You Say Customer, I Say Collector

At one of my fall workshops, a woman said to me, “You know . . . you haven't used the word ‘customer' once.”
She wondered aloud why I hadn't used that word. She was surprised it wasn't in my workshop vocabulary.
I told her it was habit.

Spencer Finch at MASS MoCA
Elizabeth St. Hilaire Nelson's family studies "102 Colors from My Dreams" by Spencer Finch - a 2002 installation of drawings at Mass MoCA. Photo courtesy Elizabeth St. Hilaire Nelson

To me, the word “collector” is hopeful. But it's also honest. If someone has purchased art from you, they have collected your work.
“Collectors” sounds cozy – like they might be part of a family or something bigger than a transaction between two people.
Calling someone a “collector” seems to elevate their status immediately – in your eyes as well as their eyes. They'll surely embrace that title.
“Client” is appropriate if you are providing a service for someone: you've been commissioned to create a piece of jewelry, install a mural, design a website, or paint a portrait.
But “client” still feels cold to me. Too much of a business transaction and not enough heart.
There's nothing wrong with “buyer.” It just sounds a bit too retail-y and a little too “one-time-only.”
How about “patron”? “Patron” usually implies monetary support, but not necessarily in exchange for art.
Is anything wrong with “customer”?

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27 thoughts on “You Say Customer, I Say Collector”

  1. Depends on the person…Some are collectors, some are customers, a few are patrons, some supporters, peers of course who buy, believers- each person is unique…

  2. I’m with you Alyson, Collector seems to indicate a closer, more elevated relationship and a different kind of experience than the term Customer.
    The words we choose do make a difference – not only in how we are perceived but in how we perceive ourselves.

  3. Yes, I like ‘collector’, too. Not only does it seem to elevate the status as you say, but to me it also has a sense of long term, continued, open potential for increasing their collection. It silently implies there’s more to come from the relationship. 😉
    (This parallels your preference to using ‘private collection’ instead of ‘sold’ next to a painting image on a website/blog. Still torn on that one, with pros and cons.)

    1. PS: forgot to add…..
      My opinion, ‘patron’ seems to be used more for the general i.e. ‘patron of the arts’ and not as much for a singular artist. Sort of like they’re giving; a 1-sided gift. (remember, this is my interpretation)
      ‘Customer’ implies (again, to me) a singular impersonal transaction, i.e. at a 7-11, Target, etc…
      Just my personal take. I love toying with words; language can be so powerful!

    2. Tracy: Good point, though I do believe that some artists have true patrons that are different than collectors. It’s a much different meaning and intent.

  4. I prefer to use the word collector also. It does have a different meaning than customer to me. However I’m more inclined to use that term for people who purchase work from my existing body of work. When people commission work, i.e. portraits, in my mind I am more inclined to use the term “customer”.
    But I guess at the end of the day anyone who has paid for your work, no matter the manner is a collector huh?

  5. I also have gravitated to “collector” even though my years of self-employment still want to think of customers. I think in print or conversations “collector” elevates the status, and collectors are what they are, no?

  6. Wonderful comments and insights here! Personally I like the word “collector” best as I consider every person who walks into my studio a potential customer until they purchase a piece of my art, which then turns them into collectors. If they want to commission something, then I call them “clients” until the piece is delivered and paid for….which then converts their status to a collector of my work.

  7. Your instincts are good, Alyson. If “customer” applies at all, I think it best describes buyers when they’re trudging from one studio to another, trying to find something to buy — like at an Open Studios in a big building. There are probably less-admiring words for such grazing, but “customer” will do.
    “Collector” admittedly has a positive ring to it, but by buying art people have earned it — and I doubt that anyone would disagree with the implication that they intend to buy more. I guess there’s a slight implication that the collector is accumulating several pieces by one artist, but they’ve proven that they’re open to the idea, and I think that’s enough.

  8. I use the word “collector” myself because to me it encompasses the relationship that has been forged between myself and this customer/client. The majority of my sales are commissions, and I close each one with a thank you card saying how delighted I will be to work with them again. As if that decision has already been made!
    And an overwhelming 30% of my projects are repeat offenders (they laugh at that phrase, but I identify them formally on my invoicing as “preferred collectors”), commissioning for friends/gift giving/donations to causes.
    I am a firm believer in the power of positive phrasing – and my strong collector base is a testament to that!! Thanks, Alyson, for writing about this!

  9. I like ‘customers’ ; they r ~accustomed to my work. They may be a cousin or a stranger but the r there, or here:);. cause they want to be. They ‘like it’ & r interested in my Art.
    I also like ‘supporter’. I usually hv a good feel for who is just looking:)supporting me.& encouraging ~And who is supporting monetarily., Sometimes when my supporters do support me monetarily then the are a good,better? ”supporter”. naw. They became a ”customer!/Supporter”:)). I like Kimberly’s response also. As I do more commissioned art i may gravitate toward her Preferred collectors’ phrase. ..or Stared (Stay-eyed?:)Supporter:=Thanks!. ThanksAlsoAlyson!as alwaysI am Learning! +Blessings+MerryMerrY Christmas.
    ps:I have a few Collectors and even those are ‘Supporters’:)<3. HappyArt.

