Friday, October 21, 2011

Which art society exhibition sells the most works of art?

For artists, entering an art society exhibition tends to be a major investment in terms of time and money.
  • Time to produce a very good example of your work and 
  • Money to finance the cost of the art materials, the framing and the cost of getting the artwork (and sometimes the artist) to and from the venue for the exhibition plus of course paying the commission to the gallery which sells the work if it sells.
Most recognise that the main purposes of entering an art society exhibition is to:
  • enhance their CV by getting work accepted for an exhibition and/or winning a prize
  • pursue signature status with the art society of their choice - again to enhance the resume / CV
  • market their work to art collectors and art galleries - who may have further contact with an artist even if this is outside an exhibition
Thus a number of artists file their art society entry costs under marketing.

It is of course a HUGE bonus if your work actually sells!  That then helps to recoup costs and also helps raise the profile of an artist with collectors and galleries.

But who do you know which art societies are good at selling artists' work?  See if you can guess before you read on

Who knows?  I certainly didn't - although I did think I had a pretty good idea having made a habit of noting, in a general sense, the number of red spots in the different exhibitions by the national art societies at the Mall Galleries.

That is, until the Royal Society of Marine Artists announced on its website that its Annual Exhibition ranked third in terms of being the best selling annual exhibition at the Mall Galleries!
The RSMA is one of the smaller societies affiliated to the Federation of British Artists at the Mall but it regularly features as one of the top 3 selling exhibitions in the Mall Galleries
I grew curious.  I wondered what "best selling" actually means.  Curiosity normally prompts me to ask a question and so that’s what I did.  I contacted the Mall Galleries about the art society exhibitions and asked whether it would be possible to know which of the Annual Exhibitions of the different FBA societies were the most successful at selling work.

I was a little bit surprised to get an answer!  Not surprisingly the answer is limited to the number of works sold (and NOT the gross value of the works sold or the percentage of works in the exhibition).  Obviously depending on how you count the numbers for: number of works sold, value of work sold and percentage of work sold it is possible to rank societies in different ways.

Hanging the Society of Wildlife Artists - in "Pure Gold" the 50th anniversary of the FBA Societies
Which art society sells the most?

The UK national art society which sells the most works in an exhibition - in a numerical sense - is the Society of Wildlife Artists.

That probably won't come as a surprise to anybody who regularly attends the SWA Exhibitions - or indeed wildlife art exhibitions elsewhere.  Wildlife art has an absolutely huge fan base - which peaks with the birders.

Society of Wildlife Artists - website

Coming second is the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolour.

Below is a view of their Private View getting underway and here is my Review: 199th Annual Exhibition of the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolour.  Next year they celebrate their 200th Annual Exhibition.  I know I always see a lot of paintings in their exhibitions - so this exhibitions is using a popular medium and displaying a lot of work.  Also, I think I've noticed more visits by Art Societies on a day trip to London during an RI exhibition than at any other time.  

The Private View of the Annual Exhibition 2011 of the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolor

Third – as indicated – is the Society of Marine Artists.

This is my recent Review: Royal Society of Marine Artists - Annual Exhibition 2011.  Again those who love their boats also love buying paintings of boats!

Private View of the Royal Society of Marine Artists
Let’s think a little bit about this all means.  Here’s my take on this ranking:
  • to sell a lot of artworks an Art Society probably needs to exhibit a lot of works.  Hence Societies which tend to exhibit larger paintings and/or prefer to select a number of works which will allow for an uncrowded display are unlikely to rank highly.   Those that choose to exhibit more and/or tend to display smaller works may well have room for more.  I think I might start monitoring total numbers of pictures exhibited in 2012 as I have noticed of late that some Art Societies are now not exhibiting throughout the three galleries at The Mall.
  • Dedicated fans means more sales.  I've often noted that those Art Societies who have completely dedicated fans (eg people who love wildlife or boats) will continue to sell work through thick and thin - recession or no recession.  The volume may vary a little but these tend to be fans who will prioritise their funds for paintings of what they love best 
  • Media which is very popular will generate a lot of visitors. People often forget that artists themselves are very enthusiastic purchasers of art.  Thus if a National Art Society can mobilise local art societies to visit  their Annual Exhibition then they have a good chance of selling more works.  Of course it helps if your media or subject matter is also popular with local art societies!
  • Active marketing by the Society also helps to get people visiting an Exhibition - The more people who are interested in the art actually make it through the doors, the more likely it is that more artwork will sell
Do you have any additional thoughts and/or alternative explanations?  Do leave a comment below if you do.

