Art Market

These Artists Jump-Started Their Careers by Selling Directly to Collectors on Instagram

Zoe Goetzmann
Nov 26, 2018 5:51PM

It’s no secret that Instagram has made a noticeable impact upon the art market. The Museum of Modern Art and Sotheby’s are among the platform’s biggest art world players. Ai Weiwei, Jeff Koons, and Damien Hirst also have substantial followings ranging from 300,000 to 500,000. Brett Gorvy, a partner at Lévy Gorvy, is known for his savvy usage of Instagram to promote blue-chip works to his 110,000 followers.

Such cases are all well and good for already-known art world superstars. But how does the average artist use Instagram? Is its democratic platform of 1 billion monthly active users a viable alternative to the exclusive gallery system? In research conducted in 2017 with 24 art-world users, coupled with recent follow-up interviews, I found that Instagram offers artists a way to take on the roles of artist and dealer, establishing profitable businesses as confident entrepreneurs who produce, market, and sell their own artwork, bypassing traditional art-world intermediaries.

Galleries serve as key nodes of influence in the art world. Art dealers manage an artist’s sales, network with collectors and curators, and seek to ensure the longevity of an artist’s career by mounting exhibitions, publishing scholarship, and strategically placing works in well-established collections. In exchange, a dealer typically receives 50% for every artwork sold.

Certain artists perform similar, but not identical tasks through Instagram: receiving sales requests via private direct messages (DMs); networking with artists and high-profile users (liking and commenting on other users’ posts and following their accounts); and searching for new art-world trends through hashtags or the main “Explore” page, which features the platform’s most popular posts, based on user activity. Instagram also serves as a virtual gallery space where artists can exhibit their work to a global audience, unburdened by high real-estate and maintenance costs.

Without a gallery, artists are entitled to 100% of sales, though a few artists share a smaller percentage with studio assistants or public relations assistants who help with artwork shipments and additional promotion on behalf of the artist.

Through Instagram’s shopping feature, potential buyers can tap on an image of an advertised product while scrolling through their Instagram feeds, leading to an external website to complete their purchases. Popular among beauty and fashion brands such as @glossier or @prettylittlething, Instagram has not yet introduced these features to artists. Instead, artists rely on PayPal and e-commerce stores to process sales.

For artists, the key to getting their work seen on Instagram is to post high-quality content and to interact with as many followers as possible, says artist Julia Powell (@juliaspowellart) from Cambridge, Massachusetts. Such content includes, as New York–based artist Juliette Hayt (@juliette_hayt), who has nearly 2,400 followers, says, “well-taken photographs” that show an artist standing in front of their work. Maggi McDonald (@maggimcdonaldart), an artist from Australia with over 400,000 followers, finds that users love to see content that shows an artist’s process, or, as she refers to them, “messy studio pictures.”

Julia Powell, If You look Hard enough, You can find the Spring, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.

Artists use features such as Instagram Stories, Instagram Live, and video posts to document their daily lives and creative processes, while also interacting directly with their followers in real-time. In this way, an artist creates a more authentic online persona, establishing a relatable connection with their followers to increase their social media attention and popularity, as professors Alice E. Marwick and danah boyd document in their research on social media culture and micro-celebrity.

Powell, who has over 700,000 followers, is a prime example of how Instagram can benefit an artist’s career as both a promotional and selling platform.

Powell spends about 15 minutes of her day on Instagram. This time is spent uploading one to three posts, using hashtags, and interacting with other users to ensure her work stays visible, as Instagram is her primary sales platform. When she first started her account back in 2016, Powell used to dedicate an hour per day to these activities. However, due to her more substantial following, she has been able to scale her time on the platform back.

“Instagram is hard work,” she explains. “Doing my art is hard work. It’s not [as if] the talent magically arrived and I had 10,000 followers. Every single day, I was working on it.”

Powell sells her work for figures between $500 and $11,000, and receives about two sales inquiries per day. Around 90% of her inquiries come through DMs, while the rest come through three galleries with whom she maintains working relationships, but who do not formally represent her. At this pace, she typically sells one original painting per week. She works between five and nine hours per day on her art, producing four watercolors and one to two oil paintings each week.

Ashley Longshore (@ashleylongshoreart), a New Orleans–based artist with 148,000 followers, encourages artists to diversify their social media use to leverage other platforms, along with Instagram, to maintain their businesses.

“I’m not an ‘Instagram Artist,’” she says. “I’m an artist [who] uses all the resources I can to get my name out there.”

Longshore uses multiple platforms and activities—such as Facebook, pop-up exhibitions, a Bergdorf Goodman artist residency, and media publicity—to promote her artwork. She also maintains a physical gallery space, Ashley Longshore Studio Gallery, located in the uptown district of New Orleans, which is dedicated exclusively to her artwork. Longshore sells her work for figures between $6,000 and $40,000, and receives sales requests through DMs and her website, the latter channel usually proving more fruitful. She notes that her prices can also adjust to supply and demand patterns.

