Marketing Mondays: Gallery Business

Blame it on the economy. Many galleries are turning over a new leaf--changing how they do business, typically because of diminished staff

or funds. It's a good idea to check in with your gallery to see how things are going, to learn of any changes in the way they're operating and--since we're in this together--to see if there's anything you might do to help in the promotion of your work and, by extension, of the gallery itself.

What follows are some examples of the ways those leaves are turning.

1. A small New York gallery has dropped its insurance. "Like most of you, I have had to cut back in many areas to keep my doors open. I can no longer take responsibility for insuring the full retail value of the work I have here on consignment," says this dealer. She gave her artists the option of removing the work or keeping it there. Most wish to remain with the gallery and will take the chance for now. Some may retrieve the larger work and allow the gallery to hold onto a few smaller pieces. (The gallery website can show larger works, which the artist and dealer can arrange to have delivered to the gallery if need be.)

2. A New York-area gallery no longer calls the artists to say a work has been sold. Delivering good news is one of the most pleasurable aspects of a dealer's job, but with staff cutbacks those individual conversations with artists may no longer be possible. While no artist is unhappy with the arrival of a check for artwork sold, one artist posed this question: "If I'm not notified when the work sells, isn't it possible that the money from the sale could be used by the gallery to pay its bills? I could be getting that check months after the fact." Well, yes it's possible. But why assume the worst if your relationship with the gallery has always been good? Communicate! Press for an e-mail notification. (If you can't get at least that, then consider a red flag raised.)

3. Smaller staffs mean more chance for inventory snafus. I keep a visual inventory--a digital contact sheet for each gallery, so that I can see at a glance what the gallery has. At the end of the year, I confirm that the gallery and I have the same information. It happened recently that a painting had been sold during the year but I was never notified or paid. I know the gallery; I've worked with it for years. The dealer paid me as soon as s/he realized that the painting I was asking about had in fact sold. There was no deception intended, but I see more of this kind of thing happening as there are fewer folks to do the administrative work.

4. An out of town gallery is no longer paying to have artists' work shipped to or from the gallery. This is a temporary measure until the economy picks up, I'm told, but what concerns me is the cumulative result all of these changes have on artists. Collectively we're having to assume a greater insurance load or risk, having to pay to ship or deliver, assuming ever greater administrative responsibilities, and operating without knowing if work has sold and thus when we might expect a check. With sales down and foot traffic in the galleries almost non existent, I'm wondering how feasible it is even to show right now.

5. A gallery out west is closing its bricks-and-mortar space and going cyber instead. In a letter to her artists, the director wrote: "The internet will allow us to access a more diverse, global client base throughout the year while dramatically reducing our carbon footprint. Flexibility within our site will permit us to easily introduce new work, present more exhibitions, respond more quickly to the needs of our artists and our clients."

I have no affiliation with this gallery so I feel free to say that while the spin is upbeat, I'm not buying. Carbon footprint or no, this trend makes me nervous. If the gallery does art fairs, OK; the artists' work will continue to be shown in a tangible way. But the Internet is no substitute for the experience of viewing art. The gallery also mentioned running profiles of its artists, and linking to other cultural institutions. Hey, I can do that, and I'm no dealer! What would make this cyber gallery any different from, say, a consultant? And will the dealer continue to take 50% on sales? In interesting turn, for sure.

On a more positive note . . .

6. Curate a gallery show. If you have a collegial relationship with your dealer, propose curating a show. You may not--probably won't--get paid much (or at all) to do it, but the curatorial experience is great. You'll think about art and exhibitions in a more encompassing way. You'll have a good reason to give yourself time to make studio visits. The art karma is great. And with you working on the project, the dealer should find a few extra hours to cultivate collectors, research art fairs or other projects that may ultimately benefit you. You'll have a new category for your resume, too.

7. Curate your own "blogallery." It doesn't have to be about sales so much as keeping your work, and that of artists you respect, in the public eye while your dealer and the economy in general catch their breath. I mean if a former b-and-m gallery can go cyber, so can you. (An interesting related project is Minus Space's Viewlist. I did something similar myself with, Cold? Come Stand Next to These in January, and Armory Fair: Salvage Operation in March.)

