Do Art Galleries Matter Any More?

By Charles Lewis in Misc > Art Opinion

I can’t help noticing that art galleries are closing in droves. In the USA, anyway.

It’s easy to blame this on tough economic times, when spending on luxury items—even cheap luxury items like a small art print—is always the first thing to get cut out of a budget. But I can’t help thinking that there might be more of a shift going on than the one caused by the recession.

So I started wondering: do galleries really matter any more?

I read in one of Jack White’s excellent books on the business of being an artist (I think it was Mystery of Making It), that fewer than 5% of Americans had ever been inside an art gallery. Maybe it was more like 1%. Whatever the number, it’s not a good thing if you are a gallery artist.

Art galleries are a traditional place where art and the public intersect. There’s also the direct-to-public route, as in art fairs and craft fairs, holiday bazaars, etc. There are museums, but that’s an impossible route for all but a miniscule percentage of artists, and you can’t buy art from a museum exhibition usually.

Of all these venues, galleries have long been the premier situation.

Of course, there’s also the internet. But in my opinion, I don’t think much good wall art or sculpture is sold over the internet, at least not yet. The computer viewing experience is pretty poor, and it’s hard to really know what you’re buying.

Why, then, do I get such a gloomy feeling when I go into galleries these days? It’s not just one thing. . . it’s several:

1. An ineffective sales staff doesn’t help.

The first reason I feel gloomy is usually the poor quality of sales staff in galleries. Sorry, but it’s true. What’s the point of a gallery if not to sell art? But how many times have you gone in a gallery and never even been talked to? Plenty, I’d bet. Some lamebrain behind the desk is fascinated by his or her computer, but completely uninterested in a prospective customer.

Are they all recent MFA grads doing unpaid internships; into art but not at all into the commerce of art? How many times have you heard, “Let me know if I can help you” followed by a grateful return to the computer screen.

Selling is a learned skill; every industry depends on sales (even non-profits, who have to sell their need for donations) and there are vast resources out there whose focus is to train salespeople. However, virtually no one in the retail art world seems to know anything about it.

Most gallery owners haven’t learned basic selling skills, and they don’t expect it of their employees. Getting back to Jack White, in his excellent book Magic of Selling Art, he says “Art is not bought. Art is sold.”

I probably go in fifty galleries a year, and rarely do I see anyone getting sold any art. Nor do I see buyers elbowing each other out of the way to snatch art off the walls.

2. The gallery space matters too.

Another observation I keep having, is that art galleries are getting uglier. Could this possibly be leading to their decline?

More and more galleries just rent a warehouse space, slap some white paint on the walls and hang a mishmash of stuff floor to ceiling. The gallery interiors are so unlike any normal living environment that it’s hard to even imagine how a picture might actually look where you live.

The lighting is garish, the floors are trashed wood or painted concrete, and the overall effect is just, well, hideous. Maybe this works for the 25 year old set, based on the crash pad or dorm room aesthetic, but they don’t buy much art, if any. When I see exceptions, I take pains to tell gallery owners how attractive their galleries are.

Which brings me to content, or, what the galleries sell.

3. Is the art even in demand?

I sense a shift in public taste that I believe may be already affecting gallery sales. My gallery hopping usually reveals one of two types of art:

First, many commercial art galleries feature bright, harmless, decorative pictures that have all the personality of a slug. This is reliable stuff, but the market for it—for all wall décor, really—depends a lot on folks moving into new houses, needing to redecorate. But fewer people are moving these days, and the walls of their existing dwellings are chock full.

This is the kind of art you’d typically find in Carmel or Sausalito or Santa Fe or Florida. The galleries in Carmel or Sausalito at least, which I see firsthand, are moving a lot less product than they used to. Their featured artists are still churning this stuff out, but the gallery storerooms have enough product to last for years.

This content is strictly for home décor and will trend up and down with the housing market and the relative affluence of young marrieds. These pictures avoid offense and work well with Ralph Lauren or Martha Stewart paint chips.

Then, there is the rest of the gallery world, where instead of wall art you’re likely to find “installations,” which are hard to look at and almost impossible to buy—where would you put an “installation?”

Or if they do feature paintings, the trend is for “edgy.” (Edgy being another word for dreary, unhappy, and generally hard to live with.) Some of it is tremendous, technically, but most of it is just plain depressing.

The art in these galleries is just not customer-friendly. The colors tend toward dark browns and reds, guaranteed to wreak havoc with a living room color scheme unless your living room is deep into black and chrome. A particular favorite color scheme of this edgy stuff is what I call “dried blood” color: an ugly red-brown with a bit of yellow and grey mixed in.

In contrast, the galleries that I’ve seen full of people are offering happy stuff! Not edgy, happy. Funny. Light. Colorful. Not necessarily simple or unsophisticated, just upbeat. Something you could live with.

The cutting edge in art, however, is just not about happy and it may never be. That’s why cutting edge edgy doesn’t sell very well.

Not to mention. . .

4. The gallery business model seems threadbare.

What do I mean? Well, this model depends on at least some repeat customers, with the possible exception of tourist centers like Carmel or Santa Fe. But buyers of wall art in America seem to buy something once, and then it lives on their wall for decades after anyone has actually looked at it.

This is the problem of refresh.

If everyone still had the first computer they ever bought—say, a 1984 IBM PC in my case—the computer industry would not exist. It requires constant refresh. The art world hasn’t found a business model for swapping customers’ old stuff for fresh content on a regular basis. In fact, that might be the MAIN problem of the art business, overall.

5. And what about art fairs?

Of course, many people ask about the fairs. . . are they cutting into gallery sales?

It seems like there are more and more of these, ranging from the county fair types with an emphasis on cheap or folksy art, to very upscale affairs with opening night parties and admission charges for customers.

Going this route has advantages for artists—like direct interaction with the public and no 50% commission to split with a gallery. But you’d better learn to sell!

In addition to your time spent producing artwork, art fairs are very hard work, requiring some significant investment and also a high level of time and commitment. Remember the 80/20 rule: 80% of the sales are made by 20% of the artists. If you’re not consistently in that 20%, you won’t make much of a living from it.

Recently I asked one gallery owner how business was.

He replied, “Grim. Really, really grim. I’m about a month or two from having to find a new career.” So I have to wonder, are galleries losing their luster with the art buying public? Or is the public losing its interest in buying art?

I don’t know.

Outside of some traditional gallery strongholds (which seem to correspond to places with a lot of rich people) like NYC and Santa Fe, the gallery model might be entering its life support phase.

But I hope not! I’d love to see ten times as many galleries, full of great stuff. I’d love for the public to feel that galleries are a key part of their civilization.

So I ask again. . . is the gallery business model broken? If it is, let’s fix it!

To learn more about Charles, please visit his website at


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