Marketing Mondays: A Portfolio of Representation

Like a good investor, a working

artist would be wise to have a

diversified portfolio. I'm

talking galleries, not stocks

but the thinking is the same. 

One gallery might sell your work well but not do much in the way of advertising. Another may make only modest sales for you but have a great presence in the art community, which gives you visibility among your peers and other art professionals. Another may be well connected to curators and critics so that your work is included in museum shows and reviewed. Another may advertise regularly or include your work in international art fairs so that their presence, and yours, goes beyond the city where they are located. Yet another may feature your work on their website or blog, or in regular newsletters.

The Uber Gallery
Represented by or in a good working relationship with several galleries in different cities around the country, you thus have a kind of uber gallery, one that does everything that the average gallery couldn’t possibly do: sell your work; place it in good institutional, corporate and private collections; promote it via ads and a great website; take your work to the art fairs; be sufficiently connected to get you museum shows and reviews; and pay you on time. If you’re prolific, you could have one or two solos a year as well as inclusion in a number of groups shows. Given the diversity of your portfolio, sales could generate enough income to support you.

Talking recently with a friend who was upset at what her gallery wasn’t doing for her, it became clear in conversation that developing a relationship with a second gallery would remove some of the stress she was feeling. Involvement with a second (or third) dealer reminds the first to not take you for granted. It reinforces the idea that you are an artist worth cultivating and promoting.

The portfolio approach takes some pressure off the dealer, too. “If I’m the only gallery representing an artist, I feel a huge responsibility," says a dealer I know. "Especially these days, if sales are slow, I know my artists are going to have trouble paying bills, so I like it when they are represented elsewhere.”  And dealers, after all, have a portfolio of artists; it's called a roster, or in old-fashioned barnyard terms, a stable.

Given that the economy affects different parts of the country differently, a well-planned portfolio may mean sales in one gallery even if another is not doing so well for you. Your sales may well be what helps keep a gallery going and/or good reviews of your shows may create the attention that brings in valued collectors. On the flip side, another gallery may not be doing so well for you, but the sales of other artists keep the gallery afloat assuring you of a continued presence on the roster.
A Portfolio of Responsibility
With each gallery you have to honor commitments: offer new work on a regular basis, meet deadlines for exhibitions and art fairs, keep your resume and supporting materials up to date, provide good images, and if possible, show up at the openings of other gallery artists. When you work with several galleries, it’s not unusual to field a couple or three requests a week. One might want to see images of everything you have available in red, for instance, while another needs an updated resume this minute, while still another might like to make a studio visit with a client, which will have you scrambling to straighten up. It's business; roll with it.

You will also deal with a portfolio of personalities. One unfailingly picks up the tab for dinner; the other nickels and dimes you, then offers a way-too-generous discount to collectors. For every dealer who is organized, there's another who leaves everything until the last minute, when the burden may fall on you. "Can you Fed Ex it overnight?" I've been asked at 5:00 p.m. Uh, but I asked you last week if you wanted it, when we could have shipped it third-day for two-thirds less, and I would have had the time to actually pack it. Only you can decide which personalities you can deal with. (Those last-minute overnight requests are on the gallery's Fed Ex account, by the way.)

The more galleries in your portfolio, the more administrative work you have to do, too: keep track of who has what work, how long it’s been at the particular gallery, when you’ve been paid. This is a good problem to have, but it means doing more desk work than you expect. So expand slowly and see what kind of pace you can handle.

If You’re Not Represented
I know, some of you are thinking, “What about if you don’t have even one gallery?”  You don’t have to have a gallery at this very moment. This is simply a businesslike way of thinking about your career. Indeed, the portfolio doesn’t happen overnight but develops over the long haul. And the galleries in your developing portfolio don't have to include New York City; there are many cities, large and small, where art gets shown and sold. (Indeed suburban venues, especially in wealthy towns, could provide enough in sales to support not only your studio practice but provide a living income. And I notice that galleries even in small towns find their way to the art fairs.) 

Many posts in this series talk about ways to secure gallery representation, or at least to get on a gallery's radar: Six Degrees of Representation, How Did You Find a Gallery? How Dealers Are Considering Artists Now, Part One and Part Two and others. Even if it's not commercial, you may have more of a portfolio than you realize: art associations or academic galleries where you have a continuing presence; artist groups to which you belong—especially the ones that seek out exhibition venues and mount exhibitions; non-profits that have shown your work; flat files.

Over to you: How are you diversifying?

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Tamar said...

Great post Joanne. I have found it essential to work with several galleries (in different cities) and consultants in order not just to survive but do well. However, there is a complication that arises when your work is spread out across several galleries--who gets what. Do you break up a series, send one gallery primarily paintings and another works on paper? And how to handle the delicate task of sometimes taking several pieces back from one dealer to send to another (while maintaining positive professional relationships with both). It can be challenging, but juggling different galleries is certainly a necessary part of the mix. said...

Tamar, you raise some interesting questions.

