Understanding Galleries and Opportunities as an Artist
With so many different styles of art and artists, there also comes the varying means for which they can promote and “sell” their ideas as tangible products. Even with the advent of the Internet, virtual tours, and “sell it yourself” programs, there are still very few (e.g. galleries) where it may be possible to display works physically, for both gaining followers, as well as making money. If display and sales of your work are among your goals, you will likely at some point or another cross paths with an art gallery. Art galleries themselves are found throughout the world, come in all shapes and sizes, and are found on main streets, pop-up tents, and in back alleyways. As a “main street for-profit gallery”, we can share with you our views to help manage your expectations and shed light on how it works.
Categories of Art Galleries
While this list may have a few exceptions and standalone entities (and excludes places like auctions, bars, cafes, and restaurants), we have come up with this categorization system for the display of art. (Please note, that the words “gallery”, “space”, “shows”, etc. are used somewhat interchangeably).
1.) The Egalitarian Gallery
Egalitarian galleries and shows are derived from the basic meaning of the word: the belief that all people are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities. These types of galleries allow anyone to show their work, often regardless of skill level and/or presentation. As such, they often have a “feel good” vibe, and may even have a slant towards certain identities or protected status groups. However, at the core, the work is often of poor quality or low level, and priced accordingly. Here in Pittsburgh, there is a yearly event called “Art All Night”. This event is generally held in a large warehouse and allows any artist to display. It attracts a ton of random people and may be great for the arts community, but it is not the level that you want to stay at as an artist, nor the types of audiences who might invest in you.
The offshoots of the Egalitarian Gallery are the Punk Gallery, the Hippie Gallery, or the Art (Ware)House, only more niche and probably open to (slightly) fewer people. How any of these galleries survive and pay the rent is any wonder. Some get community donations, are run by a stoned out trust-fund baby, people sharing the space and dividing the rent, and/or might be a non-for-profit. However, sales are generally not the specialty of these venues. They are often short lived, and/or bulldozed at some point to make room for expensive condos. If you find yourself saying “Whatever happened to… xyx?” it might have been this type of gallery.
2.) “Pay-to-Play” Galleries
The so-called “Pay-to-Play” Galleries are the ones that people love to hate and hate to love, but ideally can elevate the game for emerging and weekend-warrior (and even professional) artists in the form of mixed exhibitions, and believe it or not, still retain some elements of the Egalitarian Gallery, only with higher standards and a clearer vision. As you likely guessed it, these types of galleries often have some type of an application fee to submit works, and as such, they get reviewed, and not everyone gets invited to play. These galleries (and for-profit galleries in general), are the stopgap in the wide egalitarian river that says only certain artworks shall pass. True Egalitarians hate pay-to play, either because it goes against their beliefs, or because they have been burned by one.
Yes, there are likely a lot of dubious pay-to-play galleries out there, and maybe you have been a victim of one of those. Vestige Concept Gallery is NOT one of those galleries. To help you steer clear of red flags, you should avoid super high fees and vague subject matter (i.e. The Shapes Exhibition). An ideal pay-to-play gallery should:
- Have open hours and be staffed to sell
- Be good at promoting the show, and/or the individual artists
- Be transparent, attentive to you, and answer questions
- Have clear guidelines when applying
- Have a lower commission rate as a trade-off for applying and shipping
A lot can be said about the Pay-to Play Gallery and these types of opportunities are becoming all the more common. Larger, well established galleries are also throwing their hat into this arena with expensive fees, often when sales are slumping. In the end, it is up to the artist to determine which of these opportunities are right for them, and which are not. As Kenny Rogers says “know when to hold em’, know when to fold em.'” Never take things personally, and get to know the places and types of shows that you like to apply to, and in turn, you will get to know the gallery personnel that you like to work with (and works with you). The artists who are successful in this arena are priced accordingly, and when successful, will command more attention from the gallery in terms of more one-on-one attention, and who knows? maybe even a feature wall and/or future referrals. This leads us to the next type of gallery.
(First though, let’s state for the record that College and University Galleries are also pay-to-play. Great for the resume, and very expensive to get in. Worse yet, they are probably subsidized).
3.) Splits and Solo Show Galleries (i.e. Middle-Elite Galleries)
Let’s face it, the object of any business is to stay in business. This should be no secret, including with an art gallery. While you likely know already what an art gallery looks like, smells like, and feels like, consider the operating expenses. Then, consider why many of the privately-held, for profit galleries will not give you a solo show, respond to you, let alone give you the time of day. Here’s why: money.
The reason pay-to-play galleries exist is not only to filter out the pack, but because it also assists with operating expenses in newcomer and “small” business galleries. You may (or may not) have wondered where all of the application money goes in an Art Call? We are here to tell you that ALL OF IT goes back into operating expenses. For a small gallery, in a semi-up-and-coming part of town, on a main street, you may at best be looking at $2,500 a month just to stay running. With say a 30% commission, that means that mom and pop need to sell $8,500 worth of art per month just to cover expenses, and not even paying themselves. This is why, if you truly believe you are egalitarian, believe in the “arts community”, and you believe in small businesses, and all that crap about Main Street America, you should have no problem paying $25 to apply to an art show. If not, don’t complain when everything on your street is now a Jimmy Johns.
Now, take a slick, large open space, high ceiling, marble floor gallery with air conditioning, that serves top shelf wines and has all of the halogen track-lighting. Their operating costs may be looking more like $4,500-$6,000 a month on a main street. Say these bigger galleries take a 50% commission (which they usually do)- in this case they have to sell $8,000-$12,000 just to make cost, not including paying themselves or employees. BUT, the idea is that the Middle-Elite Galleries are more well equipped with elite sales people, capable of selling “name brand” artworks at significantly higher prices. Still, that’s not always the case and yes, there are plenty of mid-range types of galleries in smaller cities willing to offer you a solo or split show and don’t takes fees.
To get the solo or split show, you first need to have a consistent brand and body of work, and a decent track record when it comes to showing and selling. Ask yourself the Middle-Elite Gallery question: can my artwork conceivably generate enough income for a gallery to stay in business, and pay the staff- notwithstanding myself and my costs?
If the answer was no to that question, don’t be disheartened, but don’t be surprised why you are not getting the call backs.
4.) Larger Institutions and Elite Galleries
Larger institutions include as you might imagine, Art Centers, bigger non-for-profits, museums, institutions, foundations, and mega-elite Galleries. If you are dealing with any of these organizations, congrats, it’s very likely that you don’t need our help or advice, but thank you for reading. This category of institutions focuses on the promotion and sales of a select group of elite artists, which make up a very small percentage of all artists globally. According to an interesting study* released by renowned cultural economist Clare McAndrew, these “star” artists make up the top four percent of all artists born after 1900. This small segment of artists tends to be the main focus of roughly half of the art institutions in the U.S., while only 17 percent concentrate on emerging artists. Art Centers may be on the lower end of the large institution spectrum and be great for emerging artists and offer Calls For Artists (with no fee, but they still pick and choose), and other types of opportunities (such as fairs, craft shows, etc.), and therefore, may be the most accessible on this list. However, that’s not to say that buying a booth at a fair is not “pay to play” as well, (and only once or twice a year). Maybe you excel here, and the types of art and products you make are a good match for that environment. Remember, as we always point out–there is no “one size fits all” approach to art. In the end, there is always the Internet; however, dealers remain the preferred channel for buying art amongst collectors.
Join the conversation! Please leave a question or comment below.