18 “How did you find your galleries?”
“How did you find your galleries?”
I’ve been on a hiatus of sorts from writing. I felt like I ran out of useful information to share from the “financial management” angle, and then I got wrapped up in other projects. However, it’s time for me to resume writing. A common question I get from other artists or art students is, “How did you find your galleries?” That will be the subject of this article.
I predominantly deal with “galleries” for selling my work. I’ve tried some art and craft fairs but decided that lifestyle doesn’t suit me. I don’t really enjoy traveling all that much and to make a living with the fair circuit I would have to be constantly traveling somewhere. I’m using the term “galleries” loosely here for reasons I hope will become apparent.
I’ll go into detail about how I got into my first gallery because I think it’s illustrative of several important points. I was a very shy and timid person. I focused most of my time solely on making art and developing my skills. If left completely up to me I might have never gotten enough nerve to approach a gallery. Fortunately I had some good friends. In this case it was one of my former high school art teachers. At the time jewelry was my most marketable product. She basically told me one day, “I really have no idea how this works either, but we’re going to go find you some galleries.” So with her either providing moral support, or perhaps actually dragging me along, we made an afternoon of it and drove to a touristy town along the shore of Lake Michigan that is well known for their art galleries.
Upon parking the car we looked around and saw a shop advertising that they carried jewelry and went in. I was carrying a department store clothing box with my jewelry creations wrapped in tissue paper inside. It was probably the same tissue paper that wrapped the shirt which originally came in the box. Of course, I was too nervous to be the one to start talking so my friend pleasantly asked the owner if he would like to see some jewelry. He agreed and I opened the box to display my wares. After perusing them a bit, as we engaged in some conversation, he picked out a few pieces and asked me what my wholesale price was on those. Wholesale price!?! I wasn’t ready for that. Fortunately I knew enough that wholesale was generally half of the retail. So I quickly did some mental calculations (here’s a real world application for those math skills you thought you’d never use) and gave him the prices. Next he wrote me out a check for the amount and let me know I’d be better off coming earlier in the year when he’s really buying for the summer tourist season. As my friend and I left I was feeling pretty giddy. This wasn’t so hard after all. I was thinking I’d be consigning my work and instead I left with a check! This was only the first place we stopped into. How much more would I sell by the end of the afternoon?
Well, we went into the next gallery and learned about something called regional exclusivity. What this means is basically that you only show your work with one gallery in a given region. While I had no formal contract with the first store stating this, it didn’t really matter. The other galleries in this small town didn’t want to carry the work someone else had. The shops need a way to differentiate themselves from each other and the merchandise they carry is best way in the art business. Picture for a moment what it would be like if all the shops carried the same stuff.. It doesn’t make for an exciting shopping experience. Buyers go elsewhere, and the galleries all start to close.
Despite my success, in hindsight I can see many things I could have done better. The first problem was not understanding, or honestly even knowing about, regional exclusivity. In this situation what my friend and I should have done was wander around the town going in and out of the various stores evaluating them. Where did my jewelry fit in best in terms of price and style? Did certain galleries seem more popular than others? Which ones had the friendliest and most helpful people working there? From this I should have made a ranked list of which places I liked the best. Then I would have approached first the gallery I thought was the best for me. If that one didn’t work out I’d go on to the second best, and so on.
Another thing I see and rather cringe about these days is the presentation of my work. Displaying jewelry in an old shirt box just doesn’t smack of quality to me. Hey, if you remember my past articles about being frugal you’ll know I’m all about recycling and repurposing things. However, it’s not always appropriate. I still don’t go crazy with excess packaging, and I still use recycled materials for wrapping my work. I just don’t pull it out of an old box. I have a nice salesman’s case. It’s plain black with hard sides, a handle, and combination lock. It presents the idea that what’s inside is of some value, and that I as the artist, value my work.
So what else did I do wrong that first time out? Most gallery owners reading that description might have cringed at the fact that I just waltzed in and expected them to drop whatever they were doing to look at my work. That’s generally a very bad way to start a new business relationship. Luckily the day I went in the store wasn’t busy. That would have been about the height of rudeness to expect them to ignore customers to look at my jewelry. I’ve heard many gallery owners say they absolutely hate artists who approach them like I did. Hate is not an emotion you wish to generate when seeking gallery representation. Now I also have to say I’ve talked with other gallery owners who say as long as they aren’t working with customers and have the time, they’d not pass up an opportunity to look at art. Acquiring new quality artwork is an important part of their business as well.
