Making the Most of Art Gallery Shows and Exhibits:
Understanding and Working with Gallery Owners
Though not quite so critical as it used to be, exhibiting your art at galleries is still highly recommended if your artist career agenda includes getting your work in front of people who count-- curators, critics, museums, collectors, consultants, advisors, gallery owners and other influential art world players. Doing this yourself online is definitely possible these days thanks in large part to social media, but making any kind of headway is a whole lot easier with the help of a respected and established gallery. If you are fortunate enough to get a show, either solo or group, you have to take full advantage of the opportunity-- success and sales don't automatically roll in. You're suddenly out of the studio and in front of the art world where a unique protocol prevails and understanding the territory, particularly from the gallery owner's perspective, comes in mighty handy when it comes to maximizing your success.
Basically, you and your gallery form a partnership, contractual or casual, the goal being for each of you to make the other look as absolutely astonishingly spectacular as possible. This is your big chance, and the gallery's as well. Everybody wants a win. So be aware that the complete freedom you've been enjoying in the studio will now be tempered to a degree by certain requirements of the gallery as well as the marketplace in general. At or near the top of the list is the fact that the gallery owner has to sell enough art to break even on the time and energy they'll be investing in you, or better yet, turn a profit.
In order to maximize the chances of a positive financial as well as critical outcome, owners have developed their own special skills, talents, rules, preferences and ways of doing business that they'll surely discuss with you. So to make your transition from studio to gallery-- from pure creative expression to presenting and selling your work in a for-profit setting-- as frictionless, productive and mutually beneficial as possible, let's look at the trade-off in terms of what you get versus what you give, and why galleries work they way they do. You give your all; that's your end of the deal. In return, being represented by a gallery provides you with a range of benefits-- some obvious, others not so obvious:
* For starters, when you show at a gallery you get the exhibition space, a setting for your art to be on display and look as good as it possibly can for as long as the show lasts. The upside can be huge-- an opportunity to advance your career, reputation and level of exposure by exhibiting your work at a serious venue. That's obvious. What's not so obvious is that a show often comes with a mandate (or even a challenge) to create a fresh new body of work, to complete it by a set deadline and to discipline yourself throughout the process. This is the exact opposite of self-representation where you have no deadlines or upcoming shows to worry about, where you make art on your own terms whenever you feel like it, without time constraints, without structure and without knowing whether anyone will see the results except maybe whoever visits your studio or finds out about you online, either through your website or social media.
As Lisa Chadwick of Dolby Chadwick Gallery in San Francisco says, "Getting an exhibition date gives an artist something to work towards, the finality of needing to have their art ready and the knowledge that it will show in public." When you've got that deadline, that duty to produce, interesting things can happen with your art-- things that might not happen otherwise. You're forced to step up.
* From the moment you get a show and for as long as your relationship with the gallery lasts, the the owner acts on your behalf. That's obvious. What's not so obvious is that you get a knowledgeable art world professional to dialogue with on a continuing basis. When you need help, you get it, especially when you're just starting out. Marsea Goldberg of New Image Art in Los Angeles, for example, will dedicate serious time to nurturing promising artists when she spots talent. She expects plenty, but at the same time, she believes in the artists she shows, honors that belief, and supports them every step of the way. Working with artists "is like a critique in art school," Goldberg says, "where you both sit down and duke it out." Discussions may get strained, times might get tough, but when Goldberg commits, she's there. As an artist, you can't do much better than that in terms of garnering support for what you're doing from the gallery owner you're working with.
But wait; there's more. The best gallery owners spot trends, recognize talent and sometimes even influence tastes. Simply put, they've got a grip on what kinds of art people want to see. The more talented gallery owners are skilled at envisioning what artists are capable of, at times even ahead of the artists themselves, and are able to apply that vision to the big picture. This means that if you get confused, falter or lose direction, your gallery can provide overview, perspective, stability or just plain support. For Goldberg, this doesn't mean directing artists as much as it means being there. The show is offered, the partnership is created, she stands back and lets things happen-- but she's never far from the action. This degree of access to a knowledgeable professional is invaluable to an artist.
Art gallery owners continually eye the future, the potential-- all with you in mind. Today you get a show and if that goes well, you get another, and then another and another. We're talking long term here, about how good things can get if you hold up your end of the deal and your art is well-received by the public. Now in case you think this is an ode to gallery owners, it's not. The point here is that a gallery show is a serious opportunity and when you get the chance you have to give it your all. Your art is up for public inspection and it's either impress the fan base or else. Give less than 100% and you can end up back in the studio making random acts of art, and doing whatever you can to find buyers. Yes, buyers...
