount of time and the renter doesn’t want to part with it. This sounds like a great way to get your artwork seen by many different types of people who may not necessarily get the chance to see your artwork in any other circumstances. I think it should be made more obvious who the artwork is by and whether it is for sale in some spaces though.

  • Back when I lived in MN, I was the curator for a medium sized business for several years. I hung a different artist’s work every 2 months (Artists were required to provide labels presented in a certain way and a bio sheet that was hung.) The artist received $200/month and I got $60/hour for my time. That amounted to about $3,000/year expense for the company. I very good deal.

    Everyone was happy. If we missed a week, or heaven forbid, a month, the employees complained. Rarely sold anything though I thought the service valid and educational. I would show my work once a year. (I did get a couple commissions out of the deal.)

    Thought I would share the model in case such an opportunity arises. Oh, and I had them install a wall hanging system in their lobby and first floor hallways.

  • I had a few paintings in a coffee shop for too long and the shop went out of business! They didn’t contact me and the paintings are gone forever.

  • I donate towards African conservation organizations from every sale so I tend to show my work frequently in venues with little or no commission. My exhibit tips are:

    1. Attach your own professional label to each artwork giving the title, brief information and price. I never number the artworks as this allows me to add new pieces when sales are made during an exhibit, and it allows me to change the order of works when I’m hanging the exhibit.

    2. Along with your art, also hang information about yourself and specifically how to contact you. For several years now I have used laminated foamcore information boards containing text and photos.

    These suggestions mean you do not have to rely on the venue to display printed information sheets or know anything about the art. I find it works very well and rarely have an exhibit without sales, even in places I least expect them.

  • as of a few years ago, one local restaurant in Ft Collins was hanging artwork and in exchange would give the artist free meal coupons…don’t know whether it’s still happening, but seems like a good trade if you can’t get cash….

  • as of a few years ago, a high traffic local restaurant in Ft. Collins was hanging artworks, I think for a month, and giving the artist several coupons
    for free meals. I don’t know whether they still are, but it seems like a fair swap….

  • Sari

    Yes-we got all the free gourmet coffee we could drink plus often a free meal…We only left the restaurant cause that corner was turning into condos & we saw the future…

  • Oh no, I just gave a few of my paintings to show in a local café and let the owners installed them themselves. (They weren’t installed very nicely, because they were put quite high to prevent the children from reaching them.)

    I didn’t do any of what you said above, Alyson. I just said “thank you for showing my work” and I’d give them 40% commission and left it at that. Was it a mistake? And what should I do now? It was a month ago. Thank you.

    • Grayson

      I don’t think it was necessarily a mistake, but I do like the tips Alyson outlined even better, especially the rental idea. Did the 60% you received cover more than the cost of your time and materials? Curious what Alyson’s take is

