Thursday, December 10, 2009

Should I Pay a Gallery to Show My Art? Part 1

copyrigth 2009, Jan Blencowe, Inlet, 12x36, acrylic on linen SOLD, now in a private collection in Canada
View available paintings on my website
Need to Contact Me?

A very interesting tweet on twitter today led me to this article about vanity galleries, (galleries where you pay to show your art), and other schemes that try to separate artists and their money.

The article is written by artist Stapleton Kearns, on the Fine Art Views blog. He writes a humorous Dear Abbey style column where fictious artists write in with their problems, woes and questions for advice. Stape answers with his characteristic quirky sense of humor to make some really excellent points.

I want you to read the article first, right now, (really) because while I basically agree with what he says, it's a brave new world out there with the economy bad, and the internet putting the capability for sales and marketing directly in the artist's hands. So I have a few things to add that go beyond the old school advice of never paying to show your work. So go read the article here.

Funny huh?

First, I want to tell you that at one time I was in a vanity gallery. It was my first gallery opportunity. I paid $200 a month and 11% commission for 12 linear feet of wall space, that was approx 10 ft high. It was my own little booth with a large name plate above it and a wall hanger which I could fill with brochures and postcards. Every month there was an opening with adult beverages, cheese & crackers, etc supplied by the gallery. If you wanted to be included in any advertising the gallery did you also had to pay. Plus you had to volunteer at the gallery one day a month.

Did that work for me? Actually, yes! The yearly rent was $1200, my first year there I sold well over $3000 worth of art which more than covered my rent, the commission and the 1 or 2 times I went in for ads. My paintings at that time were in the $200-$800 range. The work day was difficult for me to fit into my schedule but every time I worked I almost always sold a painting because I engaged visitors who would come into the gallery. I'd talk about the gallery, show them around, praise all the art and artists and eventually they'd ask me where my booth was and I'd take them over, explain my work and more often than not I'd make a sale. The first half of the second year was equally as profitable, but sales really slowed in the second half, though I was still covering my rent. I stayed through the first half of the second year, but had no sales, so I left.

Overall this pay to show gallery was a good experience. Here's why:

    Being in a gallery validated my art. When people would ask if I was showing my work in a gallery I could say yes, and that felt good.
    I had a venue to sell my work and actually had sales
    I met many artists to network with
    I learned a thing or two about how a gallery is run
    I learned how to sell my own work to gallery visitors
    I was motivated to paint and brought new work in each month
    The gallery actually gave you the names and contact info of people who purchased your paintings
    The contracts were for 6 months allowing me to leave as soon as it was no longer profitable
    Having gained a gallery name to add to my resume made it easier to get into other conventional galleries.
Today I am further along in my career and have much more gallery experience. That first experience was my only time paying to show my work in a gallery and while I would no longer choose to do that, I can't really say that I regret starting out that way since my experience was mostly positive. Every artist must evaluate each opportunity as it presents itself. You must consider the cost vs. the benefit and whether the opportunity helps you meet any of your goals.

With the economic downturn and many galleries barely able to keep their doors open I'm not sure that the assertion that "a legitimate gallery doesn't hit you with fees upfront." is really true. Perhaps it is true for the ultra high end galleries who represent only today's most notable artists. But that is a very small number of galleries and artists. There are many more galleries in the secondary art market and that is where many, if not most, artists fit. In that market I see new business models emerging, the rules changing and the gallery/artist relationship evolving.

In the next few posts I'll talk about some other venues that require you to pay to play but might be worth considering. They include paint outs, auctions, co-ops, on-line galleries, and a few other things as well.

Your comments are welcome so chime right in with your thoughts.


AutumnLeaves said...

What an interesting read - though my own stuff will never make it to a gallery. I loved hearing of your experience as well.

Artist promoter said...

Interesting writeup, Jan. There are other ways of getting exposure online without spending money, though "selling" sites all seem to take a cut. For example there are online galleries that just show works like Saatchi Gallery (one of the best) and places where you can show or link to your work (or both) like
which are both free. Getting listed in online Art directories helps your website be visible on internet searches.

Janelle Goodwin said...

Interesting post, Jan. I had a similar experience, playing to pay, but on a smaller scale. And I did end up getting exposure and made more money than I paid out. So it was an overall good experience. Thanks for all the great information. Looking forward to your next post!