Should Independent Artists
Seek Gallery Representation?
Q: I've made my living selling art out of my studio and outside of the traditional gallery world for over twenty years, face-to-face, directly to buyers. I've had a handful of shows during that time, but only at small galleries and exhibition spaces run by friends. I also have a website, but don't really do much with it and to be honest, am not all that interested in spending tons of time online. As a result, people in the larger art community know little or nothing about me and my art. What's the best way to approach more established galleries for shows? Or should I even bother? I have plenty of completed artworks available to show and continue to make new art all the time.
A: Whether or not to get involved with the gallery system is a decision only you can make. On the one hand, you're in great shape because you make your living on your own terms and don't have to rely on galleries for income. On the other hand, no matter how successful you get, you'll always lack that so-called "seal of approval" established gallery representations and shows provide.
Additional problems with going it alone are that you have no third parties pitching your art to museums, major collectors, corporations, and other groups or individuals that you can't easily access on your own. Establishing a resale or secondary market for your art is also difficult because public sales venues like resale galleries and auction houses don't know who you are and will likely be disinclined to accept your art if someone offers it to them for sale. On the flip side, many artists make good incomes outside of the mainstream and are quite happy living with none of the above perks-- and some of those artists even manage to get those perks in spite of operating outside the gallery system.
Seeing as you're not a big fan of the Internet, going with a gallery that has a respectable online profile would be another big plus. These days, establishing and maintaining a online presence is how the art world works. A gallery's ability to reach new audiences and sell art online is already a substantial component of how they get the word out about themselves and their artists. Galleries who are active online have the ability to introduce you and your art to collectors the world over, people who have no idea you even exist, but who may love your art if only given the opportunity to see it.
Something else to consider is establishing your own online profile. As distasteful as online life might seem, it's actually pretty fascinating once you get the hang of it. Sure, it's work but if you dedicate yourself to learning the ropes, you can definitely get somewhere, especially with your track record and experience. Think of the Internet as an extension of your studio, a place where people the world over can come to discover and learn about you and your art, and buy when they like it. The fact is that more and more artists are selling more and more art online, and are accomplishing this entirely on their own without the help of galleries. A surprising number of them have established substantial followings and are selling more art online than anywhere else, and those numbers are only increasing.
If you decide to go with the galleries, you may well have to make significant sacrifices. The first would sharing your profits. Dealers get paid for services rendered, normally 40-60% of retail gallery prices, which means you're either going to have to substantially raise your selling prices if you expect to continue making as much as you're making now or more likely, raise them somewhat or keep them about where they are now and reduce your the amount you normally make by the gallery's commission whenever something sells. The second sacrifice is that you may either have to stop selling directly or significantly curtail your activities in that regard. Depending on your agreements or contractual obligations with dealers, even your longstanding collectors may have to buy through whatever galleries represent you. So be prepared to trade a percentage of your current gross income as well as direct dealings with buyers for a crack at potential future fame, fortune and a robust secondary market for your art.
Keep in mind here that the key word is "potential." On the one hand, you might hit it big, your audience expand, and your prices rise beyond levels you ever thought possible. On the other, you might stay basically where you are now except with less money to show for it. Your stint with a gallery might even go nowhere, in which case you'll go back to the old way of doing things. If you regard these risks as a crapshoot worth taking, then go for it. Galleries might even offer feedback in these regards in order to help you make your decision.
Another thing to think about regarding gallery representation is that you'll likely lose a certain amount of your artistic autonomy. Your new world will be structured not so much by you, but rather in conjunction with whomever you contract with to sell your art. If you're inclined to lay down the law, insist on continuing to operate entirely on your own terms and make whatever art you feel like making, your chances of getting gallery representation will likely be reduced-- or any representation you do get may well turn out to be short lived. For the first time in your career, someone else will be discussing your career trajectory with you and advising you to what they prefer you do or don't do. As long as you're aware of that and can live with the consequences, then gallery representation may well work for you.
Having said all that, getting shows at established galleries won't necessarily be easy at this stage in your career. You have to start out pretty much as a neophyte and make a good case for yourself, your art, and especially why you're interested in making the change now. You'll certainly be able to skip a few steps over artists who are just starting out, but at the same time, you'll also have some explaining to do when galleries ask why you've avoided doing business with them for so long. The last thing dealers want is to enter into relationships with artists only to have them fall apart a short time later so you can bet the potential for longevity will be on their minds. They'll want to feel relatively confident that if an initial show or period of representation does well, a good solid long-term working relationship will have a good chance to evolve. So make sure you're prepared to answer some serious questions in these regards.
Your big advantage over less successful artists or artists who are just starting out is that you come to dealers with an established track record and collector base. They'll see immediately that you're in this game for the keeps, but at the same time, they'll also be looking for some sort of assurance that if they give you a show, they're going to sell art and make money. Depending on how negotiations progress, you may wish to present them with a list of individuals and institutions, both public and private, who own your art. The more high-profile names you've sold to over the years, the greater your chances of getting shows or representation. An impressive client list is always a great ally.
You might even go so far as to offer them your complete mail or email list; galleries like that... a lot. Some artists think this is the worst thing they can possibly do, but think again. First off, just because a gallery has their contact information doesn't mean they'll instantly jump ship and start buying art by other artists. They're loyal to you and will stay that way. Secondly, if your collectors suddenly get an announcement from an established gallery that they're giving you a show or representing of your art, you can bet they'll be impressed, and very possibly encouraged to buy more of your art. You've always told them you've got the chops, and they've always believed it, but now they have proof!
If all goes well, gallery representation will more than likely enhance your resume, increase your visibility in the art community, and provide you with greater financial security in the long run. Assuming you're willing to accept the possibility of a temporary pay-cut and are comfortable letting third parties exercise a certain amount of control over your career, you'll stand a much better chance of succeeding in the long run. Galleries love to handle artists who sell consistently and well, and you've certainly proven you can do that.
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