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?”
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.
Setting your price
One of the most common questions and dilemmas for photographers pertains to pricing their photographic art. If you have struggled to put a price tag on your work, you are not alone. One of the benefits to working with a gallery is that, as your representative, they will guide you with suggestions and provide feedback on pricing.
As mentioned in the previous article, identifying yourself as either an emerging or an established artist will assist you in setting your price. Different markets will allow for various price points and the gallery can be an invaluable asset in providing objective opinions.
Quite possibly, one of the only drawbacks to gallery representations is the commission you pay to the gallery. In larger cities, such as New York, you can easily expect a commission split of 70/30, favoring the gallery. Here in Charleston, South Carolina, where I interviewed Jennie Fili from Martin Gallery, a more common split would be 50/50.
If you are an emerging artist, you will need to be prepared for a higher split because the gallery is going to take a greater risk of representing you versus representing an artist with a record of success in sales.
When setting the price of your print you will need to keep in mind the cost of printing, the gallery commission and the amount you will have to pay in taxes.
Building your name
Building your name within the community will not only help you build leverage when you negotiate commission with a gallery, but it can also become an additional source of income for you until such time that you become represented. Whether the gallery is the end goal or not, the value of building your name within your community cannot be overstated.
One piece of advice on where to get started would be to display your work in any art shows your community might have. In a later article we’ll discuss art shows in more depth.
During my conversation with Martin Gallery (see previous article), a great deal of weight was put towards juried art shows versus open shows. One primary take away from my conversation was the value she placed on being approved and shown at a juried art show. She mentioned that the credibility you receive by being accepted into a juried art show played a part in her level of interest in prospective new artists.
The role a gallery plays
Although the commission split may be tough to wrap your mind around, you must keep in mind that they are saving you the cost of space in a building, electricity and other expenses. The gallery is also minimizing your risk. A relationship with a credible gallery can be a profoundly beneficial one.
If you have come to an agreement with a gallery, you can expect that they will host a show for you where your art is either displayed exclusively or you and your work are highlighted for the evening. This additionally lends to your resume as an artist, and for many photographers the show in and of itself is the prize they are after.
A great gallery relationship will also be one that is committed to your success. You can expect that they will encourage you to sit down with them, review your work and discuss images they feel will sell. It is important to approach this meeting with humility and an open mind. The gallery director will have a great idea of his/her market and what consumers are interested in.
The benefit of having an advocate who knows your story, your passion, your work and your art is invaluable. Having a representative of your work to speak about you is a great thing; I consider it to be one of the highest points of a representation. It is important to note that not only do galleries become your advocate to individuals out for a Sunday stroll, but that it is also their role to have a book of business, which includes qualified investors and collectors. A gallery becomes a matchmaker between the artist and the collector. A great gallery director will know their investors and will work to fit your images into their collections where applicable.
In the previous article I wrote about best practices regarding approaching a gallery director or owner. If you haven’t had a chance to read it, I very much want to encourage you to reference back to it. Jennie Fili made an interesting point that I had never thought of prior to our interview. She communicated to me how strongly she feels about being the advocate or representative of her artists. She gave me this example: If she had three people in the room, the artist, a collector and a prospective artist who was seeking representation, it would be offensive to her existing artist if she were to take time away from the collector to speak with a new artist about potential representation. Regardless of whether or not the artist is physically present, her integrity and work ethic causes her to respect the artist at all times. While this may be frustrating or come off as rude and aloof to a prospective artist seeking representation, to the artist who is already represented it’s a clear act of respect and professionalism.
Choosing a medium
This topic could be an article in and of itself. The value and importance of choosing a medium that reflects the tone of your work is vital. It will also be a benefit to discuss with the gallery what they feel will sell and work in the gallery.
If the gallery tends to favor a more modern look, you may want to present metal prints. They have been very popular among photographers due to the ability to hang the print without the cost of a matte and frame, while still having a polished presentation. The size of the prints will also be an important point. Prior to printing, you will need to have a conversation with the gallery as to what range of sizes they would prefer. Bay Photo has long been known for the quality of their metal prints and has the ability to print incredibly large sizes. Specifically, they can print up to 4 feet by 8 feet.
While printing on metal is a common medium for photographers, it is still a relatively new medium to consumers.
Having a theme or body of work is of great value for galleries. That theme should be analyzed to determine if it is the most suitable one for a traditional frame and matt, or if it will be most complimented by a more modern look such as a metal print, acrylic or canvas.
It is my hope that these last two articles have been beneficial to you and have answered some of your questions regarding art galleries, getting started and the benefits of representation.
One key point I’d like to leave with you is this: never in the history of humanity has a farmer gone to his field on a Monday, planted a seed and then gone out on Tuesday to reap the harvest. This principle of sowing and reaping is vital to nearly every aspect of life – the same is true for your business as an artist.
It is an unrealistic expectation to think that having the body of work appropriate for a gallery is an overnight assignment. It is also unreasonable to think that working through the steps from juried art shows to galleries are life events that happen overnight. Hard work, persistence, consistency and honest self-assessment will go far in this competitive world of fine art.
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