Marketing Mondays: How to Reject a Gallery


Sometimes the shoe is on the other foot, and instead of receiving a turndown, it is you who must do the turning down.

Here's reader C.M.:
I was wondering how to tell a gallery you are not interested in being represented by them or being part of their upcoming programming. Doing it gracefully is proving to be quite difficult. How much info should you give, how much is too little or too much?

First of all, this is a great problem to have, no? But as C.M. suggests, not all artist/gallery fits are good. So I'm going to talk not just about how to decline an invitation, but about why you might want to decline. Generally when responding, less is more.

. Is it about a difference in esthetics?
This is easy: I like you and your program, but I don’t think our sensibilities are a good match.

. Is it about the terms by which a gallery expects to do business?
You want a gallery that has good business practices: advertises, makes sales, has a good online presence, holds the best damn openings in town. If they don't do enough of what you need, let them know: I'm accustomed to a situation in which my work will be promoted online and in print, and in which the gallery handles things like pickup and delivery and framing.
. . . . . OK, so this is a difficult time, and some galleries are cutting back to be able to stay in business, but don’t believe a gallery that says "it is gallery policy" to do/not do this or that. Artists who sell better, who have a higher professional profile, typically get more. If you like the gallery but need more than they’re offering you, ask for more. If they can't give it to you, thank them for their interest in you and suggest that perhaps when the economy picks up we can revisit the possiblity of working together.

. . . . . But I would ask you: Does a situation like this have to be black and white? Can you participate in an occasional exhibition without committing fully? That gives both you and the gallery a chance to try each other out.

. Is it about the reputation of the gallery?
If it's got a bad reputation, your response is a no-brainer: It appears that we don't have the same goals. Thank you for your interest in my work. Do not let yourself be cajoled into going against your research--or your instinct.

. Is it about the personalities involved?
If you don't trust the dealer or you really don’t like her/him, that's not the person you want to be involved with. A relationship with a dealer is not sexual (not usually, anyway) but it is certainly personal. If you don’t like the person, that's going to be a hard relationship to maintain. Don’t let yourself be bullied. How have you turned down dates? That's the approach you need to do here, because it really is about personal preference.

. Is it about the level of the gallery?
If it's showing a step-above-hobbyists, that's another no-brainer: I need to be with a gallery whose roster of artists is more closely aligned with my exhibition history and collector base.
. . . . . If it's a good emerging gallery and you’re a mid-level artist, that's a harder call. Does the gallery get reviewed locally or regionally? Are the sales good? If you feel your career is too advanced for the gallery, that may be exactly why they want you. Dealers are looking to move up, just like artists. They may be looking to you to be the person who helps them do that. Assuming you respond to the the esthetic and the folks involved, ask for more: the Art in America or Art Forum ad, a catalog, inclusion in their next art fair.
. . . . . If they say no and you feel there's nothing in it for you, say no: I like the gallery and I like you, but I'm afraid you're going to have to spend so much time and effort developing the careers of your emerging artists that my needs will be overlooked.

Red Flags
. Is the gallery known for never paying on time? If so, don’t assume you will be the exception
. Is the dealer unwilling to share the names of the collectors who acquire your work?A an artist/dealer relationship is based in large part on trust
. Is the dealer a screamer (watch how he treats the staff); a schemer (do you hear stories of artists being pitted against one another); woefully disorganized (payments are late, work gets "lost" or actually misplaced, inventory records are incomplete); a manic type who needs everything yesterday then oh-never-minds after you have killed yourself to deliver?
. Have you heard rumors of the dealer selling at a "discount" but learn the collectors have actually paid full price?
. Does the gallery ask you for money?
. . . . . You may have to ask around to get some of these answers, but the artist information hotline—i.e. conversation, gossip, e-mail inquiries—may yield answers. I have often asked artists about Gallery A, or even a friendly Gallery B about A. I've also e-mailed artists who I know used to be involved in a gallery; I tell them I'm contemplating getting involved with Gallery A and I wonder if they would be willing to share with me, confidentially of course, any insights that might help me make a good decision. People have done the same with me.

Bottom line: If you feel you must turn down a gallery and you're really stuck for words, thank them for their interest and say simply, I just don’t think we’re a good fit. They'll understand that. That's what they say to artists all the time.


Donna Dodson said...

Another way to think about this question is whether it is better to have something than nothing, which I find is sometimes not so easy to answer and it may not be clear how to negotiate for what you want without burning bridges in the art world but it is a good problem to have b/c it's good to have choices.

