I’ll admit, there is a lot to learn if you’re hoping to start selling art in galleries. How do you approach a gallery, and then if you do finally get a meeting, what do you say? What are they even looking for? When they ask to see your portfolio, what does that even look like? Do you price your work or does the gallery price your work? How much commission is the normal amount for a gallery to take?
And on and on and on and on…
Well, I’m going to try and answer all of those questions and more, all in a single post. Wish me luck.
Where Am I Getting This Information?
I’ve displayed in several galleries throughout my career, but the most I learned about this subject was at Fotofest.
For those of you that don’t know what Fotofest is, I’ll give you a brief description:
Basically, it’s a biennial (the next one is in 2015), 4-session festival where there are portfolio reviews, workshops, art displays and much more. Each session is a 4-day period with different reviewers, workshops,etc. Each portfolio review session, you meet with anywhere from 20-30 reviewers. These reviewers are fantastically well established people in the photography/art/publishing community. They are gallery owners and curators, book publishers, magazine editors and private collectors. You sign up for a session (and pay about $1000) and you get a 20 minute slot to meet with each of the reviewers on your list. You have exactly 20 minutes to pitch your portfolio and get feedback. At best they love you and either buy some of your pieces or book you for a show. At worst they hate you and you leave feeling them burn a hole in the back of your head with their very disapproving eyes.
That last part is an exaggeration. The vast majority of reviewers I met with were full of incredibly useful feedback. One was a complete witch, but she’s been banned from ever reviewing again, so good for Fotofest!
Here’s the other thing though, there are 2 very important lessons of Fotofest I wish I had known:
1.) The only reason you would attend 2 sessions instead of only one is if your work is extremely well-established and you’re looking for connections, not feedback. Trust me, after you’ve been through one session, you don’t want to show your work to anyone ever again until you’ve gone home and worked on it. No matter how well you do, having your work picked apart by 30 people in a 4-day time frame is brutal, and you definitely need some rebound time to go home, get drunk under your kitchen table, reevaluate every artistic decision you’ve ever made and then get back at it the next day.
2.) Each session naturally becomes very specialized; the photojournalist/documentary reviewers naturally all gravitate to one session, the abstract/conceptual art reviewers all gravitate toward another, the book publishers all gravitate to another. They all know each other, they’ve all communicated before hand to see who is going to which session, and they book their own tickets accordingly.
Quick tip: there is a Facebook group for people signed up to go – join this group and ask other photographers what kind of work they do and which sessions they are attending. If this is their third time and they do the same work you do, sign up for whatever session they are in, because they probably made the same mistake I did the first year and they’re still having nightmares about it.
I didn’t know either of these rules so I made both mistakes of attending 2 sessions instead of one and signing up (on accident) for both the abstract/conceptual group and the photojournalism/documentary group. Needless to say, my style of photography did not go over too well with the documentary group.
No…that did not go well at all.
But, after the first day in the documentary group I learned what was going on, and knowing these people were very knowledgeable in the art community, I didn’t want to waste my time showing them a useless portfolio. So instead, I’d sit down for my 20 minutes, push my portfolio box to the side and say, “Look, you don’t want to see that, I’m in the wrong group and I know it. But I do know you’ve owned a gallery for 25 years, so instead I’d like to talk to you about the process of pricing, sizing and limited editions.” They’d respond with “Absolutely!” and we’d get down to business.
I met with over 50 reviewers in my two sessions at Fotofest, and combined with my own experience of working with galleries, here is the gist of everything I’ve learned:
Finding the Right Gallery
Even if you get into a gallery, if it’s the wrong fit you’re in for a giant waste of time and money. Here are a few things to do before even approaching a gallery for display:
Check their website – Is it updated? Do they have photos and descriptions of current artists?
