You may be under the assumption that because I sell a lot of work I wouldn't be able to lend much perspective on the subject of art galleries. But, as it turns out, I'm looking for a new gallery myself. It’s true that in the course of my 22 years I have sold the majority (90%) of my paintings by my own salesmanship. Though there are many advantages to representing yourself, I feel that I’m at the point in my career that all my hard work and the value I've built could only flourish further with the right gallery relationship. I’m searching for the perfect marriage – a professional relationship based on mutual respect with the understanding that as long as we both work hard, we can achieve great things. I've had many experiences over the years so I thought that I would pass on some of the good and the bad with the hopes you can benefit from my failures and successes.
1. Act Professional - Don't Be a Slob
You'd think this one would be a no-brainer, but over the years I've seen more artists at openings with their dirty painting pants than I can count. Think about it. A gallery is a business. They aren't there to show your work because its nice, they're in the business to sell your work for profit so they can continue representing artists. Don't let your appearance disqualify you from your chance to be represented. If they choose to invest in you, show them you care and dress professionally at your opening. Going to a gallery opening is not a social event for you and your buddies. It is an opportunity to sell work and impress your potential collectors - you must show them you’re someone they should invest in. Make a good impression with their collector base and you and the gallery will have a profitable relationship from day one.
2. Produce Quality Artwork
No matter how much buzz you have about your work, it doesn't mean anything unless it is produced with some level of quality. If you're a painter, produce quality work, finish it on time (ie. don't deliver wet paintings to the gallery), and either frame them or paint the sides of your panels so they look clean and neat. Collectors want to envision what your work will look like in their home or office. Don't present it in a way that looks like it's still in progress. Have respect for your work and potential buyers – it speaks volumes about your drive and character.
3. Don't Wait for Galleries to Make You Successful
Years ago, many artists dreamed of finding representation and being set for life. While that dream came true for some artist’s years back, today that model is out of date. Galleries want to know an artist is worthy of their investment. They aren't looking for someone green in the art world that has no presence. If you're putting your career on hold while you search for a gallery then you’re wasting precious time. In the interim, you need to promote your work! Spend time networking and building your social media presence. Don't wait. Do it now. If you're just getting started, set up a facebook account and start there. Find artists you like and friend them and start joining the dialogue. It doesn't have to be exhausting. You can manage a perfectly healthy social media presence with just 10 minutes a day. Keep producing quality, consistent work and share it with people. If a gallery is looking at your work, they can see that you’re already up and running - it only increases the odds for you finding that perfect artist / gallery relationship. Also, and I can’t stress this enough, keep your social media accounts professional. Think twice before you make a post that may be offensive, political or career damning. If you want to separate your accounts so you have some personal freedom with family and friends, please do so.
1. If a Gallery is Not Willing to Conduct Buisness Professionally - Walk
If you can't get a detailed contract from a gallery prior to dropping your work off PLEASE walk away. A positive gallery relationship is built on both parties acting professional. If a gallery cannot provide you with a simple consignment agreement then the relationship is doomed to failure and far too risky. Anyone can open a space and call it a gallery. And more importantly, not everyone is reputable and thinking long term in this business. Only do business with a gallery that conducts their business professionally and are enthusiastic about your work and it’s potential. I've seen far too many artists lose their work to unrepeatable galleries because they had no written agreement. Be smart and investigate the gallery thoroughly. It’s wise to ask other artists who’ve done business with the gallery about their experiences. Don't allow your desperation to force you to make a poor choice. Please choose a gallery with a great reputation and a good business model.
2. Can the Gallery Sell Your Work Better Than You Can?
A professional gallery will have staff members that are paid to be knowledgeable about your work. They should be able to rattle off titles and explain the nature of your work to a potential client with ease. They will be able to make sales before, during and after your opening and they will know the value and the prices for your work. I know this sounds basic but over the years I've had many experiences where sales were lost because of unprofessional and lazy staff members. I love selling my work and I truly love meeting new people at openings, but in the end, I am an artist and I am only a part of the relationship. You want a gallery that knows the work you produce and is knowledgeable enough to market you to their collectors and new potential clients. If you are sharing a 50% commission, you want that gallery to have the ability to make sales quicker and better than you can from your studio.
3. Never Pay to Play
I've only made this mistake twice early on in my career for a big city show and an international exhibit. Rule of thumb - never pay to play. If a gallery approaches you with an offer to show your work for $1000 a month in some window in NYC or some space in Europe ask yourself what is that money buying? In the end it might only be a line on a resume. Is that worth it? Probably not. You certainly won't have a staff that is motivated to sell your work. It doesn't matter either way to them, they get paid. I've seen many artists break the bank with these relationships and I've never seen anyone make sales or make a career on paying anyone to show their work. Whether you're just starting out, or you’re mid-career, you can sell your work from the comfort of your own home and you won't have to pay anyone. If you have that kind of money, spend it on marketing and promotions of your art and keep putting out quality submissions to professional galleries that won't ask you to pay anything up front.
In the right gallery/artist relationship, you can flourish. As professional artists, we want to sell work, be respected and live happy lives doing what we love. It should be a no-brainer. All we can do on our end is be professional and productive. It’s important that we seek out what we truly want from a gallery, have a detailed discussion to see if they’re a right fit, and get it in writing. Don’t allow your desperation to set in and cause you to make capricious decisions. Desperation is never the way to do business. If you must, wait for the right opportunity and don't stumble the same way I have over the years. Good luck to you!