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Q: make a living ( Answered 5 out of 5 stars,   14 Comments )
Subject: make a living
Category: Arts and Entertainment > Visual Arts
Asked by: brightnewday-ga
List Price: $5.00
Posted: 17 Feb 2003 19:26 PST
Expires: 19 Mar 2003 19:26 PST
Question ID: 162793
I am an artist, a good artist, but I have never tried to sell any of
my art. I have been working in the customer support/ call center
industry but I just do not want to continue in this field when I move
to Houston, which will be very soon. I want to make my living as an
artist. I do abstract acrylic and collage. I realize I will not
immediately be able to support myself with my art, but I need to know
what is the best direction for me to go to have my art support me. I
have no formal training, nor do I plan to have any. I want to work
freelance, so to speak, not a 9 to 5 company job. Who do I need to
contact? How does one get their art sold? What are the best ways for
me to go about this? I suppose if you have an education, they tell you
these things. Can I make a living with my art without an art
education? Thank you for any information you may be able to give me.
Subject: Re: make a living
Answered By: ericynot-ga on 19 Feb 2003 13:42 PST
Rated:5 out of 5 stars
Hi brightnewday-ga,

I'm going to tackle your question for a variety of reasons. First, I
like your nickname, and the optimism it bespeaks. Second, I have a
powerful love of and sympathy for anyone who wants to attempt to make
a living in the art world, and lastly, with over a decade of direct
experience in the business you're asking about, I'd feel guilty if I
ignored your question. Having said all that, I hope you won't be
offended if I'm blunt and not overly encouraging.

So, let's get to it. You're moving to Houston. You want to make a
living creating and selling art.  For over a decade, I owned galleries
and sold contemporary fine and decorative art in Austin, just up the
road from the City By The Slough. By my, admittedly non-scientific,
calculations, I sold more contemporary art in that city than any other
dealer ever has. The experience left me wiser, worn out, and still
deeply appreciative of art, if not completely enamored of the business
of selling it.

The art business is a strange game. It plays by different rules than
any other retail business (explaining what I mean by that statement
would take another 2,000 words). It's sort of a Tupperware party meets
the Academy Awards, with a dose of Joe Millionaire pitched in. It's
rife with beauty and pretense, overpopulated with hucksters, and
shackled by the public's peculiar expectations and bedrock ignorance.
But, at least you get to drink wine during business hours sometimes :)

Can you make a living as an artist? Yes, maybe even a good one, but
you probably won't. Why not? Well, first off, you may not be as good
an artist as you think you are. Even if you are, your art may not be
what the public currently fancies, which means that few galleries will
want to show it. You must keep in mind that galleries, unless operated
by those with wealth from some unrelated source (such as an
inheritance or a spouse's fabulous income as CEO of a still-viable,
non-telecom company) must *sell* art in order to continue in business.
They can't show your art just because it's "good" - that's what
museums are for. There must be a market for your work, either in
existence or readily developable.

The fact that you lack formal art education may or may not be a
hindrance to your creativity, but it is a negative, as far as a
gallery is concerned, in terms of selling. The average art buyer, who
is being asked to part with hundreds or thousands of dollars to
purchase something about which he or she typically knows very little,
is understandably nervous and seeks reassurance that they are not
being conned by some slick gallery salesperson. That art patron buys
art because (probably in some combination, but not necessarily in this
order) they like it, they hope their friends will like it and admire
their taste, they think/hope it will appreciate in value (the worst of
all reasons to buy), they believe it sufficiently matches their couch,
or they just can't stand looking at a large blank wall in their house
any longer. One of the things that helps get a potential art buyer
"over the hump" is showing them an impressive "artist's resume" that
proves the creator of the work they fancy is showing in many
prestigious galleries and has an MFA from the Pratt Institute (or
wherever). Such credentials carry weight with art buyers, and,
therefore, with art dealers. Is that fair? Does it prove that one
artist's work is any better than another's? Of course not, but there
it is, like it or not.

Do you have business and organizational skills? If you don't, either
dump your art dream now or find someone to help you with the non-art
side of things. If you don't, even if you're able to find people who
will buy your work, you'll soon be on food stamps -  the art market
will chew the flesh right off your bones.

