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!

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.

Painting by Ginny Herzog

©2014 Ginny Herzog, Relic 12-514. Oil, cold wax, and collage, 30 by 40 inches. Used with permission.

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

These seemingly low-risk venues offer a place for you to learn how to install your art correctly, while introducing your art to new people.

You’ll test your conversational skills, your pricing, and your negotiating skills.

Because these non-art venues are considered “less serious” than galleries, many artists put very little effort into the opportunities. After all, they just want art on their walls, right?

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 for the space.

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. But how do you avoid the trap of merely decorating a space?

Judith Glover painting

©2014 Judith G. Glover, Earthquake Bolt. Watercolor, 15.5 x 14.5 inches. Used with permission.

There three options for benefiting from showing your work in non-art spaces.

1. Ask for a trade.

They want your art so, if you could benefit from what they offer, why not to trade your art loan for their services?

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.

A quick Web search led to 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 opportunity as if it were full of possibilities.

This is my favorite option, and could work in conjunction with either of the above situations.

You should make the most of every venue. If you don’t do anything but install the work, you have only yourself to blame for poor results.

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32 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.

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