Marketing Mondays: Do You Really Need a Gallery?

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."

With the promotional options available to artists now, and with a seemingly new respect for entrepreneurship (perhaps because there are more independent curators and critics than ever, and because dealers are also looking for new ways to run their businesses effectively on smaller budgets), it would appear that making a career without gallery representation really is an option. A few thoughts for artists of all ages, whether you're tending more toward the ping or the pong:

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?


Caio Fern said...

hi Joanne .
i am fron Sao Paulo city , Brazil .
here , sinse 1999 i have worked with local gallerys till 2003 , some even with international recognisement .
then i spent between 2004 and 2008 isolated just painting .
now , in 2009 i started my blog . in 9 moths bloging my work , i got more recognisement fron the rest of the world than in 10 years playing the "gallery game " .
today i work with 2 gallerys , one in England and one in Vienna because of internet . very small ones , but makes me satisfied and don't make me feel as i was working with a gallery as happened in the past . has that independent feeling .
i don't agree with you when you say the you can be independent with you want to work with a local market . for me it was the oposite , now i have people fron NY and London interested on my work . and Italy , Germany , Spain , Canada .......
i do think it is good to work with an important gallery because of the name and influence it has . a good gallery can do for an artist what he/she can't do by himself .
but is wonderful to know you have eficient alternatives , diferent of the 90's when i started , it was very sufocating the idea that "you HAVE to get in a gallery to make your carrier works " .
today i produce concerned exclusively about the work , and forget the market knowing everything is going to be fine anyway .

Chelsea Rose said...

Love this blog, very glad i stumbled upon it today.

Im a 22 year old female artists currently located in Portland Oregon. I have lived in PDX for over a year and a half now. I had my first ever solo gallery show last summer and it was a thrill as well as a success.
I have always considered myself a bit of an "outsider artist" and was surprised when the gallery show was offered to me.
I really loved showing in the gallery, i felt it was a great ice breaker for me and the community of Portland Oregon and it gave me a wonderful opportunity to sell some of my big original paintings( i ended up selling 4 big ones and 10+ smaller ones)yay!
Since my first show i have been applying for group shows. Right now i have three pieces in a Vancouver WA show called Myth and Legend and i submitted a piece for the 5th annual Portland love show.
I really feel i am doing these shows as a way to better integrate myself into the Portland art community.
Its all fine and dandy to sit at home, painting away- promoting my artwork via flickr, facebook, twitter and selling via etsy- but after awhile i start to crave a real sense of community and partnership with other artistic minds. ....not to mention i find it very difficult to sell my original paintings through my etsy store, especially when i am asking for $100-1000 for the work.
So yes, while i feel you really do not need to have your work in galleries- having a show or two( including group shows) is a wonderful way into your local communities, a great way to meet new contacts.
Thats saying a lot coming from a girl who grew up very low income level. I viewed art galleries as an elitism thing, that made art only truly available for the privileged. I think in some ways certain galleries can come off like that. But now i realize finding a gallery that suits you, your art and your intent is perhaps the most important thing about the gallery experience!

-Chelsea Rose

Carolyn Singh said...

Thank you for your discussion on the gallery issue. I believe you have summed it up nicely.
The only follow up question would be how does one, living in an isolated area, make contact with compatible galleries in more populated areas - other than the post card method? Are websites, etc. effective? And how can they be made more effective?

Joanne Mattera said...

See the sidebar for a list of Marketing Mondays posts in 2009 and 2010. Several deal with the issue of contacting galleries. My quick response here would be that you really want to be familiar with a gallery before you send your work off to it, so as much as it's important to present yourself by sending the postcards and having a great website, you want to know a gallery presents itself, too.

beebe said...

I'd say a mix of the two--gallery v. self-promotion-- would be your best approach. A gallery show is probably your best bet in terms of volume--getting the most amount of people to see a related body of work. But its ideal to go into a gallery setting with a number of curators, contacts, etc. of your own so you're bringing more to the gallery relationship than just your work. Also--if that gallery relationship ends (and they do)--you'll have some of your own resources available to help provide the next opportunity for your work. Keeps you busy that way.

nemastoma said...

I guess it would depend on “what” kind of gallery. If it’s a high-end gallery with great access to collectors and museums and one that goes all out to place the artist’s work in permanent collections, then I can imagine there’s nothing more soothing and satisfying for an artist than to be represented by that gallery. If on the other hand the gallery acts like a control freak, with no significant access to collectors and museums, then the artist would be way better off without gallery representation.

ambermaida said...

