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Preparing to Work with Art Galleries

Artists are faced with many decisions regarding how to promote their work. The oldest option on the list is art galleries. An art gallery can be an established organization of substantial merit, a start up with an artist owner, a museum, a privately owned representation gallery, or a co-op. There are also online art galleries. Online galleries and co-ops are a totally different subject, as are art markets and large art vending venues. For the purposes of this blogpost, I will stick to the bricks and mortar businesses you might desire to get your work into when you are first deciding to work with galleries.

Having owned and operated a private bricks and mortar art gallery myself, I can offer you some business tips for artists from both sides of the fence to help you get started. I decided to move on and make more art myself, but I walked away with so much experience and understanding of the gallery scene, because I also learned the ropes about my fellow gallery managers. If you are a collector, this will give you a sense of the process artists go through before you see paintings hanging on a gallery wall, and to understand the level of dedication required to get into a gallery and become established - from the artists point of view.

Why You Will Want to Work With Galleries

You can show your work on Instagram, Facebook, and a host of other places online. So why bother with the bricks and mortar art galleries? Art galleries are about more than just showing (and hopefully selling) your work. Applying and putting your work into a gallery will - yes, I'm going to use the "E" word here - give you exposure to people who might otherwise never see your work. Participating in gallery shows helps you to build your artist resume. If people ask about your work, you can tell them about the gallery or show and refer them to see it in person. The good galleries will work hard to market their artists, and they will often have an onine viewing portfolio to draw collectors in to see the pieces directly. Most galleries host openings with artist receptions where potential buyers can meet you and talk to you about your work. Art is most often bought because the purchaser is interested in the artist, not just the art. You're participation in gallery events builds your relationships with gallery staff, other artists, and potential buyers. You can hand out business cards, and you might get commissions. You are perceived as a higher caliber artist if you get your work into galleries and gallery shows. Track every single gallery and show to add to your resume. You often will receive media coverage and social media coverage of yourself and your work, which all lends a credibility to you as an artist that is much harder to come by with sole reliance on social media art pages. Definitely have those art pages! But you have to do much more to market yourself successfully. Think in terms of your art as a business with multiple income streams just as any other business would do. Make lots of art and spread yourself around.

What Not To Do When Dealing With Art Galleries

Please, above all, do not show up at the doorstep of a gallery with your artwork in the trunk of your car asking the gallerist to have a look. You can get away with this at some galleries where the staff and owner are more charming, but I don't advise it at all. In most situations it will automatically remove you from consideration. Also, don't call on the phone with a long list of questions about how to get into the gallery. Being a professional artist means thinking with a business mind and doing your research first. It also means that your first contact with a new gallery leaves an impression, and you want it to be more than good.

Where to Begin: Rate Your Options and Prioritize Your Needs

Start from square one: create a list of potential art galleries in your target region, usually surrounding where you live, and within a distance you are willing to drive. There could be fabulous art galleries 5-6 hours from your home, but is that really going to work for you? Consider that you will make a minimum of three trips per show to the gallery. Be realistic and consider the cost of the traveling, which may involve overnight stays. About your list: place galleries with work that is most suitable for your niche and style at the top, moving down to the least desirable/worst fit at the bottom. Not everything is going to be for you, and sometimes you won't be fore them. Every art gallery is unique. Try to come up with ten locations in your region. Evaluate them thoroughly online. Look at every page on their website. Assess their social media pages and do the same thing. This is as important as buying a car. You want to look under the hood and kick the tires. Will they insure your work while it is there? That being said, make a personal visit to each gallery first as a visitor only, getting a feel for the space, the energy, the vibe, the price range, the quality of work displayed, and the staff. Check their hours to see how often they are open. Check their calendars to see what kind of traffic flow they get through their gallery. After a full assessment, adjust your list as needed. Now focus on the top five art gallery options that best suit your needs and your work.