  • I live in a college town that has a small but thriving art scene. Art in businesses all over town is ubiquitous – and getting into a venue can be competitive, with artists being lined up by the local art association for venues they “control,” and artists vying for other spots in town. It is certainly one way to get your art seen in town. I have 3 places where I hang my art – a restaurant and two health centers (acupuncturist and chi Kung studio.) but I have also been in the beautiful lobby of the community theatre, a financial office where the owner is an art collector (he bought a painting each time I showed there), an ice cream parlor, an optometrist’s showroom. Among the artists, this town has a reputation of being a great place to be an artist (affordable living) but not a great place for selling art. So hanging your art in the library or the hair salon or the restaurant doesn’t necessarily lead to sales, it just means that people see your art – if they even look at it – and if they bother to look to see who the artist is.
    I went to the opening night of the show when my art was in the theatre and before the show at intermission and after the show I stood in the lobby by my work and watched the audience. I swear no one even looked at the art. This crowd was there for the show, not for the art. Makes sense, really. And when I ask people if they have ever been to the restaurant (in my opinion the best restaurant in town) they say yes and I say “well, that is my art on the walls” and they say “next time I am there I will definitely have to look at it.” Say what? It is a prominent feature in the restaurant. In my Chi Kung studio, my art was up for 6 months. Every one knows everyone there – and I also teach – and yet several times I would be asked, “so you are an artist? Where can I see your work?” And I say that is my work out there in the lobby. You were sitting under it 10 minutes ago.” Paintings signed and also a label next to it. So I am thinking that people go to restaurants to eat, hair salons to get their hair cut, optometrists to buy glasses, libraries to get books, and Theaters to see plays, and the art decorating the walls may not even be noticed.
    I appreciate the opportunity to show my work, but I think it would be spectacular if local businesses agreed to rent the art all over town. I was ready to put up a new exhibit in the restaurant until I realized It would cost me $1,000 to frame the paintings. It would be a different story if hanging in the restaurant produced even enough income to cover the cost of framing, but in all the years I have been showing my art there I have not had any sales – did get a few nibbles though (pun.) I am beginning to think that my art is not appropriate for the restaurant. And the restaurant is not necessarily an appropriate place for my art.
    I think the culture in my town is pretty firmly established – there are a ton of artists who are eager to lend their art to businesses and see it as an opportunity to exhibit. Businesses expect it for free. It would take a concerted effort by the whole of the art community to forge a change. The local art association even promotes the opportunity to hang your art in a number of venues under their control as one of the benefits you get for your $48 dues.

  • I just want to add that if I take the “pay it forward” attitude toward the venues where I do hang my art, then the whole experience becomes a positive one. If I hang my art with a generous heart, it will come back to me somehow somewhere sometime.

  • Jim, we are fortunate that we don’t need to sell paintings for a living, so we can be free to explore what we like for ourselves.

  • Grayson

    Great article Alyson. I especially like the idea of rent-to-own, so you can establish the value of your work right up front with the place that it is being shown.

  • What a great article! to think about it, I never thought of the rent-to-own option. Thanks for sharing. I decided to share it as well!

  • Alyson:
    Hi and thank you for sharing all of your great ideas and hints for success. I have followed you for years now.

    The term, FREE ART gets tossed around often and sometimes as if it were an acusation for wrong doing committed by the place or person hosting the art. I’ve had great success by taking advantage of these opportunities to display my art.

    Here’s one point that goes under the radar. Galleries also get “free art” from the artist. Art is a gallery’s retail product for sale. Most retail stores need to invest in inventory by purchasing their inventory, advertize their inventory, promote their inventory and their retail outlet, higher staff to sell their inventory, display their inventory for sale, insure their inventory, and develop and nuture relationships with the customers and suppliers. Galleries get their inventory for free and then keep half of the money when the inventory is sold.

    I anticipate lots of “Ya, but….(s)” to follow that comparison. However, the more you look at it open-mindedly, the retail gallery model is not much different than a consignment shop that has free inventory to sell. “…Ya, but…”

    • Phil: “Free art” seems like a concept different from “Free décor.” At least in my mind.

      I could give you some “yeah, buts” for your gallery comments, but it seems like it might be futile. Keep doing what works for you.

  • I agree with Phil about the fact that galleries have little invested in the art they represent except for their overhead. At times I wonder why it usually is an artist’s dream to be invited into a gallery, considering how much is taken out for commission. However, I think the real distinction is the fact that visitors who enter that space are there to look at the art. That’s different than other venues, like restaurants, offices, and salons.

  • A good gallery relationship is a partnership between artist and dealers. Good dealers recognize this and their artists love them for it.

    Everyone has a different model that works for them.

    Galleries have served artists for years and shouldn’t be dismissed in blanket fashion.

