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  • How to Be an Art Dealer & Open an Art Gallery

    There's hardly a more gratifying way to make a living on this planet than to open an art gallery, sit in a roomful of beauty all day long and have people walk in, pay homage, and then pay you to help upgrade and enrich the quality of their environments and lives. To be surrounded by original art, perhaps the highest form of creative expression human beings can muster, and to sell it as a livelihood... that's real sweet. But making it work is the tricky part. If wanting to be an art dealer is on your things-to-do list, then you might consider the following recommendations in order to maximize your chances for success. As for you artists, if you want to be successful, pretty much everything you're about to read applies to you as well.

    First and foremost, you have to have a vision, and everything you exhibit and offer for sale should exemplify that vision. Think of each work of art and every artist you present in your gallery like brushstrokes in a painting-- that painting representing the full scope and totality of your unique perspective on art. That's how purposeful your program has to be. Showing a cohesive coherent consistent selection of artwork is how you establish an identity for yourself and your gallery, and effectively communicate to viewers exactly what you stand for and your gallery is about. Randomness, lack of direction or inconsistency in your choice of art and artists, on the other hand, practically assure that you won't be in business long.

    Speaking of identities, make your identity yours and not someone else's. All you do by copying another gallery is to make them look better and you look like a wannabe. You have to step out and stick with you believe in. If you can't do that, well then maybe just save your gallery owner dreams for later.

    No matter how unconventional, challenging or confrontational the art you decide to show may be, you can't do it halfway or be timid about your objectives. Put it out there, be prepared to field the tough questions, and get comfortable with the consequences. Successfully defending the art you believe in is at the core of establishing your reputation, and a critical part of the art game. You see, people who buy art want to know why they should buy it from you instead of from the gallery down the street, so the sooner you learn to substantiate, stand up for and justify the significance your art, the better.

    Now in order to accomplish all this, you have to specialize; carve out a niche and claim it as yours. Become an expert at what you do, someone people will look to for authoritative opinions and information. Don't try to know something about everything; try to know everything about something. Collectors appreciate knowledgeable educated informed dealers, ones who know their subjects, ones who understand and can clearly define and convey the import and significance of their art and artists from multiple perspectives including style, meaning, subject matters, relevance, originality, scholarly or historic import, and so on.

    One of your goals (and one of the main ways you stay in business) is to build a faithful customer base-- a dedicated network of repeat buyers. This doesn't mean you ignore the rest of the public (as you'll see later), but you want that base to consist of people who believe in what you show, and are committed to building quality collections over extended periods of time. The longer they collect, the more sophisticated and elevated their knowledge and tastes become-- and the more they come to respect and gravitate toward expertise, experience, galleries that impress them the most, and the abilities of those galleries to recognize and exhibit the best art and artists ahead of the competition. Study the history of any great collector or collection and you'll see that only a handful of dealers are typically instrumental in building it. You want to be one of those dealers as often as possible.

    But the benefits of specializing and knowing your territory don't stop there. The more informed and knowledgeable you are about the art you represent, the better you get at identifying who the best artists are, who's up and coming, spotting trends ahead of the competition, and in exceptional instances, setting new trends and making new markets yourself. That's exactly what the most influential dealers do; they chart the course first, and others only follow. Word of your astuteness inevitably spreads, the writers and critics take up the cause, more and more collectors look to you for direction, the art community comes to revere you, and the rest, as they say, is history.

    As an aside, the best dealers are also recognized as such by artists. Establishing your reputation among artists is at least as important as gaining the respect of collectors. A willingness of quality artists to consider your gallery as a viable venue for showing their art is essential to your success. If you can't get the artists who count, you can't get the art that counts either. Aside from knowledge and influence, the other main ingredient in getting to this point is to always treat your artists with respect, be honest and direct in all interactions, and above all else, pay them on time. You want to show quality art and the only way to do that it is to maintain stellar relations with those who create it.

    Meanwhile back at your gallery, in order to reach your professional zenith-- which takes years, let me assure you-- you have to be consistent in how you present yourself to the public. Get known in the art community for showing and selling a particular type of art in a particular price range by serious artists with shared goals, aspirations, and levels of dedication, commitment and accomplishment. People want to know what to expect when they come to your gallery. They want to feel comfortable with your consistency and not be whiplashed around from one show to the next, never sure what they'll find, wondering how what the current show has in common with the last. Remember-- the large majority of art buyers confuse really easily around art, so keep your agenda as straightforward and undeviatingly themed as possible.