* People come to art galleries to buy art. That's obvious. What's not so obvious is why. Basically, galleries are time and labor saving devices where buyers can see lots of art by a variety of artists all at once, each and every piece of it vetted by an owner who has a reputation for being able to distinguish great from good from not so good. Unlike buying from an artist where there's one option-- their art-- galleries offer many options. Collectors who buy at galleries don't have to scour the Internet, track artists, send all kinds of messages and emails, have multiple conversations, shop only from online images, drive to unfamiliar neighborhoods, engage in strange negotiations, feel pressure to buy, worry about offending anyone, hope their art arrives safely by mail, and so on and so forth. Sure, lots of collectors buy directly from artists, mainly via social media, but many still prefer galleries, especially the serious ones who spend serious money. Galleries are safe friendly places to shop, particularly for people who don't have much experience around art and artists, or who might be trying to figure out what they like, or who want to go slow and get educated first, or who simply enjoy the security of doing business at a stable and established physical venue.
* Your art hardly looks any better anywhere else than it does in a gallery. That's obvious. What's not so obvious is that the gallery owner knows the fine points of making your art look its absolute best. If you're having a solo show, they know what to hang where, how to arrange it, how to progress the experience from one work to the next and how to make sure you're satisfied and understand how your art is being presented to the public. If you're in a group show, the owner has additional challenges in terms of whose art to hang where, making sure the theme or vision of the show is clear and understandable to viewers, avoiding friction or conflict among the various artists, and keeping everybody happy. So be sure to listen to a gallery owner's suggestions when they offer them, and don't be too insistent on doing it your way. You have to have faith that what they're doing is in your best interest.
Marsea Goldberg, for example, knows how to assemble, mediate and structure an exhibit where the focus is as much on the genre of art as it is on the artists who create it. She'll select different artists from different parts of the country perhaps, each with different styles or different looks, who may not know each other, who may have varying perspectives, who may want their art on particular walls in the gallery, and so on. Her job becomes analogous to that of an orchestra conductor, making sure the concert comes off flawlessly. Not easy to do, and when it's done right everybody notices.
* The gallery owner sells your art for you; you don't have to sell it yourself. That's obvious. What's not so obvious is that they also act as qualified intermediaries, as advocates for you in a variety of ways to a variety of people in a variety of circumstances. They field those sensitive or uncomfortable questions like "Is this a good investment?" or "Do you think this is a good artist to buy?" or "How do you think this artist will do in the future" or "Why does it cost so much?" or "What's your best price?" and so on. Sure, some artists are good at selling and answering questions like these, a few artists are great at selling, but most would rather have nothing to do with this aspect of the business. And last but definitely not least, having someone handle your sales gives you freedom to place substantially more focus on your art.
As for pricing your art in the first place, let the gallery owner be your guide. Selling prices are always open for discussion, but most gallery owners will be direct and honest about how much they think they can sell your art for. They know their clienteles and what price ranges they typically buy in. You both want your show to be successful so do whatever you can in terms of pricing to facilitate that. The more you sell, the better your chances for getting additional shows, either with the current gallery or different ones.
The most established and experienced galleries have sold hundreds, even thousands of works of art during their careers. They know what to say, how to say it, how to convey that a work of art is worth buying; they can even sense when collectors are ready to buy. The more established galleries have reputations for being among the best in their fields and collectors who patronize them know what to expect when they get there. They have proven track records of representing and showing exceptional art and artists. At these galleries, people don't necessarily have to be sold to. They go, they see and they buy because they know based on the gallery's history and accomplishments what they're getting in advance. No matter how important your art is or how brilliant you are, you can't beat having a respected gallery showing and telling people good things on your behalf.
* As for how representation impacts your art world ascendancy, established galleries have relationships and connections with museums, curators, publications, significant collectors, critics and other artland arbiters. That's obvious. What's not so obvious is that these gallery owners act as a translation service, presenting and explaining your art on a situation-by-situation basis in terms that the general public as well as art world professionals can understand and appreciate. Different people understand art in different ways. Different people require different kinds and complexities of approaches, information and explanations. Don't think for an instant that selling art to a collector is anywhere near the same as presenting it to a museum curator or to a critic. Everyone is different and the more experienced the gallery owner, the more versatile they are at effectively customizing and conveying the essence of your art based on the specifics of a given situation.
There you go. Understand the underpinnings of the gallery system and prosper. The better you do, the further you get.
Thanks to Lisa Chadwick of Dolby Chadwick Gallery in San Francisco and to Marsea Goldberg of New Image Art Gallery in Los Angeles for their assistance with this article.
(art by Fernanda D'Agostino)
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