You’re an artist. You’ve created a body of work and you’re ready to see it acquired (read: It’s time to make some money). In most cases, this process begins with finding a gallery willing to dedicate wall space to your art. Even with the proliferation of Websites and social media opportunities for artists, there’s still nothing that can replace a buyer being able to experience a piece of art in person, properly lit and beautifully displayed in a reputable gallery.
Why, then, isn’t your art in a gallery? Or in more galleries? Or in the prestigious ones? You know your work is good. You’ve practiced your gift, studied art and might even have a degree to show for it. You’re confident that, if given the chance, your art would sell. If you’ve done the legwork—visiting galleries, sending images via e-mail, closely following gallery submission protocols and maybe even dropping by with your portfolio tucked under your arm—and you’re still not having much luck, it might be time to ask yourself one very simple question: Why?
As a gallery owner, publisher and art business writer (not to mention the wife of an artist who has gone through every stage of becoming a professional), I’ve learned the rationales behind the decisions a gallerist makes when deciding which artists to represent. I’ve listened to numerous artists present their work, make their pitches and ask for representation. And I can assure you that no gallery owner enjoys looking an artist in the eyes and telling him or her “No,” much less explaining the reasons behind the rejection—particularly if we’re afraid we might hurt the artist’s feelings. That’s why many galleries won’t review a portfolio in person, instead asking for electronic submissions only.
There are two standard reasons a gallery gives for rejecting an artist: “We’re not accepting new artists right now” or “It’s just not right for us, but there is another gallery you might try….” (This latter technique is also called “passing the buck,” but we’d still like to appear helpful.)
Do you want to know the honest truth? Nine times out of 10, if we don’t accept your art, it’s because we don’t think we can sell it. Which begs the same question: Why?
After commiserating with many other gallery owners and examining my own motives, I’m sharing with you the top seven reasons a gallery owner has for rejecting an artist… and what you can do to turn that “no” into a “yes.”
1 Your work is not
This is the most common reason a gallery says no (and the most frustrating for many artists). When a gallery enjoys a reputation for being a credible, artistic authority, having fine art in the truest sense is paramount to its image. It only takes one obviously inexperienced artist to alter the clientele’s perception of the entire gallery. Galleries are justified in being discerning for this reason alone. Being nice or doing favors doesn’t pay the rent.
There is no quick and easy way to mature as an artist. You just have to spend more time practicing and experimenting. In his book, Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell explains the “10,000-Hour Rule,” which states that in order to become a master at what you do, you must first practice it for 10,000 hours. That’s 20 hours a day for 10 years. Gladwell cites The Beatles and Bill Gates as 10,000-Hour Rule success stories; both spent many years (and about 10,000 hours) practicing, experimenting and learning their individual crafts before they ever reached the level of talent and success that was their ultimate destiny.
There are exceptions, of course. But even if you look at the entire body of work of an artistic genius, his or her best work usually occurs after that 10,000 hours of practice has been completed. And most artists who do attain “overnight success” find that it doesn’t last; their 15 minutes are a product of industry connections, not refined skill.
How many hours have you worked at refining your skills as an artist? If the number doesn’t come close to 10,000, that might explain why a gallery owner doesn’t think that you are ready for primetime. There are very few shortcuts, so it’s best to start practicing… and then keep practicing. If you’ve got talent and a work ethic, you’ll get there.
2 Your art doesn’t fit the needs of a
Look around the gallery you’ve approached. If you’re presenting a macabre collection of work to a gallery that seems to vibrate with bright colors and positive energy, they’re likely to take a pass. Most galleries want unique and exciting art, but they also want art that fits within an already-established style.
While gallery owners meet new clients and visitors each week, their most important job is cultivating and maintaining their relationships with existing collectors. They sell a large percentage of art to the same people again and again, so their goal in presenting new artists is to pique the interest of these longtime collectors, while still maintaining an environment consistent with their past acquisitions. Clashing moods don’t accomplish that.
