Maria Williams-Russell Art Blog
!IMAGE135!Keiser's story struck me because, in general, there seems to be a natural disconnect between artists and their computers (digital artists not included) that many artists find hard to bridge. It's easy to understand why; an artist's relationship to his/her work typically involves brushes, canvas, paint, eye, hand, and breath. Computer keys can be very unappealing. Regardless, the Internet offers a bustling marketplace where artists and buyers are redefining the way the art world does business. That is, a move away from the traditional sales route, which depended on brick and mortar galleries. So, wanted to speak to Duane Keiser directly to dicover how he personally bridged the gap and found financial success.
Duane Keiser was kind enough to grant me a phone interview in early March. This article documents the highlights of our conversation.
Our meeting was for 10:30 am on a Tuesday. I sat on the floor in my daughter's room, computer in front of me, looking at the latest Keiser paintings online, a lush peach, which I could click on and buy on eBay. I clicked. Immediately, I was taken to an eBay listing of the work. I saw the price for this piece had started at fifty dollars and was, at the time, bid up to three-hundred-something dollars. I didn't bid, but it looked like at least 15 other people did. Though, I am definitely considering buying a Duane Keiser original on eBay. To me, his work adds a luxurious quality to the mundane without trying to elevate it with intricate patterned cloths, or wall-papered backgrounds. As a writer, I am attracted to that. In addition to the peach painting, there was painting of a rainbow trout, an open oyster, and a smothered palette knife, each plainly placed, yet delicately transferred. The fact that I could actually afford one of Keiser's paintings helps as well!
Duane Keiser was in his car when I reached him, looking for a place to park wearing his cell phone headset. Casual and relaxed despite the parking dilemma, I quickly got the impression that Duane Keiser was a man who was sure of himself. After a quick introduction, I began.
MW: Duane, can you talk about how your art career was going before you began selling the small works online?
Keiser : Sure. My art career was going fine. I had had a couple of one-man shows in NYC at the time and had shown a lot before that, so I was on a normal trajectory for a successful artist in the traditional sense. But, even when you're in a New York Gallery, it's hard to make much money. Sales are sporadic and there are expenses, like the galleries take commissions, and there are various other expenses.
MW: So, by showing in a gallery, the hope is that if you're not making a solid income yet, at least you will be building recognition for your art?
Keiser: Yeah. Well, you hope to create a following. The thinking is that someday you'll make it big, you know, the discovery will come and the big art review will come out and then you'll be able to make a living as an artist. But the fact is, or, it has been my experience, that there are very few people that happens to.
MW: How then did you come up with your first idea of "100 Paintings For $100"?
!IMAGE136!Keiser: Well, mostly it came from my realization of how things were going taking the normal route. Here I was showing in a New York gallery and was selling fairly well, but I still wasn't able to make ends meet. So, one day I looked around my studio and I saw all these little paintings I had done, for myself mostly, for my whole life. I knew galleries were not really interested in little pieces because they couldn't get that much for them. So, I figured - here I had my own studio where I could hang stuff, I a had a mailing list., and I could put together my own opening in my studio. I could have a party, make the place look nice, put up some track lighting, have some good beer, good wine, invite my friends who couldn't really afford to buy the bigger art at the time, and just have a party. Everyone could look at some good art while having a good time. It made perfect sense to me, like why hadn't I done this sooner? So, I had the party, everyone came over, and a lot of people bought their first original oil painting. It came close to selling out and everybody had a good time. I ended up doing that for few years, like twice a year I would have a big opening.
MW: And how would you let people know about the openings? You said you had a mailing list.?
Keiser: Yes. I would have people sign up for my email list and every time I did a new painting, I'd email it to people. And people liked it, you know, usually people are getting Viagara ads in their email, so this was something different. They could check out my new work, and if they wanted to buy it, they could click on it.
MW: How did you set that up in your email, the click-thru, I mean?
Keiser: Well, at first people just mailed me checks. It was on a first come first serve basis. If they wanted the piece, they would just email me back and send a check.