Tomorrow I'm going to be posting the first half of the dates for the Annual Exhibitions by Art Societies at the Mall in 2012.

The Annual Exhibition of the Society of Wildlife Artists opens at the Mall Galleries next week. It's open to the public from 27th October to Sunday 6th November 2011 between 10am - 5pm (closes at 1pm on final day)
The 48th annual exhibition of the Society of Wildlife Artists is a showcase for the very best of art inspired by the natural world. This year the superb mix of painting and drawing, sculpture and printmaking will be complemented by a new display area of projects and expedition work. ‘Outside the Frame’ will give a taste of how some of our artists approach their work and show the journeys, both in terms of location and creativity, that they travel to find inspiration. 


  1. This is interesting. Especially as I've heard insider information (committee member of one of the societies) that all the Mall societies are doing very poorly with sales.

    I notice your article is only about Mall Galleries societies. I'd be interested to see figures on other art societies (Painter Stainers, London Group, Society of Women Artists, RWS, National Society, Graphic Fine Art, etc). The Mall set is a very small selection and probably not entirely representative.

  2. I think maybe you need to differentiate between the different types of exhibitions:
    * art competitions eg Lynn Painter Stainers
    * national art societies which have been around for a long time eg Royal Watercolour Society
    * other national art societies which are not part of the Federation of British Artists

    They're not all the same. They don't all have the same resources or skills re marketing.

    I would not be in the least surprised to find out that few art galleries are exempt from the wider economic context. In general sales have slowed in most places

    That said I've seen some artists do very well in exhibitions. I've also seen some societies do very well - given the context. The money is still out there!

  3. I guess I've just never seen the FBA societies as "the" definition of societies. There are just so many others, so I suppose I was expecting others to be in a review. All the ones I mentioned (though I may be mistaken about Painter STainers) have annual selling exhibitions and memberships, just like the FBA.

  4. I absolutely agree.

    The thing is I think I was fortunate to get this information. To provide a comprehensive overview of all exhibitions is a bit beyond at present! This is just a very small start.....

    The question is also to an extent rhetorical and invites comments as to what others have observed about exhibitions.

    I've certainly known for a long time that the very specialised societies which are very effective at building and communicating with their "fan base" tend to do well.

    What I can tell you with a fair degree of certainty is that the Annual Exhibitions of those societies which specialise in subject matter (eg botanical art, miniature art) sell extremely well compared to the media societies. You only have to go to all the exhibitions - as I do - and look at the red dots to know that.

    Those societies which are not FBA societies vary in their approaches. For example the Miniaturists takes advantage of the quality of the facilities at the Mall Galleries for their exhibition. Others such as the SBA organise absolutely everything at another venue.

  5. Fascinating information about what has sold well at the Mall Galleries! I always thought that if I painted more animals and/or boats, in watercolour, I would sell more work! Now, since I am painting sports events and games, like rugby, I wish there was a Society of Sports Art in the UK!

    As you say, a deciding factor is probably the ability of the society to market its exhibitions successfully and to keep a fan base happy. I belong to two local Art Societies who have sales figures which are quite low, at their exhibitions, but I guess that the cost to small societies of marketing their shows is quite high even if they have got a large database of email addresses. Postage cost is now extortionate, as is the cost of printing posters. Helpful comments from the media in editorials etc can be extremely good publicity too.

    To sum it up, maybe one should factor in the possible budget for marketing that societies have available, as such spending seems to have direct benefit for the art society members.


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