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Navigating the Art Gallery World: Insights from an Experienced Gallery Owner

Navigating the Art Gallery World: Insights from an Experienced Gallery Owner

In my journey as an art gallery owner, managing multiple galleries and assisting others, I have gained valuable insights into the dynamics of the art world here in New Zealand.
Today, I would like to provide you with a deeper understanding of the gallery experience from both the artist's perspective and the gallery's point of view.

The Challenges of Operating a Co-operative Gallery:

One of the galleries I owned was a co-operative, established to support a group of artists and provide a much-needed arts space in a small city lacking such opportunities.

Co-operatives require extensive organisation, especially when dealing with artists not always known for their easy temperaments. Unfortunately, this venture did not succeed, and after six months, I moved on, leaving the others to find their way.

While the gallery is no longer operational, that story is for another time. During my time at this gallery, we received numerous portfolio submissions.

student artworks of cats on easels - Image by poverss from Pixabay

The Demands of Running an Art Gallery:

Running an art gallery is an incredibly demanding task. Behind the scenes, there is an overwhelming amount of work, from paperwork and unpacking or packing artworks to curating shows, organising artist biographies, making phone calls, handling framing jobs, advertising, and dealing with employee issues.

In addition to this, the constant need to attract and engage customers adds to the already huge workload. With submissions pouring in at a rate of 10 to 20 per week, the numbers quickly pile up, sometimes exceeding 100 in just a month.

The Selection Process and Handling Rejections:

Every artist's portfolio is carefully reviewed to determine its suitability for the gallery's clientele. Rejection does not necessarily mean that the artwork is of poor quality; it often occurs when the gallery already represents similar work or when the particular style is unlikely to appeal to their clientele.

It's essential to remember that while there are thousands of artists, there are only a limited number of galleries. Therefore, not being selected should not be taken personally.

If rejections become a pattern, it's wise to reassess the galleries you approach, as they may not be the right fit for your work. For example, a gallery focused on realism may not be interested in abstract art. On average, there tends to be approximately one acceptance for every 100 rejections, emphasising the importance of not taking it personally.

Content Over Presentation:

While submitting a professional and well-prepared portfolio is always a good practice, the truth is that galleries are primarily interested in the content—the artwork itself. An envelope with snapshots and a few original paintings can be as effective as a meticulously presented portfolio.

The determining factor for acceptance lies in the quality of the artwork, not the portfolio's presentation.

Respecting the Gallery's Time and Space:

Gallery professionals have busy schedules and numerous responsibilities. There are better approaches than simply walking into a gallery unannounced, as it could interrupt or upset someone.

Email submissions, although unlikely to offend, are often easy to ignore or delete. The preferred method, at least in New Zealand, is to call ahead and book a time to present your work or inquire about the best time to visit your portfolio.

If you're fortunate, they invite you to show your work immediately, so it's essential to be prepared by having your portfolio readily available, even if it's waiting in your car outside.

Working with the Gallery:

Once accepted into a gallery, it is crucial to collaborate effectively and respect the gallery's rules and regulations.

Each gallery will have a contract, typically with standard terms, although some may include unique clauses. It is essential to thoroughly read and understand the agreement before signing it.

Commission rates vary, but in New Zealand, the average is around 40% of the selling price, with the artist receiving 60% and the gallery receiving 40%. While some artists may question this figure, selling artwork independently from home often proves challenging.

Galleries are prominent destinations for art buyers, facing significant overhead costs such as rent, utilities, advertising, and wages. During periods of slow sales, such as a recession, some galleries may charge a hanging fee, ensuring that artists contribute to covering costs even if their work doesn't sell.

However, many galleries operate on a commission-only basis, meaning artists pay nothing unless their work sells—a mutually beneficial arrangement when examined closely.

Maintaining Communication and Professionalism:

Remember, too, that regular contact with your galleries and up-to-date records are vital. Neglecting to inform galleries of changes in address or bank details can lead to frustrations when artwork sells and artists don't receive payment. Keeping your phone number current is also essential; artists have missed out on commission work because galleries couldn't reach them.

A simple phone call every couple of months to check in, discuss sales or update records is a good practice. However, be mindful not to overwhelm gallery staff with lengthy conversations or frequent calls, as they have other responsibilities to manage. It's crucial to avoid expecting special treatment.

Most well-established artists do not behave like divas, so newcomers to the art world should strive to maintain professionalism in all business interactions. Remember, artists come in various personalities, but in a business setting, it's best to keep any eccentricities in check. Trust this advice from someone who has experienced it firsthand.

To Wrap Things Up:

Sending in a portfolio without prior contact may lead to long delays or being ignored altogether. And surprise visits where you walk into a gallery unannounced risk disrupting the staff's workflow or putting them in an unfavourable mindset when it comes to reviewing your work.

While email submissions are less likely to offend, they can be easily overlooked or deleted. So the best approach, especially in New Zealand, is to make a phone call, schedule an appointment, or inquire about the optimal time to present your portfolio. Remember to have your work readily available in case you get a chance to showcase it immediately.

Once accepted into a gallery, it is essential to collaborate effectively by respecting the gallery's rules and honouring contractual obligations. Though they can vary, commission rates ensure that galleries can cover their operational expenses while providing artists with exposure and access to potential buyers. In addition, by maintaining open communication, professionalism, and up-to-date records, artists can build strong relationships with galleries, optimising their chances of success in the art world.

At the end of the day, navigating the art gallery world requires persistence, adaptability, and a keen understanding of both the artist's and the gallery's perspectives. By appreciating the challenges, being strategic in approaching galleries, and maintaining professionalism throughout the process, artists can increase their chances of finding representation and thrive in the dynamic art market.

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Main image - Image by Alexa from Pixabay

Posted: Monday 28 February 2011


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