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Jan 22, 2014

The "Biz"...

At some point, after someone learns you are a professional artist they usually follow up with "Neat! What galleries are you in?" And frankly, that is a fair question to ask because first, what they are asking is where can they see your work? And second, what may also be implied is, does someone besides yourself believe you are good enough to be doing this? (Ouch!)

Whatever. The point I would like to share here is that being represented in an old-school brick and mortar gallery still has merit even though the internet has fundamentally changed how artists can sell their work.

However, there is one thing that hasn't been changed by the internet, and that is there are better and worse gallery relationships to enter into. Every relationship will be different for you, me, or anyone else. Because what might work for you may not work for me, and vice versa. Why? Because not everyone's, dreams, desires, goals, or standards of success are the same.

So if you are considering gallery representation read on. The following is a little hard won advice culled from thirty years of flogging my own work in galleries and on my own – some good, some bad, some productive, and some perhaps pointless digressions.

But let's just jump in...

1. Before you approach the gallery you want sit down and ask yourself honestly, "How will this relationship be good for me?" Then ask, "How will I be good for this gallery?" Be realistic and flesh out the answers with as much detail as you can. Don't just picture you painting a lot of art and them will selling it hand over fist, then everyone heading off to the bank to deposit the checks. Be specific. Put your answer in terms of what services and benefits are going to be exchanged. Define who will be responsible for what on paper. If you don't end up with answers you like it is unlikely that gallery relationship will last long.

2. It may be cliche to say this but I can't help myself – a gallery relationship is like a marriage. So it serves you better to play the long game. Don't jump into bed with the first good looking gallery that comes along – at least wait until the third date. (ha!) A gallery relationship can start off with an intense attraction and lust accompanied by spectacular fireworks and earthquakes and all that. But if you don't remain sensible about certain things from the git-go there can be a lack of personal boundaries. Ideally, there will come a time when things settle down, with periods of quiet harmony so both parties can focuses on raising the children. But if somewhere down the road you begin feeling unhappy or unfulfilled it will be up to you to press for change. Don't expect the gallery to initiate. They may be willing accommodate your concerns, or not, because irreconcilable differences can and do develop over time. But hopefully the communication, trust, and respect has been maintained so you can avoid all that.

3. Ideally, you want to date a gallery that isn't seeing too many other people… er, I mean representing too many other artists at once. Galleries survive – yes even prosper – by sending a lot of artwork out the door and some of them do it by stockpiling more artists than they can effectively promote. Be leery if you encounter this business model because it never works in your favor. In that kind of environment you risk becoming commoditized…of becoming a painter of 'this', or a painter of 'that'. You can lose your voice and artistic freedom to go in different directions. And yes, things can get worse even if you are selling a lot of art. Those same galleries who load up their roster also have a tendency to grind their artists down. They may apply subtle (or not-so-subtle) pressure on you to replace whatever wen out the door with another painting just like it. Because clearly that painting was validated by the credit card used purchased it. Now, if you are content to be that kind of artist you've found your place in the world. If not, well…

4. Don't think you can drop your work off and expect the gallery do everything else. That may be the fantasy we all dream of but where is such a division of labor this clear-cut in any other area of your life? I tried this approach back in the '90s with some reputable galleries through an agent and while it started off nicely and got everyone excited it ended badly. I wasn't paying attention to the obvious signs. Frankly, I didn't want to. So get intimately involved with your new gallery. Get to know the receptionist, the sales staff, the owner, and yes, even the collectors who like to hang around on the weekend.

5. Be aware of how the gallery presents the art. Not just your art after you are accepted, everybody else's as well. Once the newness wears off you are likely be treated the same way. As previously mentioned, drop by unannounced very now and then and hang around. Don't get in the way of any transactions occurring on the floor but make yourself available. Have coffee and enjoy the visit. Chit-chat. On the upside it will remind people who you are, and if someone don't already know, well, who doesn't enjoy meeting an artist in a gallery?  I've helped sell paintings to walk-ins after being introduced by the owner as one of their 'best and favorite artists who happened to stop by today'. On the downside you may find out your new gallery isn't hanging your work on the wall. Which may be a bummer to discover but still good to know.

7. Don't expect the gallery to become your mom. This may be obvious but let me illustrate my point in more detail: Your new gallery isn't going to tidy your bed. It isn't going to shelter you through bad times. And it isn't going to change your nappies. Galleries gravitate towards self-sufficient and productive artists. Do your best to be one.

8. Payment. This is a tricky issue because every artist complains about not being paid in a at some point. Me too. Because even the best and most responsible galleries must delay a check sometimes. (Admittedly, the worst offenders delay checks as a matter of course to bank the interest.) My advice? Before you sign on to a gallery – and perhaps before you approach a gallery – contact some of the artists who are represented and ask how things are going. Start off by being purposely vague and then listen very carefully. Most gallery artists are willing to share their experience with their peers in a candid way, and, if there is a serious problem, warn them off as a professional courtesy. If that artist says the gallery is great, and takes a liking to your work he or she might be willing to introduce you to the gallery itself. An offer worth its weight in gold. Nothing speaks more highly about you to a prospective gallery owner than for one of their own to put you forward.

9. Slides, prints, jpegs, portfolio of original work, studio visits, emails, cold-calling, unannounced walk-ins, submission dates, fancy resumes, impressive CVs, artist recommendations, editorial articles…and more: In a word, yes. Every gallery wants to be approached in their own way, on their own schedule so be open and flexible to doing it their way. Find out what submission process they prefer and consider following it. If you do not you run the risk of being rejected on that basis alone. Don't become disheartened if the hoops you are made to jump through seem engineered to discourage you. They probably are. Just appreciate the most desirable galleries are hit on all the time by unsuitable or ill-informed artists so the shield is there to deflect as much of the chaff as possible. Whatever you do, if you are rejected don't take it personally. Laugh it off. If you still think you are a good choice for the gallery, wait a few months and try again. And show new work. Getting into a great gallery can be a bit like asking someone to the Prom. (Ouch, again!)

10. And finally, remember that everything is negotiable. If you keep this in mind as you go in then no matter what happens afterwards you will be fine. If the gallery offers you a contract then and there take it home and look it over before signing it. Don't close the deal in their space. That's always a bad idea. Better yet, show the paperwork to a lawyer. (Trust me on this. Hire a lawyer. It may be the cheapest advice you ever pay for.) Look at the deal you are making and be sure to fully comprehend both the expectations and the obligations of both parties. If anything you read makes you uncomfortable go with your gut and revise it. (Again, lawyer!) As long as you can walk away you are in control of your artistic life. Don't settle for anything else because what you do is a precious thing. If anything I have said about this point is confusing go back to No. 1 and start all over again.

In any case, good luck. I hope to see your work in a gallery someday!


If you would like to work on your plein air skills with me next May in Tuscany check out the upper left corner of this blog! There are five spots left, so don't wait! Spouses and partner welcome also.

Cost is inclusive, from €1640 to € 2400. 
(Approximately $2,220 to $3,240 US; airfare not included.)

But don't wait to sign up, the early discount ends December 31st!

1 reader comments:

Tim Young said...

Great information Thomas. Thanks for the post.