Not yet with a gallery? If your e-mails and presentation materials are getting no response, and even your visits to the gallery to see the exhibitions result in no personal interaction, it's entirely possible that in this economy the dealer you're interested in isn't thinking beyond the current lease period. Be patient but active. (See the "blogallery" item, above. )

Consider this an open forum for discussion. How is your gallery changing and how are you adapting to your gallery's changes? Don't tell me gallery names; just discuss the situation. And if you feel more comfortable responding anonymously, that's fine.

Image from the website


Anonymous said...

One of my galleries (Europe) is closing down (moving to Internet only, does not do fairs) and also did not send me a check for a sale - I found this out more recently, in a sideways way, and am not sure how to approach them. They're doing pretty bad, and I hate to say it but have NEVER made sales on the Internet, despite having a very nice site. I don't see them lasting, and am hoping to figure out a way to get the prints they published without paying their "share". My other gallery (South Africa) is doing a lot better for now (not effected yet it seems), but part of that is because they are local only - more than 25 years, no shipping or showing overseas, no fairs, just buyers in their local market. She's asked me to pay to ship my work to SA for my next show if I can, but has agreed to pay for / publish a catalogue if I do so, citing that this will help her make sales in the long run, as well as help me to find local galleries where I live now to work with (I recently moved back to the states after 8 years overseas). Of course, I'm having trouble with the latter - the gallery I was speaking to before the big move is doing OK (I moved just before it all happened, early August 08), but seems to have lost interest; this could be money, that I'd be a slightly new direction for them, or any number of reasons that I'm trying to take only at face value for now. The way I see it: keep making good work, try not to work at a loss, and when it's all over, I will be in a better position to find someone state-side. I'm lucky enough to have an academic post to support my family in the interim (although I'm so so tired from the school year!)....

Anonymous said...

Sorry to be anonymous here, but I want to be able to speak frankly. I'm all for the "we're all in this together" type of gallery relationship--bad economy or not. But the mention of the gallery not contacting an artist about a sale, and possibly not sending a check in a timely way (30 days sounds reasonable) smells bad to me. I guess it might seem better if the gallery had reached out to the artists to advise of a new policy. But no phone call or email to let someone know they had sold a piece in a BAD economic climate sounds sneaky. There may be fewer gallery staff to handle administrative tasks, but if there are fewer sales, it seems that taking 2 minutes to send an email shouldn't be a major sacrifice.

Imagine this scenario...the above "policy" is in place without the artist's knowledge. The artist is contacted by a collector about a piece seen online or in a catalog. The artist directs the collector to the gallery only to find that the piece has been sold. This can contribute to a problematic relationship between artist and collector, gallery owner and collector, artist and gallery owner.

If the piece has sold and the gallery owner is not paying within 30 days (or whatever arrangement has been previously made) then the artist should be receiving "interest" payments. (ok...not necessarily a serious proposition, but still...)

grouchy anon artist

Gam said...

This gallery is not being limited by its four walls and appears to understand the advantage that galleries have in giving an "experience" when viewing art works. They also open their market beyond the neighbourhood.

Creating a mobile gallery would also lead to the possibility of corporate spnsorships if you show up at a sporting event say ...

Eva said...

If the space has no insurance, I would not relish showing there. I have had more than my fair share of scratched paintings and destroyed work. One time a flood got ahold of a group of pastels - almost the entire show. Luckily the space had insurance and I was paid for it all.

There is way to get around it - insure your artwork. It's possible to buy "off-site" insurance, which covers work in transit or just work which is elsewhere, not in your home or studio. It's not much and worth looking into if you are showing in uninsured places.

And curating is definitely the way to go if you are looking to network and make yourself known. You are giving in a good way and meeting people, helping them. It all comes back for sure.

Matt said...