Still want to be a professional fine artist? OK. I don't know much
about your art, your non-art skills, or anything else about you, but
here's some of what I believe you need to do and know in order to get
started (most of this should be obvious, but you'd be surprised by how
many wannabe artists I talked with over the years who didn't have a
grasp of these basics):

  1) work your butt off and amass a substantial body of art. Remember,
this takes money - art supply stores don't give stuff away.
  2) study the art market in general. There are many ways to do this,
but the best are to (a) talk with successful artists, (b) study books
about the subject (I'll list some at the end of this answer), and (c)
talk with any gallery owners or art consultants in your area willing
to spend time with you.
  3) put together a GOOD portfolio. Take GOOD pictures of your work
and make lots of copies of those photos for distribution (I always
preferred slides, and presume that's still the preferred medium for
most gallery owners). Organize and label your photos/slides so gallery
persons can easily understand the chronology, media, sizes, prices,
avail abilities, etc. of what you're showing them. Leave a complete
copy of that portfolio with each gallery who wants it - even if they
don't want to immediately show your work on their walls, they may have
a customer come in tomorrow they can show the photos to, and arrange a
sale for you;
  4) study the local art market (this applies to any city in which you
want to sell). Go to all the relevant galleries you can find, see what
they specialize in and what seems to be selling. Get a feel for
pricing, keeping in mind that you, as the artist, are going to be
receiving approximately one-third to one-half of what a piece sells
for, framing excluded (unless you provide the framing). When you're
ready to look for gallery representation, go to the galleries who
specialize in work similar to yours - don't waste your time trying to
show your abstract work to places selling wildlife art;
  5) try to be somewhat adaptable. Many artists take the position that
their artistic vision is sacrosanct, not to be influenced by any petty
commercial constraints. This is not to say that you should prostitute
your art to any and every visual trend you think might sell regardless
of your own vision. But, unless you are a modern day prophet with an
imperative direct from God as to how humans can save themselves, there
is nothing immoral with at least attempting to understand what it is
the unwashed public is willing to purchase;
  6) learn patience and perseverance. You're going to be told "no"
over and over. It may take years to get into some galleries you covet.
  7) have a fallback financial position. Do not use up all your cash
reserves trying to realize your art dream. Perhaps you should keep a
part-time job of some sort until you see how things are going to go.
Never let yourself get into a desperate financial position (forget all
that "starving artist" crap) - gallery owners can sense when an artist
supplicant is on the ropes and will either take advantage of that
weakness or avoid the artist altogether knowing that a desperate
artist may become an albatross;
  8) look for quality local art shows in which to exhibit. Not only
might you make some money that way, but you can also get an excellent
feel for the public's taste (a term some consider oxymoronic). Notice
what things of yours they like as well as what other artists in the
show are selling. At such shows you may also meet one or two dealers
who are scouting local talent.
  9) be prepared to get in your car and travel. It's a big world with
lots of galleries. Visit them.
  10) ask lots of questions wherever you go. Find out what buyers and
dealers like and don't like about your work. If a dealer likes your
work, find out what dealer friends they have in other cities who might
also like it, then contact them.
  11) be straight-up with your dealer network. If you have a dealer in
your hometown showing your work, don't invite prospects to your studio
and "sell around" your dealer. That's the quickest way in the world to
lose representation.
  12) be prepared to help the dealer in any way you can - bring in new
work when asked; if awarded a commission, be sure it's completed when
promised; and so on;
  13) keep a watchful eye on your dealers, especially if you're
showing on consignment. Some galleries have an unfortunate habit of
"forgetting" to pay their artists promptly when they sell a consigned
work. The only way to avoid that sort of nonsense is to always know
exactly what work your dealers have and, if possible, take a physical
inventory of it from time to time;
  14) refer customers to dealers with whom you wish to build a
relationship. If, for instance, you manage to sell something to an
interior designer, send that designer to your favorite gallery to make
additional purchases for their clients (and be sure the designer knows
to mention your name when they go). Nothing will more endear you to an
art gallery because (a) they are made to know that a professional
designer likes your work and (b) they appreciate the referral.
  15) always remember that the art business is a small world.
Everybody knows everybody. Dealers who are crooks tend to be known
(which is one reason it's good to network with other artists and
dealers), and artists who are unreliable also earn far-ranging
  16) think like a salesperson and stay in touch with your gallery
contacts. If you get a favorable newspaper article written about you,
share it with everybody you know. An article in the Houston Post,
properly distributed, may well help a dealer sell your work in St.
Louis or Los Angeles. Call your dealers at least once a month just to
check in - find out what's selling, see if they need new work from
you, just remind them that you're out there. Dealers are like
everybody else - they tend to work hardest for the people they like
best and respect the most;
  17) try to be as creative in your personal marketing as you are in
your art. In this day and age, that may well mean putting up your own
website, for example;
  18) try to get your work into a decent gallery in Santa Fe. In this
part of the country, Santa Fe is Mecca for art. I used to have people
go to Santa Fe, buy work there they could have bought from me for
less, then bring it me to frame. It drove me nuts, but people just
love being able to tell their friends "I bought this piece in Santa