Great post Joanne-
I wonder if there could be a future post on address the delicate balance of having both? Do you feel it's possible? Thanks for making me rethink the artistic path...

Alyson B. Stanfield said...

Beautiful as usual, Joanne. I might argue this one point:

"You don't need a gallery if . . . Don’t mind having a regional career or are willing to (literally) take your show on the road."

I think this presumes that the career is in a bricks-and-mortar space, but there is so much going on with e-commerce. Artists are making sales from their Facebook pages and by tweeting their updates. There are a number of artists who have international audiences online. In fact, they might never been known in their regional community or in New York, but they are known on the Internet. It's fascinating to watch it all develop. I remember just 8 years ago when I was trying to get artists to get their own websites. Boy, have things changed.

Leslie Neumann said...

I love reading your blog, it is a part of my Tuesday routine. Thank you for your devotion to the subject of art and thanks for your generosity in sharing your experience. Today’s blog about gallery vs. DIY was especially important to me. I wish you would comment on this: getting older-- and the time it takes to form new relationships with galleries. Should any of us feel as if it’s more challenging as we get older or is that not a factor? I know I’m a much better painter now than I used to be, plus I have a world of experience dealing with the public, with collectors and curators, etc… so I have a lot to offer a gallery. I wonder if you have any insights into how artists are perceived based on their age?

Joanne Mattera said...

Ageism is a huge issue. Im not ready to go there (yet), but I'm happy to direct you to Regina Hackett's blog, where she posts this: The invisibility of Older WOmen Artists:

Tammy Vitale said...

Glad I found you on FB post - I think I may have to repost myself. Great discussion!

I stay with small shops and small independent galleries, some carefully chosen shows and am working the internet ( has taken off for me this year because I changed my product mix).

I guess you might need a gallery if you want prestige, but certainly not if you just want to support yourself with art.

Maria brophy said...

This question must be in the air. I just wrote a post on this topic (goes live tomorrow) and I'm almost scared to post it, because I have such strong feelings on this topic.

I am an advocate for artists to earn a living off their art. That means not relying on grants or public funds, etc. to feed your spouse and your children. It means being able to actually live off of your trade, just like any other professional does.

In that sense, I don't see many artists being able to support their families off of gallery representation. Sure, there's a small % that does, but it's so rare.

For artists who don't need to earn a living (it's their hobby, or they have someone supporting them) than sure, rely on galleries.

But for those who want to create all day and be paid fairly for it, you have to rely on yourself first.

Brenda said...

Concise and insightful, Joanne.

If you look at most businesses that produce goods or services, there is usually an R&D Dept, Production Dept, Marketing/Sales, Finance, etc.

Both R&D and Production are the artist's natural departments. That is what we do! Sure we can do the other marketing duties to get the work out there, but not as well, and certainly not with the joy that those experts get from applying their creative marketing skills to their trade. Embrace division of labor, I say.

Anonymous said...

This is a very good examination of a question that only a few years ago would have seemed preposterous. As Dickens said, "It is the best of times and it is the worst of times." It is best because for visual artists there has never been as many tools to make art as now. Moreover, there has never been as many tools for self-representing artists to get their work to market. It is the worst of times because in these economic conditions marketing art is harder than in the past. I wrote about Hazel Dooney last year. She is the perfect example of an artist who owns her career. She does not eschew working with galleries. She partners with them on her terms. By having taken control of her marketing, she can make the best of being independent and being good enough for galleries to want to work with her on unconventional terms.

Casey Klahn said...

I have mixed feelings, here. I have had one (very good, regional) gallery at a time, and I kill at each one, but then they close or re-flag. The selling part is great, but the job these galleries did at promotion was nil.

Resume? The galleries look good. Profile? Could be way better.

The blog, however, has been the greatest boon (I take it back - great artist fairs have been better). Anyway, self-promotion works very well IMO.

I want both, tho. Galleries, and self-promotion. I think galleries that work well will realize that the artist is going to be self-promoting, and that they still need to be presented by a dealer. Whatever - isn't this obvious?

Great post.

Art Trip said...

It seems that a jpg is a hard way to sell a painting because so much information is missing; scale, color depth, texture, etc.