Seven Things a Gallery Owner Doesn’t Want to...

Seven Things a Gallery Owner Doesn’t Want to Tell You

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
developed enough.
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
gallery’s clientele.
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
particularly unique.
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 or call 770/552-5942.

  1. annamaria windisch-hunt

    25 December

    So so agree with all this. Recently discovered the Outlier and have always recognize the artists that are dedicated. I’ve represented emerging artists and there is something to be said for dedication and a work ethic, most do not make it. Life gets in their way.
    Art is work.

    • Thank you, Annamaria! I appreciate the feedback from a colleague.

  2. Thank you for this straight forward list. I love the 10000 hrs of practice – it rings true / I have a large pile of so so prints – and a then I now have several stellar portfolios of recent works. As you say – there are no shortcuts.
    Thanks – and check out my website – thanks for looking

    Visual artist

    • Thanks, Roxanne! I’m glad you appreciated my words and experience…!

  3. I’am and artist trying to find art gallery’s to submit to thanks for the info. I guess I will just keep trying.

  4. Trevor O'Neil

    3 January

    Math check. I’m sure it reads as an honest mistake to most, but just in case that 10,000 hour paragraph makes you want to slit your wrists, I believe the author meant to write 20 hours PER WEEK for 10 years. If you’re in your 40’s like I am, and have been creating works of art as a means of living for the better part of your life…you’ve hit the 10,000 mark long ago.
    So, you can slit your wrists on the possibility that MAYBE you haven’t created the same damn thing for 10,000 hours…which is a testament to your creativity and sanity, frankly, but ultimately does not bode well for getting represented when gallerists only to see one thing from you, and a LOT of it. Why? Because Gallerists are not (typically) Artists. Nor are they particularly creative. They are ultimately looking for a revenue stream that they can manage with the least amount of work and the least amount of risk. They are the business conduit that turns your genius product into cash. That’s it. I’m not even sure they actually like art.

    Awe balls! I really just intended to point out the math thing and now I’ve got a whole critical response brewing on virtually every point in this article. I’m going to stop before I sound like a hater or a troll.
    Seriously though…forget the 10,000 hours BS. It’ll drive you mad every time you see how few ‘successful artists’ actually hit that mark.

    • TM

      15 December

      Yay! You’re on the money. Keep bringing it on. The truth might even set Them; The Great Pretenders, Free.

    • Lumain vv

      2 March

      Also did the math. 20 hrs a weeks is correct. I almost lost hope and then read your remark and did the math. Thank you

    • Cristina Smith

      14 March

      Actually, you’re right, Trevor! I wrote “day” when I meant “week”. I do thank you for the correction and wish you the best in your art career. Without a doubt, the art business isn’t for the faint-hearted.

  5. Shawn

    28 February

    Hi I know an artist who built miniatures that are well known out west president Obama saw his miniatures and loved it it was at an exhibition in Texas. Frank M James is the artist and I have been trying to find a curator and appraiser for his art work, no success.if only someone would take the time to come and see his work trust me they would be amazed.

  6. Kelley Elder

    28 June

    Artists tend to forget that galleries are, above anything else, a business that is intended to make money. And there isn’t a damn thing wrong with that. I have sold a couple of paintings to a local gallery. The owner liked them and thought they would sell. He still likes them but they haven’t sold. He isn’t a collector, he is a business person. I understand that completely. It is all well and good if I like my work and the owner likes my work, but if no one else likes it enough to give him money for it, he isn’t likely to buy more. It often just comes down to a matter of artistic tastes.

    • EDEN

      27 March

      Uh….nope. As an artist I can never forget that I only get 20% most times and up to 40% if lucky when it’s all said and done. Galleries are business, a necessary evil, we never lose sight of that.