In Item #2 above, I suggested buying and reading some books. Here's a
website with a wealth of such material (I learned a great deal when I
was getting started twenty years ago from Calvin Goodman's "Art
Marketing Handbook", which is offered here, among many others):

Since my experience is that of an art dealer, my thoughts tend to come
from that point of view. But there is another outlet I would urge you
to explore, at least until you have gallery representation: interior
designers (and their more specialized colleagues, the art
consultants). Ask around, hit the yellow pages, go to "parade of
homes" kinds of events, find out who the good designers/consultants in
your area are. Then call them for an appointment and see if you can
scare up some interest. Not only might you get some sales and
experience, but you'll also buttress your credibility when you
approach galleries, especially if you can get a piece or two into the
homes of locally prominent families.

One other observation that you may well not like hearing: when
economic times are bumpy, people tend to purchase safer (i.e.
representational and pretty) art, and, obviously, less of it, than
they do in the boom periods. Without having seen your work, I don't
know how or if that observation applies, but it might be worth
knowing. When the financial road gets rough, most people don't rush
out to buy new art, so this may be a particularly difficult time for
you to break into the art business in Houston - Enron, unemployment
and all that - but it may also be the right time to start accumulating
work and making contacts.

OK, that ought to be enough to get you started. If you have a lick of
sense, you'll go back to school to become a court reporter or
something instead of trying to be a professional artist, but if you're
still in the mood for this self-flagellation, I wish you nothing but
the very best. There were a great many things I personally did not
love about the art business, but the creative people I was able to
work with over the years were incredible. I'm guessing you belong in
that group.

If you have questions about this answer, please use the Clarify Answer
button - I'll get right back to you.

All the best,


Google search: art marketing handbook

Request for Answer Clarification by brightnewday-ga on 19 Feb 2003 15:10 PST
I am awed and grateful to get such a complete, erudite, and helpful
answer to my question. Thank you very much for your suggestions and
the completeness and honesty of your answer. Believe it or not, I am
not dismayed from my goal. I already knew I needed to keep my day job.
I would like a clarification for suggestion #11. If you do have
paintings showing in a gallery is it conflicting to get other
paintings in another gallery or sell other paintings to other people,
like interior designers, as you suggested? I hope I'll need this
clarification :-) Thanks again!

Clarification of Answer by ericynot-ga on 19 Feb 2003 16:23 PST
Hey bright,

Let's hope you have such a quandry soon :) Actually, it's probably
unlikely you'd have more than one gallery in a city, and I don't see
the need for it if you're selling original work (it is not so uncommon
when selling photo reproductions). Whether or not it's "OK" would
depend on what understandings you work out with the gallery owners -
just be up front with everyone before you pursue any multiple
arrangements like that.

It gets dicier when you're talking about selling to non-gallery
professionals - designers and consultants. And, believe me, if your
work is marketable, you're likely to experience pressure to sell "on
the side" - everybody is looking for an angle and a discount. Don't do
it, unless you have a specific agreement with your gallery that it's
acceptable (and you are unlikely to get that). It costs a lot of money
to operate a gallery, and and nothing cheeses off an owner more than
finding out an artist he/she has promoted is going behind the
gallery's back. Even if you work directly with a designer to do work
for a specific client of the designer, you should be sure the gallery
is part of the process. In the long run, this works best for everyone.
It lets the gallery get its cut while insulating you from some of the
hassles of the "business side" so that you can concentrate more on
your artwork. It also helps cement the reputation you want as an
artist who is a reputable professional.

