Unsold work of dead artists lands in the hands and homes of the living. When an artist is "famous" unsold work may go to auction and then the profits are shared with families or other entities. One artist I know of, Clyfford Still, set up a will during his life in order for his art to be put on display in a museum that was willing to house his entire collection of works. You can read about this here.
To ask oneself "what happens to unsold work" is such an excellent question.
I recently moved, and found myself really asking this question. Our home sold to a buyer who asked for all of our furniture and two of my paintings. Once we filled boxes and loaded our truck to move away I realized that my art supplies and my paintings took up at least 1/4 of the truck space!
Dots 52, Blue + Royal Texture, mixed media, 10 x 10 inches on wood panel, © 2021 Suzanne Gibbs (available)
So, let's have this conversation! Many, in fact most artists I know, hold onto unsold work, forever. Then with the inevitability of aging and death families are forced to deal with the artistic output.
Mr Still had his method, to keep all of his work to himself. And then to make a will that stipulated that it never be sold, and that it MUST be displayed as an entire collection in a museum. Well, that's one idea... one I cannot imagine doing with my work!
My method is to keep one, max 2, pieces from each series. I am a painter, (but I also write and share a monthly zine). Each painting series takes 2-4 years for me to realize and fully develop the concept for the work (and a minimum of 30 paintings per series). This number does not include sketches, sketchbooks, and trial paintings.
My total number of paintings may amount to 10-20 pieces that I actually save. However, as I filled the truck recently I realized I have way more art than I thought!
Dots 31, Navy Pattern + Teal, Tan & Orange, 6 x 6 inches on paper, © 2021 Suzanne Gibbs (available)
Did I do the math right? 40+ years of work divided by 4 (years to realize a series) + one painting saved... Don't know. There is a lot of Suzanne work out in the world and in my possession!
What I do know is I am in control of the story of my work. I use this formula (save one, sometimes more) even if/when the series does not do well in the marketplace. I have not yet rehung the work I have kept and moved, but as I do I will see my work in new ways and my own work can and will inspire new directions for my work.
I hope to make a video or two showing my work in these new spaces.
What happens to unsold and not saved pieces? I usually destroy my own work and sometimes I paint over them! Once in a while I have been fortunate to find a women's and children's shelter with fresh new walls for my work. In these cases I donate the work joyfully knowing that I can share my original art in a place where growth and healing is possible.
Soul's Bulls Eye, 24 x 24 inches, mixed media on wood panel, © 2020 Suzanne Gibbs (available)
Typically all of the small pieces that I make that are exploratory and investigative in nature, and are gifted to collectors and/or zine subscribers.
Dots 11, Blue + Navy & Teal, 4 x 4 inches, mixed media on wood panel, © 2021 Suzanne Gibbs (gifted)
Unsold work must find a home (or a storage place) for new work to have room for creation. My preference is, and always will be that my work is hung in homes were the images spark thoughts of curiosity and joy. This is one of the main reasons I moved to participatory pricing this year. My collectors set the price and the value of the work they wish to home.