  • our county’s artist association has a program called Art in Public Places. Artists rotate to new venue every two months. I have sold works at a bank, and several at restaurant. We install our own work. I love the idea of pay it forward .. and showing work at local assisted living and the courthouse help beautify them. We all have contact info and pricing on labels. I put my business card on back. Several customers emailed after. Since our county is small and rural .. exposure is good. Two months ago I started a website at https://www.reemclaughlanbrown.ART would love some feedback. Ree

  • Tanya Foster

    Thanks for sharing Alyson. I have been hanging my work in a high end restaurant in a tourist destination for a few years now. The first year was extremely successful (averaging 4 pieces a month during their peak season). The second year only a couple of pieces total during the season and last year (peak season) it’s been stagnant.
    I’ve always taken care of the hostess with small gifts and while she is now working only the dinner shift instead of the lunch shift there have been no other changes to the restaurant.
    I’m not sure what to do now that sales have dropped to nothing? Should I go back to the owner and discuss rental or rent to own or remove my work altogether? I thought it may have been the work that wasn’t of interest and even changed that, but we are now coming into the high season and I don’t want to waste this opportunity. It isn’t as easy since I no longer live in the country year round (although I do have an assistant that helps). By not being there to show my presence from time to time do you recommend pulling the plug? Thanks for your advice.

  • Teresa

    Wow, art rental would be fabulous. I see the “coffee shop circuit” as mutually beneficial. The shops that regularly show work get free decor monthly but they do have to take the time to coordinate and book the space. That can be alot to handle for a small business. The artist gets exposure and a chance to exhibit and sell their work to a new audience. However, here in Seattle, the venues that show artwork are often booked 12-14 months out with artists competing to hang their art work for free for 1-3 months. Not much leverage for rentals or even a meal coupon etc. One venue gives me free coffee the day I hang a show, and I’ve sold eight paintings there over 2 annual shows, so I’m pretty happy with that situation. But, rentals, ah, that would be lovely. Definitely will keep it in mind if a show ever runs long and the venue owner seems reluctant for the pick up date.

  • I showed several large paintings in a popular lunch place for downtown shoppers and lawyers who frequent the court nearby.
    The restaurant staff took it upon themselves to move the paintings around, (mine and others). When I went to pick them up, a huge, 3″ tear was in my favorite piece!
    My fault for not making sure my work was covered under their insurance while hung. It was finally resolved, I accepted some money plus some meal credits. Always have a written agreement in place, signed by the owner covering the unforeseen!

  • When I first started showing my art, I had a perfect arrangement with a small diner just around the corner from my home. The owner wanted art on the walls, and I needed a place to show. She didn’t want any commission. I had my designated space, and I could come in and change things out when I wanted to. She handled the sales, and made sure my business cards were in a prominent location. My husband and I ate there once or twice a week, so it may be that this great arrangement was because we were good customers.

    Alyson, you mentioned the need to be there as often as possible. If I saw someone looking closely at my art, I would get up the nerve to go introduce myself and hand them one of my business cards. Sometimes that would result in a sale.

    This arrangement ended a few years ago when the owner’s son wanted to display his photography there. She tried to get him to agree to share the space, but he wanted the whole thing. What can you say when it’s your son? I had a good run of 8 years there, and I did sell a few pieces each year. It was a good way to gain some confidence in showing my work, preparing and hanging a display.

  • I’m an artist and a curator of an exhibit space in a small coffee shop, so I’m familiar with both sides. Our exhibit space is operated as much like an art gallery as possible. With the artist’s collaboration, we do extensive promotion and marketing of each monthly or bi-monthly exhibit, install each show, hold artist openings if desired, and handle all the sales, with no guarantee of income. Each artist signs a contract that details all terms of the exhibit, including exhibit dates. In return, we collect a relatively small commission and any credit card fees. We also share customer information with the artists. In many cases, our time and expenses outweigh the financial return, but our mission is to provide a venue to show emerging, mid-career, and established artists, and we’ve exhibited them all. Although the coffee shop is insured for fire, theft, etc., we do not cover the cost of any accidental damage. We’ve even thought of requiring a small upfront exhibit fee to help in promotional expenses and to at least guarantee some type of income, although we usually have at least one sale per show. Our current business model obviously works in the artists’ favor, sales or not, and we’ve been praised for our professional approach. As a result, we have a long waiting list of local artists that want to show at the shop. Non-gallery venues can be successful if the venue and artist work together for common goals.

