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Navigating The Playing Field

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.

Consider that with so many hundreds (if not thousands) of artists looking to exhibit works (and who are all more or less all at the same career level), the use of an application management system with a small fee is truly the only “blind” way of going about remaining open to all artists, but with respect to the mental sanity of the curator.   So, you have done a few free egalitarian shows, gained some interest, have a decent body of work, and are ready to try to take things to the next level?  Or, you are maybe just looking to make a quick buck? Either way, look at it somewhat like gambling, and making a small investment in yourself.  Yes, you have to pay to enter this art-casino, and if you play your cards right, you can walk away with a larger sum of money and a few resume builders.  Overprice your art and don’t participate, and you will likely lose money and end up bitter.  Don’t try to win the art lottery with an expensive piece- it doesn’t work that way.  We believe that all art at this level should be under $1,000, with most around $500-750 or less.  Occasionally, there are a few exceptions and “wild cards” at a higher price range.    

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.   






Flags Of A Different Fiber

Gallery To Explore Apolitical Theme, but Controversial Medium

June is set out to be a month of exciting art events with fiber art and artists in the spotlight as Pittsburgh hosts the Fiber Arts International starting Saturday, June 3rd. Concurrently, local Lawrenceville art space Vestige Concept Gallery will be hosting the opening reception of their latest exhibit “On Neutral Ground;” featuring a fiber artist whose work explores the deeper meaning of a controversial fiber: flags. 

Kevin Clancy, is a self-described patriot and MFA graduate of Savannah College of Art and Design, who has dedicated untold hours deconstructing American flags into piles of colored threads, as an exploration of their deeper meaning. In some works, he goes further by reconstructing the pieces and threads into new objects, often resembling the original but with altered symbolic elements. 

Though Clancy’s process may seem anti-patriotic at first impression, his motives are far from it. “I’m the son of a veteran, nephew of a veteran, grandson of a veteran–I’m the first person in my family who didn’t join the military,” he explains. The dissection of the flag is Clancy’s way of understanding and revealing the complex fabric of America. In its reconstruction, he prefers to use the word “suturing” meaning to fix, or to heal; his own way of mending the country back together.

“I really love this symbol. But it also is just a symbol, and if it stands for freedom and we don’t have the freedom to look critically at it and think about what it means and what we do in its name, then where are we?”

Clancy’s artwork “No. 34, Skinned,” will be on display as part of Vestige Concept Gallery’s “On Neutral Ground” Exhibit running from June 4th through July 1st.  A bleached, upside-down flag strung up using sinew, Clancy points out the upside-down flag is “a sign of distress.” Through bleaching, some of the pink tones still show faintly through the all-white flag that he equates to a fleshy, corporeal form.  He adds, “When in this position, the flag only reaches out to you when it either needs you (in distress) or when reversed towards danger, wants to use you for a purpose (to march in).” On its own, he says, it remains an object that is “calcified, unmoving,  unchanging, and is open to greater dialogue”.   

“On Neutral Ground” opens Saturday, June 4th at 6PM.  Vestige Concept Gallery, 5417 Butler Street, 15201. 

Photo courtesy of Kevin Clancy

The SIX “P’s” of Art: Part 2

The Show Must Go On

In our previous post we discussed the foundational elements of  Product, Price, Promotion, and Place.   We now add on (as promised) Presentation, Personality and as a bonus- Performance.   Before we begin, we suggest knowing these rules, and then forgetting about them.  Why?  It will ruin the fun and spontaneity of making art.  (Hey, we’re all here to have a little fun).


The Presentation and final touches to a work of art are a crucial aspect to how well the work shows or is displayed.  It also means how you present yourself and present your images as a whole (vis a vis a website or social media).  Presentation inevitably ties together with your Product, as well as the Promotion.  

One of the most difficult aspects of group shows and juried exhibitions, is not knowing whether a work of art will be accepted, and then on top of that, the gallery wants the work to be “framed and ready to hang”.  “Framed and ready to hang?!”  This idea can become expensive to have every work of art ready to display at a moment’s notice.  Furthermore, artists are not framers- being a framer is almost a work of art in and of itself depending on the skill level.  The good news is that the framing is not the most important part, just that the work is presentable (and ready to hang or display), in some way.  Think of it more like “how do you frame yourself?” especially when in the context of others.  Here are a few suggestions:   

-Have a few works that you use as “travel” objects that work well with a variety of themes.  This is where a little bit of consistency among your work comes back into play, but don’t try to tailor your art to a specific theme.  No matter what style your work is, most works of art falls into themes, whether narrow (e.g. seascapes), or broad (e.g. contemporary arts).  