There is one other thing I want to point out about my first experience getting a “gallery”. It wasn’t actually an art gallery. Technically it was a book store that also carried a wide selection of jewelry. As a professional artist I don’t need to sell my work in galleries. What I need to do is simply sell my work. In most cases art galleries will be the best option when you’re looking for a bricks and mortar type retail sales venue, but not always. I’ve heard of other jewelers selling their work through clothing stores, hair salons, department stores, and for me a book store.
When going into a region cold searching for a gallery to represent me I take a slightly different approach these days. Because I now understand regional exclusivity I will first wander around and check out the galleries and shops in the town to generate that ranked list of preferences. Sometimes I can’t find even one that interests me in which case I’ll just move on. Unless you can produce great quantities of art it’s likely counter productive to have your work tied up in a gallery that isn’t selling it. If I can’t find a good fit in a region I’ve learned not to try and force one or settle for second rate.
Once I have a place I’m interested in I will go back in when they don’t appear to be busy. I will have on me some sort of images of my work. It used to be a sheet of slides or perhaps a postcard or two. These days, it’s my assortment of business cards, usually a dozen or more, each with a different image of my work. I, however, DO NOT carry any work in with me. That is left out in the car. Next I want to meet with the owner. Since I’ve taken the trouble to be there in person I might as well talk with them so I can get a better sense of who they are, and vice versa. In my experience asking a general employee about submission guidelines too often results in them saying to just mail in images. That sort of kills the conversation right there for me and all I can do is just that, mail in images. So if I think I’m speaking with an employee I will ask something to the effect of, “Is the owner here and available?” Once I’m speaking with the owner I’ll introduce myself as an artist looking for a gallery in the region. I’ll tell them I’ve looked around the area and feel their gallery is the best fit for my work. Then I DO NOT say, “Will you look at my work right now?” In fact, I don’t verbally offer much at all for specifics on my work. I’ll just ask something like, “Are you looking to take on any more artists, or do you have a submission process you prefer?” This leaves the gallery owner a nice way out if they want it. They could say, “Sorry we’re full.” if they have no interest. If they’re busy or really don’t like artist’s walking in the door unannounced to show work they can just tell me their submission process. I haven’t given them any real cause to be upset with me.
I find what often happens, since I’ve only presented myself as an artist, is they might tell me what their submission guidelines are, but as a matter of conversation and curiosity they will also at some point ask what sort of art I do. Well, as I see it, they are now asking me what my art looks like and the best way to do that would be to pull out the images I have on hand. I should note that I don’t try to overwhelm them with images. I pull out a few small pictures of my work I have stashed in my pocket. It’s a quick and casual process, not a major portfolio showing.
I’ve found that gallery owners can usually tell almost immediately whether they are interested in someone’s work or not. If they like the small images I’ve shown them I can usually tell and we start talking more about the processes involved, the way people respond to my work, etc. If I get the sense there is serious interest and this seems appropriate I will say something like, “If you have time I do have a few actual pieces out in the car if you’d like to see them.” Again I’m trying to leave them a way out. Usually, though, by this time I have weeded out those aren’t interested and the person I’m talking to is eager to see the work. This is the end of the hard part for me. If they want to carry my work we can start discussing business matters. If they don’t feel my art fit’s their gallery that’s fine. I won’t try and force it. They know their clients better that I do. If they don’t feel I fit in their store, but I’ve presented myself well, I find it’s not uncommon that they’ll suggest another gallery they feel might be better.
Now I have to be honest, I haven’t gotten too many of my galleries this way. The process has worked for me when I’ve done it, but I find connecting with galleries happens in about as many different ways as there are to make art. Ok, maybe not quite that many.
So what are some of the other ways I’ve gotten galleries? Well, for those beyond areas I live or travel to I’ve looked for potential galleries in magazine articles and advertisements, trying to find a good visual fit. I always try to back this up with extra research on the web. Ideally I will find they carry the work of an artist I know or can contact in some way to get the real low down on the business practices of the gallery. As a metalsmith I’ve found being a member of the Society of North American Goldsmiths especially helpful here. They publish a directory of members so it’s easy to look someone up and most likely email (as it’s the least intrusive form of contact) them with a question or two. I’ve found artists tend to be willing to help other artists out in this way. Once I’m comfortable that the gallery has good potential I do the hard part. I make the cold call on the phone to ask if I can submit work and how they’d prefer that to be done. That part is really hard for me as I am an introvert by nature, and one who dislikes phones. My success rate with this sort of approach is very small. In fact, I don’t believe any of my current galleries came about this way, but I have gotten galleries in this fashion.