Any gallery you are going to work with needs to have a strong online presence. That means they need a calendar of events, up to date artist bios and portfolios, pictures of the actual gallery space, functioning social media buttons and a newsletter signup link. You want to know they make it very easy for people to keep in touch with them. The less steps a buyer has to make to buy the art, the better.
Also check out the overall look of the gallery. Is it well lit or dark and dungy? Is it clean and clear of other items, or does it appear cluttered and messy? Do they have a million little trinkets on desks, tabletops or even draped over other art pieces (aw hell no), or do they have clear spacing between one art piece and the next? You want as little distraction as possible. People are there to see your art, not to dig through budget finds at a flea market.
Do they sell something other than art?
Let’s say they are also a coffee shop, or a furniture shop or a restaurant. This usually means their main business is not selling art, it’s selling something else. If your art is displayed in a furniture store/gallery, for example, you are accepting that most of the people walking through their doors are coming there to buy couches and dressers, not art. There is nothing wrong with displaying in a combo gallery/other business, but it does affect the amount of commission they can ethically collect each time you sell a piece (we’ll get to that later).
Visit them in person – how does the staff treat you?
If you walk in and the owner waves to you in between a conversation they’re having with a friend in the back, and then you do a complete circle, walk towards the door and receive a half-assed “Thanks for stopping in!” as you leave, this is not a gallery you want to display in.
You want someone to meet you at the door and ask how your day is going, if you’ve ever been in before and if there’s anything specific you’re interested in. If you’re looking on one display, someone should be there saying, “Doesn’t he do amazing work? You should see his next collection, Memory Fields, that’s set to go up next month on the 21st. He’s got a few sample pieces on his website (listed right here on his business card she gently hands you). I’d be happy to show you more if you’re interested.”
This is important because this is how they will act when you have art hanging in the gallery. Do you really want to be showing in a space where someone just sits in the back and bullshits with their buddies? No. You want someone that is going to treat every person that walks in that door as a potential sale – because they are a potential sale.
Exactly what kind of art do they sell?
If you specialize in, let’s say, surreal portraiture, a gallery that displays strictly Japanese flower photos is not going to be interested in your portfolio. Don’t even try and push it on them; they know what they like, and it isn’t you.
What kind of price point are they selling?
If the art they have displayed is upwards of $30,000 and you’ve never made a sale, just keep moving. Those works are selling for that price because they are established artists. And you are definitely not an established artist…or you wouldn’t be reading an article about how to start displaying in art galleries. Find a gallery that is selling art for something at least relatively similar to your own price point.
Approaching & Submitting to a Gallery
Approaching a gallery seems intimidating, but in reality…actually never mind, in reality it’s just as intimidating as it is in your head. But you’ve got to remember, gallery owners are people just like you and they would much rather be approached by a proactive enthusiastic artist than drag along an insecure artist that has no idea what they’re doing. So suck it up, and do the following:
The In-Person Approach
If you’re hoping to schedule an appointment with a gallery owner, go in person. All you’re doing is asking if they ever meet with potential artists or do portfolio reviews. DO NOT bring your portfolio to the gallery. This is essentially saying, “I am so unbelievably talented, you’re definitely going to want to stop what you’re doing and take a look at this.” It’s cocky and presumptuous. Bring a business card in your back pocket and leave your portfolio in the car.
They will either respond with 1 of 3 things: 1.) No, they are currently not accepting artist submissions, 2.) No, they do not do in-person appointments, but they do have an online submission process (which they will direct you to), or 3.) Yes, they do offer portfolio review sessions that cost (x) amount and they have an opening on (x) day and time.
If you are asking for a portfolio review know that you’re going to have to pay for it. Their time is just as valuable as yours and they aren’t in the business of handing out charity review sessions. A portfolio review is a great way to get your work in front of them though. They will either give you great feedback or like you enough to talk about a future show.
The Online Approach
Most likely, they will direct you to an online submission process. This will be on their website and will have very specific instructions. Follow these instructions – they are there for a reason, and chances are if you don’t follow them exactly as they are written your application will immediately be thrown out – this is no time to go rogue.
