In the normal course of things you will eventually start to think about whether or not you should try to sell your work through a gallery. This can be a difficult decision for many artists and, frankly, the galleries don’t make it any easier, and for several reasons.
First off, galleries will generally try to give the impression that their inventory is extraordinarily good and its stable of artists tremendously talented. Presenting your work and yourself to the gallery’s jury process can be quite daunting. Second, the gallery generally does not buy your work but merely displays it “on consignment.” So getting your work into the gallery doesn’t actually put any money in your pocket. Third, when a piece does sell, the gallery will keep 50% of the sale price (though some galleries take smaller percentages) and will pay you your share some time next month (if you’re lucky). Particularly for work that sells quickly, or effortlessly, it can be hard for an artist to believe that the gallery really earned its 50%. And fourth, horror stories abound of galleries failing to send checks, damaging work, or letting work languish in storage rooms.
If you are earning enough money selling your work yourself you probably don't have much reason to even approach a gallery about selling your work. It’s really not all that prestigious (with a few exceptions) to be represented by a gallery. It can, however, be a convenience.
When you sell your own work retail it doesn’t take long before you begin to see the hidden costs associated with earning the full retail price. If you have a storefront, there are rent and utility costs. If you’re travelling to fairs, there are booth and jury fees, as well as motels and travel expenses. One year I calculated having spent 89 days on the road selling my work. Aside from the disruption to home life, those were days spent away from the studio, thus reducing my total productivity for the year.
Further, fairs do not always attract “financially-empowered, action-oriented” buyers as well as a successful gallery does. How expensive is your work? A gallery patron may return several times, over the course of weeks, before writing out a big check. Customers at fairs do not have that luxury of time and will often leave without making the big purchase. If you’ve found a fair where expensive pieces are being sold, cherish it, and make doubly sure to have work there worthy of the customers’ interest.
Having your work in a gallery gives you two valuable gifts of time. It gives your work the time it needs to be noticed, appreciated, and purchased. And it gives you more time in the studio. Good galleries can also give you important feedback about the sorts of things that are selling and the candid observations of customers uninhibited by the artist’s presence. You will quickly notice the differences between truly excellent galleries and simply average ones.
Whenever possible (before even asking about their jury procedures) go to the gallery and observe the setting, the work, and the staff. Galleries will often have a theme or a direction to their inventory. Does your work fit in? Does it fit in too well? I have twice had admittance denied because my works bore “too close a resemblance to the work of other artists already represented.” At least they were polite. Don’t waste everyone’s time trying to get into inappropriate galleries or galleries you don’t really want to support with your work.
Once you’re in somewhere, stay in touch. Bring in fresh work and remove the stale. (It can go to a different gallery, in a different city, where it will be “new” again.) Talk to the staff about the work, the market, developments in your life, etc. They need story material to share with potential customers when they’re ‘chatting them up’ about your work. Your fates are now linked, the artist and the gallery, and they need their 50% (for rent, utilities, taxes, salaries, credit card fees, and advertising) just as much as you need yours. Occasionally a gallery manager will ask if I’m willing to haggle at all on my prices. I generally answer, “Yes, but be greedy. It’s your money you’re giving away, too.” They invariably smile. I’m sure that most of their artists fail to see the underlying partnership at work, the shared effort and shared success. Do your best to be a good ally and choose galleries that you really want to support.
My armor is languishing in the basement, desperately needing cleaning and polishing. I haven't worn it for several years and yet this blog sticks to me. I ...
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