What has been most successful for me when hunting for new galleries is personal recommendations. I try to get out to various art events and just hang out with other professional artists. Others will frequently suggest this gallery or that gallery to me. I will still do the research on the potential gallery, but I already have part of the information I’m looking for, other artist’s opinions of the gallery. I find this also helps me when approaching the gallery. I can say so and so suggested I come here. Assuming they have a decent regard for whoever’s name I’m dropping, they seem to take more notice of me.
Some of my best galleries came about through recommendation from an independent curator who reviewed my portfolio at a national metalsmithing conference. She told me to research their business practices for myself, as she doesn’t see this part, but I could certainly drop her name as the one who sent me. Even so it took me over a year to work up the nerve to approach these nationally recognized galleries. However, she was dead on in her recommendations and I got right in. I feel having her name to back me up helped, but also she just knew where the good artistic fit was. In essence I had the benefit of someone who’s seen fine art galleries all over the country direct me to the ones most appropriate for my work. Finding that good fit is the hard part. Once you’ve found it, both you and the gallery should know it, so getting accepted is then the easy part.
What’s even better is when the people making these word of mouth recommendations also make the initial contact with the gallery. I’ve had this happen on more than one occasion. For a while I was making blank books for use as journals, sketchbooks, etc. I was still in college at the time. In a critique once one of the other students said I should talk to the boss of where she works. I agreed to give it a try and she set up the meeting. That became another wholesale venue for me. Again this was not an actual gallery, but a furniture store this time. Another of my classmates, an older student, was opening a general goods store in a small town nearby. She bought quite a few of my books wholesale for the store, and carried some etchings I did on consignment. I had an instructor who’s husband worked at a high end sporting good store. Around the holiday season they would bring in artist’s work to sell as gifts. She talked to her husband who talked to the owners and I sold my jewelry there on consignment for a few months each year. Then when I moved into books they carried these as well. In this case the recommendations spread. This sporting goods store was actually part of a national chain. They had a conference of some sort one time at the store my books were in. I got a call one day asking if I had any more books I could bring down right now. I had some in stock and went right down. It turns out other store owners liked the books so much they wanted to carry them in their shops. I ended up selling wholesale to 4 other stores, and took a significant wholesale order for the main office to test market in other stores around the country! Well, I guess the test didn’t work out well enough since I didn’t get a reorder, but hey, you win some, you lose some.
Sometimes I’ve gotten galleries in ways that are just plain strange. I was at a two week summer arts program once taking a class in ceramics. One of the other students happened to be a gallery owner from a major city not too far away. Over the course of the class we got to know each other better. I found him to be very trustworthy. He had some interest in my work. Later that year when I was in the city I visited his gallery to say hello. It was in a prime location of the major gallery district. Still I just didn’t feel ready for that and he wasn’t pushing me to submit work. Years later I was on the other side of the country in the elevator of a hotel. The doors opened and he stepped on. On top of that we both recognized, and knew the name of each other instantly. I took that as a sign. Once we both had returned to our homes I called him back up and made an appointment to travel down to the gallery and show him my current work. At this point my work fit in better in terms of price and style. I had also graduated from college and was ready to take on more galleries. We worked out the consignment contract agreement and I’ve been with the gallery ever since. Sometimes you both have to evolve some before you’re ready.
Later on the manager of a museum far away saw my work in this gallery while she was visiting the city. She was interested in getting my work for the museum’s retail gallery and wanted to contact me. Since the museum in question wasn’t at all nearby the owner of the gallery with my work was more than happy to connect us up. Respecting that I might not wish to have all sorts of people contacting me, he sent me her name and contact information. I find this is usually how galleries handle such situations. This way it is up to the artist to decide whether to contact the person. Anyway, I did some background research on the museum and then did contact the woman. We negotiated the terms of the contract, and thus I got representation on the other side of the country.
The story above touches on another major way I’ve gotten some of my galleries. It was sort of a word of mouth referral from the gallery I had. However, it was also the museum gallery seeking me out. I’ve found that galleries will seek out artists and try to get you to join them. This always feels good. It feeds the ego, and I don’t have to make any of those cold calls I hate. However, I’ve learned to be more cautious when a gallery is pursuing me. Scams are certainly possible, though thankfully I’ve never fallen victim to that. What I find to more often be the case is simply that it’s an unsuccessful gallery.
