Emerging artists with little sales and exhibition experience often struggle to find doors that will open. It’s difficult to break into the art business!
In a recent interview with art superstar William Wegman, I asked him how he was able to get into an art gallery when he started out? He said, “Other artists recommended me to their galleries. I didn’t really go around with my portfolio; that was kind of a sad sack situation and pretty much a dead-end, I think. And if you want to be discouraged, just start doing that.”
Exactly! Showing up at a gallery, unannounced and uninvited is a fast track to nowhere. Even worse is sending out emails with links or attachments when no one asked to see them. Do you know what happens to unsolicited emails to galleries? Delete! Delete! Delete!
So, how can artists get into an art gallery? Here’s my list of the do’s and don’ts.
Do your research to see if the gallery is a good match for your work and level of experience.
When I had a gallery, artists approached me daily about showing their work. The problem was, my focus was on works on paper and photography. I also leaned toward work that made some sort of political or social statement. But sculptors, landscape painters, video artists, pet portraitists, religious iconographers, all submitted work anyway and seemed surprised when I turned them away.
Gallerists are creative agents themselves, they have strong interests and aesthetics. Believing that your work is so good and so important that it will change the course of the gallerist’s entire enterprise is egotistical and even a little bit rude.
A gallery is not just a gallery. It represents someone’s creative vision. Take the time to find out what a gallery is dedicated to showing before you even think of submitting your work.
Do develop a relationship with the gallery.
The primary way that galleries choose artists is through relationships. That means that either someone introduced them to the artist’s work or they met the artist first and then were introduced to the work.
If you’ve identified an art gallery that would make a good fit for you, develop a relationship with them. Go to their events. Sign up for their mailing list. Spend time on their website. Like their Facebook page. Get known within their community as a supporter. This is the best way to get on a gallery’s radar.
If you know someone who’s already part of that gallery’s community, all the better! Ask to join them when you go to events. Have them introduce you to the staff. Let the gallerist know how much you enjoy what they do, show them that you know who they are and what they’re about. Then submit your work.
Don’t approach a gallery before finding out their submission policies.
Finding out a gallery’s submission policy is easy. Check their website and see if it’s posted there. If not, call them – that’s right pick up the telephone and ask. Or ask the gallerist while you’re visiting — because you should try to visit the gallery in person.
If they say that they don’t accept submissions, then you have your answer. They don’t accept submissions. Do not submit your work anyway. The best way to crack this nut is through an introduction. And this all goes back to becoming part of the gallery’s community.
If they do accept submissions, try to follow their guidelines. If they ask for 12 images, don’t send them 50. I know you’re an artist and we’re prone to breaking the rules, but submission policies are best followed to the letter.
Don’t ask what the gallery can do for you, but what you can do for the gallery.
No, seriously. Artists are always wishing they had a gallery to “handle all of this business
stuff for me.” But what are you offering the gallery?
Instead of looking at galleries in terms of what they can give to you, turn that question around. How would your work add to their stable? What would it bring to them? How can you help them with marketing? Are there introductions you can make? Do you know how to build websites? Maybe they need some help with theirs.
Giving an artist an exhibition is a very expensive gamble. And as any gallerist can tell you, demanding and egotistical artists are seldom worth the trouble. There’s a long line of very talented people who would love to have an opportunity to get into an art gallery, people who are givers not takers. So be a giver.
Don’t ever think of the gallery’s commission as something they’re taking from you, but of each sale as something they’re giving to you.
Do you think it’s expensive to be an artist? Try having a gallery! The overhead is tremendous. And don’t even get me started on the price of art fairs.
Artists often complain to me about galleries who take 40, 50, even 60%. True, if you’re paying that much you have a right to expect a lot in return. But don’t deny the gallery their commission. They aren’t taking anything from you. They are giving you a sale that you otherwise wouldn’t have had.
Do be prepared to talk about your work.
I’ve asked many artists to tell me about their work over the years. The ones who mumble, “My work speaks for itself” are wrong. If it did, I wouldn’t have asked. Trust me, being reticent about your work is no way to get into an art gallery. But being interested enough in your own work to engage others is the best sales tool there is.
Do develop an audience before approaching a gallery.
For example, having an engaged following on Facebook carries weight. It shows the gallery that you understand how to promote and market yourself. Too many artists put this off saying that it’s a gallery’s job. It is not. It’s your job to build and maintain your audience.
There’s no hard and fast number of fans you need. But being able to tell a gallery that you’ve got a loyal following will give them a sense of security. They’ll know that you understand marketing and that you can fill a gallery with people come opening night.
If you absolutely hate social media, don’t worry about it. You don’t have to engage online. But it’s a very powerful tool for artists if they’re willing to embrace it. If you are going to engage online, I’d suggest you choose one platform and rock that. You can have a presence on the others and even push notifications out to them, but you don’t have to be everything to everybody all the time.
And if you decide to opt out of the social media scene, then think about how you will engage your audience? Do you have a mailing list of people who have visited your studio and bought from you in the past? Start now!
Even if you have a gallery who handles client relations for you, you’d be best served to have some control over your audience. What happens when the gallery closes? Don’t shrug, I’ve seen it happen many times before. And artists who had been selling consistently have found themselves starting over from the beginning.
These tips will help to open doors for you. I’ve seen it happen again and again. But it’s your work that will seal the deal. Make sure that the work is ready, that you’ve honed your craft and are showing the best that you can do.
It looks easy, but I know that it’s difficult. Hang in there and DON’T QUIT. Because this is how you DO get into an art gallery!