Courtesy of Ashley Longshore.

Courtesy of Ashley Longshore.


“If I paint 10 paintings at $5,000 and they sell immediately, you’ve got to raise the price,” she says. Longshore views her strategy based on risk, hustle, and potential reward.

Dan Lam (@sopopomo), a Texas-based artist with 199,000 followers, keeps to a more “organic” posting strategy, rather than a structured one. Usually, this means uploading a photograph of her work once it is finished.

This past year, Lam left her gallery, Fort Works Art, in Dallas, so that she could assert more autonomy over the sales process.

Dan Lam, Getting Soft, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.

Dan Lam, Under Your Skin, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.

“I’ve actually turned down offers for representation due to [galleries’] terms on studio sales,” she says. “With the position I’m in, I’m able to make direct sales, and [Instagram] definitely helps sustain my practice.” Lam’s work starts at $800 and can climb upwards of $8,000, depending on the size, material, and time involved, she says. She receives daily sales requests through her DMs and website. The more serious inquiries tend to come via her website, while DM responses often fall through, something she attributes to her largely millennial following—individuals who she believes either cannot afford or do not understand her work.

She credits her former gallery for connecting her with more “well-established collectors,” who can and do purchase with more regularity. Currently, Lam is in a position where she can meet with galleries and decide which dealers she believes will best represent her work.

As with any online transactions, there are risks. Powell says she used to receive fraudulent online requests about twice a month, but they were fairly easy to spot due to obvious foreign IP addresses and poorly written emails. However—perhaps due to her former training as an attorney—Powell suggests performing one’s own online due diligence via Google, should an artist encounter any similar issues.

For three of the aforementioned artists, celebrity promotion was important in cementing their early presence on Instagram. Powell benefited from the support of her friend, actress and author Mindy Kaling, who promoted one of her paintings through her television show The Mindy Project. After visiting Longshore’s studio in New Orleans, actress Blake Lively featured the artist’s designs for a pillow collection on her lifestyle blog, Preserve, in 2014, and continued to promote her work on her Instagram. Singer Miley Cyrus commissioned one of Lam’s sculptures for her personal art collection after seeing her friend Wayne Coyne, of the Flaming Lips, following Lam on Instagram; Cyrus later posted a picture of the finished work in her Malibu home. This particular sale generated a large number of young Instagram followers for Lam, who contribute to the artist’s previously cited frustrations and problems following through with sales.

It is clear from these artists’ experiences that artists can use Instagram to promote and sell art. But can it get them into museum shows and into permanent collections, often seen as important steps in an artist’s career?

Alexa Meade (@alexameadeart), who has 191,000 followers, says she began to use Instagram as a way to showcase her self-invented painting technique, through which she transforms three-dimensional subjects into two-dimensional paintings. After her work suddenly went viral in 2010 through the blog, Meade received a multitude of opportunities to do live installations of her work. Thus far, she has shown her work at traditional art world institutions, such as Saatchi Gallery’s “The Art of Giving” exhibition in 2010; the “Camera-Ready Color” show at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in 2012; and at Sotheby’s New York’s “The Art of VR” show in 2017. Most recently, Meade’s work was featured prominently in singer Ariana Grande’s music video for her 2018 song “God is a woman.”

Signe Pierce (@signepierce), an artist from New York with some 67,000 followers, has exhibited and performed her work during key art-world events—she mounted a satellite show entitled “The Pharmacy: U R Wut U Eat” during the 2015 edition of Art Basel in Miami Beach—and at institutions like Paris’s Palais de Tokyo in 2015. In June 2017, Pierce photographed actress Aubrey Plaza for Time magazine, showcasing her neon aesthetic as seen on her Instagram, as well as in her other works. For Signe, Instagram (along with other social media such as Tumblr and YouTube) was also the road towards a more traditional art-world career. That same month, Pierce consigned her “strongest images,” as she says, to Annka Kultys Gallery in London for a solo show entitled “Faux Realities.

From Pierce’s experience (and those of several other artists I interviewed), while Instagram offers autonomy and a larger share of profits, being represented by a gallery still has its attractions. Of the 18 artists interviewed in 2017, four hope to work with galleries in the future. But, for the time being, social media represents an important channel through which artists can take control of their careers. This is especially important for artists who lack a connection to the traditional art world through their educational paths. Only 37% of the 18 artists I spoke to had attended art school or received a formal art education at that time.

As artist Sarah Meyohas observes, “The decision to become an artist is entrepreneurial in itself, even if you don’t consider it like a business.” In the contemporary art world, Instagram has proven itself as a promising platform through which emerging and female artists are not only recognized as working artists, but have the option to become sole traders. Following Andy Warhol, Marcel Duchamp, and Damien Hirst, these artists have reinterpreted the role of the “artist-entrepreneur,” using the power of public image on social media to take ownership of their works’ value—thus impacting the traditional art world, with or without a gallery agent.

Zoe Goetzmann