MW: So, when did you decide to start using a website?Keiser: Well, I already had a website but I wasn't really using it at first. It was just sitting there.
MW: Can I ask if you made the website yourself or did you hire someone?
Keiser: I actually made it myself. I taught myself some html and I figured it out and made a website. I saw early on, well extrapolated, that the Internet was going to be useful. I felt that the screen technology was going to get better, more and more people were going to get cable connections and so forth, so I knew that I needed to get comfortable with the technology and building websites. I was excited about it, actually.
MW: Ok. Back to the small paintings, do you think that the big hit was the price point of $100 or was it a combination of all the efforts?
Keiser: I think it was a combination. Small works are good for collectors because they can hang them in their homes in these little nooks and crannies. There's a preciousness, an intimacy that something that small gives people. And the price point - well, I think that artists over-price themselves in general. It's the only business I know of where if the work isn't selling, they raise the price the next year regardless of what the demand is, if they are selling or not. There is this mentality that if I make my paintings expensive people will eventually come and meet my price point. I think it should be the other way around. You start your price points lower, brutally lower, and begin to build the demand organically. The other way is really unnatural. So, I decided to test my theory out and make some paintings that I could sell for about a tenth of what I would normally get in a gallery.
MW: And you didn't feel compromised by that?
Keiser: No. Though, other artists were telling me I was crazy, that I was under-cutting the market. It was not seen at the time as something that was proper. So, it was a little bit of a risk. And, you know, there was a risk that my galleries would be mad that I was selling my own work, which when you think about it is crazy.
MW: Did your galleries make a fuss?
Keiser: No, they didn't. They understood that this was a different kind of work for a different kind of buyer. And I happened to have some pretty cool galleries and people that I knew pretty well. And they knew this was my own thing. I wasn't going to undercut them in any way. So, I set it at a $100 and it was perfect, just the right price. People were able to buy more and then they would buy bigger pieces. And the smaller pieces ended up being like mini advertisements in their homes. So, it makes sense. At first you undercut your prices, and it hurts a little bit, but look what you get from it.MW: You sell your paintings on eBay now starting at this price point and you've been very successful. On Minds Island, artists have the ability to list their work on eBay without paying fees, but the work is usually priced quite high and not as much is selling as people would like. Can you speak to that?
Keiser: Well, there are a couple concerns, which are all legitimate. First, if a collector of yours sees your work on eBay for half the price of what they bought a similar piece for, naturally they are going to be concerned. That's part of the problem. The counter to that is a lot of collectors now understand that if you cut your price and put it on eBay that this is not necessarily what the painting is worth and there is the possibility of it getting bid higher. And they understand that this is the kind of strategy that might get your prices really high. You go down to where your market is and grow it from there. Then it can build again on top of that. But if you price yourself out of your market, just throw something on eBay, and you don't bring an audience to it, it's not going to sell. That's the other thing people don't understand. You can't just put something on eBay without bringing an audience to it. Like if I just put something on eBay right now without bringing people to it from my website and my blog and stuff, I wouldn't get that many people looking at it.
MW: That's a good point. So let's back track. You went from 100 paintings for $100 to another idea called "A Painting A Day" in which you started a blog with images of your work, which were clickable and went straight to an eBay listing of the piece where a collector could buy it. How did that all evolve and how did you manage to grow your audience this way?
Keiser: I started fooling around with a blog. just to check it out, and it became a huge hit in a matter of days because BoingBoing.net got wind of it and listed it as a cool blog to go to with this guy who was doing a painting a day. I didn't even know about the article until I got about 100 emails in my inbox one day. Then it just ballooned from there. USA Today did an article on me and then the New York Times and other bloggers were linking to my blog - all these artists who wanted to do Painting A Day projects started doing them, hundreds and then thousands maybe now, and I just started using all that. I kept building up my email list and ultimately leading all that traffic and interest to my eBay listings. And I would recommend to your readers my strategy, to have low set prices at first and then once things start selling consistently, and quickly from their email list or buyer list or whatever, then is the time to start using eBay. When you've got your audience and your price points where they need to be. I think of it as a tea kettle kind of thing, when you hear the water boiling, that means the interest is growing outside its container. Then you're ready for eBay. I think what's happening is that people are jumping to eBay right off the bat. They're making high set prices, and in a lot of cases it's just not going to work.