Usually, they will ask for a CV (this is your artist resume), your artwork list (title of your collection, medium [the type of paper it’s printed on], your piece dimensions, edition sizes and pricing for each), your contact information, links to your work and sometimes a few low resolution example images.
Your artist resume is basically exactly the same as any other resume. You’ve got your contact information, your website, a short bio and description of your work. Then start adding on anything that is relevant, like art/photo-related education and awards, publications you’ve been featured in, teaching experience, recent exhibitions followed by recent solo exhibitions. Do a quick search for “artist resume” and you’ll see plenty of examples of the layout.
Sizing, Editions & Pricing
Everyone has specific sizes according to their art, so this is going to be very general, but there is basically one rule that every, single, gallery owner told me to follow: have no more than 3 available sizes. The reason, simply put, is so you aren’t (accidentally) taken for a ride for other galleries.
Let’s play the hypothetical game for a second. Let’s say you have square format photos, that come in 5 sizes (in inches) 10 x 10, 20 x 20, 30 x 30, 40 x 40 and 50 x 50. Great. Now let’s say you’re applying to 20 different galleries and 2 of them love you and want to feature you. One wants you January – March, the other from April – June. The first gallery prefers the 30 x 30 size, the second gallery prefers the 20 x 20 size. That means you have pay for the cost of printing, framing and shipping a whole other show (which can range upwards of $3000). Limiting your sizes isn’t going to cause a gallery to shy away. If the second gallery likes you and you only have 30 x 30 instead of 20 x 20, they’re going to take the 30 x 30 – which means you can just move the first show to it’s new location when it’s done. This keeps you from having to pay a fortune for 2 different shows in 2 different sizes.
Your sizes also need to be spaced enough apart to be used for different purposes. You want one small size (10 x 10), something people can hold. A “little jewel” as it has been explained to me by curators. Then you want your main size (30 x 30) that is large enough to hang comfortably in someone’s home – this is the size you will be displaying most often in galleries. The largest size (50 x 50) is specifically for art collectors and for lease agreements. This is usually the largest size you can print without losing quality. Your large size will probably seem a bit comically large, but that’s kind of the whole point – it’s a statement piece.
You don’t have to edition your pieces, but…let’s just say I’ve never met anyone who suggested against it. Having limited editions increases the value of your artwork. People aren’t just paying for the actual art piece, they’re paying for the exclusivity. Edition sizes range anywhere from 3-500, and it really depends on the kind of art you’re doing. A photographer that has one size of print, may have a total edition size of 25, for example. That means they can only sell 25 prints of that photo, and then they’re done. No more selling of those prints once the edition has run out (there are reintroductions of an edition, but if you’re ever in the situation to reintroduce an edition, you’re probably super famous…and also dead).
Sound kind of scary? It’s supposed to. In all actuality, you rarely sell out of editions, but it creates a sense of urgency and exclusivity among buyers. The edition sizes also get smaller as you go up, creating even more significance. My pieces, for example, follow this basic pattern:
Size (in inches):
10 x 10, Limited Edition of 15
30 x 30, Limited Edition of 7
50 x 50, Limited Edition of 3
Pricing can also be a tricky subject, and needs to be dealt with on a very case by case basis, but at least this will give you a jumping off point.
Labor + costs of production + printing & shipping costs + profit = Price.
It’s also important to research your local market to see what comparable art is selling for. While some people may advise against this, since art sells for virtually anything nowadays, I still think it’s just plain smart to know what your competition is doing. The art market in Montana, for example, is much different than New York. If I were to price my art in Montana for the New York market, I would probably have a very, very hard time being taken seriously.
