My research for this piece took me to my hometown of Charleston, South Carolina, which has become a mecca for the arts. Not only are artists flocking to this southern town, art galleries are also scattered on every corner. After visiting several galleries I chose to connect with Martin Gallery and their art director, Jennie Fili.
Research the gallery
In the same way that I thoughtfully chose which gallery to approach for an interview, ironically the first piece of advice that was given to me was just that: choose your gallery carefully and thoughtfully. Galleries are as different as the artwork within them and it will be critical to identify a place that will fit your own style of work. This means that you will need to review your own portfolio with a critical eye to identify your style. Do you enjoy abstracts, impressionistic pieces, or black and white? Are your colors vivid and sharp? These are the types of questions that will equip you with confidence in identifying a gallery fit.
Before starting your quest for a suitable gallery, you want to ensure that your portfolio will be complementary and not competitive with existing works currently on display. For example, Waterfront Park in Charleston is very popular. However, the gallery may not be a good fit for you if they already have an artist who has images very similar to yours in composition and style.
Key Takeaway: Complimentary work that does not compete.
Approach the gallery
If there was one hot topic that Martin Gallery wanted to impart their knowledge on, it was the way in which artists should approach galleries. This was clearly an important issue for them and, as an artist myself, it is one of the key questions I have asked of my own work: is there a proper way to approach a gallery?
Let’s compare our quest for a gallery to dating, shall we? When you spot someone you desire to get to know from across the room, you will likely have far more success by being subtle in your approach. Just as you would not walk up to a perfect stranger and declare marriage, the same etiquette should be used in approaching galleries. You will align yourself for success if you think of your pursuit as a chance to build a relationship.
One of the examples Martin Gallery shared with me took place in the early days. A man walked in, took his time looking around at the art she had displayed, asked questions about the pieces and was sensitive toward her time and other customers. He was there for her, to view her gallery, and to ask questions of her. After fully and thoughtfully examining the space, he casually laid his card down on her desk with a smile and walked out the door without another word.
This gentle approach appealed to the gallery owner. His card was professional and it was obvious that he had put some thought into its brief content, as well as its printing and presentation. She referenced the website on the card, looked at his body of work, bio, resume and experience – then contacted him. He was represented by her gallery for years before capitalizing on that success and opening his own gallery down the street.
Key Takeaway: Don’t rush in. Let your work speak for you.
Emerging versus established artists
I recently attended a conference for writers and speakers. Several book publishers and agents were attending and I paid close attention to the kinds of works they were searching for. One of my takeaways was that it is not always about the content: it is about the contact. You may have the next great novel in your hands, but book publishers will be uninterested if you don’t have a social media following, which is necessary to the marketing of your work.
Art galleries are similar and this question will play an important role in deciding which one might be the best fit for you. Galleries tend to represent one of two groups: emerging artists and well-established artists. An important and appropriate question to ask the gallery is whether they represent one or both of these categories. Below are some key factors that separate the emerging artist from the established artist. You will want to analyze which category you fit best into:
Is relatively unknown
Is not currently represented by galleries
May have some awards to their name
Might exhibit their work in non-juried art shows
Submits to art exhibits
Is represented in multiple galleries
Is fairly well known within the art circles of those communities
Has several awards
Exhibits their work in juried art shows
Usually has a price standard for their artwork
Key Takeaway: An appropriate question to ask the gallery when you visit is: “Do you represent emerging artists or established artists?”
In closing, an artist recently gave me this advice: “Create the art that you would want to hang on your own wall.” Most of us feel uninspired by that which is normal to us and we fail to create pieces of art that reflect the area in which we live; however, consumers and collectors tend to purchase artwork that reflects or speaks to an emotional tie that they might have. Whether you live in a tourist-focused city like Charleston or are surrounded by farms and prairies, you might find that the pieces that are most desirable to galleries are those which reflect the theme of the area in which they sell.
In the next article – part 2 of this series – we discuss the role the gallery will play in representing you, along with the advantages and disadvantages of that representation. If gallery representation is something you have been aspiring towards, I hope you will consider the galleries in your area and thoughtfully approach them. Click the button to read part II of this series.