Marketing Mondays: How Dealers Are Considering Artists Now, Part 1

"We're not taking on as many new artists. We feel responsible to the artists we represent."
--Melanee Cooper, owner and director, Melanee Cooper Gallery, Chicago

While the Dow has begun to edge up and there seem to be a few more red dots in the galleries, the art world is still reeling from the recession that began 13 months ago. Gallery closings and relocations continue, and many artists who once had representation now do not.
I posed five questions to 40 art dealers around the country—half from New York City, and half from elsewhere. The 12 responses I received, representing that geography in about the same proportion, are not enough to provide a statistically accurate current picture, but anecdotally they create a good sketch of how dealers are considering artists now, particularly because the responses are of a piece with informal conversations I’ve had with dealers in Chelsea and elsewhere.
The Respondents
Leigh Conner, principal,
Connor Contemporary, Washington, D.C.
Melanee Cooper, principal,
Melanee Cooper Gallery, Chicago
Julian Jackson and Rene Lynch, principals,
Metaphor Contemporary Art, Brooklyn
Gregory Lind, principal,
Gregory Lind Gallery, San Francisco
Kathryn Markel, principal,
Kathryn Markel Fine Arts, Chelsea
Valerie McKenzie, principal, McKenzie Fine Art, Chelsea
Benjamin Tischer, principal,
Invisible-Exports, Lower East Side
Nancy Toomey,
Toomey Tourell Fine Art, San Francisco
Hope Turner, owner,
Arden Gallery, Boston
Chelsea Dealer A, who asked to remain anonymous
Chelsea Dealer B, who asked to remain anonymous
Midwest Dealer, who asked to remain anonymous

What’s new in this economy
While some dealers are continuing as before, at least 50 percent of our respondents—and by extension, I’d guess a similar percentage of dealers nationwide—are retrenching in some way. As they take fewer chances, there are fewer spots for new artists. Newly minted MFAs, not so long ago the darlings of the dealers, are now more of a liability because they have no experience working with a gallery.
That makes the tried-and-true advice more important then ever: Show regularly—including in non-profits and alternative spaces—so that your work is visible. Network, network, network so that you’re in the loop. Have an online presence. Those unsolicited packages you send out with such hope have a slim chance of hitting their mark—but the odds are increased if you’re doing all of the above
Q: Has the current economy changed the way you consider artists for your gallery?
The responses are almost evently split.

. Kathryn Markel:Not yet.”
. Chelsea Dealer A said the same thing, adding, "But I am scrutinizing each piece that comes through the gallery door, asking, ‘Is this something really special?’”
. Gregory Lind: “The current challenge has not changed the way I consider my artists. I either love the work and feel the artists should be exhibited and eventually become part of the gallery program or not.”
. Julian Jackson and Rene Lynch: “We continue to curate the gallery with the same criteria we have used from the beginning. The economy has not changed our focus.”
. Valerie McKenzie: “Not really. The current economy can’t last forever.”
. Leigh Conner matches and ups McKenzie’s optimism: “The economy has not changed the way we consider artists for your program. As a gallery we are always looking to the future—five, ten years down the road.”
. Chelsea Dealer B: “I’m being much more careful in thinking about whether I can actually sell an artist’s work before considering working with them.”
. Nancy Toomey: “I guess I would have to say that I’m more interested in scheduling exhibitions for artists who already have a track record, and I’ve also considered exhibitions that have work at lower price points.”
. Midwest Dealer: “I’m less inclined to take on new artists who will require a good deal of resources. Mostly this means shipping. So smaller works, smaller shows are more likely to happen. I’d rather show in a conservative number and scale and sell the larger works via jpegs while the actual works stay in the artists’ studio.”
. Hope Turner: “We have decided to do have more two-person shows. The featured artist is shown in the front room and in the window facing the street. A second show is mounted in the middle room, which is a smaller space; this show may feature a new artist or one we do not show in regular rotation.”
. Melanee Cooper: "Artists are dropping off and picking up, because we can't bear the shipping costs right now. We're being more careful with our advertising budget. We’re not taking on as many new artists. We feel responsible to the artists we represent.” (“That said,” she adds, “I’m always looking for the right artist.”)

