Galleries

Join Me for Gallery Night Providence July 18!

I would like to invite you to join me for Gallery Night Providence on Thursday, July 18 where I will be the Celebrity Guide for the 5:30pm trolley tour of four galleries in Providence.

This is a free, fun way to get introduced to art spaces you might not otherwise visit and learn more about the artwork on view and the artists who made it. My tour will conclude by 7:30pm.

Our stops will be:

  1. City Hall Gallery featuring: Invasive Beauty: New Works by May Babcock and Rebecca Volynsky

  2. BankRI Gallery featuring: Paintings by Abba Cudney

  3. Rhode Island Center for Photographic Arts featuring: Time Zero and Beyond and Hold Up The Hood by Francis Crisafio

  4. Gallery Z featuring: European and American Landscapes: Exploring Color, Form, and Light

Gallery Night is free program held on the third Thursday of each month, which allows visitors to park for free at Regency Plaza Apartments (entrance to the parking lot is on Greene Street) and then take guided tours to participating galleries around town.

Seating is limited and reservations are not available unless you make a $10 donation, so do arrive early if you’d like to join my tour. If you have any questions, please email me.

*The header image for this post is Abba Cudney’s Dirty Dishes, which will be on view at BankRI Gallery.

Hope to see you July 18 at 5:30pm!

-Michael

That Must Be Fun: Navigating Misconceptions About Gallery Work

The field of gallery work, especially as it relates to commercial gallery spaces, tends to be somewhat misunderstood. It is certainly not thought of in all quarters as a serious career. As a gallery professional, when I meet someone at a social function and the question of work comes up, the statement “I manage an art gallery” almost always elicits the same reply, particularly from those who don’t work in the arts: “That must be fun.” While work in the art market is stimulating and those of us who get to do it are incredibly lucky, those four words, and the mindset they represent, are indicative of some fundamental misconceptions about gallery work and who gallerists are.

The average American rarely, if ever, steps foot in a commercial gallery space. And the majority of Americans have never purchased (and will never purchase) an original work of art. So, it makes sense that most perceptions of gallery work are shaped by popular culture. Scripted television shows like Sex and The City or GIRLS have given us fictional gallery workers like Charlotte York and Marnie Michaels. In the 2003 rom-com classic Love Actually a group of school children snicker at a gallerist’s show of large scale nude photos festooned with Santa hats. And the 2012 Bravo reality series Gallery Girls primarily showed the lives of privileged young women working in the industry. Moreover, recent documentaries and news stories about the art market skewer dealers (alongside others) as shadowy insiders grifting from the nouveau riche. In short, when commercial galleries appear in media they are conversely the object of ridicule about elitism or the subject of suspicion regarding the murky nature of money in the visual arts. And gallery workers themselves are often envisaged as delicately coiffed trust fund babies in need of a hobby.

In addition to this problem of perception in the media, it makes sense that a central conceit of gallery life, the wine and cheese fueled reception, is viewed as a sort of party which gallery staff attend rather than an event which gallery staff work. Anecdotally, at least, it seems that many people see gallery professionals as individuals who have fun for a living. These lucky few spend their days toying with art and rubbing elbows with a bevy of glamorous collectors and talented artists. And in the imaginative mind, this hobnobbing is occasionally punctuated by a glass of Rosé over a sumptuous crudités spread.

Misconceptions about gallery work are not limited to those outside the field. Not long ago, I met an aspiring gallery professional who commented that the best part of gallery work was that curators and directors don’t have to lift a finger, saying, “You just point and people hang it for you.” The disconnect between this comment and the reality of daily life for the majority of individuals who make their living in art galleries astounded me.

So what is the reality for many commercial gallery professionals?