Proper Presentation of Your Work

Every art gallery has it's own policies and procedures for applying to get in as a represented artist or to participate in a group show or solo show. Familiarize yourself with those procedures, take notes, print out forms and calls, set them up in folders for each gallery. If you have enough existing work already made that you are going to want to apply for entry with, it has to be in ship shape and properly photographed. 2D artwork has to be properly mounted and framed if on paper, and everything must be meticulously clean. Canvas work must be framed and securely wired. Do not use sawtooth hangers. Gallery wrapped canvases must be pained on all four edges, preferably with the design on the front continuing around all edges, not just solid color painted edges. Regardless of the type of work you are hanging on a wall, the hanging hardware must be properly applied and correctly wired so there is no risk of it falling off the wall. This is expecially critical with heavy pieces. 3D art must be able to fit in the entrance of the gallery and must be structurally sound enough to be displayed without risk it will break while on display. For more complex installations or those with sound or video, it's best to discuss this with the gallery manager in advance. Galleries often have size limits. Do your homework. It's essential that you prepare your work professionally and present it in it's best light. Here's an example of wiring with D-rings and picture wire of the proper wieght for the canvas. You will also need to photograph your work for the applications, which is an art in itself to do really well. Lighting is everything. There are other blogs on this subject, and I will write one later this year with my tips and techniques.

How to Apply to Art Galleries

Check the websites for a policy for each art gallery you are interested in before applying. Expect a minimum of one month and up to two months of prep time to submit applications, and then a waiting period before you get an answer. There's nothing fast about this process. Some of them require memberships such as this site. You might need to pay a fee to join. Some of them are curated memberships which will require you to apply to join. You will typically need several photos of your work, along with an artist statement and an artist resume, and a head shot or artist logo. Get your preliminary work and documents done first. Smaller art galleries might not have any information on their website about getting your work in, so in that case you can send a polite email inquiry as to their policy and procedure. If you don't get a response in two weeks try a phone call. During the busy seasons give them a month to respond. No response at all is generally not a good sign, and you probably should look elsewhere.

If you are given an appointment, show up on time and present yourself as if going to a job interview. Dressing artsy is good as long as it's professional. Remember that you are trying to set up a business relationship, and the gallery wants to know that they can trust and rely on you as a person, not just handle your work. If you are applying to a call for artists show with a specific theme and terms, make sure your work fits the call. If you are producing new work for a call, be sure to start soon enough to have fully completed, dry, and wired/ready to display work that is signed and labeled with a dedicated title. Follow the instructions from the gallery on how to label the work. Be prepared with photos of your work, your professional artist documents, and a list of works submitted. You might not need all of that for every call, but you will in most cases. If you are applying for representation, you will need to have a body of work already completed to show in your application, not just a few pieces. Make sure to present your best work in your application portfolio. Most art galleries have an online applications process. Small fees are often required to apply, but not always. Be sure to complete all of the applications and submit by the deadlines or they will be dismissed. Being late is not going to fly.

Photographing Your Work for Submission

You will need to photograph your work for the art gallery applications, which is an art in itself to do really well. Lighting is everything. There are other blogs on this subject, and I will write one later this year with my tips and techniques. If you can afford to pay someone to professionally photograph your work, that's your solution. If not, do the best you can with as much natural lighting as possible, and then edit your photos to look as much like the actual work as you can.

Once you have the digital images of your work, make sure they are properly cropped (no background showing for 2D art) and labeled. In some cases, such as 3d art like pottery, jewelry, or sculpture, you will need to take more than one photo per piece to show details. Most applications won't allow more than three photos per item. Most online application portals don't accept photos larger than 2 MB, so you should also prepare a file of smaller sized images of 2MB size and keep that with your document listing the art title, size, and price for those pieces. You will be required to put a price tag on each piece in your application. Pricing is again, another subject. Remember that a gallery will take anywhere between 30-50% commission on the sale of each piece of your work, so consider that cost in your pricing structure, as well as the cost of transportation to and from the gallery if it's not local to you. Pricing your work is probably among the most debated and controversial topics among artists. There is no right or wrong, so ultimately you have to price your work according to what works for you.

