Many artists have a goal to sell art in galleries. That is a great goal…. I mean what else is better than dropping off your work, going back to your studio and working then checking the mail to have checks waiting? It’s great. For me, it is the best way to work. I get to spend much of my time in the quiet of my studio and the checks show up when the sales are made by someone else. I love it. I have learned a lot over the years selling my work and if you too want to get your art into galleries there are some important things to learn and remember as well as some definite do’s and do not’s that you have to know.
First things first –
Before you even think about approaching a gallery you need to have a solid body of work. You need to have several pieces that are of consistent style and quality. If you have one or two good paintings the gallery will not know if those few pieces are the only good pieces you can create, or if you will be able to paint more to make a good show etc. Also, if you have a ton of pieces but they all look done by a different person the gallery sees that as inconsistent rather than seeing it as being more skilled. It is OK to paint in more than one style but consistency when applying to a gallery is vital.
The quality of your work is important. If you have one amazing painting and several mediocre paintings it’s not the great painting that will stand out and make you look fantastic… rather it’s the less than great pieces that will stand out as what kind of painter you are. The great piece is likely to be seen as an accident. Even if it takes you a little more time, take the time to create work of high quality craftsmanship in every detail. Quantity is great but if quality is missing you will not get into the galleries you want to be in. Don’t throw work in a crappy frame or put a mat on a painting because it’s what you have when it does not match the painting. Every detail matters.
Pricing is hard. It is the most difficult for me, but it is important. Look to see what work most closely matches your own in style, quality and size to see what prices are to give you a starting point. You also need to consider that as an emerging artist that you cannot ask the same prices that a mid-career or very well-established artist can. We all have to “pay our dues” so to speak and climb the ladder. We all have to do this. You can’t start at the top. Realize that you need to be realistic about your skill level as well as who knows you and what is a good price point for your work. You can’t put a high price tag on something and expect it to sell unless you are world-famous or regionally well-known. That said, you also do not want to under price your work because then it is viewed and not valuable. There is a fine line so I suggest that you do your homework and see what other work of your skill level and style are selling for. If the gallery is willing to help you with pricing, let them!
Be realistic about your work
Being realistic about this will help you understand which galleries to apply to. If a gallery only represents mid-career artists and you are an emerging artist don’t apply. If they only sell watercolor and you paint oil then it is not a good fit either. Also, if the gallery is known for its modern, abstract work and you paint photo realism don’t apply there because it’s the gallery in the good spot to be, if it’s not a good fit in quality, style, price or they do not accept emerging artists then do not apply there, it is wasting your time and the gallery’s time. You can search online for galleries based on whether you are an emerging artist, or search for galleries based on your art style. There are also books you can buy with a huge list of galleries, freelance jobs and other artist opportunities. Knowing your work and where you should show is key to finding the right gallery to submit your work to.
If you do very modern, abstract work then look for galleries that do well selling that type of work. A person who wants impressionist paintings or realism is not going to go into that gallery so it would be a mistake for you to put your work there anyway. Know what galleries are a good match with your work. If you can go into the gallery you are interested in, do it. If you can’t then go onto their website and learn what they are all about to learn whether it’s a good fit or not before you apply.
It is not a bad idea to have another artist critique your work who will be honest with you. Sometimes we can get emotionally attached to our work and be a little blind to the quality and style, not seeing what needs to be improved upon. If you can be realistic about that on your own then you are lucky but if you are not then seek someone else to help you.
Procedures must be followed.
All galleries have procedures. You must follow them exactly. No exceptions. You can’t expect to walk into a gallery unannounced with a painting, expecting them to fall all over themselves at the amazing genius of your work and walk out with a contract. Walking in unannounced is seen as rude and disrespectful and you will lose your chances to show there.
Ask for an appointment and/or a handout on their artist submission procedures. Each gallery is different and I understand that it may be frustrating to cater to each gallery but you have to respect the way they do things.
Your mom didn’t tolerate pissy attitudes, galleries don’t like them either
Attitude is almost if not as important as your work. I know this seems a no-brainer but too often the artist excuses behavior while embracing the weird artist thing.
