Should Independent Artists
Seek Gallery Representation?
Q: I've made my living selling art out of my studio and outside of the traditional gallery world for over twenty years. I've had a handful of shows during that time, but only at small galleries and exhibit spaces run by friends. As a result, people in the established art community know little or nothing about me and my art. What's the best way to approach established galleries for shows? Or should I even bother? I have plenty of completed artworks available to show.
A: Whether or not to get involved with the gallery system is a decision that only you can make. On the one hand, you're in great shape because you make your living on your own terms and don't have to rely on galleries for income. On the other hand, no matter how successful you get, you'll always lack that "seal of approval" that established gallery representations and shows provide.
Additional problems with going it alone are that you have no third parties pitching your art to museums, major collectors, corporations, and other groups or individuals that you can't easily access on your own. Establishing a resale or secondary market for your art is also difficult because public sales venues like resale galleries and auction houses don't know who you are and will likely be disinclined to accept your art. On the flip side, many artists make good incomes outside of the mainstream and are quite happy living with none of the above perks.
If you decide to go with the galleries, you have to make one major sacrifice-- share your profits. Dealers get paid for services rendered, normally 40-60% of retail gallery prices, which means that you're either going to have to substantially raise your selling prices or, more likely, raise them somewhat or keep them about where they are now and subtract a gallery's commission whenever something sells. Even your collectors may have to buy through whatever galleries represent you, depending on whatever contractual obligations they require. You'll be trading a percentage of your current gross income for potential future fame, fortune, and a robust secondary market for your art.
Keep in mind here that the key word here is "potential." You might hit it big; you might stay basically where you are now except with less money to show for it. If you regard that as a crapshoot worth taking, then take it. Galleries might even offer feedback in that regard in order to help you make your decision.
Another thing to think about regarding gallery representation is that you'll likely lose a certain amount of your artistic autonomy. You're new world will be structured not so much by you, but rather by whomever you contract with to sell your art. If you're inclined to lay down the law or insist on continuing to operate entirely on your own terms, you'll stand little or no chance of getting gallery representation-- or any representation you do get will probably be short lived. For the first time in your career, someone else will be telling you what you may or may not do. As long as you're aware of that and can live the consequences, then gallery representation may work for you.
Having said all that, getting shows at established galleries won't be easy at this stage in your career. You have to start out pretty much as a neophyte and make a good case for yourself, your art, and especially why the change now. You'll also have some explaining to do when galleries ask why you've avoided doing business with them for so long. The last thing dealers want is to enter into relationships with artists, only to have them fall apart a short time later. They'll want to feel relatively confident that if initial shows do well, a good, solid, long-term working relationship will evolve. So make sure you're prepared to answer some serious questions in these regards.
Your big advantage over less successful artists or artists who are just starting out is that you come to dealers with a pre-established track record and collector base. They'll see immediately that you're in this game for the keeps. They also prefer some sort of assurance that if they give you a show, they're going to sell art and make money. Depending on how negotiations progress, you may wish to present them with a list of individuals and institutions, both public and private, who own your art. The more high-profile names you've sold to over the years, the greater your chances of getting shows. An impressive client list is a great ally.
If all goes well, gallery representation will more than likely enhance your resume, increase your visibility in the art community, and provide you with greater financial security in the long run. As long as you're willing to accept a temporary pay-cut and let art dealers exercise a certain amount of control over your career, you'll stand a much better chance of succeeding in the long run. Galleries love to handle artists who sell well and you've certainly proven you can do that.
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