-Work with paper, print, or canvas sizes that are typical to store bought frames that don’t require customization.  When selecting store bought frames, check for inconsistencies such as skewing, chips, and blemishes to edges, corners, and glass.  Stores like Michaels have 60 day return policies, so, if an art show only runs for 30 days, save the receipt and the packaging, and get your money back if the work doesn’t sell.  

-Paintings:  either paint out the edge or mask off the edge of the canvas to give the work a clean appearance.  This way, you don’t need a frame at all and a buyer can display the work as well without having to go the distance of getting a frame.  If you are a sloppy painter (this is fine), then you may need a frame.  Or, the edges are a part of the art itself, but it should make sense in the total package.  

-Good or bad frames (and overall presentation obviously) may make or break sale, don’t make the frame overly distracting and almost never use ornate frames unless there is a reason.  Gold frames with added aging effects are best left at the antique shop.

-Unless it is a crucial aspect of the work of art, never use glossy coatings on your art or frames that look sticky.  Often, in heat, these types of coatings may actually melt and create a gravity “drip and drag”.  Glossy coatings also make the art look cheap and are hard to photograph.  There is no reason for it. 

-Sculpture should always be something that is intact and can survive the duration of time.  They should also be practical in a “for sale” environment, meaning, objects that are too difficult to install or contain organic matter (for instance), are only appealing to extremely niche audiences.  


You don’t have to walk into a room in a sequin tuxedo wearing pinky rings and twirling a cane to get noticed.  Personality in the art sense is really being authentic and outgoing, but more so- being an active participant in the life of your brand and in showing and selling.   Yes, there are a lot of introverts out there, especially in the art world, but even taking the introverted aspect of yourself and your art and using that to your marketing advantage, could make your more personable.  In effect, how can people relate to you and does the product somehow relate to them?  

Personable really means somebody that people want to work with, and buyers would like to possibly display or collect.  Personality often shows in the work, meaning, if you lined up 7 paintings of the same street scene from 7 different artists, the most personable among the works will tend to shine.   Is your art approachable, and what is it about this work (and the artist), that makes it unique.  In a world full of personalities, how can one stand out?  Being too “in everybody’s face” can certainly be unpleasant, but overly introverted may not get you anyplace as well.  Try to make the most of experiences, laugh, and enjoy the life of art and the art world around you.  Galleries will want to work with you, and when they work with you and know you, they can sell you.  Remember the Rules from our first posting: Nobody will book an asshole.  Likewise however, if you work with  gallery and you get no responses and tag-back (in effect, the gallery is an asshole), then you know that’s not the right fit for you.  

Personality grey areas show up in a number of ways, including through the art itself in the case of lived experiences.  Fortunately, there are works of art for lots of different types of tastes and personalities.  “Dark art” for instance, appeals to a specific type of audience.  “Gay” art is a type of thing, however, overly using your sexuality and other “identifiers” with no known relation to the product may actually have unintended effects.  In a “blind” world, let the product do the talking.  If identifiers are in-line with what the work conveys or a particular series, it definitely is a selling point.   There is also political art and art with messaging, and sure, this works in particular contexts or a show that may ask for that type of thing.   (Just as an aside, our gallery never users “identifiers” during promotions, unless getting clearance or approval from the artist first).


“All the world’s a stage” says Shakespeare.   “We are merely players.  Performers and portrayers..”  -Rush.   How we go from Shakespeare to Rush in one sentence, we really can’t say.  In reality, we’re just performing.  Don’t be afraid to shoot from the hip sometimes, and don’t get caught up with trying to make every little thing perfect (that’s called “failure to launch”).  Expect criticism.  WANT and invite criticism, and then be prepared to respond professionally.  Who is to say exactly what is art, or what is this, or what is that?  We can be anything that we wish to be, and especially now that we can hide behind social media.  That hot model with 400K likes could in reality be an old fat guy sitting in a basement somewhere (and hey, nothing against old fat guys).  

Performance is about showing up, it is about participating while distinguishing, and then maintaining.  It takes stamina. As we go from the act of creating through to the act of displaying and selling, the narrative begins to unfold.  Beyond showing and selling, what’s next?  The art of performance is constructing your narrative beyond just what it just says on paper.  Prove it, and prove you are worth your asking prices.   In a larger context, it is the energy behind the whole show, and the energy that plays out of the show once it reaches it’s conclusion.  

Using the other “P’s” you can begin to put the pieces together to show the world what you are made of.  Also, in the sales world, there are those that “perform”, some that get hits and misses, and those that don’t.  The art of selling yourself (and your art), and/or having others do it for you,  is a constantly moving and adapting series of pieces that require a constant battle against an ever-elusive marketplace.  Once you get good enough at it (stick to it), it should just become natural, or second nature.  This is a bit of how performance works.   It is the life of all things put together, over time.