Saturday, July 3, 2010


Are Commercial Galleries Essential to Artists?
Valerie Atkisson / ArtBistro
October 12, 2009

For the majority of the last 100 years, artists have sold work through commercial galleries. This is the most desirable way for artists to make a living. What should you expect or not expect from gallery representation? These are important questions to ask yourself. Your answers together with this article will give you reasonable expectations for gallery representation.

Commercial galleries usually sell artists' works on commission. The typical commission is usually 50% of the sale of the work. This is determined by the contract. There are several contracts that galleries enter into with artists. A spectrum of contracts is outlined here:

Consignment Contract

A consignment contract is written when an artist loans a specific number of works of art to the gallery for the gallery to sell for a specific amount of time. An itemized list is made, the terms of sale are set forth as well as a time for them to be returned if they are not sold. Also a deadline of payment is agreed upon. Typically galleries pay in full within 60 days after the sale. When included in a group show the gallery may use this type of contract.

Representation Contract

At the other end of the spectrum of artist and gallery relationships is one that gives the gallery the right to sell any of the work that you produce. The gallery or art dealer becomes your exclusive representative and they will represent you as one of their artists. You will have solo shows with this gallery, these shows may or may not be stipulated in the contract. These stipulations may seem restrictive to an artist, but they can also help the artist's financial security, if the work sells well. This example of a gallery relationship is the most closed agreement of all gallery contracts.

Other Agreements

Many other agreements can exist between an artist and a gallery that vary in between the two examples above. For example, a gallery in your area may be interested only in representing and showing your work in that city or geographic area, but you are free to seek other representation in other parts of the world.

Many galleries will not enter into a binding contract to represent your work early in your career. They may want to show your work for a group show or one solo show to see how it goes before wanting to represent your work exclusively. Any gallery show is a good opportunity to get your foot in the door and every effort should be made on your part to help the show sell and be a positive experience for you and the gallery.

Ed Winkleman owns Wikleman Gallery in Chelsea. He has this to say about galleries representing artists:

“Not every artist needs or should even be affiliated with a commercial art gallery. The system works really well for some and not at all for others. Because many commercial art galleries are good at generating press for their artists and exist to place work in prominent collections, though, I think there is a somewhat misguided view among younger artists in particular about how essential getting into a gallery is for their careers. It can be essential, but there are plenty of artists with galleries (even very high-profile galleries) whose careers are no better off (in fact sometimes worse) than many artists without galleries that I know. The key is to find a gallery that's a good match for your art and aspirations, NOT to find any gallery at any cost to your pride or goals. If no gallery is well suited for you to work with, then find other means of pursuing your dreams.”

Why would an artist want a gallery or a dealer to represent their work? There are several reasons:

They Will Market Your Work

One of the advantages of having a gallery represent you is that in return for the cut they receive of your commission, they will promote your work. Common practices of galleries are to send out announcements, write a press release and distribute it to the press, pay for the opening reception, pay for the shipping of your work to and from shows (if included in the contract), handle requests from press and others for images, and information about your work. This frees you up to focus on making your work rather than promoting it. However, that being said, all artists have to promote their work even if they have gallery representation. Most galleries appreciate the efforts of their artists to promote their work through making connections in the art community, referring buyers to them, and generally showing up when ask to at functions that will help sell the work.

Prestige of the Gallery

Some artists are more famous than others. Some galleries are more famous that others. Which came first, the famous artist or the famous gallery or dealer? It is a chicken and egg question. It would be great to be picked up by a famous gallery just out of grad school, but that happens to just a few artists. Galleries have reputations and you should be pay attention to them. A well thought of gallery can be a great boost to your work no matter if it is a local or national gallery.

Galleries Will Sell Your Work

A dealer’s connections can be a huge boon to selling your work. Dealers know collectors who may be interested in your work. Many collectors rely on dealers to help guide them with their collections and educate them about new artists. Many galleries have relationships with galleries in other cities and countries making it possible to show your work to a broader geographic audience. Most importantly some galleries have relationships with museums that would help your work become acquired. Try to find out from others in the art community how well connected the gallery is that you are interested in. This may be a determining factor if they are the right fit for your ambitions.

A Professional Venue for Your Work to Be Seen

Context for artwork can have a very big influence on how the work is interpreted by viewers and collectors. Many people buying art would rather go through a trusted dealer whom they know rather than contacting an artist directly to buy their work. Showing your work in a commercial space gives it a professional context.

Some artists are good business people and promoters of their work; they may not feel the need for a gallery to represent them. However, for many artists getting gallery representation is the start of an exciting career. To do this work on your communication skills with your business and personal relationships. If you have success in other areas of you life where you have partnerships, a gallery relationship will likely be a good one for you. Try to improve your business and relationship skills if you struggle with them.

ArtBistro featured writer Amy Wilson has this to add about on-going relationships with galleries:
"Like all serious relationships, the one that exists between the gallery and the artist needs to be based on mutual respect and open communication. Figure, you are leaving your work at the gallery and then you are going home (or to your studio to make more) - which means that the gallery is in the situation of presenting your work to the public, answering any questions they may have, and explaining what you do and why you do it. It is incredibly important that they understand you and your work, and that they take the time to really listen and find out why you make the work you do."

Be cautious about entering into contracts with galleries with which you have little experience or do not know about their reputation. Ask your fellow artist friends, ArtBistro friends, or contact an artist they represent for further information. While a foot in the door is a boon for any artist, there are some galleries out there who have taken advantage of artists. They should be avoided. We have a "place on ArtBistro to rate galleries.": You might want to check this database or rate galleries that have treated you unfairly or with respect.

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