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, supporters, professional art contacts, and fans, and allow the gallery to sell them art that I can just as easily sell to 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 more than simply having your art on display 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.
In case you're wondering why you can't send the announcement out yourself, you can. But that's not the point. Having an established gallery send it on your behalf makes you look better. Why? Because your fans will be more impressed with getting it directly from a quality gallery than they'll be with just another email from you. It'll show them how far you've come in your career... and make your collectors even more excited about your art. (By the way, for those of you with privacy concerns, all you have to do is send out an email to your list requesting their permission to receive gallery mailings or emailings about the show-- because of how proud you are to be showing there.)
Every gallery show you get represents an opportunity to significantly advance your career, not only in terms of pre-show publicity, but also as a result of the ongoing exposure you'll get for the duration of the show-- an 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 there 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 like this one, 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 and related contacts to your show, but you also want to encourage them to buy art from the gallery during the course of your show. (The ones who genuinely support you and your career will hopefully 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, art websites, influencers, and others with profiles in the art community-- may stop by or click over to the gallery website or social media pages just to see what all the hubbub's about. And that's how word spreads and how artist reputations get made. Artists can sell their art online or 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.
Sure, you may make less money if your collectors buy through the gallery rather than directly from you, but the trade-off is that you get known as an artist who can sell at galleries. And that's worth more than any temporary bump in your bottom line 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. Better yet, if you consistently sell well at galleries, your prices go up. And the more consistently you sell, the higher up they'll go. But wait; there's even more. Consistent successes mean more offers or invitations to participate in shows at more galleries as well as at institutions like museums. So again, look to the long game because that's where all the goodies are.
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 a gallery represents 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 how your career is going is more impactful when they come from good galleries than if they come only from you.
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 with your galleries at every step along the way.
As previously stated, if your goal is to become successful, 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 here and there, 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 career and reputation that you simply cannot do for yourself, and for that reason it is important to cooperate to the maximum with every gallery you get 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. Why? Because you compromise whatever trust the galleries have in you. The art world is small and word gets around. You want the word to be that you honor your gallery relationships, not violate them.
An even more serious problem with cutting a gallery out of sales they deserve 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 doing business behind a gallery's back. Work with them, do whatever you have to do to make the show as successful as possible, and keep your artistic integrity and future bright.
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