You’ve probably seen Michael Mahaffey’s work around town, at least prior to the pandemic shutting everything down. It was a fixture at Lulu’s Chocolate Bar, and he’d been featured at places like Sulfur Studios, Location Gallery, and Gallery Espresso for years.
That all changed when those aforementioned places were forced to alter their ways of doing business because of the health crisis (although Sulfur did feature his works in their front window for the month of May).
Unlike most Savannah artists, however, Mahaffey wasn’t reliant on brick and mortar spaces to sell his artwork, instead utilizing sites like Etsy and Instagram to connect with patrons. In fact, his art business actually increased during the lockdown.
On this week’s episode of Art on the Air, we spoke about his marketing strategy and the state of the art world today as he sees it.
"I think 10 years ago when Etsy first came out it just sounded like…a bunch of people sitting at home like knitting cardigans or something and selling them online," joked Mahaffey. "And then when I actually checked out their product, I realized that there were a lot of people like myself that were really just starting out and that had a lot of artwork and just wanted a place to show it and to sell it."
That led to the artist putting art up on the site under the name "MrMahaffey." The diverse body of work in his shop includes pieces devoted to his love of Star Wars, but also edgier imagery focused on gay culture, politics, and the city of Savannah. It took him a month to make his first sale, but as of this writing he’s up to an impressive 2,633 transactions, 2,971 people have marked his shop as a "favorite," and he’s got 473 followers. Additionally, a conspicuous banner at the top of his storefront announces in boldfaced type that "Buyers are raving!" due to numerous five-star reviews over the past week.
"Yeah, it took a few years of just kind of figuring out their algorithm and figuring out how their search engine worked to be able to put what I was creating up there and actually make decent money at it," Mahaffey said.
Despite the fact that online methods of selling artwork have existed for decades, traditional brick and mortar gallery spaces have remained the go-to for many local artists, myself included.
"It is an archaic method," he said. "And even though there’s a lot of really great stuff that happens from the [current gallery system], it is very limiting."
Mahaffey noted that almost all galleries and dedicated art spaces have fees attached, a trade-off for their art world "clout" and access to their client base. They also often tie-in exclusivity rights to having a show, prohibiting the artist from showing at other venues nearby during the exhibition and sometimes within several months or more from the shows conclusion, which the artist admits "makes sense from a business standpoint."
"But if you’re making [art] because you have to make it because it’s just part of who you are," he said, "then it becomes kind of excruciating to just leave… a limited amount of pieces somewhere, under someone else’s care, for other people to look at that you have really no connection with."
Instead, Mahaffey argues, art sold online or in a more casual venue like a coffee shop or a café creates a more relaxed environment "where people can reach out to you and they feel a little bit easier about messaging you than they do about going through a gallery."
The approach has created lasting connections between himself and his collectors, who view his online presentation as authentic.
"Instead of trying to find these clever hashtags and all this stuff," said Mahaffey. "I just do what I do and what genuinely makes me happy. I throw it up there and I talk about that. And luckily there are enough people that respond to that, that it’s been able to create a really strong presence for me and a way to make a living for a decade now."
Listen to my entire conversation with Michael Mahaffey embedded here. Next week I’ll be speaking with artist Ahmad Jackson about his work and the way he uses it to respond to the world around us.
Tune in to "Art on the Air" every Wednesday from 3-4 p.m. on WRUU 107.5 FM in Savannah, and streaming worldwide at www.wruu.org.
Art off the Air is a digital-only column that is posted every week on dosavannah.com as a companion piece to the WRUU 107.5 FM show "Art on the Air."
Rob Hessler is an artist, host of the radio show Art on the Air on WRUU 107.5 FM Savannah, and Executive Director of Bigger Pie, a Savannah-based arts advocacy organization.