I also take the gallery’s opinion into account on my pricing. The reason being, they know the market better than anyone and they know exactly what range they can sell to their current client base. They need your prices high enough to show value, but low enough to be comparable to other artists they’ve had in the past. If you’re priced the same as a well-established artist they just showed in their gallery but you don’t have near the track record, it makes it difficult for them to pitch your work to clients. They have their own credibility and reputation to protect, and that means they can’t sell on potential alone, so price your work accordingly.
It’s also important to note that you can move up, but not down. I say to ask local galleries about the local market because if this is your first gallery, this is probably where you’ll be displaying. But know that if you start in New York, then try and display in a gallery in Montana, you can’t lower the cost of your pieces to match the market. That’s illegal.
Some artists also raise their prices as editions start running out, since they are, in fact, more valuable. It’s up to you.
Costs & Commissions
Typically, it’s up to the artist to pay for the costs of the show. This includes printing, shipping and framing. Since you’re selling your pieces as art, they need to be printed on archival certified paper. The gallery typically handles all of the hanging of the art. It’s important to work with the gallery on this process. My fine art pieces are typically either matted and framed or simply mounted and hung floating off the wall, depending on the gallery. My underwater photos have been displayed both mounted and floating off the wall or hanging on clear fishing line so they have a slight sway and movement to mimic the surreal motion of the water.
Every gallery is different, but most galleries take somewhere around a 50% commission from pieces you sell. Some take 40%, but rarely do any take more than 50%.
Some galleries take a very small percentage in exchange for a monthly payment. Say it costs $300/mo to display in the gallery, but they only take 30%. If you can, avoid this type of gallery – and here’s why: you want to show in a gallery that only makes money when your art sells. By charging a monthly fee to display, they are essentially covering their costs without having to worry about the art selling, which means it’s taking away their incentive to promote the art. If you don’t sell anything they don’ t really care – they’ve already covered their costs on your monthly fee, get it? You want to display where they don’t make a dime unless your art sells.
Let’s also revisit the idea of combo galleries: places where they run a completely separate business while also displaying art for sale. Places like this should be taking no more than 30% commission at the most and here’s why: their commission is your way of paying a gallery for all that they do. That’s all the promotion to bring in potential art buyers, their contacts of past buyers that will be interested in your work, events that are specific to the art-buying community and much more. All the promotion a gallery does goes toward selling your work, and that is worth 50% of the commission.
In a combo store, however, a very small portion of their income might go toward bringing in potential art buyers. If they’re a coffee shop, for example, the vast majority of their marketing and promotion is going to getting people to come in to buy coffee. If someone happens to walk in and buy a piece of art, fantastic, but they aren’t actively pursuing it. Since only 20% of their income goes to promoting the art in their store, they should receive only 20% commission.
Contracts can be pretty complicated, and while there are many details that ideally you’d have your lawyer look over (you know, the one we all have on retainer), here are a few things to at least make sure of:
How much you will be paid and when. This is generally your percent commission and a date your commission will be distributed, usually at the end of the month.
How long the contract lasts for. Most contracts are about 3 months long. If your contract has a possibility of being renewed, most galleries will need new work to display in the new period.
How your art is displayed. You want to make sure either your entire collection or at least 50% of your collection is always on display. Some galleries show part of the collection and then rotate pieces out throughout the contract period. In this case you need to know exactly how many pieces are guaranteed to be on the floor at all times.
How soon you are notified of a sale. I require to be notified within 24 hours of a sale. This is extremely important to make sure you don’t sell more than you have available and that your clients will get the exact edition number they were promised.
Who is in charge of damages while the art is held at the gallery. If the gallery catches on fire and your art is destroyed, that should be up to the gallery to cover. Some require you to have insurance of your own to cover any damages that may happen while it is in the galleries care, but to be honest, it’s very difficult to file an insurance claim for a piece of art that you haven’t even seen for 2 months. If it’s at the gallery, it’s the gallery’s responsibility.
