Article by Christine O’Donnell, owner and director of Beacon Gallery
(Image on the header: Letter from Alfred Joseph Frueh to his wife Giuliette Fancuilli (1913))
How to get your Art in a Gallery
And reasons why you shouldn’t
Given that some artists can be quite successful outside the traditional gallery model, this article is based on the notion of why you shouldn’t seek gallery representation.
The idea is to help you, the artist, figure out what might be the most useful path — because that’s not always the one that includes an art gallery. The content is distilled down to digestible pieces of advice finishes with 5 fast tips on how to get your art in a gallery
Why you shouldn’t work with a gallery
#1: You’ve just started out as an artist
Just finished your first masterpiece? You may wonder, “How do I get represented by a gallery?” Your first move shouldn’t be to contact your local art gallery. Galleries can be excellent resources for artists, but usually, a better first step for fledgling artists will be a local art association. They will often run shows where you can enter your work and start racking up accolades and also get to know more seasoned artists – all of whom will have loads of advice (and perhaps contacts!) for you.
How do you get represented by a gallery?
If you *do* want to be represented by a gallery, the ideal is to have a gallery discover you. Short of that, developing a relationship with a gallery that shows work similar to yours (but no artist who does work exactly like yours) is a good place to start.
Don’t cold call or cold email (or cold visit!) a gallery
Instead, research the gallery, visit in person (as a patron) if you can get on their mailing list. At some point, once you are known to the director or assistant director it may be appropriate to ask for a portfolio review or to inquire whether they are taking on new artists. Whenever you hear a “no”, you can always ask if they would have a recommendation of a gallery that would be appropriate!
How do artists get their work into galleries?
Getting art into a gallery is similar to your art career as a whole: it can be a slow and painstaking process. The best way to start working with galleries is to follow a lot of them and to respond to the calls for art they put out there.
Choose only those from reputable galleries and those that are most in line with your art. These will be the lines on your CV that others judge you by, and where others learn about your art – so choose carefully – and know that you’ll bankrupt yourself if you apply to every call you see!
#2: You don’t want to sell your art
If you don’t actually want to sell “your babies”, don’t talk to a gallerist. Oftentimes gallerists will meet with very promising artists but will realize they either have no interest in selling their work or will price it so astronomically high (with no prior sales data to back up such prices) that it is virtually unsellable. If you want to sell your work, be ready to listen to a voice of reason.
#3: You are not willing to share profit
You may wonder, “What percentage does an art gallery take?” Alas, galleries are a retail business, and they are selling art. The piece an artist provides is essentially the item at wholesale cost, marked up 100% to retail.
Artist takes home 50%, the gallery the other 50%.
The only difference is that the work is on consignment. If selling your work and only receiving 50% of the price rubs you the wrong way, perhaps a different sales model might suit you better!
#4: You don’t know what kind of artist you are
Knowing what kind of artist you are can help you to focus your artistic efforts in a more targeted manner rather than having a scattershot approach that may be less successful.
Three current artist typologies:
Remember – you may fit into more than one category!
a. The Designer’s Darling
A designer’s darling is an artist whose work sells well with or through interior decorators or real estate agents. It’s work that often “matches the couch” – and this isn’t a bad thing! It means that your work is flexible, easy on the eyes and most likely abstract or impressionistic.
You may also work “off-spec” on commission projects easily – another plus for making and selling art. Conceptual artists rarely fall into this category.
b. Institutionally Inclined
Institutionally Inclined artists are those who are keen to be collected by museums, are looking for museum shows or who make work that only an institution or serious art collector could love. Your category includes the entire spectrum of art and artists – from the absolute best of the best – the pinnacle of fine art – to anyone aspiring to get to that point.
c. Professional producer
A professional producer is an artist who has a product that doesn’t require an art gallery. Either you’re successful enough on your own (with a traditional product) or have something so unique that you’ve found a different way to market and sell it.
This includes artists selling at craft fairs, artists selling online or from their own studios or galleries. It also includes digital artists, graphic designers and all of you who don’t easily fit the two categories above.
Does an artist need a gallery at all?
If you’re a professional producer the answer is probably not: instead, you need to figure out how to get your product to your market. You might need a consultant if you’re shaky on the marketing side though!
If you’re a Designer’s Darling you also don’t need to be showing in galleries. You can put in all that effort, in the hopes that a designer, interior decorator or real estate agent finds you, but you can also skip all that hard work and market yourself directly to the designers.
Artists who need an art gallery
Those who want to be showing in museums, or who have hard-to-place, niche, artwork for whom galleries exist (hello, outsider artwork!) – you are the ones who need galleries.
#5: You don’t know what you want from your artistic career…
… nor how to get there.
