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Getting Your Art Into a Gallery

Tips on knowing what galleries want, and how to approach them.

By Scott Mason

How does an artist approach a gallery with their paintings, and what are galleries looking for? I’d like to share what I came away with after a small seminar led by four art-gallery managers, sponsored by Upstate Visual Arts. The galleries ranged from one handling only work of new artists to a gallery dealing with resident artists and a high-end clientèle.

What Are Galleries Managers Looking For?
Gallery managers like to see art but not original art. The best way to approach these managers is with the following:

  • A disk or memory stick with examples of your work. Failing that, a small printed portfolio works -- anything they can file away. Disks work best.
  • Realistic expectations on price and the number of pieces the gallery will show.
  • Realistic understanding of gallery commissions which are about 40 to 50 per cent. Some art association’s commissions are five to10 per cent, but you get what you pay for -- no reception, no publicity, and no printed takeaways.
  • Realistic egomania -- get your ego under control before entering.
  • If you need to explain its deeper significance, fogedabowdit! They sell art, not angst.

What Kind of Art Galleries Are There?
Not all galleries are the same. At the seminar, there were four types of galleries represented, each with its own needs.

At the high end, was a residential gallery representing a 'matched' set of 11 artists and not looking for another. To get in there, you have to befriend the resident artists, match their clientele, and not compete directly. The objective of the gallery is to provide a set of clients with art to suit their needs and tastes. This puts a premium on relationships among the owners, the artists, and the clients.

Next, a 'show' gallery. The manager assembles art from national artists to meet the demands of a theme. The gallery expects each artist to show 10 to 20 works and to replace them immediately when they sell. That means sending 30 to 40 works for a show. At this gallery, the relationship ends when the show ends. Only work sold during the show is commissionable. Artists may offer commissions for post-show referrals but they are not required. The gallery owner's objective is to promote art, not particular artists, and to build a strong client base among a large number of collectors.

Next, a gallery for new artists. To get in here you can expect the manager to take just one or two examples of your work. No 'show' takes place so commissions are lower. The objective of the gallery is to have higher-end galleries steal her artists. She also gets her kicks from developing new collectors and matching their tastes and budgets against new artists.

Finally, an art association gallery space. To get a show here, you need only apply and get a time set. Commissions are low because the association does not promote, advertise, or anything else. They show and they take cash when a sale takes place. The objective of this type of gallery is simply to show off local artists and to provide its members with a gallery space because there is a dearth of such space in the area.

The Other Option
As a side note, the galleries with whom I personally deal (none of those mentioned here) have both resident artists and put on shows to build their market and add variety to their gallery offering. These are all established galleries with a history and I suspect that this model is the most workable financially. To get a show in one of these galleries, it helps to undertake a project with one of their resident artists or otherwise get your work introduced to the managers. In very few instances do they bring a walk-in into the gallery for a show.

Showing a Gallery Your Art
The managers who participated in the seminar were very encouraging.

  • They like to look at art and they will look at your work. They may be able to refer you on even if your work isn't suitable for them. They know other galleries and other managers and from an artist's viewpoint, it's always helpful to open a walk-in with, "Sandy Smith at the North Gallery suggested I show you my work."
  • They like artists and collectors and enjoy matching one with the other. Be the kind of person who supports them in this and be appreciative of their work on your behalf.
  • Even if your work doesn't hang on their walls, they can help you out. If you are a portrait painter or a landscape artist or paint abstracts of still life, they will remember you if they have a reference disk, a collector/client with a need, and your phone number. Business cards! Disks!

This article is based on a workshop I attended in April 2005, the Upstate Visual Arts Artists’ Hour in Greenville, SC, USA. Thanks to the following:

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