Why do people buy art?

Applying Jobs-to-be-Done to the art world


Why do people buy art? I’ve been asking myself that question over the last few months while working to launch an online art business.

I had some hunches, from my prior experience running a contemporary art gallery, but at the time I was selling art mostly face to face and in higher price points. My experience as a gallerist taught me a lot, especially about new collectors. I wanted to build on this experience and go deeper into understanding the real motivations, contexts and triggers around buying art.

So like a good Jobs-to-be-Done practitioner, I started interviewing people who had purchased art in the last 6 months. Since I had my particular business in mind as an outcome for the insights I’d uncover, I focused on the lower end of the art market — purchases under $500.

I won’t get into the timeline in this post; instead I’d like to focus on what I learned about the Four Forces around art buying:

Push of the situation

I discovered there were 3 common situations that led to an art purchase with my group:

A change in physical space. Things like moving into a new office or new apartment caused people to be more aware of their physical surroundings and notice space on the walls that they wanted to fill.

A milestone for celebration. There were certain occasions that people wanted to commemorate in a way that had longevity. Special vacations, weddings, graduations, first jobs, promotions, etc…

In this context, art is competing with jewellery, furniture, even high end accessories like a purse or briefcase.

An event where there was pressure to purchase from family or friends. There were particular circumstances where peer pressure was the trigger that moved people to buy art — think charity events (why do you think they serve free booze?) or a request to help an artist friend in need.

Magnetism of the new solution

Again there were some clusters of answers from the interviews I did:

Visual appeal of colours/shapes/patterns. This is an obvious one. Many people have a visceral reaction to art and that is a key factor that pulls them into an art purchase.

Ontario. Orlin Mantchev for LandStyle

Emotional triggers in the artist’s story or statement. Many folks described how a work of art appealed to them because it reminded them of their childhood or a favourite place or the artist’s story behind the work triggered some kind of emotional response. People didn’t usually connect the dots in the interview but this is where I would hear a lot of energy and emotion.

Social signal to others. This is an interesting one because it’s very rarely articulated in this way by the interview subject, but it comes through in the way they talk about their purchase. Some people buy art because it signals affluence, sophistication, hipness to their peers/friends/family, even at the lower end of the market.

Anxiety of the new solution

This was a great one! Lots of energy and emotion here and many things which I’ve seen first hand as a gallerist as well as an art collector myself.

Uncertainty around hanging and framing. Many people expressed their anxiety around how they were going to frame or hang the art they purchased. People who are not regular art buyers don’t often know where to go for framing or they are surprised by the cost of custom framing once they need to get their art framed. What was interesting about this one is that this occurred both before the purchase as a barrier to sale, and also after the purchase, which I would describe as as a barrier to “consumption.”

Perception of permanence. For many folks, their art purchase felt like a big commitment, because of the space it was going to take up or the way it would affect the space it was hung in. Considering their art purchase as a somewhat permanent decision caused a degree of anxiety around pulling the trigger.

Cost of shipping. Like any other online purchase, shipping cost is a factor in deciding to purchase something. People I interviewed described finding a work of art online that fit their budget, only to abandon the purchase because of the shipping cost, even when the shipping cost was a fraction of the overall purchase price.

Habit of the present

This was the hardest one for me to figure out. In fact there was really only one that I came up with (I’d love for folks reading this to weigh in here if you have anything to add).

People didn’t recognize themselves as art buyers. The art establishment has done a number on people, painting a picture of an art collector as someone who dresses in black, spends their evenings in minimalist white cube galleries and drops thousands of dollars on pieces at the drop of a hat.

My interview subjects didn’t consider themselves to be collectors by that definition and so they were not in the habit of looking for art or buying art.

Even when they bought art (e.g. a limited edition digital print) they did not realize they had “bought art”!

How I used these insights

Customer research is not useful in a vacuum. It’s important to test the new assumptions that come out of the JTBD interviews. So coming back to my business, I’ve decided to experiment with a few things:

  1. Offering art that either doesn’t require framing or fits into a standard frame size
  2. Offering free shipping within North America
  3. Blogging about art through the eyes of someone outside the art establishment. This means using colloquial, natural language, asking the “dumb questions” so people will find contemporary art less intimidating

I’d love to hear from other JTBD folks to see if there are other things I should investigate or if you have any questions or critiques. Thanks and happy art buying!


Thanks to Marc Galbraith and Casper Klenz-Kitenge for their help and the folks at Re-Wired for teaching me about JTBD in the first place.

Cover photo taken at my former gallery. Artwork by Orlin Mantchev (left wall), John Guthrie (right wall).