Is the cup half full or half empty

Is the cup half full or half empty

Once upon a time i owned an art gallery; these days I manage one as well as manage a separate space myself for artists to exhibit in the old gallery space I initially set up back in 2002. I have assisted other local galleries in their day to day running both independently and within a mentoring scheme. Today’s blog is to give you a bit of insight in regards to dealing with a gallery both from the perspective of an artist and from the other side of the fence working in one.
The Gallery I owned was actually a co-operative where it was set-up to accommodate a group of artists as well as create an arts space in a small city which lacks in galleries and such places for people to show their work.  Co-operatives take a lot of organisation and the more people involved the harder it is as artists are not known to have easy temperaments. Needless to say it didn’t go so well and I moved on after 6 months leaving the others to try and make it work their way! It’s now no longer around but that’s another story for a future blog entry! At this gallery we received quite a lot of portfolio submissions.

There was never a shortage of artists wanting to exhibit their work with us and that’s been the case wherever I have worked.   While I have no hard numbers for you, there are times that it can be as many as 30 a week. That may not sound like much, but trust me, running an art gallery is a LOT of hard work. There is a lot that goes on behind the scenes such as mountains of paperwork to do, paintings to unpack or pack, shows to curate and hang, artist biography information to organize of which you often have to write for the artist, phone calls to make, framing jobs to quote and organise, organisation of advertising, employee problems to deal with....and when you're not doing all of those tasks - you're either dealing with customers or on the phone trying to get more customers.  So at 10 - 20 a week, they pile up pretty fast...that can be over 100 in just one month!

What happens with artists portfolios? Each one is looked at and determined if their work is suitable for the galleries clientele. If you’re rejected, it doesn’t always mean that your work is no good, it often can be because they already have enough work similar to yours or that your particular work wouldn’t be likely to sell to their clientele.

Remember too that there are thousands of artists out there and not so many galleries so they can’t represent everyone. Don’t take it personally if you get rejection after rejection rethink the places you are calling on, they may not be the right type of galleries for your work. For example a gallery that seems to have a lot of realism artwork is not going to want to take on your abstract works as that isn’t their market.

There will be about 1 acceptance for every 100 rejections on average so you really need to be able to not take it personally.

Being professional and submitting a high standard of portfolio is always a good thing, but, the truth is, we don’t really care what the portfolio looks like. It’s the content.  An envelope full of snapshots with an original artwork or two is fine because the determining factor for acceptance was the artwork itself....not the presentation of the portfolio. The nicely prepared portfolios can be ignored just as much as the not so good ones.

Keep in mind that gallery people have a lot of work to do each day, they’re not just assistances waiting to sell work to customers, so if you just "walk in" with your paintings they may not be receptive at the time and you could miss the boat in that they may not give it the full attention it may need. Some galleries like the ones I have worked in prefer to have more than one person to look at your work and if they’re not all there at the time, well you may not get a chance to present your work to them properly.
As an artist myself and having many artist friends we too have had to approach galleries to submit our work so having seen or heard what some gallery people can be like towards artists I try to make sure I am not like that myself both in my approach to galleries and as a gallery person being approached, although I can understand why they can get a bit grumpy with artists sometimes.

So, let's sum this all up:

  1. If you simply send in a portfolio, it may get ignored, at least for a long time.
  2. If you just walk in - you're risking interrupting or upsetting the very least, you'll put the person in the wrong frame of mind to look at your work!
  3.  Email is unlikely to upset anyone, but it's really super easy to ignore and hit "delete."
  4.  The best solution (Well here in New Zealand anyway.) is to phone ahead and book a time to come in and show them your work, or call in and ask when would be the best time to bring your portfolio in. If you strike lucky they may say now would be good, so always make sure you have something to show them even if it’s sitting in your car outside so you can grab it out quickly.


Once you have been accepted into a gallery, you need to work with the gallery and respect their rules and regulations. Each gallery will have a contract, most are standard, although some might have unusual clauses, either way, read it before signing it.

Commission’s rates vary but for most galleries in NZ it averages out around 40% of the selling price, so if a painting sold for $1000 you would get $600 and the gallery would get $400. Some artists grumble about this figure, but try selling your work yourself from home. Most buyers will go to a gallery before anywhere else, its an obvious destination if you are looking for art. Galleries have huge overheads to cover, there is rent, power, phone, advertising, wages etc to cover.

If art doesn’t sell fast like during a recession it can make things difficult. Ive seen some galleries charge a hanging fee so the artist pays something towards cost if their work doesn’t sell and therefore the gallery covers some of their costs regardless. You will find most though wont charge you anything unless your work sells so it’s a win win situation if you really look at it.

It’s a good idea to keep in regular contact with your galleries and to keep your records up to date. Ive seen artists change their address or bank details etc without letting us know; only to end up fuming when their work sells and they didn’t get paid for it. Keeping your phone number up to date also helps. Ive had artists miss out on commission work because they didn’t do so and I couldn’t get in touch with them.

A simple phone-call every couple of months to say hello and ask about sales or to update your records is a good idea, however don’t harass the gallery staff by expecting to chat for ages or ringing too often as remember they have other work to do.

Expecting special treatment wont go down too well either. Most well known artists don’t behave like Divas, so why should those of you who are new to the art world. Artists are a funny breed and we all can have odd personalities, in a business situation its best to keep that in check. Trust me on this one!

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Posted: Monday 28 February 2011


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