At some point in their careers, many artists turn to galleries to market and sell their work. Some tell horror stories of pieces damaged or lost, galleries closing the doors without returning work or money, and one-sided contracts that favor the gallery and penalize the artist. For most artists, however, gallery representation is a necessary and rewarding way to develop a reputation and sell work.
It’s exciting and flattering when a gallery expresses an interest in representing you and, by doing a little homework and using your common sense, you can develop fruitful, long-term business relationships with people who are interested in seeing you succeed.
Research. This may seem obvious, but many artists send portfolios to galleries they pick randomly without checking them out first. If you want to approach a gallery, or if a gallery makes an overture, first visit incognito. Look at the type of work and artists they represent. If they deal only in abstract photography and your work is realistic bronze sculpture, it’s not a fit, no matter what the gallery’s reputation might be. Watch how the staff interact with customers. Do they approach everyone who walks in the door as a potential customer, or are they dismissive of people who don’t fit their preconceived notion of what an art buyer looks like? Are they passionate about the work? Do they understand the pieces they represent and can they answer questions? Do they have good sales skills? Can you picture them selling your work?
Contact some of the artists represented by the gallery. Get details about their experience – the amount of work sold, how quickly the gallery pays, how openings and shows are handled – anything that will give you an idea about how the gallery functions.
Make contact. Do this either in person or on the phone. First make sure that you’re speaking with the decision maker and then explain that you’re familiar with the gallery because you’ve visited. Talk about what you like about the gallery and why you think you and your work would make a good addition. Begin to build a relationship. Ask if you can send a portfolio and, if the answer is yes, ask what format they prefer for images. Some galleries don’t want the hassle of viewing slides; others don’t want digital images. When you send material, include a return envelope with sufficient postage to get your portfolio back should the gallery decide you’re not a fit. Whatever the response, send a thank-you note.
Read the contract. If the gallery makes an offer of representation, ask for the contract. Make sure you understand the finer points, and if something is unclear, ask for an explanation. If you don’t like any provisions, negotiate. If you don’t ask for what you want, don’t complain about not having it later. If you can’t accept certain clauses in the contract and the gallery won’t negotiate, then it’s okay to walk away. Don’t begin your relationship feeling like the gallery has all of the power and you have none. The gallery works for you, not vice versa.
Some galleries don’t offer written agreements. If that’s the case, write your own and have the owner or manager sign it. A contract won’t protect you from every misunderstanding, but it can be a useful tool when disputes arise.
Keep records. Know which pieces are in the gallery, the date you delivered them, and the price. To avoid confusion, vary your titles. If your pieces have similar names, like Bird 1, Bird 2, and Bird 3, it’s easy for the gallery, not to mention your collectors, to mix them up. Use creative titles that reflect the nature or statement of each piece. If you work in editions, know which number of each edition is in the gallery’s possession. Like any other manufacturing business, keeping track of your inventory is critical to your organization and to your ultimate success.
Communicate. Most relationships require two-way communication to thrive. Working with a gallery is no different. This doesn’t mean calling every day to see how much of your work has sold. You should, however, check in periodically to let them know about new work, awards, large commissions, and other information of interest that might help them sell your work. The gallery should also be in contact with you on a regular basis to let you know what’s happening in their world. If months go by and you haven’t had a phone call or, more importantly, a check, don’t hesitate to call or drop in. The gallery is working for you – you’re paying them a hefty percentage to sell your work, not to warehouse it.
Exhibit professionalism and expect it from your galleries. This is a simple one. Deal with honesty and integrity, keep your promises, and deliver good work. Your galleries should do the same. If, even after all of your background checking, you find yourself in a relationship that isn’t working, walk away and find another gallery that fits your personality and your style.
We’d like to hear about your gallery experiences. Share your ideas for creating great gallery relationships.