Artist Documents You Will Need

I've mentioned documentation several times, and I can't emphasize this enough. It's not only important to have what art galleries will require of you, it's also important to have your own written or typed system to keep track of all your work and where it is. You need to track drop of and pick up dates and times on a calendar with the locations. Search online for artist opportunities at least once a month and put all your application deadlines on the same calendar. It can be a digital calendar or a paper calendar or a notebook calendar. All that matter is that you are able to stay organized and on top of things. You also need to keep paper or digital lists of your inventory and where your artwork is. I keep a digital inventory of everything. I print it out and use copies of this when I sell pieces or move pieces into a gallery setting. I have a folder for every gallery. I prefer colorful physical folders for my paperwork that I can grab and go when traveling to galleries. I also keep a digital file of everything. My artist brain seems to require both digital prompts and physical ones. No matter what, I recommend buying actual folders that you can color code for each location where you bring your art. When you drop off or pick up work, they will have paperwork in hard copy for you to sign over or pick up your art. This is for legal purposes and tracking sales. It's impossible to keep this all in your head if you don't have aphotographic memory. Professional galleries always have you sign paperwork , because they are insuring your work while it's in their posession. That being said, it's still your responsibility to track where your work is. This process also alerts you of when and from whom commission checks are coming. That's another list to create and track as checks come in. Track everything and save receipts for your taxes. Keep a mileage log. You can be old school on paper or you can find apps for each of these needs as long as you remember to use them. At tax time each year you will thank yourself for having left such an easy to follow digital or paper trail.

Packing Your Work for Transport

Take care when loading your art before you hop in the car or on public transport to bring your work to a gallery. You can never have too much bubble wrap. I'm also a fan of cardboard corner protectors and shrink wrap to guard the easily damaged corners of artwork and to keep all the wrappings in place. If you're ever going to ship artwork in a crate or cardboard shipping box, that's a more involved process for another blogpost. I'm referring to work that you are bringing to the gallery yourself. It needs to arrive in perfect condition, so take the time to place it carefully in wrappings, use any available packing materials to pad it, and keep it protected from weather . If you're in a pinch and have not got official packing materials on hand, you can use towels, plastic trash bag wraps, anything to keep it safe and dry. Pillow cases can act as sleeves for smaller pieces. I have sewn protective sheaths from towels and blankets that work really well with a layer of cardboard on both sides. I do this when I know I might not get back my fancy packaging, and I'm OK with parting with the makeshift padding. It all depends on the gallery or show.

Understanding the Sales & Commission Process

As stated avobe, galleries take as much as 30-50% of all sales of artist works, depending on their structure. Some galleries are not for profits and are largely funded by grants that determine their operating structure. Others are private and their overhead costs vary - rent or mortgage, insurance, utilities, advertising, maintenance, security, etc. Their marketing programs also vary by location and business structure. They have different client bases and diffferent price structures and sales records. All of these things affect the commission rate. Know that in the vast majority of cases, the commission the gallery takes is well earned and the only way for the gallery to exist. Yes, there are those who take advantage and darken the doorstep of the art world. This is why I have emphasized doing your homework in the first place. Who you do business with is a big decision. It's also important to help the gallery out with marketing. Announce that show you're in on social media a couple of times during the exhibit. Go to the events and have a presence and post about it. This goes a long way to help yourself while helping the gallery. When you build your email list, you can also send out an annoucement of the show to those people.

Showing up for Shows

To the best of your ability, nourish these business relationships you are building. Don't just dump off your art and walk away, make no further effort, then wonder why it didn't sell. You play a role in the eqauation, even when your work is on exhibit in a gallery. For those of you who are more introverted artists, this is very hard. You will need to get out of your comfort zone to succeed. I can not stress this point enough: your networking, social skills, and willingness to show up and be of service to your business partners, and to honor your own artistic career are crucial. They are going to have as big of an impact on your success as the skills you have developed and built upon to create your work. Oftentimes sales, commissions, art jobs, and gigs come from who you know and are connected to, so get out there and mingle.


Mary E D Ryan Art

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