Common Misconceptions Artists Have About Galleries

In an ongoing effort to separate art world facts from fantasy, I contacted a number of gallery owners and asked whether they could relate some beliefs artists have about galleries and gallery owners that simply aren't true. Successful artist/gallery relationships are built on trust, knowledge, cooperation and understanding, and the better and more informed artists are about how art galleries really work, the greater the chances that their gallery relationships will succeed and prosper. So are you ready to exorcise those erroneous notions? Excellent...

Misconception: Art galleries have people ready to buy any art they have to offer.
Reality: Not the least bit true. The opposite is far more often the case, that galleries have to convince their clients that work by gallery artists is worth adding their collections.

Misconception: Galleries are responsible for doing all the work and all the publicity for their shows. All artists have to do is bring in the art.
Reality: Active and ongoing participation and involvement by artists is an essential part of any successful artist/gallery relationship.

Misconception: Galleries are loaded with money.
Reality: No way. The opposite is far more often the case.

Misconception: Artists have to pay to show their art at galleries.
Reality: Not true. Some galleries might like you to believe that, but the artist/gallery relationship is like a partnership of sorts. Galleries provide their artists with space to exhibit their art and the artists provide the galleries with art. No money changes hands up front; galleries believe in the artists they represent and believe they can make money by selling their art. Those few galleries that do charge artists to exhibit have less incentive to sell whatever art they show because they've already been paid.

Misconception: Galleries don't represent enough artists; they need more.
Reality: Not only do the large majority of galleries already have more art and artists than they can handle, but they are also continually contacted by new artists looking for representation. What they really need is more buyers.

Misconception: Getting gallery representation will automatically boost an artist's career because galleries are the key to fame and the fast track to fortune.
Reality: There is no instant fix in artland, like one day you're totally unknown and the next day you're on your way to stardom. Becoming successful and established as an artist happens gradually over a period of time, and is based on a consistent and successful track record of shows, accomplishments and sales. One or two gallery shows do not make a career, and getting gallery representation is nothing more than one step in a long and arduous process.

Misconception: All artists who show at galleries are successful and make lots of money.
Reality: Many artists who show at galleries-- including better galleries-- not only struggle to maintain their relationships and continue getting shows, but also worry about making enough sales and enough money to survive.

Misconception: Art galleries are the enemy. The relationship between artist and gallery is adversarial, not collaborative.
Reality: Not the least bit true. No gallery works against its own artists; they'd only be hurting themselves if they did. Galleries do everything they can to maximize the success of every artist they represent; the more they do for their artists, the more they do for their own reputations and track records of success. Artists need to work alongside the galleries that represent them every step of the way. Then everyone's reputation benefits.

Misconception: Collectors always pay full gallery retail prices for art.
Reality: Many collectors want to pay less than retail. Artists should understand this, be flexible about with their prices (within reason), and be willing to split any discounts galleries are forced to offer buyers in order to make sales. In case you weren't aware, it's not uncommon for galleries to take a hit by giving discounts to buyers, eating the lost revenue themselves and never telling the artists.

Misconception: Galleries make huge profits.
Reality: If only that were true... but unfortunately it's not.

Misconception: Galleries have hardly any expenses.
Reality: Rent, insurance, alarm systems, utilities, phone bills, equipment, supplies, packing, shipping, transportation, furnishings, computers, publicity, art fairs, announcements, memberships, dues, advertising, employees, and so on and so forth ad infinitum. Running a gallery is expensive. Galleries in desirable locations often have expenses ranging anywhere from thousands to tens of thousands of dollars per month, and sometimes even more.

Misconception: Galleries should pay for all incidentals including shipping, framing, hanging, travel expenses, and so on.
Reality: Be willing to split some of these expenses with a gallery if asked and the requests are reasonable, especially if the relationship is new and untested. The gallery is already investing plenty of time, money and space in you and your art... and hoping to sell enough of it to at least break even. If an artist is blue chip or the artist/gallery relationship is longstanding and successful, handling of expenses may be different, but in situations where artists are less established, the gallery may need help and cooperation and ask for some degree of assistance.

Misconception: If a gallery can't sell an artist's art, they're entirely to blame because they're not working hard enough to sell it.
Reality: Galleries always believe they can sell art by artists they either show or represent, but unfortunately they're not always right. Additionally, outside factors like personal tastes, trends and fashions, reviews by critics, word of mouth, publicity, the health of the economy, and other outside forces may come into play at any time and impact sales.

Misconception: If a gallery isn't interested in an artist's art, it's because they don't understand it.
Reality: It is the responsibility of artists to learn how to present their art clearly, effectively and understandably in relatively short periods of time. Experienced gallery owners continually see all kinds of art by all kinds of artists and have acquired the skills necessary to make decisions relatively fast. They simply do not have the time to get into deep discussions wth artists or listen to long detailed explanations about their art. In any situation where you have an opportunity to present or discuss your art with a gallery, be well prepared to get your main points across fast and answer whatever questions you might be asked.

Misconception: Selling art is easy.
Reality: Selling a commodity that has no tangible value, is generally expensive and serves no practical purpose is anything but easy. If you think otherwise, you have no idea of the verbal encounters, engagements and maneuvers gallery owners endure on a daily basis in order to make sales.

Misconception: Art sells itself and galleries have nothing to do with selling it. All gallery owners do is sit around and wait for people to come in and buy.
Reality: No art sells itself. There's a huge difference between someone liking a work of art and buying it. That difference is called selling.

