Several years ago I submitted a series of articles to the Philadelphia Water Color Society Newsletter. In these articles I provided information for artists on how to gain gallery representation and then how to manage that business relationship. I will be posting these articles here, perhaps one a week or so. Some of the information is a bit outdated (I began the articles in 2004), so if new information is necessary I will provide it in a post script. I'd love to get your feedback. Thanks for reading.
The View From Both Sides
by Donna N. Cusano
Having worked as a professional artist for nearly twelve years and as a gallery employee for three, I have had the opportunity to learn a great deal about the business side creativity. Since I have some perspective from the each side of the contract, so to speak, it is natural for me to understand the concerns of both gallery and artist. In this first installment of an ongoing series of articles, I will try to shed some light on how to achieve and sustain a mutually beneficial relationship with a gallery.
Gallery Pros and Cons: Is a New Relationship Right for You?
It’s a good idea to do a bit of self-analysis to determine whether you are the type of artist who would benefit from gallery representation and then what type of gallery might be right for you. Here are a few things to think about before you approach any gallery with your work.
Let’s begin with the potential difficulties in establishing gallery representation which include reduced contact with buyers, dealing with high commissions, and a commitment to leaving inventory for long periods of time. Establishing gallery representation is like gaining a business partner to handle sales for you. It may be challenging for you to hand over control of sales to a gallery director if you are an artist who prefers contacting your clients directly, are comfortable with the process of selling, and easily divide your time between painting and marketing your work. You may need to ask yourself if you are ready to incorporate a partner into your sales equation.
Secondly, if your work has up until now remained inexpensive it may be necessary to increase your prices not only to compensate for a gallery’s commission but also to establish them within a similar range as comparable work already on exhibit there. In addition, most galleries will require that, regardless of any exhibition you participate in anywhere, your prices are fixed and hold consistent to those established in the gallery.
Lastly, since it's necessary to leave work at a gallery for three or more months at a time, moderately prolific artists may find it difficult to commit work for these lengthy time periods while fulfilling requirements for other shows. When considering gallery representation, you may find it necessary to edit your show schedule in order to provide your business partner with a variety of high quality work to show off your talent to it’s best advantage.
Now let’s look at the positive aspects to gallery representation. Generally, exhibiting in galleries will improve your sales because they provide a professional atmosphere where your buyers can count on seeing your work on a regular basis in a well lit, climate-controlled and comfortable setting. Other shows and festivals, while prestigious or potentially profitable, are short-lived, may move from one venue to another, and may not run during a convenient time for your buyers. Having a gallery is like having a home base for sales.
A gallery owner or director is an equal partner in the development of your career and the best ones are adept in the art of selling your work. Let’s face it, few of us creative types are also talented salespeople. It is certainly a relief to know that someone who has educated themselves on your work and biographical information is also making every effort to place your pieces in the well-deserved home or office of a satisfied client while you are busy completing, perhaps, their next purchase. In addition, there is a perception that if you are exhibiting in galleries you are committed to your work and the advancement of your career. There will exist a certain cachet surrounding your artistic endeavors which will aid in leading you down a path to success.
As you investigate the gallery scene, you will quickly realize the need for more decision making. From barn shops to exclusive, appointment-only establishments in “the big city”, there are as many different types of galleries as there are people who own them and it’s up to you to determine which best suits both your personality and that of your work. A good percentage of artists prefer displaying their work in middle-range galleries since these venues tend to be conveniently located, offer moderate pricing, and specialize in promoting local artists. Most galleries fall within this category and their inherent informality is appealing for both artists and patrons. Coffee shops and the like also provide an informal setting for displaying your art. However, these owners and managers generally are not in the business of aggressively promoting your work and do not offer insurance, although they are more than willing to have you fill their walls for them. They may offer to make sales for a nominal commission or require that any potential buyers contact you directly.
On the other hand, some artists have consciously sought out or have been invited into galleries that have propelled their work into the national spotlight and toward a higher spending, albeit more exclusive clientele. Most of their pieces are priced at above average to high levels, excluding much of the general public. However, the ability to streamline an exhibition schedule to one or two shows a year while still making a comfortable living can be highly appealing and worth the risk of reducing the number of collectors. The move from middle-range to high-end gallery can be one of choice or of career evolution.
By far, the best strategy for those who are just beginning to map out their exhibition goals is to take advantage of as many opportunities that become available. From locally promoted gallery “galas” to nationally juried shows, this inclusive approach to exhibiting your work will gain you as wide an audience as possible. In addition, your future career choices will be made from experience and not from hearsay. You may also stumble upon an ideal situation, a venue custom fit for your personality and artwork, which you may never have envisioned.
In conclusion, please keep this one thought in mind. As the artist, creator of “the product”, you are the one who is in charge of how it is packaged and marketed. At the end of the day, this is a business about moving product, just like cars, bed sheets, and canned vegetables. Though it is difficult to separate the highly personal process of creating from the business of selling, it is always a good idea to keep your emotions out of the latter. As the Godfather says, “ It’s business, nothing personal.” With a sound state of mind in tandem with high quality work, it is likely that you’ll bring to the table an offer a gallery can’t refuse.