Whenever I teach a workshop to mid-career artists, their first question is always, “How do I get into a gallery?" It's a legitimate query, especially if they've spent years on the outside looking in.
But here’s how things have changed: The 20-something students in a senior-level careers class I teach typically get around to just the opposite line of thinking: “Do I really need a gallery?”
Chelsea: chockablock with galleries. Do you need one?
This new generation of students has figured out that with their fluency in the virtual world of Facebook, Twitter, blogs, websites, and e-newsletters in concert with real-world venues such as open studios and non-profit spaces—all coupled with the current strong D.I.Y. work ethic—they can create their own career opportunities early on.
I don’t think it’s a black-or-white issue. Working outside a conventional gallery now doesn’t mean you’ll do it forever. And I don’t think it’s strictly a generational issue, either. Indeed, After I wrote the first draft of this post I got this email from a 50-something artist who sums up the issue: "I'm wondering if, due to the recession, I might be better off to bypass galleries entirely and try to reach clients directly via blogging, FaceBook and so on. That feels like a huge gamble, but maybe that's because I've grown up with the gallery system. Am I crazy not to sell direct? Yet I also think galleries lend credibility that I cannot create on my own. My mind plays ping pong on this topic a lot."
You don’t need a gallery if you:
. Want to do it your way
. Don’t wish to split sales with a gallery
. Don’t mind having a regional career or are willing to (literally) take your show on the road
. Can work well with others
. Don’t particularly wish to live in a big city
. Are prepared to not only make your work but market it, promote it, deliver it and install it
. Have a strong sense of entrepreneurship coupled with an equally strong business sense
. Can interact well with the public
Tech-savvy artists have the potential to explode the white box, and do-it-yourself thinking may knock hierarchical thinking down a few pegs, but let’s acknowledge that there have always been those who have worked outside of the commercial gallery system. Co-op galleries are a great example, organized by artists who band together to create exhibition space for themselves. Sure some may not be able to get into commercial galleries, but many artists choose the co-op system as a way to control what they make and how and when they show it. And let's acknowledge the value of the community that develops among artists in such a gallery.
Co-ops aside, I’m thinking of the Pacific Northwest artist who throws two big salon events a year in her large Victorian home, in which she shows her own work and that of others—and sells up a storm. I’m thinking of the couple upstate who combine art and life is the most artful way, selling their work to a devoted coterie of collectors; of the couple on Cape Cod who lives simply, rurally, with their two kids, raising their own vegetables and selling their work out of their studios to a summer clientele; of the various collectives, couples and independent entrepreneurs who make art all winter and then sell it all summer, whether in big tourist destinations like Cape Cod or Ogunquit, Maine, or along a circuit of art and craft fairs.
More recently, I’m thinking of two West Coast artists who opened their own gallery to show their work. You don’t need a gallery if you have your own! Their business is doing so well, they're thinking of applying for booth space in Miami next year. (To bookend this thought, there are dealers who have closed their physical spaces and are, with their original artist roster, maintaining their galleries online as they work with their collector base.)
In terms of online opportunities for artists, there are the electronic marketplaces Etsy and E-bay, as well as the Painting-a-Day sites. One Brit moved his studio to Provence, cranks out and sells his little paintings for a hundred bucks a pop and then has the time and money to make the larger plein air paintings that are his passion.
You do need a gallery if you:
. Aim for a career beyond your immediate region
Yes, you can do this on your own with travel, correspondence, and a lot of schlepping. But dealers share resources as a matter of course—the “resources” being us. A couple of dealers meet as neighbors at an art fair. Before you know it, an artist from Gallery A in Portland, Oregon, is showing at Gallery B, in Portland, Maine, and vice versa. Or a dealer you work with in one city suggests to a dealer in another city that s/he take a look at your work.
. Want a business partnership with one or more galleries
In my experience, having a network of galleries represent you is the way to actually earn a living from the sale of your work. Even in hard economic times, some regions of the country are in better shape than in others. For example, a friend from the Pacific Northwest recently explained why she was showing in Tulsa. Tulsa? “Its economy is based on oil money, and the economy has not crashed the way the rest of the country has. People are still buying art.”
. Expect to relinquish certain jobs in exchange for the gallery taking a commission You’re never going to be free of that dreaded administrative work. Indeed, working with eight or ten galleries takes a lot of desk work to keep track of who has what, when it was sold, and did I get paid yet. But the psychologically draining work of constantly submitting—sending CDs and packages, entering juried shows, putting out that choose me energy can be redirected into the studio
. Need an advocate to promote your work, find you commission, get the payment due you Curators and many consultants prefer to deal with a gallery rather than the individual artist. Decisions about whose work to include in a museum show, which artist to commission remain between those professionals and the dealer until a short list is decided upon, or a request for a studio visit or specific work is made
Says one dealer I work with, "I never like seeing one of my artists lose out on an opportunity, but I can absorb that rejection with less personal attachment. Sometimes my artists don't even know about the rejection; I don't tell them. I know there will be another opportunity for them down the road."
Here's another way your dealer is your advocate: A consultant was taking her sweet time about paying the gallery for work. My dealer knew just how patient to be before taking off the gloves. I was in awe. “It’s part of my job to make sure you get paid,” she said. She rolled up her sleeves, metaphorically speaking, and got the check.
.Want a barrier between you and rest of the world You get a taste of these questions and comments at opening or open studios: “How long did it take to make?” “Can you make this smaller and in chartreuse?” “My neighbor is an artist.” “We love art; we just bought a Thomas Kinkaid/collect posters/framed our pre-schooler’s drawings.” Your dealer is fielding that crap every day so that you don’t have to.
Personally, as an artist I wear enough hats. I don’t wish to add “dealer” to my headgear collection. And I like the partnerships I've forged with my dealers over the years. But I like participating in D.I.Y. projects or occasionally organizing one of my own. I'm curious to see how things develop outside the white box. Options for artists—respected, viable options—can only be a good thing.
What do you think?