How to Get a First Show at an Art Gallery
What Galleries Look for in Artists
Do you ever wonder how a gallery decides to give a new artist a first show? If you're like many artists, you probably think it's all about the art. You waltz your oeuvre through a gallery's doors, the owner swoons; game over. Right? No, not really. According to gallery owners, that's not at all the way it works. Sure, gallery owners have to be impressed with your work and like it enough to want to show it, but according to them, that's only a start; there's far more to it. Plenty of other puzzle pieces have to fall into place in order for them to take you on (or fall out of place in order to kill deal).
Getting a first show with a gallery is much more than an impersonal arrangement between two independent entities where you supply the art, they supply the wall space, and then you go on about your business while the gallery does all the rest. You and the gallery owner are about to enter into a business relationship, a partnership of sorts, and hopefully one that will have a seriously positive impact on your career trajectory over time. Whether you're aware of it or not, galleries always look to the future, at least the established ones do, the ideal outcome for them being mutually beneficial and constantly evolving long-term relationships with the artists whose art they choose to exhibit.
Now this may not be the easiest article for some of you to read. It may even piss you off or dissuade you from getting involved with galleries at all. Regardless, it's how things are in the gallery world. What you're about to read comes straight from the mouths of gallery owners. This is about what they want, about what they expect, and about what types of obligations are involved in any successful artist/gallery relationship.
So what do galleries look for in addition to your art when deciding whether or not to give you that all-important first show (and hopefully many more to come)? Let's start with your life and career as an artist, not what you're up to today, but rather what the prognosis might be down the road. Gallery owners not only have to like your art now, but they also have to evaluate your past accomplishments as well as do their best to assess your potential for growth and development in the future. They know that the payoff is not necessarily immediate (first shows are not generally big moneymakers), and that if they're going to invest time, energy, money, PR and wall space in your art, they want to at least see some promise for an ongoing extended relationship. In other words, they look for signs that you're serious about your art, have some sense of an overall game plan, and are committed to being an artist and showing your art for many years to come. There's hardly anything galleries hate more than to back artists who suddenly decide to do something else with their lives and poof off into the ether forever. Vanishing artists and one-hit wonders never make a gallery look good.
As for your work, dealers consistently describe their ideal artists with words like ambitious, original, risk-taking, bold, inspiring, and so on. They want to hear your whole story, not just today's headlines, but where your journey is taking you, and what drives, motivates and inspires your creative process. Do you have more than one idea? Do you have a vision? Is that vision focused, well-defined and articulated? Are you breaking new ground, exploring new territory? Or are you rehashing the past, making the same several things over and over again, stagnating or backing yourself into a corner? Are you productive and serious about spending time in the studio? Most importantly, do you have a significant body of current work that is complete (or nearly complete), fresh, original and HAS NOT been shown or exhibited elsewhere, either at other galleries or online? Or if not, are you capable of creating one by a certain date or deadline? Galleries do their best to sift out artists who may be making good art today but seem unclear or uncertain about their futures.
So OK. Enough about art and vision and commitment and all that lofty intangible stuff. Let's talk business. Simply put, galleries prefer that the artists who they work with have some knowledge of the business and more importantly, an appreciation of what a successful business partnership or relationship involves and how it grows over time. Or if you're early in your career and don't really know much, they expect you to at least express a willingness to learn. You have to be open to that. Take qualities like perseverance and endurance for example. As previously mentioned, gallery owners almost always look beyond the first show. Optimally, they prefer to represent artists who they can potentially work with for years or even decades to come. They value artists who understand their role in the partnership and who realize that both parties must trust, cooperate and progress together, even in times of hardship or adversity, in order to maximize results. In other words, gallery owners really really appreciate artists who respect the relationship and are easy to work with. To repeat... REALLY.