  • Interesting article and comments. I had my art in a coffee shop. I learned a great deal of what to do and not do. The best thing was when I decided to frame my info and hang it with the art. Never sold from that venue. Then I was chosen to show at a library. Now there is competition for the main library venue..it is well attended. But the entries not chosen for the year at the main library get shifted to the branch libraries who choose from them. Unfortunately, although they do an excellent job hanging.,their rooms are usually in the basement!
    My last showing of 38 paintings was at a wonderful culinary center. Lots of wall space. But you have to pay for your opening reception. And I did not sell there either.
    I have taken a hiatus from those venues. People are not there to buy art!
    If I ever participate again it will be one that participates in the local well advertised gallery stroll. And I will make sure my info is framed and hung beside the art. I always price my art. But the aforementioned library venues only allow a price sheet at the main desk that has to be asked for.
    A quick word about galleries is that I believe most try to make sure all the art is advertised. That said I was in a co op that simply refused to advertise. They were very complacent,would not pay to be a part of gallery stroll. Needless to say..I left there. Co ops are a whole other thing!

  • Carol Holland

    Alyson, I have enjoyed your blogs, and while reading this one, I noticed that you’re planning to visit Asheville, NC in November. If so, I’d love for you to meet my friend and mentor, Matt Tommy, while you’re there. Stop in at his studio in the River Arts District. He is an international sculptural weaver typically creating “out of the woods” artistic treasures for high-end homes. He is also a teacher and mentor of about 2000 followers he instructs online regularly on matttommeymentoring.com. He’s on Facebook should you choose to check him out, also go to: matttommey.com for his web page. I promise, you’ll love him!

  • RICHARD CANARY

    After several bad experiences displaying in restaurant venues long ago, I now wish I had read Alyson’s blog back then. This blog posting is excellent, and now that I’m making jewelry instead of my former media of leather/metal/wood wall sculptures, and having read all the comments above, have this question and ideas to share.

    Could a good display of PHOTOS of your artwork, well done, and creatively displayed, be helpful in getting customers to contact you?

    The artwork would stay in your possession, but most of the other policies of “coffee shop” displays could still be used. i.e. Rentals, etc.

    The photos could be used on your website, storefront, etc. as well.

    Depending on the physical aspects of your artwork, it may be much easier to handle the photos in the coffee shop than to handle your actual artwork.

    Also, the size of your photos would be adjustable to just about any location.

    Also, leaving a supply of brochures in an attractive holder could have a full description of the pieces in the photos, along with all contact info.

    Frequent trips to the coffee shop then becomes a routine of re-supplying brochures if needed, and conversing with mgmt. about any queries. Also, photos of new artwork, on your handheld device or wallet-sized photos, can be shared with mgmt. with the goal of adding photos to the walls or switching some out for new photos.

    ANOTHER ANGLE: An inducement to a “coffe shop” owner to show your work could be like this:

    You get a location to display your artwork and information as well as sales on location. In return, you the artist, supply some local form of advertising for your display at that location. You show photos in the ads of your artworks and some of the menu items, etc.

    Cooperation between you and the coffee shop owner brings agreement on the copy for the advertising format, whether a paid ad in a publication, flyers on neighborhood doors, or brocures at any locations agreed upon.

  • Sari – please be aware that Febreze uses synthetic perfumes that are seriously problematic for people with reactive lungs or chemical sensitivities. If I get a good whiff of the stuff it sends me into paroxysms of coughing. It’s something to consider, most people are not aware of the problems caused by synthetic scents. It could even ruin a potential sale.

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