3 i don’t like your art.
Ouch! Let’s face it, gallery owners aim for pragmatism, but their tendency is to fill their space with art they like. This is a subjective business, so personal taste plays a large role.
You might be the greatest at what you do, but if what you do does not appeal to the gallerist you’re pitching, it’s probably not going to be accepted. Gallery owners work hard to create a brand that reflects their personal tastes; if your art doesn’t appeal to them, they are going to have a hard time overcoming that prejudice and promoting it to their clients. Don’t take it personally; you just have to find the right gallery.
4 Your body of work lacks cohesion.
Your work might be getting the brush-off because, to put it bluntly, it’s all over the place. It’s far easier to paint whatever’s in your head at any given moment than to discipline yourself and narrow your focus. You need a “calling card,” a distinctive identity. While there is always room for experimentation, you should also explore the boundaries of a unique subject matter or style that you can develop as your own. You can’t develop greatness if you aren’t focused, determined and constantly working to make each piece better or more interesting than the last.
Gallery owners also like to know that what they get from their artists will sell. If I sold five of your still life paintings last month, I’ll want more of them. If you fly off in a completely different creative direction, it’s like starting over with a new artist. Gallery owners invest in you, and ask that you work with them toward mutual success in return.
5 you might be high-
You might have some fabulous art, but if you make diva demands and high-handed assumptions or requests from the get-go, it’s likely that your portfolio will be swiftly handed back to you. Gallery owners have a lot of artists to keep happy, so they try to be fair and do what’s right by their business. If you start out by asking about your gallery publicity, wall space, shows, framing, marketing materials and so on, it’s not going to sit well.
If a relationship isn’t working (which is easily evidenced by a lack of sales), everyone will know soon enough. Few gallerists will want to keep an artist who isn’t selling (and vice versa). It’s good to be helpful, interested and enthusiastic, but let’s face it: Gallery owners know their job better than you do. So let them do it!
6 Your art is worth less than you think.
The best determination of the value of a painting is the artist’s sales history. If you don’t have one, or if it is weak, then your paintings should be priced aggressively so as to establish a record of sales. Think of it as a marketing expense as you’re getting off the ground. The best advertising an emerging artist can have comes in the form of collectors who will talk up your work to others. You can raise your prices as demand increases, but if you’re just starting out, you should let the gallery owner sell your art for whatever he or she deems a fair price.
7 Your art isn’t
If there are lots of other artists doing the same thing as you, a gallerist isn’t going to get excited about your work. A unique style, perspective or interpretation is paramount to an artist’s success. If you’re painting in someone else’s style, chances are your work isn’t as good as the artist who created that style and has been perfecting it for years. People want the original, not the copycat.
While a gallery strives to represent art that will sell, that art still needs to be fresh, distinctive and inspiring. The biggest thrill for a gallery owner is to find art that is both unique and desirable to his or her clientele. As a gallerist, I can tell you that is easier said than done. When an artist becomes successful, there will always be others who will try to capitalize on that success by copying his or her style. Imitation is a sincere form of flattery, but in the art world there is a fine line between flattery and copyright infringement.
Mastering the skills isn’t enough; it’s imagination and vision that make a true artist. Developing your own style may take time and a lot of experimentation, but doing so is critical to your success.
If you’re stalled on the road to success, you may have fallen prey to one or more of these drawbacks. Work hard to correct them, and you’ll be doing your career a tremendous favor. Remember, as with any worthwhile endeavor, there’s always room for improvement. ABN
Cristi Smith is co-owner and president of Ford Smith Fine Art and owns the retail Ford Smith Gallery in Roswell, Georgia. She is also the agent and publisher for her husband, Ford Smith. Her professional background spans 25 years in retail advertising and marketing and includes executive leadership in Fortune 100 retailers, with a concentration in start-up companies in the upscale home decorating industry. For more information, visit www.fordsmithfineart.com or call 770/552-5942.
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