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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.