For example, have reasonable expectations about what a first show means. It's neither the answer nor the end, but rather the beginning, a single line on your resume, and only one small step along what will hopefully turn out to be a rich and rewarding journey. Let's say you have a first show and sales are modest, but the overall response is good, and the gallery is pleased with how things went. The owners know that some artists will be encouraged by an outcome like this while others might get disappointed, angry or depressed. As a result, they do their best to figure out in advance whether you're an artist who understands the bigger picture and are more likely to fall into the "encouraged" category than one who's in this for the instant and more likely to go negative if things turn out less than perfect the first time around (because they often do). Simply put, big-picture artists are more likely to get first shows than ones who lack a broader grasp of how art careers develop and evolve. Simply put, gallery owners have enough problems of their own without having to deal with complaining, upset or dissatisfied artists, so be sure to check any such inclinations at the door.
Continuing with the critical questions a gallery attempts to answer when meeting with you... Do you love making art and are you enthusiastic about showing it in public regardless of how much or how little might sell? Are you OK with the commissions galleries take on sales? Are you good with letting galleries pick the art they want to show rather than you? Do you like the direction the gallery is moving in? If you can answer yes to questions like these and a gallery is impressed with your art as well, you're more than likely in. On the flip side, a gallery tries to avoid artists who view getting a show as a career move above all else, who will say or do anything to get in, who expect the gallery to sell everything, who might blame the owner if not enough sells, or who don't seem to understand how much effort a gallery puts into each and every show they present regardless of the outcome.
Hopefully you're flexible, excited about any opportunity to work with a gallery, express a willingness to cooperate, and view this as a joint venture rather than an adversarial relationship. Not only do you have to demonstrate a serious concern for your art, but you must also make clear that you intend to be professional, disciplined, honest and committed to the success of the gallery. Galleries need these assurances, especially in the Internet age where it's so easy for less-trustworthy artists to sell art on the side or otherwise go behind a gallery's back.
They also pay attention to how well the two of you get along, not only in general conversations about art, but more specifically, in hashing out the details of possible shows. Will you be an artist who trusts the gallery to do its job, recognize how hard the gallery intends to work on your behalf, and be willing to go along with their advice or suggestions? Or will you be you more of a contrarian? Some artists think they know better than galleries. Some feel the need to instruct dealers on how they expect to be treated or how to display their art; a few even go so far as to tell galleries how to run their businesses. If that's your deal, then as far as gallery owners are concerned, you are more than welcome to open your own space and show your work there. Galleries know their clienteles, know what's best for business, and want to sell art just as badly as you do. Believe it.
On a more personal level, time and time again gallery owners describe their ideal relationships with artists the same way people describe friendships-- or even love interests. Personalities have to match; everyone has to understand as well as appreciate each other. Some of the questions gallery owners repeatedly ask themselves in these regards... Can I see myself becoming friends with this person? Can we have dinner together, go places together, or enjoy the same activities? Do we like each other? Do we get along? Are conversations in synch and harmonious? Do we respect each other's opinions and points of view? The answers to questions like these often determine whether an artist gets a first show or keeps on looking. It's that simple and no more complicated.
Experience also counts of course, especially with more established galleries. Artists who've been around the block a few times are generally easier to work with and have broader understandings of the ups and downs of the business. So given the choice between two artists, one with more experience and one with less, all else being equal, many galleries are inclined to go with experience. The most established galleries almost exclusively show artists with solid track records of career accomplishments and impressive resumes. They pay attention to whether the art and artist have been critically written about or recognized, whether they've exhibited at prestigious venues, what sort of awards or distinctions they've received, and even whether they have followings (online as well as in real life) and how large those followings are. No matter how precocious, promising or impressive a younger artist might be, lack of an established track record may well present too much of a risk to some galleries. So know going in that if you approach major galleries with a minor resume and they turn you down, it's not necessarily because they don't like your art.
And in closing, keep in mind at all times that a gallery is not an entity that exists to serve you. Be assured that you will never show anywhere if that's the way you think. Believe it or not, some artists actually dare galleries to show or sell their art or worse yet, swagger on in and ask, "What can you do for me?" You know what galleries will do for artists like these? Absolutely nothing except to show them the door and thank them for stopping by. So avoid any attitude, understand that it's all about working in tandem, and hopefully the two of you will get exactly where you want to go-- onward and upward together.
