This post is by Clint Watson, former art gallery owner and founder of BoldBrush, known for FASO Artist Websites, the leading provider of professional artist websites, the $38,000+ BoldBrush Painting Competition and the free daily art marketing newsletter, FineArtViews. As a self-proclaimed “art fanatic”, Clint delights that BoldBrush’s downtown San Antonio, Texas office is full of original art, as is his home office. You can connect with Clint on Twitter, Facebook or his personal blog at clintavo.com
I was once at a restaurant when Heather Locklear walked in and sat down a few tables away. Even though she was simply having lunch, people in the restaurant were interested in what she was doing, and kept glancing at her. Some people pulled out their phones to take selfies with Heather in the background. A few brave or rude souls approached her to ask for an autograph. She was just a lady having lunch. Why were people so interested and so drawn to her?
A couple of years ago, I visited the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. We visited room after room of amazing artworks. Often, I had the whole room to myself as I studied compelling works by artists I had never heard of. Where were all the people? I finally reached the room that housed a few Rembrandts. Guess where all the people were? Crowded in front of famous Rembrandts, jostling for position to take their photos. Why were people ignoring all the other great art and fighting each other for a few moments in front of a small Rembrandt?
One year, I spoke about art marketing at the Oil Painters of America National Juried Exhibition. This was after our newsletter, BoldBrush’s FineArtViews, had garnered a large subscriber base. Back then, I was, by far, the newsletter’s most prolific writer. Consequently, thousands of painters had read my articles and seen my photo every day for a few years. The exhibit was held in Santa Fe that year. And since Santa Fe is an “art town”, nearly the whole “gallery row” area had been overtaken by artists and art collectors who were attending the OPA exhibit. The night PJ and I arrived, we decided to go have a romantic dinner and soak up the Santa Fe artsy atmosphere. Suddenly, as we ate, people were looking at me, pointing. Strangers approached me to introduce themselves and discuss art marketing. People I didn’t know walked up to me on the street and starting talking about art. It turns out, these were artists who subscribed to FineArtViews. And as this happened over and over, I got a tiny taste of what “fame” was like. I can’t imagine how frustrating it must be for “real” celebrities. Why were these strangers drawn to me?
A big part of the answer is known as the mere-exposure effect.
The mere-exposure effect suggests that people and artworks become “famous”, to a large degree, because they have been seen repeatedly.
The mere-exposure effect is a psychological phenomenon by which people tend to develop a preference for things merely because they are familiar with them. This is how radio turns unknown pop songs into hits: You hear the song over and over and over until it’s stuck in your head and then you prefer it to the songs you’ve never heard.
There’s probably no more illustrative example of the mere-exposure effect than the Mona Lisa. The Mona Lisa is “famous simply for being famous.” And visitors to the Louvre crowd around the painting to take selfies and photographs of the painting that they’ve grown, through repeated exposure, to be familiar with and, for many of them, prefer.
If you’ve ever been to a high-end art gallery and expressed interest in a painting, the gallery associate likely whisked you into a “viewing room”, hung the painting on a well-lit wall, and proceeded to tell you more about the artist and the art work. This “viewing room” (or as gallery associates call them in private, “closing room”) attempts to harness the “mere-exposure” effect. It works partly because you are continually viewing a piece in which you’ve already expressed an interest and because being isolated in the viewing room keeps you from getting distracted by other artworks. In essence, the longer you look at a painting you already like, the more you’ll come to prefer it, and, importantly, the more likely you’ll decide to purchase it.
This isn’t just a hypothesis, there is real research to back up the mere-exposure effect. I’m currently reading a book called “Hit Makers” by Derek Thompson. In it, I learned of some research published by James Cutting, a professor of psychology at Cornell University, that is of extreme interest to fine artists.
In his experiments, Cutting showed students from different psychology classes several pairs of famous impressionist artworks. Each pair consisted of a very famous artwork by a famous impressionist and an obscure artwork by the same impressionist. Consistently, 60% of the time, people preferred the famous painting to the obscure one.
But then he did something ingenious and extremely important for artists who want to sell their art. Cutting devised a clever way over the course of a semester to subtly bombard a class of students with images of the obscure paintings. This was not done as part of an art class. He simply randomly inserted slides of the obscure pieces into his regular lectures. The images were presented without comment or context. This new class saw each obscure painting 4 times for every time they saw a famous painting. Then he repeated the preference experiment. With this particular group, the students’ preference for the famous impressionist paintings had disappeared and, in fact, this group preferred the obscure paintings 80% of the time.
Essentially, simply through repeated exposure over time, Cutting changed people’s artistic preferences.
This has huge implications for the way you should market your art. You need to get your art in front of people repeatedly. And, specifically, you need to repeatedly show your art to those people who already have interest in you and your artwork. And even more specifically, you need to show each artwork repeated times. This principle applies to marketing both online and offline, but for the moment I want to discuss online marketing.
Thompson wrote in Hit Makers that “Content might be king, but distribution is the kingdom.” And when it comes to distribution, the reality of the modern internet is that the vast majority of people, the vast majority of the time focus their attention in only a handful of places. For most people, these places are, overwhelmingly: Email, Facebook, Google and, in the art world, Instagram. These four places, for the most part, control the distribution of content, news, and links. Your website is important, but few people are going to proactively go to your website. They check their email, their Facebook newsfeed, their Instagram feed and perhaps a couple of other social networks. Then, and only then, if they see something they like, they take some action or click through to your blog or your website to learn more.
Your online efforts need to be focused on showing you art repeatedly over time to your followers in these places. Don’t forget the “over time” part. Cutting didn’t change people’s preferences by showing them obscure paintings over the course of an hour, he subtly showed the obscure paintings many times over the course of a semester. Remember, it takes repeated exposure over time to change people’s preferences. Most artists don’t show their artworks nearly often enough and don’t take enough advantage of the overlap between these different platforms. When you have a new painting, you should be sending an announcement with the image to your email list. Then a day or so later, post it to your Facebook Page. And the next day, to your Instagram feeds. And, over time, post it several times. Also, to increase this phenomenon, post each artwork several times while it’s in progress – this invests people in your process, plus important for our discussion, it gives you a legitimate reason to expose each artwork several times over a longer period of time to your followers.
In the modern world there is a lot of noise. There are a lot of people and brands demanding our attention. Even if your art is great, you can’t assume people will simply find it, prefer it and purchase it. You must find ways to distribute and expose your artworks to the world. Fortunately, despite the noise level, we’ve all been handed some of the most powerful and free distribution channels ever devised.
That puts you in a much better position than those obscure impressionist works that had to wait a century until a psychology professor decided to change people’s tastes. You can take control and utilize these powerful platforms: email, Facebook, Instagram and other social networks to build a following, and start changing people’s tastes, so that they prefer your artworks, now.
And that’s a goal worth risking having a few restaurant dinners interrupted!
BoldBrush/FASO Founder and Art Fanatic
Today’s post is an updated version from a few years ago, but we’re republishing it again today because it’s still a timely and relevant message. Enjoy!