MW: You mentioned that other artists are picking up on the Paintings A Day phenomenon. How has that affected your business?
Keiser: Well, I haven't quite worked it all out myself yet. But from very early on I encouraged people to use my idea. I figure the more people painting the better. You know, artists would email me and ask permission to do it and I just kind of gave it away, just go ahead and do it. And people would link to my blog from their blogs, so my traffic always increased. And now, it's just sort of opened up the market for this kind of work. Now collectors can choose from more small works, collect the landscapes if they want, or my stuff, or whatever's out there. It may have affected my sales slightly, but not enough to make me really worry about it.
MW: What about the larger pieces of yours now. Are you still selling in the galleries?
Keiser: Yes. But I have sold some larger work online now too, just not at the low price. I'll even sell them in an auction setting but price it so the galleries don't get undercut. Typically the galleries give a 20% cut anyway.
MW: I also noticed you have your own uTube videos. on your blog. Can you talk about that?
Keiser: Yeah. I started fooling around, doing these little videos of me painting and put them on uTube and on my blog and people seem to like them.
MW: Do you think you're getting much traffic from Utube?
Keiser: Yes. A lot. It could be that they are coming to my blog and then going to uTube from there, but then are coming back. It's hard to track uTube, but I know one of my videos has had like 10,000 views.
MW: It seems to me that the video is just the next generation of what's going to happen with A Painting A Day.
Keiser: Well, yes. Like soon we are going to be able to put live feeds up from our studios and technology is going to just keep getting better, so I have some ideas of what I might do with that. But I've always been a tech-nerd, a gadget geek. Like the html seemed to me to be another creative avenue. Like making a website is to me like making a painting now. I enjoy coming up with a clean, interesting design.
MW: What about the search engines? I noticed if I type in "Painting A Day" as keywords, your site comes up as the first in the non-paid section of Google. Have you worked at site optimization and stuff like that?
Keiser: No. In all of this, I have never spent a penny on advertising in the search engines.
MW: As we come to the end of my questions, can you give me your general opinion about sites like Minds Island that offer Internet tools to artists?
Keiser. Well, the good thing about it is that people who are not technically savvy can get their work up and have tools like eBay available to them and a Paypal account or some credit card mechanism and they can have a presence fairly easily. That's good. They need that. What happens is that once you have a presence, again, you have to bring people to your work. You have to bring collectors in. And the company can't really do that for 500 or so artists at a time because each artist's work is unique and they need a unique selling strategy. I think there is the potential to get lost in the crowd. But, that falls on the artist. You got to ask yourself, how can I bring people to my work, and then do it.
At the end of the interview, it was that last comment that stuck with me, "You got to ask yourself, how can I bring people to my work, and then do it," which is exactly what he did - he saw a problem and solved it for himself. Duane's work now sells daily on eBay, his videos are available on uTube, he's got great press online and off and he has successfully managed to make ends meet as an artist, which is the goal of most artists - and for writers, for that matter. He also proved that computers, and more specifically, the Internet, are not all that difficult to grasp. It is true that Duane Keiser found his personal niche in the market, being a "gadget-geek" as he said, but that doesn't mean other non-geeks can't make it happen too. To me, sites like Minds Island are just the first step. From there, anything can happen, A Painting A Day, or something else, who knows? Sounds like the possibilities are endless.
!IMAGE137!Again, thanks Duane for the interview. You may be seeing my name in your eBay buyers list soon! ------------------------------------------------------
Maria Williams-Russell is the Minds Island Editor in Chief and has worked as a web marketing consultant for art related websites for the last five years. She is also currently working on her MFA in Poetry at Goddard College. If you are interested in writing for Minds Island, please contact Maria for submission guidelines at firstname.lastname@example.org