The mention of a gallery not contacting an artist about a sale, and possibly not sending a check in a timely manner IS just plain bad business practice.

Anonymous said...

Why we need a gallery?

KRCampbellArt said...

Some good points made here. I read this with interest. I have recently moved back to the midwest, Michigan, and have found that smaller galleries want to exhibit my work but sales are slow and uneven. I have tried to get Chicago galleries to look at my work but if it works anything like NYC it is important to know an artist that already exhibits at the gallery you are interested in to gain entry thru introduction. I would be happy to hear any comments or suggestions of this.

Alyson B. Stanfield said...

Joanne, this is a very helpful post. I've heard many of these stories from my clients. "No insurance" was the most recent issue for one client. I may be old fashioned, but I think that any gallery that can't insure an inventory shouldn't be in business. It's a terrible way to run a business and build trust. I'm going to Twitter right now to share this link with my followers. Thank you.

Jackie Jacobson said...

I totally agree with Alyson Stanfield. "No insurance" means the gallery is basically out of business. Thanks for this great article.

Joanne Mattera said...

Alyson says: "I think that any gallery that can't insure an inventory shouldn't be in business."

In a normal economy, I'd agree wholeheartedly. But in a bad economy like this, we're all doing what we need to do to stay alive. I have dropped the insurance on my studio, too ($1500 for $50,000 was too much for to enough)and I'm still in business. I'm sympathetic, for now.

Claudia said...

Eva mentioned: 'It's possible to buy "off-site" insurance, which covers work in transit or just work which is elsewhere, not in your home or studio. It's not much and worth looking into if you are showing in uninsured places.'
Eva can you tell us exactly what insurance is available? Can you suggest a specific company or web site please?
Thank you.

Anonymous said...

And they get 50% for what? No insurance, non-payment, or late, late, late payment, only a cyberspace gallery, artist self-promotion, not paying for return shipping of work...These all sound like stories for the "How's my Dealing? blog." While we are all in this together, it is advisable to work with galleries that have large enough capitalization to weather these bigger storms. A couple of weeks ago was a post regarding how many artists there are. This post might be subtitled "Are there too many galleries?" I might say yes: Too many poorly run, conceptually underdeveloped, and arrogant galleries.

Joanne Mattera said...


OK, I get it. You're pissed off. I am not defending galleries that don't give as much as they get, but the point of this post is to look at what's happening now--in a bad econnomy. If we are with a gallery that's having these problems we do have options:

1) First and foremost, we can leave the gallery. However my impulse would be to stick with a good dealer during a bad time. Many galleries stuck with me early on when my sales were not so great. Reciprocity, the topic of another recent post.

2) We can ask that they take a smaller percentage of sales, or that we get a larger percentage of a commissioned work. Initiate a discussion and see where it goes

3) We can ask for some type of deferred compensation--i.e two-way shipping down the road, or an ad (or a larger ad), or a catalog when business gets better. Maybe there won't be a "down the road"--maybe the gallery will close--but if I had a good relationship with a gallery that's struggling, I'd take that leap of faith.

You say: "it is advisable to work with galleries that have large enough capitalization to weather these bigger storms." I agree. It's also advisable to be 35, tall, athletic, robust and drop-dead gorgeous. But what should be and what is are often two different things.

NJ ART 73 said...

Hi Joanna,
This is a very interesting post. I am not with a gallery but after reading through these changes do you see some of them becoming standard operating procedure after the economy "rebounds"? I think that one trend that may continue would be more group shows and less one person shows especially with a new artist that a gallery may chose to show. I also think that galleries will cut back on invitations and catalogs or shift some of the expenses to the artist.
I think that the trend of galleries going more cyber and perhaps less bricks & mortar is going to continue no matter where the economy ends up. These trends are going to make it much more difficult for artists such as myself when starting to seek gallery representation to find it.

Joanne Mattera said...