  10. I know of a gallery who refers to collectors as “buying units..” although that was a few years ago, maybe they have changed their ways…

  11. I always prefer the term ‘Collector’. There is a certain elevation in status related to that word that is not present in ‘Customer’.
    I want to pose a question though — something I struggle with from time-to-time. If someone purchases a print and not an original — are they still considered to be a ‘Collector’?
    I was recently updating my database and didn’t know what category to file these contacts under.

    1. Lisa: That’s a good question! Wonder what others here might say. Maybe it should be a Deep Thought Thursday.

    2. Thanks Alyson! It’s a question I’ve been struggling with indeed over the past year. If a contact purchases a print — do they fall into the ‘Collector’ category or the potential Collector category and what do you call them in the interim?
      Would be a good Deep Thought Thursday, agreed : )

  12. By all means, they’re collectors! When I talk to someone who has bought something I’ve made, they immediately become a collector to me. They move to my collectors list, so that when I do events I can set up special “collectors” previews for them, or other things. They are special to me. It’s not like we’re selling widgets, its artwork. An original, unique thing. And about the prints: if I’ve made the print, yes, they’re still buying my work.

  13. There is definitely something wrong with “customer”: they are always right! So I don’t have any.
    Kidding aside, collectors have chosen my work as it stands; if I’m commissioned, then I have a client with whom I have a professional working relationship. And while in that case I might agree to work under certain parameters, ultimately the artistic decisions rest with me. As with any other professional, they are paying for my knowledge and skill. But it’s not like buying, say, a custom couch, where as long as you pony up the cash you can have the ugliest upholstery you want.

  14. I usually use collector or patron. I sent out VIP valentine cards last year to my “Very Important Patrons.” I like the idea of a patron supporting the arts, in this case by buying art, and I think it gives a bit of cache. I always think of collectors as people who have more than one piece, so I think of my repeat buyers as collectors.
    I don’t think customer is necessarily bad, especially since many of my sales are at craft shows. But it is a commercial way to look at people who buy your work. If your work is very commercial in nature, this would be fine. I just think it makes someone feel a little more special if you call them a patron or collector. Anyone can buy something, but a collector is someone with more of a vested interest in who they are buying from.

  15. I admit that I do stumble when it comes to using the word collector around people who have not purchased any of my work. Client sometimes feels too much like I am a consultant/therapist/counselor — my hang up?? Given the discussion above I am going to try to just use the work ‘collector’ all of the time. Once it becomes a habit then I won’t hesitate hopefully.

  16. I love the word, but it must be justified. Collector is as much a verb as anything else. That is not true of customer, client, or patron. So while it may be important to “elevate” a person’s sense of worth by using collector within specific phrases, ie: Are you an art collector? or What kind of work do you gravitate towards in your collection? or Have you collected (abstract, plein air, watercolors or whatever) “this” in the past? or I have started a new series and my collectors are wildly enthusiastic. or I just emailed all my out of town collectors about this newest piece, but you have an opportunity to see in in person at my unveiling tonight.
    So while the word can be used in many forms and situations, I caution that in some circles and within some statements, it may be intimidating. One might want to consider what the person’s “experience” levels are before tossing the word at them and making them feel awkward instead of elevated.
    Another word that I have used in the past is “Enthusiasts” and I also like to use the word “Fan”. Those words can work in place of collector when talking with people who are more down to earth and might be intimidated by collector.
    And finally, I also often replace collector with “owners”, ie: people who own my work have said… or do you own any (fill in)? Ownership is a softer word that most people can relate to especially if they own a few things that they feel good about – a house, a car, a boat, a vacation home… etc. It implies success and a successful feeling person thinks they can own your work!
    Gotta love words…So much power…
    Thanks for bringing us (“collectors” of Alyson’s GRAND wisdom) a chance to scrutinize this important concept.

  17. McKenna – thanks for the words Fan and Owner. I like them. Here are some words I gleaned from my trusty Roget’s Thesaurus: accumulator, connoisseur, gatherer, enthusiast, collection agent, pack rat, wannabe, addict, devotee, zealot, visionary, groupie, booster, fan club, fanatic, eager beever…. As you say, words can be fun!

  18. Coming from a previous life as a librarian, I’m accustomed to using “patron” but since I’ve had a lot of commissions this year, I’ve been using “client” most often. I like Mckenna’s “enthusiast”–that captures some of the energy that comes from people who promote my work, whether or not they buy anything. And finally, the word “advocate” popped into my head–those who encourage others to buy my work, or suggest it, or refer people to me.

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