More pointers for artists looking for first shows:
* Be able to approach a gallery with a level of professionalism that is equal to that of the gallery, or equal to what the gallery is accustomed to. Find out as much as you can about what a particular gallery typically expects from artists before approaching them in any way. You might even contact some of the artists the gallery shows or represents and ask for pointers. Not all artists are willing to speak about this, so don't insist. If one says no, try another. Hopefully you'll find someone willing to help.
* Gallery owners expect you to be familiar with who they are, what they're about, what they stand for, and what types of art and artists they show at their galleries. This might even extend to an understanding of a gallery's physical space, an awareness of what types of people who go there, and of any other relevant cultural, political or social or political perspectives they embrace. So be prepared to talk about them. Don't just start talking about yourself without any idea where you are, who you're talking to, why you're there, or what you want other than for them to show your art. That's a bona fide non-starter.
* Be clear and straightforward when talking with galleries about your art. Avoid trying to impress from intellectual or academic perspectives. Describe your art in your own words rather than in art-speak. Believe it or not, galleries really appreciate that (as do their clienteles). They want to get a sense of how relatable and accessible you are when speaking about your art. Save the complicated or scholarly explanations for later.
* Be flexible about pricing and willing to work with the galleries on this. Just because you get a first show at a better gallery than you've ever shown at before doesn't mean you instantly double or triple your prices. One reason galleries give shows in the first place is that they believe the artists' prices are fair or reasonable to begin with and that they can sell the art at those levels. Bump them too high over what you've been selling for and you risk selling nothing. Be aware that it's far better to sell everything at reasonable prices than little or nothing at overly ambitious prices. A sold out show always looks great on a resume no matter what the art sold for.
* Let the gallery owner be the guide in terms of selecting what to show, how to organize and present it, and other logistical details. They know the physical characteristics of the gallery well, and how to make the best impression with an artist's art. One reason they're giving you a show in the first place is that they believe your art will look good in the space. They likely have a pretty good idea of how to effectively display and sell it as well.
* Don't make too many demands. That is always problematic, especially early on in a relationship. The analogy is almost like that of a new love interest; you both want everything to go perfectly, and when problems or disagreements pop up early on, even minor ones, that may well signal bigger troubles later, and no gallery owner wants any part of a potentially rocky relationship.
* Don't constantly call or email and ask to speak with the gallery owner or make other miscellaneous requests. Make contact only when necessary, especially at the beginning or if you're waiting to hear whether you're getting a show. The show either will or will not happen, and you'll find out soon enough.
* Talk about what's right as opposed to what's wrong. Don't constantly ask to go over things, or stress out about minor details. These kinds of behaviors can damage or destroy budding relationships or worse yet, prevent new ones from ever getting started.
* Two things never to say in an interview-- that you have a chip on your shoulder about galleries or are bitter about previous gallery experiences. Broaching either of those topics will surely reduce your chances of getting a first show anywhere.
So there you go-- a crash course in the politics and obligations involved in working with with a gallery. Maybe showing at galleries is right for you; maybe not. Either way, at least you know what you're getting yourself into before you get into it.
Are you ready to start contacting galleries or have you already been contacting galleries without much success? I'm always look at your art and background info, and make recommendations on how to identify, approach and contact galleries you think might be interested in your art. We'll also go over how to organize and present your art before you start making contact. If you're interested in consulting on any aspect of showing at galleries or have any other questions about my services, please call 415.931.7875 or drop me an email at email@example.com.
I'd like to thank the following gallery owners for their generous assistance and help with this article: Robert Berman of Robert Berman Gallery, Los Angeles; Steven Wolf of Steven Wolf Fine Arts, San Francisco; Jack Hanley of Jack Hanley Gallery, New York; Brian Gross of Brian Gross Fine Art, San Francisco; Lisa Chadwick of Dolby Chadwick Gallery, San Francisco; Louis Stern of Louis Stern Fine Arts, Los Angeles; Catharine Clark of Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco; Darryl Smith of The Luggage Store, San Francisco; and art collector Robert Shimshak.
(art by Rebecca Goldfarb)
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