Outside of major hubs like New York or Los Angeles and beyond the walls of mega galleries like Gagosian, Zwirner, or Pace, smaller regionally-based and local galleries tend to be financially precarious and gallery owners are often one-man-bands. This means a gallerist has to possess an incredible array of skills. They must be equal parts curator, writer, preparator, installer, art handler, maintenance supervisor, publicist, public speaker, photographer, graphic designer, accountant, events manager, educator, caterer, bartender, server, and custodian. This isn’t to mention the softer skills of social diplomacy required when dealing with sensitive artists, frugal buyers, and a curious public. This job description would be a tall order for anyone, but when you consider the limited financial incentives involved in the local and regional market it becomes taller still.

The gallerist, in spite of this broad skill set, remains an enigmatic figure. And the pressures of gallery work are often veiled behind the well-crafted façade of the art world. The reality is that employees at the majority of commercial galleries are not, in fact, filing their nails at the reception desk of a white cube on the Lower West Side of Manhattan. But instead, they are engaging in numerous skilled tasks, often across many exhibitions at once. They are, additionally, providing needed services to artists and bringing artwork to the market - often acting as the only professional representation certain locally known artists will ever have.

So, why does it matter if the general public or even art people themselves understand what or who a gallerist is and what their work is like?

Misconceptions about gallery work devalue the labor of gallery professionals. Not only in the eyes of those with an already limited affinity for the visual arts. But also in the minds of those who are genuinely interested in galleries, art, and collecting. An artist once told me that commercial galleries are a racket because gallerists provide virtually nothing in exchange for their 50% commission. This line of thinking is extremely troubling. A good gallery owner, indeed a good gallery professional at any level, does much more. And for this reason gallery workers are worthy of recognition. But the reputation of privilege and frivolity persists. So, too, does the idea of the unfriendly gallery person.

In the popular imagination gallerists are chilly and inaccessible. In reality, though, commercial gallery work is essentially the effort to bring art to new audiences and thereby to new potential clientele. For this reason, gallery staffers must be public people, yet they are often perceived as closed off. This is in part the fault of gallerists everywhere who fantasize that they are the second coming of Larry Gagosian. Gallerists on the lower end of the market who seek to cultivate a reputation for elitism and aloofness do so at their own peril and degrade the reputation of the profession in the process.

Those of us in the gallery field are more often than not amiable people who care about art and artists and work to help them navigate this complicated marketplace insofar as we can. Commercial galleries also provide an incredible, if unspoken, community service in that unlike most art museums they never charge admission. For free, anyone can visit an art gallery and see artwork that is being made by artists right now. And they can often engage directly with the artist, too.

Gallery work is, as many people suspect, deeply enjoyable. But it is also emotionally and physically taxing in its own way. I know many in the business who work around the clock even when the gallery is closed, conducting studio visits, installing purchases in the homes of clients, answering frantic emails from artists on weekends at midnight, to name just a few common tasks. Though the work is often fun, it’s not always easy.

Ultimately, the best way to understand gallery work is to be in the trade. But one can learn a lot by speaking to real world professionals. A little bit of research also goes a long way. Instagram accounts like @arthandlermag, @jerrygogosian, and @contemporarycostanza humorously illuminate some of the things that go on behind-the-scenes. But truly, visiting galleries, reading art news, and following your local gallerist are essential to developing an understanding of gallery culture and the people who make it all happen.

And, if you ever have any questions for your own friendly local gallerist, you should feel more than welcome to email me.

What Has Your Gallery Done For You Lately?

One of the questions I hear most frequently from artists is “how do I get my work  into a commercial gallery?” For most artists who operate primarily within a local and regional marketplace, this is a complicated question. Even in a culturally rich region such as the Northeast, the ratio of commercial galleries and art dealers to artists is deeply uneven with artists outnumbering venues enormously. Although many artists state their interest in breaking into the commercial gallery market, I rarely receive questions about what comes next. Namely, how to maintain a relationship with a gallery and examine its worth to an artist’s practice and business.

Because artists are so interested in being represented professionally, and because these resources are so scarce, artists tend to accept just about anything from their local gallerist. Commercial galleries are for profit businesses in which a gallerist makes their living representing the work of a select “stable” of artists. Particularly in these venues, certainly more so than non-profit arts collaborative, associations, or other membership-based organizations, commercial gallerists have a special responsibility to serve the artists they represent in a variety of areas.