While art galleries and curators may have an idea of your potential as an artist, nothing beats knowing where you want your career to go. This fits in with #4 and your artist profile but may require more thinking.
Beyond your endpoint, what will it require to get there?
- Do you need a gallery in New York?
- What about a co-op?
- Would a community of like-minded artists where you’re guaranteed consistent shows be a good fit?
- Would a coastal vacation town suit you better?
If you don’t know where to find a gallery or what type of gallery you need, you’re not ready.
#6: You haven’t researched gallery-artist relationships
Relationships with art galleries are all different and go far beyond simply having someone else sell your art.
- Will the gallery be representing you and all your art or just a few consigned pieces for a certain duration?
- Are you willing to work with someone else?
- Are you willing to write an artist statement?
- To do the work of logging all the information of your artwork?
No one can do that for you (unless you hire an intern or an artist’s assistant!).
Being ready to do the work
Working with a gallery often requires the nitty-gritty that artists hate: all the clerical work of naming and measuring their pieces, remembering the year they were created, and writing it all down.
If you’re not willing to do the work (or haven’t been doing that as you go!) you’re probably not (ever) going to be ready to work with a gallery. It’s definitely not all the fun and games of simply putting your art on the walls and selling it.
#7: You’re not comfortable talking about money
No one really enjoys talking about money, but there are two different aspects of money discussions that are primordial to working with a gallery:
Be ready to negotiate
First, you have to be ready to negotiate your contract with the gallery and to confirm what the gallery-artist split is. Usually, the standard split is 50-50. This might be different depending on the status of the artist, or if you’re working with a non-profit space, but it MUST be hammered out at the start of your relationship. Without a written agreement, you are leaving yourself vulnerable. Don’t let discomfort with confrontation, conflict or asking questions make you avoid necessary questions.
The second question is pricing your work. This is arguably an even more complicated issue than the artist-gallery split. There are many factors that go into pricing your work. If you’re not comfortable with working with the gallery and coming up with prices that suit both of you, working with a gallery may not be in the cards.
#8: You love running your own art business
One question to ask yourself (again) is why you want to work with a gallery? What is a gallery going to do for you as an artist? Remember that you will be giving away approximately 50% of your revenue to someone else in exchange for… what? What will you gain?
Marketing, promotion, logistics…
One of the main reasons that successful artists (and yet-to-be successful ones) continue to work with galleries is because they run the “business” side of the art. They do the marketing, the promotion, the logistics, the art handling and installation, the inventory, etc., in addition to selling the art.
Your own art gallery?
If you like the idea of balancing the creative process with the rest of running a business, then you’re in luck – you could even run your own gallery! If you like the idea of focusing wholeheartedly on making art and letting someone else deal with the menial tasks, then a gallery might be for you.
#9: You have your own retail space or collectors
If you have a studio (or another space open to the public), or even a website or social media page where you have enough traffic that you’re able to sell your works without the assistance of a middleman, why bother getting a gallery involved?
Everything is a trade-off
Again, the reason to go to a gallery is to make your life easier – they can take a lot of the logistics off your hands and also introduce you to new collectors, new markets, new media contacts, but perhaps you can do that all on your own!
#10: You are not interested in art fairs
One of the toughest nuts to crack if you’re an individual artist is the mid to high-end art fair market, and yet this is often how artists either launch their career and where galleries (at least pre-Covid) would make their biggest sales of the year.
Investing in your art
If you have alternative channels or want to limit yourself to art fairs where individual artists can participate, then more power to you! Especially because that probably means you have multiple thousands of dollars to bet on yourself and your art. On the other hand, letting a gallery take that gamble on you and your art instead can avoid that financial risk.
How to submit artwork to a gallery
If you feel you are the right type of artist for a gallery, here are some quick tips about how to submit artwork to a gallery. But you can always learn more in our entire article on the subject (Confirm if we should do an entire article!)
5 fast tips on gallery submission
#1: Research the gallery first:
Find one that shows work in line with your work, with the appropriate calibre of the gallery (e.g. don’t do this at Gagosian)
#2: Visit in person, introduce yourself
While you can say you’re an artist, DON’T show anyone your work without an invitation
#3: Follow up with a nice email
… about how much you enjoyed your visit, mention a few reasons you enjoyed your visit. Include a link to your website or Instagram (only if you don’t have a website)
#4: Submit to calls to art at the said gallery
… and others in the neighborhood or of a similar ilk (you should be cultivating multiple leads at the same time)
#5: Create a proposal for a local artist
A curated show (e.g. something that won’t cost the gallery much to put on) is a good way to get your foot in the door. Your proposal can include your work as well as 1-4 others as well. Have a cohesive concept behind the show. Shop it around to galleries. Be sure to include as many details as you can, including artist bios and CVs, artwork sizes, prices, etc. as well as a curatorial statement.