Misconception: Giving a 50% commission to galleries is too much. The artists are the ones who do all the work. Galleries only work for a few days setting up shows and then sit and wait for sales to happen.
Reality: First of all, galleries almost always have far greater expenses than artists. Secondly, selling art is a full-time job, not only at the gallery but also by phone, online, making visits to collectors or potential buyers, exhibiting at art fairs, hosting openings and events at their galleries, writing and sending newsletters and email updates, and more. Gallery owners spend all day every day doing their absolute best to make sales.

Misconception: Galleries get rich while artists stay poor.
Reality: The large majority of galleries have just as much trouble surviving financially as artists do. A gallery owner getting wealthy by selling art is very rare indeed.

Misconception: All artists contribute equally to the success of their galleries.
Reality: In the large majority of cases, only a few artists keep galleries solvent and afloat. Sales of art by a gallery's most popular artists often help finance shows for artists who tend not to sell that well.

Misconception: Galleries are wealthy because they're the link between artists and rich people.
Reality: All kinds of people buy art and all kinds of people own galleries, most of whom are nowhere near rich. The overwhelming majority of gallery owners and collectors are in this for one reason-- because they love art. It's that simple and no more complicated.

Misconception: Just because a gallery has an artist's art, they have to exhibit it and give the artist shows.
Reality: Far more often than not, galleries start slowly with artists, perhaps taking several works on consignment and showing them selectively to see how certain clients respond. They also want to make sure the artists are responsible and easy to work with before getting in too deep. Assuming all goes well, shows will happen.

Misconception: Galleries have power and influence in the art world; they control markets and determine tastes.
Reality: The exact opposite is far more often the case. Few if any gallery owners have the ability to control or influence how the world responds to their artists.

Misconception: When an artist leaves one gallery and goes to another, their collectors automatically go with them.
Reality: Unless an artist is already successful or hotter than hot, collectors' typically remain loyal to particular galleries and not necessarily to the artists those galleries represent.

Misconception: If an artist gets a gallery show, they're automatically going to sell lots of art and make lots of money.
Reality: No guarantees whatsoever on this. Work hard, do what you can to make the most of your exposure, keep your fingers crossed and hope for the best... just like the gallery owner is doing.

Misconception: If a show doesn't sell well, the gallery didn't want it to.
Reality: No gallery owner in their right mind would deliberately sabotage their own shows in order to make as few sales and as little money as possible. That makes absolutely zero sense.

Misconception: Galleries only show art that's salable.
Reality: Galleries are much more than selling machines. They bring new art and new artists to the attention of the public all the time. They deeply believe in the artists they show, in the validity of their art, and that the public at least deserves to see it-- whether they ultimately end up buying or not.

Misconception: Good publicity or good reviews by critics automatically translate into sales.
Reality: You hope.

Misconception: Galleries have the capacity to make museums either show or buy their artists' art.
Reality: Not true. Museums typically show or acquire art by artists who have compiled consistent track records of successful shows, exhibitions, awards, distinctions and other notable accomplishments.

Misconception: Gallery owners don't like art; they're only in it for the money.
Reality: Nobody who's "in it for the money" would ever open an art gallery. Running an art gallery is way far down the list of ways to make lots of money.

Misconception: Any gallery is right for an artist, no matter what kind of art that artist makes.
Reality: Galleries are extremely particular about the types of art and artists they show, and in the overwhelming majority of cases, only show very narrow and highly defined types, styles or genres of art.

Misconception: Regular communication between artists and their galleries is not necessary; everybody understands everything and nothing really needs to be said.
Reality: Clear, open and ongoing communications are essential to any successful artist/gallery relationship.

Misconception: Galleries never need to be thanked or acknowledged for what they do. It's all about the art and the galleries are just places that show it.
Reality: A little appreciation goes a long way. Galleries invest incredible amounts of time and effort in representing and publicizing their artists. To repeat, no art sells itself. And galleries love when artists take even a moment to say thanks.

Misconception: A gallery should show whatever works of art the artists wants them to.
Reality: Not true. Give the gallery flexibility in deciding what to show; let them curate the art. Galleries know what works best for them, what their collectors tend to prefer, and how to organize and present art in compelling and effective ways. The works of art a gallery decides to show can certainly be open to discussion, but know that they have your best interests in mind when making their final selections.

Misconception: Galleries have a duty to look at and consider all artist submissions regardless of who the artists are, what their art looks like, or how well it fits in with the types of art that the galleries typically show.
Reality: Galleries are continually bombarded and overwhelmed with submissions, most already have more than enough artists on their rosters, most have their exhibition calendars booked up at least a year in advance, and many barely have the time to attend to the artists they already represent.

Misconception: Galleries should respond to an artist's every need, personal or otherwise.
Reality: This is a business relationship, not a personal one; always remember that. It's best to save personal matters for friends and family.

Misconception: The relationship between an artist and a gallery should always be the same no matter what happens over time.
Reality: Things change; nothing ever remains the same. Artist/gallery relationships are always evolving, so be prepared.

Misconception: No matter when you contact or show up at a gallery that represents you, the gallery owner should show you immediate attention.
Reality: That's not possible. At least give the gallery owner advance notice you're coming in or have something you'd like to discuss. Better yet, make an appointment.

Misconception: All galleries and gallery owners are the same.
Reality: Galleries are as unique and idiosyncratic as collectors (if not more so). Just because one gallery reacts to your art in a certain way does not mean all galleries will. Never be discouraged by any encounter with any gallery; if your art isn't for them, move on to the next exciting adventure.


(art by Dana Hart-Stone)

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