How Art Galleries & Dealers Help Advance Your Career
Q: I'm a known artist with a fair amount of exhibition experience including a one-person show (with a small published catalogue) at a respected regional museum about 15 years ago. Not too long after that show, I had a bad experience with a gallery, decided to go it alone, swore off selling through either galleries or representatives, have avoided them ever since and only sell direct to collectors.
Over the years, I've continued to regularly produce new work and have now accumulated hundreds of pieces of art. My prices are reasonable, competitive with the galleries, and I sell enough to make a modest living. On the down side, I don't sell regularly outside of a small circle of friends and longtime supporters who've known me for years. I also have a website, but am not very active online. I want to explore new ideas for increasing sales. What do you recommend?
A: Easy answer. Either continue to represent yourself and get way more active online, particularly with social networking, or forget about the injustices of the past and reintroduce yourself to the galleries... or both. With respect to your online profile, the way you're presenting yourself now-- with just a website and not much else-- the only way people will find you is by typing your name into major search engines like Google. The problem with that is they have to know your name in the first place in order search for you. People who don't know your name have little or no way of finding you unless someone tells them, which is why you're still selling mainly to the same group of collectors and fans, and hardly anyone else. How to network effectively is beyond the scope of this answer, but these two articles will at least get you started: How Artists Get Exposure and Sell Art on Instagram and Facebook and Social Networking for Artists.
As for the galleries, if they showed you once there's a good chance they'll show you again. Shows or representation won't necessarily happen instantly, but a good start would be to gradually reintroduce yourself and work your way back into the scene. You can't allow one bad experience to cripple your entire career or permanently prejudice you against anyone who buys and sells art or who represents artists for a living. No matter how justified you were in ending your relationship with this gallery, you've already wasted way more than enough time being resentful and at this point, continuing to do so is only crimping your career. FYI, you're certainly not only artist who's had something like this happen and has dropped out of the gallery scene because of it.
Unfortunately if things continue the way they are, you'll likely become the classic case of the artist whose art only gets the recognition it deserves after you move on to that great artist studio in the sky. You're accomplished enough and have enough art and enough of a history to assure that one way or another, your work will someday reappear in public, very possibly in a significant way. The good news is that based on your track record, and assuming you make an earnest effort to reestablish yourself in the gallery world, someone should be more than willing to take you on. So you might as well make that happen sooner than later-- preferably while you're still around to benefit from the experience.
In spite of what you might think of galleries-- and you're by no means alone-- the overwhelming majority of gallery owners treat artists fairly, honestly and with respect. Galleries and dealers are an essential part of how the art world works. They're the ones who know how to spread the word and who have the reputations to back their recommendations up (although many artists have also been getting very good at representing themselves online). Additionally, galleries invest the time, effort, dollars, contacts, promotional skills, overhead, selectivity, "brand name" benefits, and exhibition spaces necessary to help artists expand their clienteles, attain critical recognition and increase their selling prices. Sure you can continue to self-promote, but that's nothing compared to having a good gallery with an established track record do that for you.
Having said that, you should still think seriously about establishing yourself online. If you can attract a large and dedicated following, sooner or later good things will happen-- sales, shows, exposure, and more. You'll basically have to start from scratch, but you clearly have more than enough art and career history to create and maintain an engaging profile and narrative about yourself and your work. Keep in mind though that nothing happens instantly. You'll have to increase your reach "friend by friend" and "follower by follower" just like all the other artists have done before you.
However you decide to move forward, you can't simply rely on your early track record of gallery shows and successes; they're significant, but not nearly enough to jumpstart the process. You'll have to start getting out there once again, in front of the art-buying public on a pretty consistent basis, because outside of your loyal inner circle, many who were once familiar with your art have probably long since forgotten you. Potential new buyers and collectors will want to know what you've done lately as well as what you did twenty years ago. They'll want proof that during all this time, you've continued evolving and advancing with your art, no matter how quiet you've been about it. Even though you've been regularly producing and have plenty of art to show for it, you've basically fallen off the charts and have some significant rebuilding to do in this area.
If you decide to get back into the galleries, don't let past experiences color your interactions or affect your negotiations or how you present yourself. Galleries are good. Remember that. You only had one bad experience, so keep that in perspective. If you're reluctant to fully give yourself over to a gallery for a long period of time, start slowly and test the waters. It's very possible that any interested galleries will likely want to do the same. Be honest with those you approach, tell them your story, be reasonable, be flexible, be willing to give them a second chance, don't be demanding, and perhaps find one that's willing to try you for six months or a year or even less if that turns out to be your only option. If a gallery wants to try only a handful of works, fine.
The fact that you have hundreds of works of art for sale and are likely capable of producing hundreds more is one of your best selling points. Galleries love productive artists and access to plenty of art, especially when that art begins to sell well. That combined with a solid early exhibition history means that finding a dealer to take you on shouldn't be all that difficult (assuming you're not too difficult yourself).
By the way, you say your prices are competitive with galleries, but the amount of money you net on a private sale now will likely have to change once you start selling through galleries. If you insist that galleries pay you the same amount buyers pay directly to you now, your art will suddenly become more expensive-- quite a bit more expensive-- like twice as expensive. Galleries take their cuts, usually 50%, so their cut will likely mean a reduction in your take. You may not have to cut your income by half, but when it comes to price negotiations, you want to make sure the galleries are well-positioned to start making sales. So think seriously about this part in advance.
Any gallery that shows interest will more than likely recommend how your work needs to be priced in order to be competitive at the retail level. You can certainly hold steady and refuse to lower them, but by doing so you risk either having galleries refuse to represent you at all, or having them try your art out at the higher prices and not being able to sell anything. Neither of these outcomes is good. In order for your reentry to work, you have to sell art. The last thing you want to do when trying to reenter the marketplace is to price yourself out of it right from the start.
So be willing to work with whatever pricing and commission structures galleries suggest, assuming they're reasonable and explained to you in ways that make sense, and be prepared to take somewhat of a financial hit. You'll likely receive significantly less per piece than you do now-- unless a gallery decides to substantially raise your prices, which they might. Whatever the arrangement, the more reasonable and competitive your prices, the more likely that is to work in your favor. The trade-off in lowering prices now is that over time, a good gallery will be able to sell more art, increase your profile, your fan base, demand for your art... and hopefully in the end, your selling prices. In the longer term, that's a really good strategy for eventually selling more art but making more money. Hopefully your reentry goes well and you as time progresses, find yourself back in the museums and in some important private collections as well. You did it once; you can do it again. Time to forget about the past and say hello to the future.
(art by Ian Wallace)
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