Should Artists Let Galleries Use Their Mailing Lists?
Q: I have a solo show coming up at an established gallery in my area. It's my first time with this gallery and the owner is recommending that I give them my mailing list so they can invite everyone I know to the show. Why should I reveal the names of my collectors and allow the gallery to sell them art that I can just as easily sell them myself? And to make matters worse, they take 50%. Shouldn't I keep my mailing list secret and let the gallery's collectors buy my art? Isn't that the way this is supposed to work? I can take whatever art ends up not selling, offer it to my collectors later at a discount and still make more than I could have made selling it through the gallery.
A: These are concerns I hear from artists on a surprisingly regular basis, and are also representative of a very shortsighted way of looking at things. A good percentage of galleries do ask for artist mailing lists, and sure you may make more money over the course of the next several months by not giving yours up and offering unsold art to your collectors later at a discount (a really bad idea that I'll talk about at the end of the article), but the point of your having a show at this or any gallery is not simply to have your art on exhibit there. It's to have as successful a show as possible or in other words, to sell as much art as possible. And if sales through the gallery to your collectors make the show more successful than it otherwise would have been, that is an outcome that ultimately benefits everyone, especially you.
Every gallery show you get represents an opportunity to significantly advance your career, not only in terms of advance publicity, but also as a result of the ongoing exposure you'll get for the duration of the show-- the ideal situation for new people to discover your art. You have to do everything you can in order to take advantage of the spotlight, including making a good faith effort to maximize sales. You seem to be looking at this primarily as an opportunity to temporarily make more money by not directly assisting with sales, and though you may well do that by holding onto your mailing list, this plan is counterproductive to your overall success. You have to look at each and every career move you make in terms of the big picture, not the immediate picture.
Artists tend to think that simply getting a gallery show is enough, but it's not. It's only the beginning. If your art doesn't sell well, then not only will the gallery be unlikely to give you another show, but you won't have much in the way of positives to report to other galleries that you might approach with the possibility of showing your work in the future. If on the other hand, you have a successful show at this gallery-- meaning that you sell a significant percentage of your art-- then not only will that gallery seriously consider giving you another show (or perhaps even representing you), but other galleries will likely take notice as well, as will collectors and anyone else interested in your art.
The fact that you are capable of selling your art in a gallery setting, especially at a respected gallery, is exactly the kind of good news that anyone following either you or your art loves to hear. So not only do you want to give the gallery your mailing list and permission to invite all of your best collectors to your show, but you also want to encourage those collectors to buy art from the gallery during the course of your show. (The ones who genuinely support you may well step up. As for those who always want it for less, you might think about whether they're in this mainly for themselves, and perhaps remind them that they have just as much or even more to gain from seeing you succeed at galleries than they do by always wanting bargains.) The more art the gallery sells, the better everybody fares-- you, the gallery AND your collectors. It's a win-win for all.
Successful gallery shows are newsworthy in and of themselves. When a gallery sells most or all of an artist's art, word gets around. People who are unfamiliar with the artist-- including collectors, critics, curators, bloggers and others with profiles in the art community-- may stop by just to see what all the hubbub's about. And that's how word spreads and how artist reputations come to be made. Artists can sell art out of their studios all day long, but what really counts in the art world (assuming you're an artist interested in having gallery representation) is how well your art sells at galleries, not how well you can sell it on your own.
Even though you may make less money if your collectors buy through the gallery rather than directly from you, you get known as an artist who can sell at galleries and that's bigger than any temporary bump in your bottom line that you might get by keeping your collectors secret and selling directly to them later. You also get known as an artist who is willing to work with galleries. All of this is good in the long run. As for fretting about whether by giving out the names of your collectors, some might jump ship or start buying other art by other artists and never buy art from you again, this is not the way things generally play out. Collectors tend to remain loyal to the artists whose work they like the most-- including yours. And one more thing to keep in mind: Receiving periodic updates on artists' careers is more impactful when they come from galleries than when they come directly from the artists themselves.
Unfortunately, artists sometimes view their relationships with galleries as antagonistic, like it's them versus the gallery. But a successful artist/gallery relationship is exactly the opposite; it is entirely cooperative. The gallery wants to progressively enhance their reputation for producing successful shows, and artists want to progressively enhance their reputations for having successful shows and selling well at those shows. And the best way to do that is to work at every step along the way with any gallery that is showing your art.
You can't simply think about how much money you can possibly make in the near-term. You have to think about the bigger picture, about the long term. Your goal is to become successful, and part of that success involves consistently showing and selling your art at better and better galleries, so even though you may make a little less money now, you are laying the groundwork for making much more later, and getting increasingly greater exposure as you advance in your career. Galleries can do things for your reputation that you simply cannot do for yourself, and for that reason it is important to cooperate to the maximum with every gallery you are involved with.
As for any ideas about offering unsold art to your collectors at a discount after the show, or using the gallery exposure to increase sales out of your studio, or worse yet, going around the gallery to sell your art directly to collectors during the course of your show for less than they would have to pay at the gallery-- these are totally self-destructive strategies and could put a serious crimp in the trajectory of your career. But the far more serious problem with cutting the gallery out is that if too many artists do it too many times and don't actively assist with helping the gallery make sales, the gallery goes out of business. And then where do you show your art? Where do you get the cachet of being represented by a gallery? So don't even think about options like that. Work with the gallery, do whatever you have to do to make the show as successful as possible, and keep your artistic future bright.
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