Honestly, NJ, I have no definitive answers to your questions.
. Galleries? I do think that the dealers who want to have a bricks-and-mortar space will find a way to do so, just as artists find a way to maintain a studio.
. Invites and catalogs? There is a move afoot to go green. We artists like the cards because they allow us to get images before curators, other dealers, or friends, but dealers are interested in getting the images before their collectors. They can do that with jpegs via e-mail and some version of a hard-copy press package
. Catalogs? They remain useful. It will take another generation at least before we are as combortable with an electronic book as with a real, tangible object in our hands. And by then, the technology will be better for layout and images.
. Will these trends continue? I hope not. I certainly don't want to go back to the way it was for me 20 years ago.
. If you're an emerging artist, start local, regional, work your way up. Unless you live in NYC, you don't typically get a New York gallery first.

Eva said...

Hi Claudia,

I found out about insurance when I had my own little gallery, Lovelake. State Farm helped me. My guy made a package for me... I had so much coverage for the studio, so much for the gallery and also for work someplace else... like I said, if it was in transit or at a window project I developed across the street. Mind, I did not show a lot of expensive art, but I could expand my coverage for months when I had a more expensive artist.

You can do this by adding on to your own home insurance - you don't have to have a separate studio/exhibition space like I did. And maybe you can just insure your art, I don't know. This was a few years ago but it was about 40 a month and well worth it.

I have to say that "my guy" is great - he is the Pearl District here in Portland, where there are alot of galleries. I'm sure I'm not the only artist he helped. And I actually called several people who didn't seem to care - when I called him, he actually visited my studio and helped me figure it all out, no extra charge. Eventually State Farm got all my business....

LXV said...

"It will take another generation at least before we are as combortable with an electronic book as with a real, tangible object in our hands. "

Joanne, I realize the benefits of electronic books and especially the ability to modify and correct as well as the "green" implications. However, I for one, cannot read a computer screen for very long without adverse physical consequences. We are, after all, biological entities with visual organs not well-suited to staring ceaselessly into a light source. And, then, there is the exquisite satisfaction of holding an object of high aesthetic value in my own hands and turning the pages in a leisurely rhythm suffused with anticipation and kinaesthetic pleasure.

Plus the fact that I already own thousands of them and trip over the stacks every day. [note to self: more bookshelves]

This digital thing is seductive and I am old school; that is to say, it doesn't feel natural to me to spend an entire day in front of a computer screen, even though my day job requires it and I occasionally do so in the service of my painting practice. The colors are gorgeously saturated, the visual wizardry which image editing software affords makes "art" seem like a simple trick. But does a digital representation do justice to your work? I confess I've not seen it in real life and I would like to, but all the tactile qualities, the smell of the wax, the subtle shifts of view when you turn your head, all that is missing from the on-line experience.

My own pictures just look stupid on-line (they look even stupider in books). But a lot of people are satisfied not to go out and see the real thing. And with the brick & mortar galleries closing down around us, I wonder if people are going to begin to lose interest in the actual art object. Just a little future shock here.

Joanne Mattera said...


Thanks for this post.
Maybe it will take longer than a generation, be we have already begun the miration to cyber screens. Technology will improve, too. (Meanwhile I still like to read the NY Times in the dead-tree version.)

As for galleries, the decline of bricks-and-mortar venues is a result of the economy. Just as painters don't paint digitally-- unless they have chosen to work in an electronic medium--I cannot imagine dealers wanting to function on line if they don't have to. I know I say this a lot, but dealers are in this business because thy love art, not because they're raking in the dough, so why would they want to be in it at a remove if they don't have to?

grovecanada said...

I'm not sure if it is karma or bad luck or just coincidence, but whenever I hear of bad things happening to galleries, it always seems to happen while their insurance has lapsed for some reason...A big fire, a flood, theft- I have started to think that when galleries or artists let their insurance lapse that the insurance company sells their info to thugs who go & make it palpable why insurance is necessary...Sort of like old time protection money, either you pay or we break your front windows...Okay so maybe I have seen too many Chicago type movies, but still, be very very careful about working with galleries with no insurance...It's sort of an accident waiting to happen...(If you've never had insurance as an artist, the rule doesn't work- it seems once they know you & you cancel, that is when problems happen...) Sari
p.s. this may just be an imagined nightmare...

