Thoughts on Art Galleries, From a Former Gallery Director

By Carrie Lewis in Misc > Art Opinion

Several weeks ago I suggested a few questions artists should ask themselves if they’re trying to decide whether or not gallery representation is for them. Basically, it came down to knowing why you create art and what you hope to accomplish with it.

Since then I’ve had a few more thoughts that I’d like to share:

On paying gallery fees. . .

As a former gallery director, an artist, and a member of more than one artist’s forum, I can’t count the times I’ve heard artists complain about the commissions galleries charge on the sales of artwork. The fact is, I’ve complained about that very thing myself, before I started working at a gallery and understood the situation from the inside.

Whenever artists complain about paying gallery commissions, it’s because they’re viewing the commissions as money taken out of their pockets.

However, here’s a gentle reminder for all of us: you should be paying whoever markets your art. Sales are never easy and the tighter the economy gets, the more difficult it becomes.

If a gallery is selling your work for you, they are (or should be) doing enough marketing work to earn their commission. It costs money to maintain a website, create marketing tools such as post cards, publicity announcements, and buy advertising. It also costs to pay employees and maintain the physical gallery.

All of those things factor into how successful a gallery is in attracting top-quality art and potential buyers. The better they are at doing all those things, the more they sell, and the more they truly earn their commission.

Of course, you can also try selling by consignment

Have you ever eaten in a restaurant where the artwork on the walls is for sale? That artist is most likely selling their work by consignment. The restaurateur agrees to have the artwork there because it adds to the dining experience, and the artist agrees to put artwork there because doing so puts it in front of the eyes of diners.

The same holds true if the art is hanging in a doctor’s office, in the halls of the local hospital, or some other place of business.

With a consignment, no money changes hands until a painting is sold. Then the artist pays the restauranteur (or other business owner) a predetermined percentage of the sale price.

Interestingly, some galleries operate on a consignment basis, too.

I’ve worked consignment from both ends. I have consigned work as an artist, and I have also accepted (and asked for) consignment work from other artists.

The key to any relationship like this is communication. There are some things you should consider before making a decision. Here are a few:

• Who pays for shipping artwork to the sale location?
• Who pays for the return of unsold items?
• What percentage will the store/gallery take?
• How long will the artwork be on site?
• What happens if it doesn’t sell during that time period?
• Who insures the work?
• How will the artwork be displayed?
• How will the artwork be promoted?
• How easy is it to get out of the contract if either side is unhappy?

All of this information should be in writing before you deliver artwork. Once the art is installed, it’s too late to negotiate.

There are broader matters to consider, as well. For example, does your artwork fit the style of the restaurant (or business) where it’s being displayed? Do the customers of that business fit into your marketing plan?

Think about those things before you approach a possible gallery or business.

In the right situation, I believe consignment is a great avenue for most artists and galleries. As an artist, it gives me a chance to put something in a location that might not otherwise be accessible. And as gallery director, consignment gave me a low-risk opportunity to test the market with a few pieces of art I thought would sell.

Remember to promote your gallery, too!

If communication is important in getting gallery representation, it’s doubly important afterward. Don’t deliver your artwork, then walk away thinking you’ve done your part. You have done an important thing in providing the art for display. But that’s just the beginning—you need to promote yourself and your art too.

I could always tell when an artist went out of his or her way to tell people when they were featured in an exhibit. Those openings were always well-attended, because the artists knew to invite people, tell them when and where to go, and talk up the gallery and the show. Some even supplied me with a mailing list so I could send invitations.

It’s a simple fact that people will not attend something that they don’t know is happening. (Yes, some won’t attend even if they receive a personal invitation, but ask them anyway.)

The more you promote your opening or show to friends, family, coworkers, and others, the more likely you are to have a well-attended opening—and that always means a better chance of making sales.


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