  7. Peter Pook

    2 September

    Good Article..Thank You. I think it is worth noting a couple of other factors that I have found help me. You need to bee very honest with yourself and determine if your work is unique enough in style, composition and subject matter to allow you to earn a living from painting or sculpture or related fine arts. My guess is your odds are a little better than other skilled atheletes joining a pro sports team or skilled musicians/song writers becoming successful becoming successful in the music industry. The odds are very much against you. It’s just reality and not to be taken personally. Finding a career in an art related field and doing fine art on the side for enjoyment and, with some luck, some extra cash is the saner route. In Canada the famed group of 7 all had jobs as graphic artists and painted when they had free time well into mid-life before they became painters full time. In the article, the point was made about pricing
    your work realistically to start with. I agree with that and would add that learning to paint/sculpt fast is also important if you want to try to make a living solely from your art. Do the math….. Putting 20 hours into a painting that sells for $400 and selling one per week ((unlikely) nets you $10,000/yr before taxes after a gallery’s 50% commission. Double that for a 40 hr week ( selling 2/wk very unlikely) and your pre-tax income is just $20,000. In other words find a career you are happy with that will allow you time to paint on the side untill you can prove to yourself you can make more as a painter than by holding a job. I never did and happily can now paint to my hearts content in retirement. One last thought…Promotion….Figure out how to promote your art and more importantly YOU as an artist. Offer some of your work for charity events, present a piece of your art to notable civic organizations…think creatively how you can promote yourself. Do not rely on a gallery to do it for you.

    • Cristina Smith

      14 March

      Excellent comment, Peter, thank you! You made very good supportive points to my article. It’s a crazy business we’re in but it can be so rewarding and fulfilling, and much of that happens when you take the proverbial bull by the horns.

  8. Mike Bowen

    27 November

    Great article and very informative. I believe I am in the camp of having thousands of hours on the easel/drafting table, but I am needing to narrow my focus on a distinct subject matter and style. Thanks for taking the time to share this information.

    • Cristina Smith

      14 March

      Hi Mike,
      Thank you for your positive feedback! I’m happy to share my experience and what we’ve learned with other artists. I wish you the very best in your art career.

  9. Dan Klennert

    4 December

    I fell in love with recreating life with what everyone refers to as art at the age of 6. Art was and is a main staple of my life to this day at the ripe old age of 68. I found a lot of joyous times crawling into the right side of my brain which I refer to as creative orgasms. I have tried the gallery thing and have lost a lot of money and work going that route. After a lot of rejections, loss of work and money it pissed me off so I set a goal to find a pease of property along a road to a popular destination. I found the love of my life! A four acre parcel with a old locomotive repair shop that needed a lot of T l C. I now have a four acre sculpture park at the base of mount Rainier in Washington state that is known through out the world. The sculpture park titled ( Recycled Spirits of Iron ) AKA ExNihilo houses my gallery, home, metal working studio and a driftwood studio. Although I have sold my work for thousands money is not what turns me on it’s the joy of creating. I have to give thanks to my brother and his wife for the helping hand to purchase the property that is now turning on the world to art. Life is good!

  10. DadaVFC

    12 January

    Please receive my gratitude – it was a very important article for me, as an artist who just started that more than difficult road to success.
    I really hope this… so I thank you…

    • Thank you very much for taking the time to send gratitude. I love helping artists and seeing them succeed…!

  11. Marvin torres

    6 February

    Every piece of art have a market doesn’t matter what it’s , only thing some gallery don’t want to deal of what they call cheap art but they like to go around , they aren’t sincere with artist , but like I say every piece of art as far is I know find a good home , isn’t only one color in the whole world , thousands of colors in universe and is one for everyone. God bless you. Artist go head keep doing it.

  12. Yvonne

    9 February

    I can’t thank you enough for this article! It really makes me see there is a real reason behind the fact that they can’t just be open about their reasons. I wish they would because what really hurts more than those reasons, is to think that there is an elite of people just choosing artists because they already know them and not because of their work. I am sure personality has some to do with those relation ships but to know that they reject us for these particular reasons can really makes us want to improve those things because it is completely possible to do that.

  13. carey

    15 March

    #1. I remember saying to one particular artist, your content is good but not the manipulating of the medium. There were dry spots and wet spots, globs and then barely anything. This was not done intentionally – as in a pattern or a technique. It was done because there was not enough care taken. And by the way- it is never a pleasant conversation.

  14. Juliana Casellas

    27 March

    Wao!! I loved your article. My boyfriend is an artist and we have been living together for more than 1 year. When I saw his different paintings I was chocked with how beautiful they were specially when we had visited many galleries. I have been trying to help him to get in the art business but it’s not so easy because I’m not knowledgeable in this business. I have been in the aerospace business for ten years. Completely different. Any advice you can give me other than the one in the article? How does he propose to galleries? Where should we start?
    Thanks in advance!



  15. Jay Morse

    29 March

    Thanks for your honesty!

  16. Domenick Maldari

    31 March

    Your article I find it true and helpful galleries are a business and need to survive, however, I found that the public has lost the appreciation of fine art and it’s making it difficult for artist.

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