Anonymous said...

As a gallery owner, I'd like offer my thoughts. Frankly, I'm appalled. I have never not paid an artist within a month of the sale of their work (and for larger works, I pay the artist as soon as the customer's check or credit card clears). What I do is sit down on the last day each of month, print my art commission report for that month, and then print the checks immediately from my QuickBooks software. The checks go in the mail the very next business day, which is usally the first of the next month. This is how a professioinal, business relationship between an artist and gallery should be.

When a gallery holds an artist's check to pay other bills first, it means they're having cash flow issues. My advice--get your work out of there as fast as you can.

On the flip side, as a gallery owner who bends over backwards to promote and serve local artists, I can tell you that working with folks who can't or won't market themselves (and my gallery) makes continuing the relationship extremely questionable. Eventually, I ask non-reciprocating artists to take their work and go. This becomes easy to do when I haven't seen any new new work in months or even years. Professional artists produce new work all the time. Hobbyists don't, and I've learned to work with only the former.

Thanks for the great post!

JoAnn Martin, Black Iris Gallery & Custom Framing
Spooner, WI

Anonymous said...

Very good post!
One of the galleries I was in recently had to close it's doors. They called and asked if I could 'forgive' payments currently owed on work sold to help them out during this tough time of having to close their business. Lucky for me, the only thing I hadn't been paid on was something very small and I said "sure". I did this because they asked, instead of just not telling me they owed me something, and because they did a good job until now w/this gallery for so many, many years, that I want a shot should they be able to open another one - or should they feel the need to refer my work to their friends in the gallery business, etc.
So, you're right, we all have choices and although some of them are tough ones,'s good to have places like this to get info from in order to educate ourselves and actually feel empowered knowing our choices aren't being taken away completely.

Unknown said...

I’ve been following Joanne’s blog over the past few months with interest in the topics on galleries and artists taking an entrepreneurial spirit and control of their own fate/success. During this same time I have been embroiled in a tedious situation with one of the galleries that represents my work in New Orleans. Long story short, when things didn’t seem to add up and make sense I did a bit of investigating and found the gallery had recently closed and relocated the art without notifying any of the artists. (appx. 30 artists from US, Canada and UK are involved) As we began to work as a group it was also discovered the owner/operators had been boosting prices and selling work without notifying or paying artists. Attorneys are now involved along with the IRS and the Louisiana States Attorney General, but it will be a long arduous process and the artists will be the ones to come out on the short end. From this negative experience several of the artists involved have begun to create and establish an online reference mechanism to aid anyone with information on or seeking accurate and authentic information about commercial galleries. The goal is to report objectively through a 15 point questionnaire that will be submitted via the interactive website and calculated to score galleries. This will be a blind report to ensure comprehensive and authentic answers that will allow an effective rating that will be useful to working artists as well as collectors. As painful as this is, it appears something positive will result, and the artists involved are actively participating in the potential of their fate and that of others.

Anonymous said...

what if a gallery tells you they just can't pay you right now? that's the situation i'm in. they have paid me consistently b4 but things have slowed down. do i demand my money and put all future business w/them on hold until i get paid? i understand this is a tough economy, but i have bills and expenses too. this gallery has brought much traffic and interest in my work/website - and that's worth a lot. but i don't want to be taken advantage of, i want to be supportive of arts organizations in this climate, but i also just want to get paid. any body have advice?

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Ted said...

I'd like to comment on the shipping issue here.... I recently looked at applying for a group show at a respectable gallery space. However they were asking the artist to cover shipping BOTH ways, and still were taking a 50% commission. And this was a sculpture show! As an artist, I can't afford to take a $400 hit on shipping. Isn't the point of the gallerist paying the return shipping to incentivize them to make the sale??? As a young emerging artist, I can't afford to subsidize a gallery on this level. WHATS MORE? I commented to the representative of the exhibition about this, and they returned a message accusing me of arrogance!!