Thanks for your kind comments regarding my answer. I sincerely hope
your dreams come true, and I would be delighted to be your personal
consultant if Google rules allowed, but alas...  Remember, your goal
really is a long shot (not unlike making it as an actor), so be
patient and persistent. Galleries are besieged daily by hopeful, and
often talented, artists who want a place on the wall, so to speak, so
it's not just how good you are, it's also how well you can present
yourself as a savvy, marketable entity (read some of the books I
linked you to - they can tell you much more about that than I can in a
brief answer). Also remember: if you can land them, trust your
dealers, but keep both eyes open. And, when you make it big, I'll
expect you to come back and leave me that tip :)


Clarification of Answer by ericynot-ga on 21 Feb 2003 07:51 PST
There has been such pleasant feedback about this answer that I re-read
it to see what people were talking about. In so doing, I thought of
some additional do's and don'ts. Since I'm one of those folks who
can't stand to feel that a job isn't complete, if you'll indulge me,
I'd like to add these thoughts to the original list (though not my
strong suit, I shall attempt brevity):

  19)  ask dealers you talk to how they most like to see artists' work
presented to them. Get them to show you examples of how other artists
have provided information/photos to the gallery. That may give you
ideas for organizing your own presentations;
  20)  keep your ear to the ground, nationwide if possible, for new
galleries opening. Established galleries usually have a "stable" of
artists already, whereas new ones are much more likely to be seeking
artists to represent. Of course new galleries may also mean new,
untested owners, so be more wary than usual - if they go under in six
months, work you have on consignment with them could disappear along
with the gallery;
  21)  consider branching into new media, especially original prints
(and if you don't know what an "original" print is, you need to
bolster your education.) Prints are very marketable, allow you to
create a larger quantity of work, and are often easier and less
expensive to ship to galleries in other cities than other forms of
original work. They also tend to retail for less than unique pieces,
thereby allowing your collector base to more rapidly expand, and for
galleries to "test drive" your work at a smaller up-front cost;
  22)  if you, like many artists, are shy when talking about your own
work (many people can sell like crazy until it comes time to talk
about their own stuff, then they lose objectivity and become terribly
uncomfortable), try to find a professional artists' rep, or even just
a friend, to take your work to galleries;
  23)  this one may be somewhat controversial - if you're going to
represent your own work, and you don't already have much direct sales
experience (although it sounds like you have good customer interaction
background), get a job selling something else in order to learn
technique and get comfortably practiced at the art (of selling, that
is). A story: the first year I was in business, a woman (from Houston,
as a matter of fact) came into my gallery late one afternoon as a
representative of a South Texas graphics publishing firm. The work she
was showing was good, but what was especially impressive was that,
while she was working with me, she also made, to a gallery browser who
walked in during our visit, the largest sale anyone in my gallery  had
made to an individual customer up until that time. After I finished
writing up that sale and the client left, I asked the rep how she got
to be such an amazing salesperson. She told me that when she moved to
Houston, she decided she wanted to become a professional salesperson,
so she got a job selling Rolls Royces. She figured if she could learn
to handle that type of client, she could learn to sell anything. Man,
was she ever right. She certainly taught me a thing or three;
  24)  last (thank heaven :), once you get that prized gallery
representation, don't forget to change out your work regularly (or at
least offer to) so it doesn't get "stale". Remember, work that
languishes for months in one gallery may fly out the door in another
city. Plus (once again, human nature), gallery sales staff is much
more likely to want to show the "new" things to clients - after art
has been in a gallery for a while, it tends to be taken for granted
and overlooked by staff *and* clientele.

For what it's worth, I think the best tip of all those above for a
rookie artist may be #20. I'll shut up now, promise.

You go get 'em.

Request for Answer Clarification by brightnewday-ga on 21 Feb 2003 09:33 PST
WOW! Eric, thanks for your additional information. I know I'm going to
every bit of it. How fortunate I have been to have someone as
about selling art as yourself to answer my question in this Google
Regarding your #19 addition, I was just wondering last night about the
use of
CDs to show my art. I have a digital camera and I have a CD burner. 
Wouldn't that be the most logical and preferred method for presenting
my art?
And how about a Power Point presentation. Do other artists use these 
methods to show their work? And please, don't apologize for your
information. It is great that you are willing to do this. I'm sure I
am not the only one benefiting from your answer(s) to my query(s).