How the contract can be terminated. If something happens, you need to know what the penalty would be for terminating the contract on either side. Just as you could be liable for a fee if you pull your art before the end of the contract period, the gallery can also be held liable if they don’t display your art for the entire contract period.
Who can sell your art. This will cover who else is allowed to sell your own art, including yourself. If this is a solo show, for example, you may not be allowed to release any images online or have them displayed at any other location. This is also relevant because if you are selling art on your own, without any referrals to the gallery, they can choose not to promote you…which is fair.
Think about it – if they spend all of their efforts handing out your business cards and sending potential buyers to your website and then a buyer contacts you to buy a piece and you make the sale completely independent of the gallery, all that work on their end would be for nothing.
Therefore, it’s good to have an agreement that if you have pieces in a gallery, and buyers come to you that were clearly introduced to your work through the gallery, you need to refer them back so the gallery can collect their commission. It might feel like a very difficult thing to do (especially when it’s cutting your profit from the sale in half) but it’s the right thing to do, plain and simple. Plus, the more loyal you are to the gallery, the more they will promote you, because they know they can trust you to send potential buyers their way.
Ask for previous artists’ references. I have been in galleries before that have been very unethical in the way they do things (I don’t want to name names or anything so let’s just make up a pretend one, like, I don’t know, the BeHuman Gallery located in Houston, TX). Had I spoken to previous artists about how this gallery does business, I probably would’ve come to the very obvious conclusion not to display there. Lesson learned.
Selling Your Work at the Opening
One of the most stressful parts for any artist is selling their art at the opening. You’re going to have to convince who knows how many people to try and buy one of your pieces, all without conveying that if they don’t buy anything there’s a good chance you will be homeless by the end of the month.
I get it, and thankfully while I definitely struggle in some areas, selling my own art at an opening is most definitely not one of my weaknesses. Not even kidding – I can sell the shit out of my own art at an opening.
And so can you. For those of you that are terrified of even the thought of talking about yourself for 4 solid hours to complete strangers, here’s a little script:
Step 1: Introduce yourself, thank them for coming and let them know you’re available to answer any of their questions.
Step 2: Answer any question they ask in great detail.
Step 3: Refer to more of your work for as examples.
Step 4: Answer following questions in great detail.
That’s it. Really. You want to go into great detail with your answers because the more they know about it, the more they want to buy it. They don’t want something they can hang up in their hallway, they want something they can point out to guests in their home and explain how awesome it is. Here’s an example dialogue:
Me: “Hello there! I’m so glad you took the time to come out tonight. If you have any questions on anything, don’t hesitate to ask, I’d more than happy to answer them!”
Client: “Oh! Thank you so much! Are you the artist?”
Me: “I am! This piece right here is mine, it’s called Insomniac.”
Client: “Oh I see! I was looking at these tree roots here, that’s so interesting!”
Me: “Thank you! I actually had to individually draw those out of a different photo. It took about 100 hours of straight editing time to achieve that effect.”
Client: “Wow, I had no idea! Hey honey, did you know this took over 100 hours of work?”
Client’s Spouse: “Oh you’re kidding!”
Me: “Not at all! This piece over here, called Keeper of Spring, took about 80 hours. It’s a combination of 46 separate photos.”
Client: “Crazy! So how does that work exactly?”
Me: “Well first I set up a tripod, and then I have to click the first photo, and then (yada, yada, yada).”
See how that works? Now, instead of just looking at an interesting piece of work, they are thinking of everything that went into it. The excitement they feel right now is the exact excitement they want someone else to feel when they tell the story later. And that folks, is how you sell an art piece.
I know working with galleries seems like a very intimidating and complicated process, but the important thing is to take the first step and understand that they are people too. They got into this business because they genuinely love the art community, and they want to help in any way they can. Don’t go in with guns blazing thinking you’ll get taken advantage of. Just let your work speak for itself and keep an open mind. Hell I got my first show by walking into a gallery and showing them a photo on my cell-phone. True story.
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