I was once doing a small outdoor art and craft fair with the books I was making at the time. During the course of the day I had two separate galleries come up and ask me to show with them. Both were in the same area so I could only pick one due to the issue of regional exclusivity. Both galleries were new having just opened up. I debated which to go with for some time and then made my choice based on location. The one I selected was in a mall with the Christmas shopping season approaching. Well, that one closed just after the holidays. They didn’t do well enough to pay the steep rents of a mall location. They did sell several of my pieces. I got paid and the remainder of my work back so the experience wasn’t really a loss. I just didn’t get a long-term relationship with the gallery. I probably could have then gone to the other gallery that had approached me, but for some reason I didn’t. That one lasted a few years though it never seemed to be thriving.
When galleries seek me out I’ve noticed that most often they are newly opened, or even yet to open, galleries. Over the years I’ve observed several things regarding new galleries. On the plus side they are easier to get into, even if you approach them. They need to take on a lot of artists to fill the gallery with work.. This could be a boon to me when I was starting out. The owners also tend to have a lot of excitement and enthusiasm. They are seeing their dream of owning an art gallery come into being.
From my observations, however, there are some serious downsides to the professional artist. Just in my local region I’ve seen so many galleries start up. Most fail within three years, sometimes less than a year. It would seem to be a very hard business to succeed in. Often times they don’t have much capital to do the advertising and marketing needed to draw business. Sometimes they are people who just love art, or perhaps are artists themselves, but they don’t really have any business background. Sometimes it’s a branch of an arts oriented non-profit organization thinking this would be an easy way to increase revenue and support local artists, unfortunately it’s not easy. As an artist you can be almost assured that a new gallery doesn’t have solid client list. I’ve found that with galleries I’m really not looking for some place to just show my work. What I really want is to tie in with the reputation a gallery has developed. I want to get my work in front of the clients and collectors they’ve cultivated who trust them to present quality art. A newly opened gallery just won’t have this. It’s something that’s developed over time. I’m not saying I never sign on with a new gallery. I’m just more cautious about it.
As I’ve become more successful and my artwork’s been more widely published, I have had a higher caliber of galleries approach me. To be honest it’s been a few years since I’ve really sought out a gallery. It’s like the tables have been turned. As I can only produce so much work, and I am looking for developing long-term relationships with my galleries, I can’t take on too many more galleries. Thus, I find I get to be very selective of where I show my art. Just as art galleries would take me more seriously if someone they knew referred me, I now find I will consider galleries much more that have strong artist referrals. The galleries that send me an email out of the blue, whom I know nothing about, may get their website quickly perused and a polite response, but I generally don’t give them much consideration. I realize that sounds arrogant, but I now understand why I got such treatment from galleries in the past. Just as I now have more good gallery opportunities that I can handle, with people I have a personal connection with, I’m sure the galleries had more great, interested artists which they had personal connections with than they could carry. I prefer to work with people I know, or if I don’t actually know the gallery owners well, it’s comforting to have friends in the same town who vouch for the place or could check up on my work for me.
So you might be thinking now that it’s all dumb luck based on who you know. I used to think that way and get discouraged because I didn’t feel I knew anybody well connected. As I’ve said before I was also very introverted and uncomfortable in social situations. It appeared hopeless to me. Well I’ll still say that networking is very important. That has played a role in connecting with almost every gallery I’m currently in, whether I approached them or they came to me. However, I don’t think that luck has to play such a major role. What I learned was that even a shy, socially awkward person like me can meet the people I needed to meet through conferences, art classes, art receptions, visiting artists, lectures, etc. I’ve had to make a concerted effort to come out of my shell from time to time, but believe me, if I can do it so can you. When I didn’t know what else to do I would always go back to the struggle of making my artwork even better. When I can create a piece that really moves people then they come up to me and start conversation, a much easier thing for someone such as myself who is afraid to initiate contacts. I’ve discovered that the art world is much smaller and interconnected that I would have imagined.
Hopefully you can see that there is no one way to find galleries. I’ve gotten them in a multitude of different ways. While I haven’t really spoken with other professional artists much about this, I suspect based on the stories I hear from time to time, that it’s similar miss mash of different ways for others. The direct approach can work, but be alert for other opportunities. As artists we tend to be intimidated by galleries, as if they are the sole guardians of the keys to our success. They aren’t. Gallery owners are just regular people like you and I. Should they treat you with arrogance and distain when you politely approach them, well, that’s a good thing. It lets you know you don’t want to work with them! Move on to try a better place. Remember while galleries can be one of many ways to build our businesses, we as artist’s are absolutely essential to the galleries even staying in business. You need not be intimidated.