Thanks again, BND

Clarification of Answer by ericynot-ga on 21 Feb 2003 11:01 PST

You have obviously gotten the drift of my advice. You can probably
also deduce that it has been some time since my direct involvement in
the art business (I moved on to other interests in 1991). The basics
stay constant, but the technology evolves. When I was dealing art,
CD's and PP presentations were not widely available, but I would
expect those to be very useful tools for selling in today's market. I
have no doubt that, were I still in the game, those would be preferred
information vectors. Consulting a couple of galleries should quickly
verify that.

brightnewday-ga rated this answer:5 out of 5 stars
I was given a thourough and excellent answer to my question. How I
wish I could have this person for a personal consultant! I have
received an exceptional answer to my question and I would tip $50 if I
had any money to spare right now.

Subject: Re: make a living
From: denco-ga on 17 Feb 2003 20:25 PST
You do not need a formal education to make a living
with your art.  All that really matters is if the
quality of the art is good enough, or that the art
has a commercial appeal, and best if it is both.

You need to put together a slide portfolio of your
art, then make some appointments with some Houston
art galleries for them to view your portfolio.

Do not be afraid of any criticism of your artwork
they might give you; they know what will sell and
what won't sell.

All of this said, be aware that it is very rare for
someone to make a real living off their artwork, at
least through the fine arts.  It is easier (though
not that much) to be an illustrator, etc.
Subject: Re: make a living
From: journalist-ga on 17 Feb 2003 20:44 PST
Technique can be taught but talent cannot be learned - it is the
artist's instinct and unique choices that makes her or him highly
regarded in the art world.  If you want to teach art at a public
school or university, then you would need a degree.  If you want to
sell your art, you need no schooling except in business.

Regarding the acting industry, a person once told me "They don't call
it show art, they call it show business."  It's the same with fine art
- you must see it as a business and not allow those petty details to
ruin the creative process for you.  That's what agents and gallery
owners are for - business.  Consult agents and galleries until you
find someone who believes in your work as much as you believe in it. 
Then, live you dreams and soar.  :)
Subject: Re: make a living
From: journalist-ga on 17 Feb 2003 20:47 PST
PS  I wanted to add: don't just "make a living."  Make a life.  :)
Subject: Re: make a living
From: easterangel-ga on 17 Feb 2003 23:19 PST
Hi! You might want to look at this piece of information from the
Occupational Outlook Handbook.

Subject: Re: make a living
From: sublime1-ga on 17 Feb 2003 23:37 PST

The first piece of art I ever bought is now hanging on the wall above
my dining room table. I saw it at an impromptu exhibit of artists at
a park in the Ghent Park district of Virginia, in the hippy days. I 
was out there playing my guitar. The piece was primarily wood-burning
on a random piece of plywood which revealed to the artist the hints of
faces in the wood, which she brought out with further wood-burning.
She had done many pieces like this, but this one had been her first
experiment in adding color to the process, so the image of a tree,
burnt into the center of the piece of plywood, and surrounded by woods,
with tiny and subtle faces appearing on the tree and in the surrounding
forest, was enhanced by acrylic colors highlighting the grains of the
plywood surrounding the base of the woodburnt tree. I was fascinated.

I didn't have enough in my checking account to cover the $125 asking
price she had set, so I offered to play original and standard songs
on my guitar until she was willing to accept the $100 I had in the bank.
I started playing and she eventually agreed to sell it to me for $100.

I followed her progress as an artist, and she followed my suggestion to
offer her unique style to places, such as restaurants, with wood paneling
figuring prominently in their environment. I lost touch with her after
awhile and felt like I was walking into a dream when I entered a
pancake-house type of restaurant about 2 years later, and found every
panelled wall covered with her unique style, depicting elves and faeries
and wildlife and so much more - all in the acrylic-colored woodburnt style
of that first painting. It was thrilling.

So, in summary, I would say exhibit wherever you can find the time and 
space to do so. And, take advantage of restaurants and other businesses
which will agree to hang your art with a pricetag on it - they get free
art, and you get free exposure.

Warmest regards...