While no representing dealer likes to return work while it's in active inventory--they need time to sell a show--they also understand the nature of the business. They're amenable to sending specific pieces back to me, or more likely, to another dealer, if the work is likely to be part of a larger sale. They know know the wheel will turn and that I will facilitate work being sent their way, too.

I try to be judicious in my requests. I know the work belongs to me, but if a dealer is working hard on my behalf, I don't want to undermine their efforts. I briefly had a dealer who assumed that my inventory, spread among a number of galleries, was available to her. She repeatedly showed her clients the websites of the other dealers and then asked me to retrieve those works from the dealers to "show the client." I repeatedly declined. The relationship didn't last long.

The best way I have found to work with several galleries: total honesty.

annell4 said...

Working on it..... said...

Here is a question - If a gallery wants to sell a piece which another gallery holds, wouldn't it make sense for the galleries to speak to each other and come to terms about splitting their share?
I have to keep reminding myself that I don't need to show in every gallery that asks for my work...I reallly need to decide whether it's a mutually beneficial arrangement. I am one that see it all as a working partnership.
I know that some galleries complain about artists expecting a gallery to be a parent and supply everything they need but sometimes galleries want the power of a dictatorial
parent. gallery relationships are like all relationships; they
take attention, negotiations, compromise and lots of work.

Lani said...


What you say makes good sense – from the Artist’s perspective.

And from the Gallery perspective, I fully understand the uncomfortable burden of not being able to sell enough of the Artist’s work to keep him/her afloat, especially in today’s weak market.

But picture this scenario:

Gallery A takes Artist’s work to art fairs, prints catalogs, provides regular solo shows, arranges for museum placements, pays on time, etc etc, but at present cannot sell Artist’s entire output.

Gallery B does none of above, but offers very large discounts to clients – and (of consequence) outsells Gallery A, oftentimes to the same client base. BTW, in the Internet age, no dealer can own any real geographic territory, so the answer is not in assigning “territories”.

If I’m accurately reading your “portfolio” above, both galleries are part of a smart mix.

But how smart is it for Gallery A to continue to do what it does for the Artist in this scenario?

I’m always impressed at your savvy and balanced approach to the business side of art, so I’m hugely interested in how you’d approach this one if you were wearing Gallery A’s hat.

Joanne Mattera said...

Thanks for commenting from the dealer's point of view. You are right that the digital age has really changed things for dealers as well as artists.

I know you're not suggesting that artists have only one dealer. (Unless it's a blue chip, which leaves 99.9 percent of us, artists and dealers, outside that category.) What happens if the dealer goes out of business, decides not to represent the artist anymore, simply cannot sell the artist's work anymore?

I couldn't support myself through the sale of my work if I had only one dealer. Just as you, a dealer, cannot support yourself through the sales of one artist.

A few thoughts:
. Where is the artist in this conversation? Artists and dealers are business partners. Does s/he understand what it is you're doing to promote their career? Some artists really don't understand what it takes for a dealer to do business.
. Can you define "very large discount"? Ten percent may be a big cut to one dealer or collector, chump change to one who has increased prices by 10 percent to discount at 20. Personally, I get nervous with big discounts, because they send a message that the artist is "discountable"--not a good thing for artists or dealers.
. Beyond what you do for the artist, aside from sales, what does the artist do for you? Does s/he have a reputation that elevates the gallery? That allows you to attract more desirable artists to the gallery? Bring in clients? Create interest in the gallery and its programs?
. Maybe it's time to focus more on the other artists on your roster, the ones who are working with you in a more equitable manner?

I'm not sure my comments have helped. But perhaps they might open up the dialog.

Stacey said...

As a broker of primitive art, all of my "artists" have been deceased for hundreds (if not thousands) of years. However, I still "feel your pain," as working with galleries of any type can be difficult - the secret is working with people you trust.

Tribal Art Hunter | Professional Art Consulting and Buying

Lani said...


No, I’m not arguing against representation by multiple galleries, only suggesting that unless that representation is equitable, the “portfolio mix” can rapidly fall apart.

Your original schema whereby one gallery “might sell your work well but not do much in the way of advertising [or promotion at fairs, or museum placement etc]” is what pushed my button.

To suggest that a portfolio based on some galleries promoting and others selling isn’t a workable formula for long. I’m sure you weren’t suggesting such a B&W you-harvest, I’ll-reap scenario, and there are typically many more grey areas in this kind of mix, but I am disturbed when artists don’t value the costly investments that dealers make, nor see the long-term value that sometimes comes at the expense of short-term sales.

Can I define “very large discount”? 20-30% - even higher in the last couple of years. Yes, as you suggest, preceded by a mark-up.

How aware are artists of these tactics? And do many care, as long as their “portfolio” is paying dividends?

I didn’t mean to turn your very thought-provoking post into an endless whinge from my side. Like I said, you hit a button.

But you also consistently hit the critical nail: it’s about ongoing and honest conversations between dealers and artists. And as Stacey writes “working with people you trust”

Thank you for the dialogue.