The stereotype of an artist being emotionally uncontrollable, mentally out to lunch, eccentric and, well… for lack of better term, one sandwich shy of a picnic is not something to embrace. Level headed and business minded is not a bad thing. The reputation of the artist being a poor business person is not necessary. We may not be business experts, but if you are a full time gallery artist you are self-employed and need to learn a bit about business relations with others, pricing, and since you are working with the gallery you need to learn to be pleasant, not eyes glazed over, half-baked crazy eyed artist…. I have seen it and if you can learn to be approachable and pleasant to work with you are likely to be liked by them all and the people working there will enjoy selling your work much more.
A little over a decade ago, at the beginning of my own career I met an artist whose work I loved. I owned a print of hers and was so excited to meet her. She was snotty and looked down her nose at people. It was an awful experience for me, but at the same time wonderful because I got a good lesson in how not to be. I gave my print away after that. Had she been kind and pleasant I would have wanted to buy more of her work as there were pieces I loved that she had for sale at the show. Be kind. Be appreciative to the people who like your work when you meet them. It can make the difference between making repeat sales and losing that client permanently.
Being teachable is also very important. If a gallery has a suggestion for you do not take it as personal attack. They are trying to hep you… “nobody knows my work but me” – “they can’t tell me how to paint” – “what do they know anyway?” – I have heard these things as well….. Maybe you are right, but maybe… just maybe their suggestion could take your work to the next level and as a result your mind explodes with new ideas and fresh creative energy? Besides that, we all… ALL have room to grow. The unteachable attitude is not a good thing, in art and really everywhere in life. My dad taught me that it’s always a good idea to listen to what others have to say. That is not to say you have to act on every suggestion or piece of advice, it is saying listen – think about what they have said. Act on it if you feel what they have said is valid and ignore it if not, but always listen. The idea of growing a “thick skin” is necessary to help you listen without being overly emotionally attached to your work, knowing that the gallery selling your work only wants to help you increase sales.
I had the privilege of being mentored by a world-famous artist for a season in my career. He had many suggestions, some of which were an improvement to my work and some that were not a good fit for me. I listened to everything he said and even the things I didn’t love I gave some thought. In the end, his suggestions were valuable nuggets of information that I am glad I did not get all defensive and ignore what he said. He is famous, he sells his work all over the world… he knows what he is talking about. Not because he is famous, but because he knows his market (as galleries do) and he gave me advice to help me, not hurt me…. Do not get defensive toward someone who gives you advice. Listen and apply what fits you and your work.
Consistency and loyalty are a big deal.
Many artists will sell their work at a discount to clients if they buy directly from them rather than from the gallery. I mean on the surface it seems like it works out well for you and the customer – if the gallery takes 50% of the sale then you give the customer a 30% discount – you get more money and the customer gets a good discount… but that is not OK, ever! it is shooting yourself in the foot really. The gallery gets your work out there into the public eye – they are the reason that many even know who you are so if you do something like I just mentioned the gallery will drop you. Loyalty to your gallery is a big deal. I tell my customers (especially the ones who know about me because of the gallery) that they have to buy from the gallery….. or that I am under contract to not sell my work outside the gallery (for the pushy clients who just want a discount). Remember promoting your work is a full time job as is creating the work – so it’s not easy if you have to do it all and you do not want to start at square one looking for galleries. It is not worth one sale to ruin a relationship with a gallery.
Keep your pricing consistent with the gallery for the same reason – people find out they can get your work for less if they buy from you then they don’t go to the gallery anymore and if your work does not sell at the gallery you get dropped. Not good. Price as the gallery does and even if you don’t get why, know it’s best for you and those working to represent you.
I am not trying to be hard on anyone, but a gallery won’t sugar coat anything – they are not worried about hurting anyone’s feelings. The truth is that they could send you out the door with your work and have your spot filled within the hour so to think you can’t be replaced is not a good way to do business. Be respectful to the galleries. Follow their procedures and listen to their suggestions. Remember to value your clients, they could buy anyone’s art but they chose you… they can easily take their money elsewhere and who you are / how you treat them will make them love or hate your work. We welcome any questions you may have and we answer all questions quickly….