    To repeat-- know that success does not come instantly. You have to build a reputation. You have to prove yourself show after show after show, and convince those in the know that you're not only committed to your vision, but that you have the wherewithal (intellectually, talent-wise, and financially) to play it out. In other words, before you even open your doors, you'd better have enough funds and a respectable enough exhibition calendar to stay in business for at least six months, preferably a year, in case operating at a profit doesn't come quite as easily as you thought it would. Without this kind of cushion, think seriously about postponing your debut. You'll be on the radar from the start and people will be watching, so make sure they'll be impressed by everything they see right from the get go.

    As previously touched upon, having a successful gallery means cultivating a dedicated following and collector base-- true believers-- and increasing that base the longer you stay in business. A gallery is not a social club for your friends, artists you know, people you went to art school with, or those droves of lip-servicers out there who adore you in theory but not in practice (in other words, who show up at your openings, drink your wine and buy nothing). A surprising number of galleries rarely advance beyond the concept of a clique-- the owners, their inner circles, and select assorted sycophants. They basically ignore everyone else and almost always end up sadly, quietly and inevitably vanishing into the mist of art history.

    In order to prevent that kind of a flame out, you have to reach out, make yourself accessible to broad audiences, and convince them you have something to show, something to say, something to take notice of and care about. Your gallery is a business, not a place where you do your friends favors, have parties, hold court, and limit participation to a privileged few. Somewhere along the way, you have to welcome fresh new paying customers into the mix and learn to filter out all those parasites who may love the scene and talk a great game, but who have no intention of supporting you, financially or in any other tangible manner. That's the only way to survive.

    Your goal is to welcome people, not put them off. Perhaps the most effective way to do this is to speak about your art in language anyone can understand. Remember-- the large majority of people are not educated about art and have nowhere near the depth of understanding that you do. So keep it simple (there's plenty of time to get complicated later, once you've established rapport). No matter how internally gratifying it may be to flaunt your knowledge or fling the lingo, and go completely over someone's head with what you know, realize that though you may impress them in the instant, you'll ultimately scare them away.

    Nobody buys anything they don't understand; avoid that scenario at all costs. No matter how complicated your art, start first-time visitors off slow, easy and accessibly. Your job as an art dealer is to continually broaden your audience. Play to the same crowd over and over again and sooner or later, they'll buy themselves out. Collectors wax and wane, so always be on the lookout to replace those who stop or slow down with ones who are just starting out.

    As for the content of your conversations, talk about what your gallery stands for, what you believe in, and the importance of art. Be able to convey why your artists are worth paying attention to, what their art represents, what it embodies, why it's worth owning, and how it enriches, enhances or makes life better for all those who own it. Stay on point and make sure whomever you're speaking with understands that you're selling more than pretty objects-- much more. You are selling art that has value well beyond the visual. Those precious intangible aspects are often what make the sales.

    At all times, be sensitive to whomever you're speaking with. Care about them as much as you care about you. Rather than give the same spiel over and over again, figure out who you're talking to as soon into the conversation as possible-- particularly with respect to what their knowledge base is and what they want to hear. Stay within the constraints of their parameters, no matter how badly you want to wander. There's nothing people find more irritating than gallery owners and personnel who launch into elaborate and arcane analyses of their art at the drop of a hat, possibly-- though I've never quite figured this strategy out-- with the intent to overwhelm them into buying something. Intricacies may fascinate you, but make sure that fascination is shared.

    Likewise, keep all literature, descriptions, press releases and announcements, show statements and artist statements clear, clean, easy to read, and in plain basic accessible language that anyone can understand. This gives people a certain level of confidence around your art-- like they have a grip on what's going on-- and most importantly, opportunities to want to know more... and hopefully see more. Intimidating people at the outset gets you absolutely nowhere when it comes to making sales and staying in business.

    Speaking of cash flow, let's consider one of the most critical aspects of gallery survival-- sensibly pricing your art. Be able to explain your prices in language and reasoning that ordinary everyday people can understand. Talk facts, like maybe how the artist sells consistently at these price levels, that the last show practically sold out, the artist has a museum show coming up, they've shown at respected galleries in major art centers, or have been featured in prestigious publications or websites... or maybe something as simple as how long the art takes to make or how painstaking or costly it is to produce. There has to be some sort of concrete rational reason for your prices. You can't pull numbers out of a hat; you can't get all cosmic and weird; you can't dismiss serious inquiries by saying that's what the art is worth, so take it or leave it. Potential buyers want to feel like they're spending their money wisely. Only then do they buy.