In this post I will examine a few key areas where artists should be particularly critical of their gallery’s performance.

Reputation

Your gallery should have a good reputation. While its not always easy to discern a gallery’s standing in the community, it is simple to explore how a gallery interacts with other organizations, artists, and with the broader public. You can assess a gallery’s reputation by asking artists, collectors, and other galleries who have worked with them who they are and what they’re about. If a gallery has a reputation for being slow to pay their artists, or unethical, or disorganized, there may be some truth behind it. Ultimately, the gallery’s reputation will also become your reputation if you align your brand with theirs.

Mentorship
Your gallery should provide mentorship about your work. The gallerist should encourage your best work and discourage your weak material. How can a gallerist do this? A quality gallery professional will have the education, experience, and connoisseurship necessary to help you improve your work. For this reason its important to truly examine the qualifications of dealer or gallerist you’ll be working with when considering any gallery. Whether you like it or not, your gallerist should take a critical view of your work and thereby help you to grow, evolve, and improve both as an artist and as an art businessperson.

Marketing

Your gallery should be marketing your work specifically in addition to promotions for shows in which your work is included, or for the gallery itself. A good gallery relationship should not only include space on the wall but also an increased knowledge of your work in the marketplace. If your gallery has a poor website, a small following on social media, a weak mailing list, or rarely mentions your work publicly then it may be time to rethink the relationship. The gallery should be sharing your work with their audience, and you should tell your followers about your relationship with them.

Sales

Your gallery should be selling your work. And they should aid you in holding the line on your prices. A quality gallerist will help their artists find a price point for their work that validates the effort and materials involved but also reflects the realities of the marketplace. Again, a good gallerist should have the experience necessary to this task. They should be able to help artists set a reasonable price for their work and maintain it. As an artist, you too should be aware of the marketplace for work like yours in your area and be honest about its salability.

Collectors

Your gallery should connect your work with collectors of all varieties, not only frequent collectors (who are few and far between at the regional level), but also with first time art buyers and other customers who are seeking simply to buy work for their home or office. A few top tier regional galleries will be able to place work in permanent collections within corporate or institutional settings, but these opportunities are rare and the competition is fierce.

Networking

Your gallery should provide opportunities for you to meet their audience at events as well as through studio visits or other means. There should also be opportunities to connect with your fellow artists and members of your local art community. A professional gallery should be connected to the key individuals in the arts nearby, as well as have a broad array of fans and followers who regularly attend their openings, programs, and other events.

In addition to these topics, there are probably too many other considerations to mention in this short post, but there are a few key issues to consider. The first is that there are no strict qualifications for owning and operating a commercial art gallery and the talent pool in smaller commercial galleries is quite variable. If a gallerist has no educational background in the visual arts, few connections within the art community, or seems to own a gallery mostly for their own enjoyment, a question might be raised about their suitability to handle your work professionally and effectively.

Another issue is that often, smaller galleries focus on a few key artists at the expense of their broader stable. If your work is never on view and it’s hard to get your gallerist’s attention, you should examine the real value of the relationship honestly. It is also important to remember that you must always be assessing the quality of your gallery, their services, and their effectiveness. If things aren’t going well, you should have a conversation with your gallery professional. Communication is key to developing healthy and mutually beneficial relationships.

With all of the above considerations in mind, it is also important to remember that the pressures on small local and regional commercial galleries have never been greater. Between skyrocketing rents, and the many costs involved in operating a brick and mortar business of any kind, the profit margins can be razor thin or non-existent. Considering your gallery’s position will help you to put yourself in their shoes.

Ultimately, no small gallery can completely shape the market for an artist’s work and it is extremely important that artists take responsibility for their own professionalism and maintain their own art business vigilantly. Doing this will give you the wherewithal to thrive in the market even in spite of the sometimes precarious position of small local and regional galleries.