Chris Ashley said...

Thoughtful and mature responses- nice examples, Joanne. Sometimes saying no to one thing, because it isn't right, opens other doors to better opportunities. We don't have to take everything we're offered, but it's hard to resist, because it can seem as if the one before us might be the last invitation we ever get; that's rarely the case, though.

Karen Jacobs said...

Timely... I don't like my local 'fit' and have approached another gallery that seems interested. Have appt tomorrow to show work and if accepted, will have to explain myself to the former. The fact that it's local complicates matters. All kinds of pots holes to avoid.

Joanne Mattera said...

Thanks, Donna and Chris, for your remarks.

Donna,the idea of "something is better than nothing" is interesting, because sometimes it can be and other times it definitely is not. To use myself as an example, when I was starting out, I jumped at all kinds of opportunies. Now that my career is more established, I am more discriminating. All of those early opportunities were helpful. The not-so-good ones helped me understand, as a result of the bad experiences, how to evaluate the opportunities that came my way and to heed my instincts. In every bad situation, I'd ignored the instinct that said, "This is not right for you."

Eventually I learned to acknowledge that instinct and heed it. Indeed, not being in a good show IS better than being in a bad show. I think as we progress in our careers, we learn to recognize that.

Chris, you are right in pointing out the irrational fear that the current opportunity presented is the only or last one we'll ever have.

Joanne Mattera said...

Karen, we were posting at the same time. I didn't mean to ignore you. Keep us posted on how your negotiations go.

Greg said...

Karen, we are in the same town and I know the gallery options are limited. I'll be very interested to hear who you go with.

Kathy said...


As an artist and gallery owner, the "I just don't think we're a good fit" is the answer that works the best for me. People will make excuses with the other statements/questions and try to guilt you into showing your work with them anyway. It just makes for an uncomfortable situation.

Joanne Mattera said...

Thanks for the feedback. What's interesting about "I just don't think we're a good fit" is that it's so accurate--whether the fit in question is esthetic, professional or personal. It's neutral enough to be non-offensive, yet specific enough to let artist or dealer back away from the relationship or potential relationship.

Karen Jacobs said...

Small world, Greg... I'll follow up with a comment one way or the other. My current gallery is fine, but I was with a terrific gallery that had to close last year for personal reasons, wonderful space and directorship. Bet you know which one ;)

Oriane Stender said...

Good topic, Joanne.

Although I like the theory that honesty is the best policy, in reality, sometimes less is more when turning someone down. I find it's best to say something gracious but vague, such as
"I very much appreciate your interest in my work, but I have too many scheduled commitments to start a new gallery relationship right now.
Best regards,"

No one wants to hear that they are not up to your standards or that they have a bad reputation, or that you don't think they can do enough for you.

I get requests to be in group shows that I occasionally turn down, but I don't usually tell them exactly why.

Karen Jacobs said...

To follow up, the meeting at the new gallery went well, an hour of discussing everything from the sour economy to just how much discount I'll allow, yadda-yadda. Now the hard part... to politely extract myself from the other gallery. Want to stay friendly, I suspect they'll understand.

Greg said...

Nancy was a fantastic gallerist and I was sad to see her close. Best of luck in landing a new gallery and I will keep following your blog as well.

Joanne, thanks for letting me briefly hijack your comments section.

Katherine Tyrrell said...

Great post Joanne - and so nice to see somebodt talking about the other side of the gallery equation. I'll be recommending it to my readers on Sunday.

Joanne Mattera said...


Thanks for the shout out on your blog. I've sent the link to Ed and Jackie. And note that Making a Mark is now on my blogroll.

BSH said...

Beautiful advice. Thank you for posting!

agarofano said...

I am a newbie when it comes to gallery representation and I was looking through old posts to see if I could find any discussion about whether or not it's acceptable, when I'm talking with a gallery owner who is interested in showing my work, to try to negotiate down the gallery's commission rate? This interested gallery is asking for 45% commission. (Maybe I'm naive, but...) that seems a little high to me.

Is a gallery usually fixed on one rate for all artists across the board? Is it rude and insulting for me to ask if they would take something closer to 35%/40%? The gallery in question is not taking a huge risk on me, as there are collectors of my work who have already verbally committed to buying pieces that will be in the show. Could anyone out there offer a little feedback on the protocol in this type of situation? Much appreciated.

And thanks so much for the time and love that you put into this blog, Joanne! It's a major reference point for me.