Building relationships with art collectors

June 28, 2013  •  5 Comments

Originally published on Boston Photography Focus, a blog from the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University


It’s a wonderful feeling to know that as an artist your work has touched someone and that they have purchased a print to have in their home or collection.  In fact, many collectors purchase work not because they believe it will appreciate in value but because they love it.  (See: Collectors Buy Art Because They Love It (Or Want to Take Out A Loan With It) by Kathryn Tully). 


If you are represented by a gallery you may not know who purchased your print and will leave it up to the gallery to market future work to these same collectors (See: How to find and work with galleries).  For others, interacting directly with buyers is a fulfilling and enjoyable part of their artistic process. 


Ask yourself, do you want to interact with your customers, personally?  Some artists opt for gallery representation while other artists opt for greater engagement with customers and sell work directly to buyers.  Beware that galleries might view it as a conflict of interest to do both.


Regardless of how you answered the earlier question, building relationships with art collectors (directly or indirectly) makes good business sense.  It helps generate repeat purchases and spreads positive word of mouth communication about your work.  “They become fans and want to encourage you,” says accomplished photographer Karin Rosenthal


For Karin, staying in touch with collectors of her work is about cultivating relationships and not about a marketing program.  “It’s not a strategy for me.”  It is an intrinsic part of the way she shares her craft.


Get to know collectors on a personal level

Karin really enjoys one-on-one interaction with people.  She’s been fortunate to have the best of both worlds: gallery representation that puts her work in front of people she would otherwise never be in contact with (e.g., a dermatology clinic in Seattle that purchased several prints through her gallery) and also the opportunity to build personal relationships with collectors herself.


Karin says “For me, having people come into the house and talk to me directly about the work is wonderful.  I never get tired of it.”


Many collectors have turned into friends or students or both (See Karin’s workshop: An Introduction to the Human Landscape).  One collector who has purchased several prints of hers over the years, has taken several of Karin’s workshops, and has become a personal friend.  A couple that started out as collectors became models as well as close friends.


“It all blurs together for me,” says Karin.  “I really enjoy getting to know people and speaking with them about my images, particularly if they are tuned in to what it is about.  The communication quickly moves to a deeper level.”


Tapping into the emotional connection between artist and collector

Karin’s photography has been collected by people ranging from curators to Nobel Prize winners to artists, lawyers, literary agents, and doctors.  She says that “getting to know these collectors has expanded my world.”


Karin told me a story about a man in England who contacted her and asked her the story behind a piece.  She responded via email explaining what had prompted the piece and he wrote back that he had sensed there was something different about this particular work.  He said "Thanks for your detailed response. In a weird way I thought your comments would be close to what you said which is the power of the work." 


To Karin this experience shows how art communicates all on its own to total strangers.   “What could be a more rewarding experience for an artist than creating a universal language?” asks Karin.


Karin says that the emotional connection between the artist, the art, and a collector “cuts through the superficiality of daily routine and makes life more meaningful.”


Creating an annual open-house tradition

Karin was holding a personal open house every year long before open studies were commonplace.  It is an approach Karin uses to promote her work that allows her the one-on-one interactions with collectors that she enjoys.  It also provides a deadline for printing new work and an opportunity to live with and contemplate the new photographs.


During the first week of December Karin has an event at her house with an exhibit of her newest images and also some of her older pieces.  She’s been doing this annually in her current home since 1986 and it has become a tradition that people expect and talk up.


Karin told me that “The idea started in 1981 when I came back from a traveling fellowship to Greece.  A colleague said to me why don’t we draw up a list of names and invite people to your apartment to see your work?  At first the idea was too radical for me to accept.  Galleries showed artwork, not artists.”


But she was gradually persuaded. “To my great surprise lots of people came and I sold some work.”  For many years, she sold anywhere from 15-20 prints during the December open house, roughly 30% of her 50-60 print sales on average per year.  The December show allowed her to make a living primarily from the sale of artwork.


This approach is one that works for Karin who enjoys communicating directly with her buyers.  She’s given the tip to several others who also use it successfully to build relationships and sell their work.  If you do have gallery representation you obviously need to be mindful not to undercut the gallery by selling work directly at a lower price than the gallery charges.


In addition to holding an open house Karin has an email list of 1,700 names.  She uses it to inform her followers about important news, like her recent interview on (Read photo-eye blog: Interview& Portfolio: Karin Rosenthal). “I use email to announce pending shows and update my followers on other significant happenings in my career.”  And she sends traditional snail-mail mailings yearly to a list of about 1,400 people.  She’s careful to point out however that she views what she is doing as communicating, not marketing.


Karin is a wonderfully warm and engaging person.  And it’s easy to see how events and the “personal touch” are such an integral part of the way that she builds relationships with collectors and promotes her work.


The rest of us will have to make our own decisions about what is right for us as artists.  One thing is certain – that in a world where it is getting harder to make a living by selling prints, developing a personal connection with a buyer elevates the relationship to a whole new level. 


“They become ambassadors of the work.  The more images are on people’s walls, the more ambassadors there are.  Sales of my photographs started with friends back in 1981 and have expanded exponentially ever since,” says Karin.  That makes smart business sense in my opinion.


Karin Rosenthal’s photographs of the human figure in the landscape reside in numerous private and museum collections including the Boston MFA, Boston Public Library, Brooklyn Museum, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, the Fogg, Rose, and Danforth Art Museums, the ICP, and the Yale University Art Gallery.  In 1978, Rosenthal received a year-long alumna traveling fellowship from Wellesley College to photograph in Greece.  Since then, her nudes have been published and exhibited internationally.

Cindy A Stephens is a Vice President of Marketing and a fine art photographer. She specializes in developing high-impact marketing strategies using digital and content marketing to build brands and expand market share. As a photographer Cynthia specializes in photography of main streets and back roads using unusual framing and multiple planes of perspective.


Arti Singh(non-registered)
Relationship between an artist and art collector is very impotent. Both are necessary for each other.
Ishan Goel(non-registered)
Artist and art collectors are very impotent for each other. They both are successful only because of each other. So, it is very impotent to main the relationship.
Ishan Goel(non-registered)
Relation between an artist and a web gallery is very impotent for the growth of business and the growth of an artist as well.
India Handicrafts
Museums, galleries and art consultants cherish the relationships they build like gold, because they know that’s how much they are worth. Building a list of customers and clients who would keep coming back is not an easy process, years of time, money and effort are spent on forming tight relationships with potential clientele. Nurture your clientele in order to build a long lasting relationship from which both sides can benefit. Don’t forget about your old customers, maintain regular contact and always work on improving your deals.
Building relationship with art collector plays a crucial role in the growth of any business. So, whenever you are in a group of people, remember that you build relationships one person at a time. At gallery receptions or open studios, you must make sure that you should spend a few minutes with everyone. Make sure each person feels as though they are the only person in the room while you are communicating.
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I am a marketing professional and a fine art photographer.  With more than 20 years of experience as a marketer and image maker during the digital technology revolution, I now educate creative professionals how to create their artistic presence in the changing art world.  


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