    Keep your pricing consistent. Don't have one show where everything is $500-$1000 and the next where everything is $8000-$12000. Buyers will wonder what's going on. Here are the kinds of responses you'll get if you do stuff like that--

    "How come these are so much more expensive than the last show?"

    "You mean if I had waited one more show, I could have bought something for $600 instead of $6000?"

    "I thought I could afford your art. What happened?"

    "I thought you sold expensive art. How come everything's so cheap all of a sudden? Can't you sell expensive art? Are you in financial trouble?"

    Even if people don't say these things, you can bet they'll be thinking them. You may understand the differences between various artists, works of art, and how things get priced, but most buyers have a far more difficult time of it. Only a small percentage of them are capable of understanding fine-line price distinctions. Plus you've got to keep prices in the same range from show to show because regular buyers like consistency. They come to your gallery with certain expectations about how much they'll have to spend in order to add a nice piece of art to their collections, and you have to stay within those expectations. Minor price variations from show to show are generally OK, especially if you can easily and clearly explain them, but the greater the price discrepancies, the more you risk either confusing or alienating your clientele.

    Assorted odds and ends:

    * As a gallery director told me many years ago, "No art sells itself." In other words, owning and operating a successful art gallery means you're going to have to sell. There's simply no way of getting around that fact. Hopefully you're reasonably extroverted, are a good conversationalist, like being around people, are able to convince others that your perspective and vision are credible and compelling, and most importantly, that the art you show is worthy of being added to their collections.

    * Maintain good, solid, consistent, current, and regularly updated social media pages, website, and overall online presence. Being as active online as you are in the gallery (or if you are an artist, in the studio) is essential to your survival. This is one of the most important ways to show your commitment and dedication. Continually build your following, post and update regularly, and make sure your fans are fully aware in no uncertain terms how energized and involved you are.

    * Grow and expand your mailing and email lists. You want steadily increasing numbers of people to be aware of and informed about you and your gallery. Keep your announcements to a minimum, though, and make sure you always have something newsworthy to say. Send no more than one or two per month, and reasonably close to the dates of your shows or events. For example, don't send out an announcement in May for an opening in October. It's irritating, it makes no sense, and for sure it gets lost in the shuffle.

    * Get involved in the art community. Join local museums, arts organizations, dealer associations, go to openings at other galleries, and show up at significant arts events and fundraisers-- not everywhere all the time, but certainly at those that relate to the types of art you show. Support local non-profits, donate art (or other cash equivalents) to fundraiser events, and if possible, eventually hold such events at your gallery. You want to become recognized in the art community, you want to learn who the significant players are, and you ultimately want the right people to recognize you. You don't always have to socialize if you're uneasy or in unfamiliar territory. Just show up with some level of regularity. People will see you over and over again, you'll see them as well, and sooner or later conversations will break out.

    * Go easy on pressure tactics. Never nag or be constantly trying to sell something. When someone starts thinking about buying, they usually make it pretty clear. Answer people's questions, be attentive to their needs, and let them take things step-by-step. You want to make sure they're at least somewhere near as interested in buying the art as you are in selling it before you go for the throat.

    * If a critic or reviewer says something you don't like, that's the way it goes. Never remove them from your mailing list, criticize them back, or tell them they're no longer welcome in your gallery. That's just plain stupid. You come off like you're trying to control your own press, write your own history. And the press always has the last word anyway; they have the platform and the profile. You don't. If you're going to open a public venue, then the public has a right to comment on whatever you show. If it'll make you feel any better, people don't remember the content of reviews anywhere near as well as they remember the names of the galleries that are the subjects of those reviews. Plus the more they hear and see your gallery's name, regardless of the context, the more inclined they'll be to stop by and see what the deal is. Ultimately, all press is good press, assuming you're on the up and up. The worst thing someone can write about you is nothing at all.

    In closing, NEVER lie, misrepresent, over-embellish or otherwise inflate the importance of the art and artists you show and sell. The last thing buyers want-- especially collectors who are just starting out-- is to get all excited, go to your art opening, listen to your pitch, love it, buy your art, and then find out at some point down the road that what they bought isn't what they thought it was. This is not only bad for you and your gallery, but it's also bad for all galleries everywhere, because now they have one less collector to sell to (or more, because that will probably include their friends as well). As long as you keep it genuine and sincere, onward and upward you'll go.

    artist art

    (art by Al Held)

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