Subject: Re: make a living
From: pinkfreud-ga on 18 Feb 2003 10:07 PST
Formal art education is useful if a person plans to teach art, but is
certainly not a requirement for one who wishes to be a professional

Do keep in mind that only a tiny percentage of artists are able to
make a living at their craft. I am an accomplished artist; I was
unable to earn a living wage from my talent until I acquired computer
graphics skills and sought contract work (most of which was of a
rather uninteresting and uncreative nature.)

The old saying "don't quit your day job" is good advice in this field.
Subject: Re: make a living
From: journalist-ga on 19 Feb 2003 16:03 PST
Dear BrightNewday:

The answer that Ericnot-ga gave on your question is, IMHO,  a shining
example of GA Researcher excellence.  I want to commend him here in
public for sharing such intricate details about his own experience.

Well done, Ericnot!!!
Subject: Re: make a living
From: brightnewday-ga on 19 Feb 2003 16:54 PST
I would like to also thank denco-ga, journalist-ga, easterangel-ga,
sublime1-ga, and pinkfreud-ga for their helpful and encouraging
comments. Thank you all.
Subject: Re: make a living
From: journalist-ga on 20 Feb 2003 05:51 PST
Brightnewday, it was a pleasure responding to your question.  I've a
friend in Rhode Island who pursues an art career - she's a great
sculptress.  I'll be sending her a link to Ericynot's answer.

And, my apologies to EricYnot for the typo I made above spelling his
Subject: Re: make a living
From: omnivorous-ga on 21 Feb 2003 03:44 PST
Ericynot-GA wrote:
>8) look for quality local art shows in which to exhibit. <

A neighbor going through the same process has found that winning a
couple local competitions has given her access to dealers willing to
place her work in a gallery.

A stunningly good response from the GA researcher here . . .  make
sure that you invite him to the first opening!
Subject: Re: make a living
From: mplungjan-ga on 06 Mar 2003 01:31 PST
Does any of the art experts scoff at a web site?
Would that not present the art to a much wider audience than just Houston?

Good luck, I hope you make it big...

Subject: Re: make a living
From: hedgie-ga on 06 Mar 2003 14:36 PST
The last comment by  mplungjan-ga  seems to be an excellent suggestion.

There are sies which will host artist's work,
allw sale of posters and sites which lists art websites.

Here are few examples:

Art website links

Welcome to ArtSeek.
The Internet Artist's Resource Directory

ArtSeek serves the Internet arts community by providing an affordable portal to
member sites that might otherwise not show up on search engines. Our aim is to
provide quality hits for our member's sites.

The New ArtSeek Print and Poster store is now open!

Many world famous and establish artists use art websites, e.g.
Adolph Born

good luck

Subject: Re: make a living
From: rosalind-ga on 12 Mar 2003 16:37 PST
Some further suggestions:

- Spend time with other artists. You're probably not getting much time
at a call center to hang around with people who do art themselves. I
ended up in a private school teaching position with a number of other
people in similar circumstances; there are other options as well,
depending on your background and willingness to blurb yourself. In any
case, there are two real advantages to doing joint shows, attending
other people's openings, and finding jobs that put you in artist

1. You come out of your shell. You see how well folks around you are
doing, and you rise to that level. You're much less likely to overrate
yourself if you are in the middle of a group of folks with good eyes.
Historically, anyway, most artists *did* spent a lot of time with
peers -- even before their art got very good and/or they became

2. (More cynical.) You get the low down on gossip -- or, rather, your
gossip radar triples or quintuples in sensitivity. Your name gets on
the word of mouth, and people have the sense of you "really being an
artist." Your respondant was right on in his/her description of why
people buy art, and if you don't have an MfA, then you'll have to lay
claim to artist status in some other way. People love "outsiders" --
but only if they're safe -- and "safe" here means "respected by

- Act like an artist. Don't denigrate your own work out of shyness, or
a sense of inadaquacy. Bluster and bluff work much better than
critical honesty when selling your work or even just talking about it.
Don't solicit the buyer's concern or love or whatever -- once you put
yourself out there, pretend you're Degas and act like it; it's better
to come off as cocky than shy.
All the best.
Subject: Re: make a living
From: ericynot-ga on 12 Mar 2003 17:17 PST
Excellent observations by rosalind-ga. And, she invoked the name of
one of my favorite artists: Degas :)

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