How the Art World Works, part 3: galleries


Listening to artist Jesse Reno (left) speak about his work in an art gallery

You can read part one here, and part two here.

The world of commercial galleries is simpler for the artist, but more dangerous. The museum world has a certain ivory-tower quality that is their temptation and their danger, but it has little effect on artists. (BTW, I plan some day on writing an essay on the idea that “museums kill art” which is commonly held and ludicrously wrong.) Galleries are the front lines, where blood is shed and victories won.

I’ll number my points as I did previously.

19) Money is not evil. An artist is a working creator, employed in the field of making art. The love of art is the core of being an artist, but there is no shame in putting a monetary value on your work. (No more abstract “the artist” stuff. From now on it’s about you.) Should you receive an offer of work without pay – for “exposure” – reject it unless you can come up with really, extraordinarily good reasons to take it. Exposure doesn’t work. If you love a cause and wish to provide art to help that cause, perhaps; otherwise, your time and effort deserves a reward, and money is part of that. It’s not mercenary to believe your work has value.

Now, I expect some of you are wondering if there is hypocrisy here. You’re reading a blog, an unpaid platform, advising you not to do unpaid work. But a blog is a choice, a notebook that happens to be online where others can read it. I have worked for paid markets, which is something else entirely. And from this notebook there are ideas which will be fleshed out and included along with the best of my paid work into a book – seriously, what writer doesn’t have a book in mind? This essay will be part of that book, though it might well go through multiple revisions before that happens.

And while we’re at it. I have a screed in my head about art websites and magazines that publish writers without paying them. Some fairly prestigious art publications publish work for no pay. Again, I have had writing published elsewhere without pay, but on rare occasions, and not for exposure. And don’t start me on unpaid internships…

20) The most important thing in finding or choosing an art gallery is good old-fashioned preparedness. If you make still lifes of contemporary objects with the precision and beauty of the great Dutch still life painters, a gallery that shows rusted metal assemblages and oozing piles of petroleum jelly is probably not the right venue for you. Research what a gallery shows and what they say they want to show. Don’t chuck your portfolio willy-nilly; a gallery owner’s time is valuable, too.

21) Once a likely gallery is found, continue to be thorough: get a lawyer. A for-profit gallery can be a springboard to success, or it can be a scheme to get as much from you as possible and give little in return. Don’t sign a contract until it has been vetted by a lawyer. How much of the art’s sale price does the gallery get, and how much is yours? What is a fair division in your mind, versus what is seen as fair in the industry as a whole? Some galleries can take 50% of the purchase price. But – and this is important – the gallery works on your behalf, and, if the gallery is a good one, works hard. Like you, galleries deserve to be paid. Co-ordinate your marketing efforts with those of the gallery. Do you have a website? Make sure if you have gallery representation that the gallery is presented on your site in a clear fashion. The gallery is a partner in this with you.

22) If the gallery wants you to pay to show with them, find another gallery. Except for the big blue chip galleries, most art galleries are not rolling in money. A good gallery does what it can to promote its artists, but that’s not guarantee of sales. However, that is no excuse to shake down artists (oh, they have business-style euphemisms) for representation.

23) A gallery is no guarantee of success. New artists are often gradually introduced into a gallery’s schedule; buyers have to be found. If your art isn’t selling, there could be many factors besides the quality of the gallery or your quality as an artist, which are beyond everyone’s control. And even if your work doesn’t sell, the gallery might still want to keep you. Money is an important factor in gallery life, but it’s not the only one. Nonprofit galleries do exist, and even for-profit ones will sometimes keep unprofitable artists if the owners believe in that artist’s work.

24) Galleries are obliged to show whatever you have – well, no. Not every work is a masterwork, or even in the top 50%. Sometimes as artist produces a wide variety of subjects, only some of which might fit the gallery’s mindset. If you like your gallery but it won’t show a portion of your work, it’s time to get the lawyer back and see if the gallery will negotiate. Perhaps the undesired part of your work could be shown elsewhere – would your current gallery be okay with that? Does your contract need to be revised? Despite the presence of the lawyer, go into these talks with the assumption that you and the gallery are a team. Like any team, adjustments might be needed; like many teams, permanence is desired but not assumed. Sometimes it’s best if the artist and gallery part ways.

25a) So you’ve made a big sale – congratulations! Do you know the laws on resale in your state/country/universe? Are there forms that need to be signed? Your gallery should know, but so should you. There’s that pesky lawyer coming in handy again.

25b) Sometimes, when a work is sold for a great deal of money, the buyer will ask for a throw-in, a second work added for free, something small as a reward (?) for spending so much money on you. This is your call, but I’d advise against it. It smacks too much of privilege, and undermines the idea that your work is valuable. It comes dangerously close to working for exposure.

26) Remember, the art is about the art, not about you. You don’t have to be charismatic, dress in a bohemian manner, or try to sell your art via your personality/persona – unless you’re doing performance art, in which case a lot of people assume you are “on” all the time. Be yourself. If you can speak articulately about your work, great. Ask your gallerist for advice. Remember, buyers are taking the art home, not the artist. (That’s another kettle of fish entirely.)

This post is a work in progress. I might well repost it in the future should sufficient revisions/emendations occur.


2 thoughts on “How the Art World Works, part 3: galleries

  1. Pingback: How the Art World Works, part 2 | Art Matters

  2. Pingback: How the Art World Works (repost) part one | Art Matters

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