Q: Even though you may not be actively seeking artists for your gallery, you always have your eye out for new talent. Where might you look for and where you have found artists to exhibit?
The number-one way they find artists: recommendations and referrals. If you haven't been networking, this should noodge you into doing so. Art fairs are also up there on their list. This may seem unfair if you're trying to get your foot in the gallery door, since artists shown at those art fairs are already in someone's gallery--but not all of the exhibiting galleries are big-city venues.
. Chelsea Dealer B: Recommendations from artists I’m currently working with are the number-one source of new considerations. After that, artists I’ve read about who are getting serious attention. After that, artists I meet socially.”
. Nancy Toomey:Referrals from artists or collectors I respect, art fairs, picking up artists coming out of art school (in my case, often from the San Francisco Art Institute).”
. Midwest Dealer: “The order has changed recently: One, recommendations from other artists who know me, my program, and the artist they are recommending; two, discovery as I travel to art fairs and, sometimes, other galleries; three, unsolicited submissions, about one in a million.
. Chelsea Dealer A: “It’s now almost always by referral from another artist or gallery. If I see someone’s work in a group show (gallery or non-profit) who is not represented, I might pursue a studio visit.”
. Gregory Lind: “One, seeing an artist’s work exhibited at a gallery or sometimes at an art fair; two, through one of my artists or other artists I know; three, although seldom, receiving a submission per email or packet.” He also admits to coming across the occasional artist while navigating the net.
. Valerie McKenzie: “I listen to referrals from people I trust, keep my eyes open when I look at group shows and go through art fairs, and sometimes just seize an opportunity when it comes my way.”
. Hope Turner: “We are always looking for new talent. This includes scouting at art fairs, ads in art magazines, and recommendations by gallery artists.”
. Leigh Conner has these priorities: “Visiting alternative spaces to see what is on the edge of their discourse; watching an artist over time; referrals.”
. Benjamin Tischer: “I would say that 75%of the people we have shown in the gallery, even in group shows, are friends, or friends of friends. While this comes off as nepotistic, the art world is ultimately very small, first and foremost a community.” (Tischer, a model of optimism, opened his gallery in the middle of the recession.)
. Kathryn Markel gets the last word here: “I always look. I love to look. And I always look at unsolicited e-mails, the web, everything.”
Q: Many artists think that an invitation to join a gallery happens in a snap. What does it take for an artist to be invited to join your roster?
Typically, time is the main ingredient, followed by a positive client response to the work.
. Melanee Cooper: “Every gallery runs differently. We’re looking for a response from our clients, and then we go from there.”
. Kathryn Markel: “I work with a lot of artists, but don’t necessarily give all of them exhibitions. I’ll just take in the work of a new artist and try it out on my clients. I like to live with the work for a while and see how I feel after the initial response.”
. Nancy Toomey: “Let me try to market the work to my collectors (three to six months) and then possibly a two-person show. That can take up to a year.”
. Hope Turner: “Shows are usually scheduled one year in advance, so an invitation to join the gallery is not immediate.”
. Chelsea Dealer B: "It can take years. We will sometimes work an artist into a group exhibition to learn how well we talk about their work, how well we work together, how much interest there is among our collectors."
. Valerie McKenzie: “It actually can happen in a snap, but rarely. It’s like any other relationship: You have to feel mutual respect and trust. I have to feel that the new artist isn’t just another version of an artist I already show, but someone who will add depth and breadth to the program. And I have certain interests and points of view that I want to maintain.”
. Benjamin Tischer: “If a gallery is including an artist on their permanent roster, the gallery should be able to sell enough of the work for that artist, or at the very least believe they will be able to do so in the future. It’s a long-term commitment.”
. Gregory Lind: “I need to have a strong feeling for the work. I also need to know that the artist and individual I am dealing with seems mature, reliable, and reasonable in their expectations and has some sort of perspective about what they want from their practice and the gallery system of presenting their work. Many emerging artists have not had much, or any, experience working with a commercial gallery, and there is a learning curve for both them and the dealer.”
. Midwest Dealer: “Of course the work must be strong and individual. It can’t overlap or compete too much with artists already in the program. And I have to feel the artist is mature (not chronologically, but in their understanding of the art world) and professional. They need to understand I cannot be their sole source of income or career building.”
. Chelsea Dealer A: "It's the unique quality of the [artist's] work and how it fits into the gallery's program. It's evidence of consistent dedication to their work and career." But more than that, he points out, "Since the gallery is already working with a number of artists, there has to be room for someone new, and the dealer has to be able to dedicate the time and resources necessary to develop the artist's career."
. . . . . . . . . .
“The art world is ultimately very small, first and foremost a community. "
–Benjamin Tischer, a principal of Invisible-Exports, New York City, explaining why referrals and networking drive so many dealers’ choices

