Do Artists Still Need Galleries
In the Online Internet Age?
An awful lot has changed for artists since the inception of the Internet. Most notably, they now have far more options than ever for presenting themselves and their art to the world entirely on their own and independent of galleries. Though the traditional gallery system is still in place, galleries no longer control the market the way they once did and for the first time in forever, having gallery representation is not necessarily the best or only way to go for all artists. In spite of all this, way too many artists continue their relentless single-minded quests for gallery representation without even realizing they can now do for themselves pretty much everything that galleries can do for them... almost.
The number one reason for the decline in gallery influence is that artists can now communicate directly with the public and advocate on their own behalves in ways that only galleries could do for them pre-Internet. For the first time in history and in formats that barely even existed only a few years go, artists can now attract anywhere from hundreds to millions of followers almost entirely on their own.
Back in the old days, art world success used to be all about which handful of galleries had the most money to spend on the largest ads and best positions in major art publications, which handful of galleries the handful of newspaper and magazine art critics visited and chose to anoint as legitimate contenders, and which handful of artists that handful of galleries decided their clienteles should pay attention to. Even though this all still happens today, a whole huge fantastic unbelievable exciting ever-evolving new world is now accessible to pretty much all artists and art buyers, and the days of being ruled by the few are long gone. The best news is that the best art is still what attracts the most attention, regardless of who the artist is, what their background is, where they make art, or who's showing it.
Artists can now do practically everything online that galleries once had to do for them, and often in much larger ways. Back in the day, galleries were pretty much the only places where people could buy art. Direct communication between artists and buyers was largely nonexistent. Trying to locate artists was difficult at best, assuming you could find their contact information. And if contact was made, being able to meet and speak with them and see their art was often a logistical nightmare. As for those countless artists who lived outside of major markets, they had hardly any way of letting people know they even existed, let alone showing their art. Today that's all changed. The two primary functions of galleries-- providing artists with exposure for their art and providing collectors and buyers with access to that art-- are no longer necessary or even relevant to doing business as an artist.
Artists are somewhat complicit in allowing so many galleries to survive for so long, based on the belief or more accurately the fantasy that a world exists where all they have to do is make art in their studios while art galleries or agents or representatives do all the dirty work and handle everything else involved in advancing careers. Regardless of what trade or profession you're in, you have to sell yourself and your skills... and that includes artists. If you think your art deserves to be shown in public and owned by buyers or collectors or anyone else, you have to make a case for yourself. And online, social media platforms in particular have become the perfect places to do that.
Sure, some people continue to argue that galleries will always have a role for all those artists who lack the marketing skills necessary to cultivate collectors or sell their art. They say making art is generally a solitary pursuit while marketing it is social, and they're partly right, but establishing an online presence is not only about marketing; it's about artists being themselves, about introducing the world to their art as well as the personalities behind that art. And this is where artists have a distinct advantage over galleries-- they can now get up close and personal with their fans and followers to a far greater extent than galleries have ever been able to do for them.
And now for some facts. For the most part, the only artists galleries spend any significant amount of time talking about are their top sellers. Even though you may have gallery representation, that doesn't mean much for most artists. Ask pretty much any gallery owner and they'll tell you that only a few of their artists account for the bulk of their sales. And if you're not one of those few, the gallery will not generally spend a lot of time promoting you. Online, you can promote yourself simply by being yourself, all day every day in front of everyone everywhere who owns a computer or cell phone.
Traditionally, galleries have also been a necessary step along the way for artists who want to have their art exposed to museums, institutions, critics, curators, corporate collections and the higher echelons of the art world. But that too has changed. People in the know search and shop online all the time including collectors, curators, critics, investors, speculators, gallery owners, and anyone else who has an ongoing interest in art... including museum personnel. Everyone's on the hunt for the next great art stars and they know they can cover far more territory far faster on their computers or cell phones than they can the old fashioned way-- by physically shopping the galleries, art fairs, studio buildings, or by visiting individual artists where they live or work.
For artists, the chances of being discovered online are better than ever. All kinds of art websites, blogs, publications and other online venues are continually scouring social media sites and other online resources for fresh new talent to introduce to their readers and feature in articles, interviews, videos and more. As a result, more and more artists are being recognized for their skills, talents, personalities and art without traditional galleries playing major roles in that recognition.
And now for the most astonishing news. In many instances, the traditional relationship between galleries and artists has flipped. In the old days, artists had to present themselves and their art to galleries and hope and pray for a portfolio review. The gallery was the one in charge; artists needed galleries to call attention to their art. Now artists with impressive online profiles and large numbers of followers have considerable control over what galleries they decide to show with, or whether they even show with galleries at all. Galleries like showing artists with impressive online followings because with them come their fans, followers, and exposure to whole new markets they haven't previously had access too.
While a typical gallery might have thousands or tens of thousands of online followers or sometimes somewhat more, it's no longer that unusual for an artist to have tens or hundreds of thousands, or sometimes even millions of fans. There's nothing particularly exciting about following most galleries online anyway. Pretty much all they do is post images of art by artists they represent, and their latest shows, while good artist pages are often deeper and richer in content, visuals and narratives, and more up-close and personal than galleries can ever be.
Assuming they're being frank, the majority of gallery owners will tell you that most new online viewers find their websites not by searching their galleries by name, but rather by searching the names of artists they happen to represent. The upshot of all this is that artists with substantial online followings have far more leverage now than they used to in terms of what art they show and where they choose to show it. Online followers have become the new art world currency, those who buy art are the gold standard, and social media art stars now leverage those advantages in terms of who they choose to show with.
Now before you get too excited about all of this, a little tempering is in order. As wonderful as online opportunities are these days, the Internet is no panacea. Not all artists get to live happily ever after, make gobs of sales, and create engaging online profiles. Making headway on social media and online in general takes plenty of good old-fashioned time and hard work just like anything else in life, not to mention the fact that you have to produce enough quality art on a consistent enough basis to attract, impress and win the masses over... and most importantly, keep them coming back for more.
In terms of fame and fortune, the same small percentage of artists will likely continue to become as famous as they did in pre-Internet days. What has changed is that if you make good art and are determined to get it out in front of the public, your chances of getting recognized for your talents and attracting a following have definitely improved, no matter where you live, what your circumstances, how few or many degrees you have from what schools, or whether you've ever shown at a gallery.
As for you disbelievers, no matter how much you despise the idea of establishing an online profile, how uncool you think it is to have one, how much better you think you are than having to show your art online, how relentlessly they brainwashed you in art school, or how inscrutable or invisible you think your online profile has to be in order to succeed as an artist (a perspective which makes absolutely zero sense), take a moment to reflect. The Internet and social media are by far the best things that have ever happened to artists in terms of getting their art out in front of the public. Nowhere else can artists make compelling arguments for why their deserves attention and consideration, simply by documenting it with images and inviting us into their artistic lives. Nothing else even comes close. But wait; there's more.
For those of you who may not get along well with people, are uncomfortable in social situations, or have any other aversions to real-life interactions, the Internet is your savior. You can do pretty much everything from the comfort and protection of your own home or studio without ever having to engage a single human being face-to-face, at least at the start. What this all means is that there's no longer any excuse for any artist anywhere not to try and realize their full potential. Why stop yourself before you even start when you have such powerful tools at your fingertips? You never know what's possible unless you get to work on your future and there's no time like the present to start.
Do you need help with your online profile? I advise artists on how to effectively present themselves and their art online all the time. If you're interested in making an appointment or have any questions, call 415.931.7875 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(art by Antonio Cortez)
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