Part 2 will appear next Monday


Quilt Works said...

Interesting article!
One key point - referrals!
In this economy 80% of my business is rerrals or repeat customers! Thank God I have been doing this for a long time.

Donna Dodson said...

Thanks for all the info Joanne. I am interested in the primary versus secondary gallery question, if you have covered it before in your marketing Monday series. For example, if an artist is showing at multiple commercial gallery spaces across the country, which one gets to call themselves the primary gallery where the artist's work is concerned? Is it the gallery that is the closest one to where the artist lives or would it be the most prominent gallery program including artfairs or would it automatically be their NYC gallery representation or afiliation?

Joanne Mattera said...


I think Ed Winkleman has covered this issue in his blog in a better way than I can.

But I can respond generally by saying that there's no "automatically." While New York City has the highest profile, a New York City gallery may not necessarily make the most sales, or promote you as well as the one in your home city or region.

And galleries come in all sizes. There's no reason to think a small NYC gallery without a track record would be a better deal than a solid regional gallery with a strong collector base for your work.

For me, the "primary" gallery would be the one--or ones--that show me regularly, sell my work, advertise my shows, take me to the art fairs.

I've seen too many artists accede to a NY gallery in terms of prices (raising them) and treatment (sometimes not very well). If/when things don't work out with that "primary gallery" they're stuck with prices that are too high for other areas of the country and possibly left without backup.

Artist/dealer relationships are like dating, as many of us often note, but the big difference is that they don't have to be monogamous. Just be open and honest with the dealers you work with. They have relationships with other artists, too.

Of course, I'm not a dealer. Mine is definitely an artist's point of view.

Stephanie Sachs said...

Thanks for the insightful information. Your links to all the galleries mentioned was an easy way to explore and find out more about each gallery.

Joanne Mattera said...

Tell us about your own show here
in town.

Stephanie Sachs said...

Nancy Toomey: “I guess I would have to say that I’m more interested in scheduling exhibitions for artists who already have a track record, and I’ve also considered exhibitions that have work at lower price points.”
This comment popped out at me.

I could potentially fit into both those categories. I did have a successful show because collectors that I have relationships with came while we were setting up and bought 5 paintings before the show opened.
Took on all the leg work myself. Mailing postcards, emails, setting up appointments, meeting my collectors, finishing the sale.

It was gratifying and comforting to have these sales at the beginning and it open doors to two more shows.

Kathryn Hansen said...

great article...very helpful and a bit scary as i'm just starting out again after many years away from the gallery scene.

Cari said...

thanks Joanne-
very interesting to see a cross section of thoughts, I'm looking forward to reading Part II

Unknown said...

Joanne, thanks once again for your very helpful information. And thanks to the gallerists who were willing to speak to the issue honestly and openly.

Joanne Mattera said...

Thanks, Donna.
And, yes, thanks to the gallerists who were willing to speak to the issue.

Unknown said...

Joanne, I have visited your blog many times, but I am not sure if I have ever commented. I just wanted to say that the information you provide is so valuable! Thanks to you, and to the generosity of the gallery owners who are willing to share their thoughts.

Bill said...

This was one of your best Marketing Monday posts. Informative and helpful.

I like that you post back to questions/comments from readers -- your response to Donna
is good advice.


kim matthews said...

Once again, super helpful and encouraging too. It's nice to know that resume builders like juried shows and college exhibitions can make a real difference. Thanks, Joanne!

Ace said...

Wow, this is such an insightful entry! This is exactly the type of information that I want to know as an emerging artist; information that is honest and straight from the horse's mouth so to speak. Thanks for posting this!