Artists and galleries; it’s all about relationships


The relationship between artists and art galleries has always been an intense and at times uneasy association. With today’s technologies and new avenues for artists to get their stuff shown, how are galleries and artists managing their ongoing and sometimes tempestuous relationships?

What are commercial art galleries there to do?

To bring to the public artworks you can’t get to see in national, state or regional gallery.

– To give artists a space where their works can be viewed in the best possible light and be sold and promoted by dedicated and passionate people.
– Are they there to expose, encourage and help develop artists towards successful national and international careers?
– Or are they simply there to make enough money to maintain and grow their business.

Commercial art galleries throughout Australia are run by people who fit a number of descriptions, such as gallerists, directors, dealers and owners. All have their unique view of the arts world. Just in Sydney the Yellow Pages has 174 art galleries listed between Artarmon and Zetland.

There are a growing number of avenues available for an artist to get her or his works seen and sold today. Such as the Art Sydney and Art Melbourne shows, arts and community fairs, competitions, markets, the internet, and websites. Many artists’ websites are set up just as virtual galleries. But for some, it’s the sole point for their art sales. How do these things affect the relationship between an artist and an art gallery?

Artists looking for a gallery might ask themselves questions like below

– What is the best gallery for my style of art?
– How do I go about finding them?
– What do gallery owners think of taking on an artist who has a personal website?
– Does this gallery have art as its first priority?

What are the benefits of a commercial art gallery for me?

It seems most artists have a uniquely similar view of what is the best art gallery for them. I spoke to twenty artists from NSW, Victoria and Tasmania about what they wanted, here’s what they said,

– Regular exhibitions – that gives an artist a goal to aim at what is essential to them
– Professional direction and support
– Storage and insurance of works
– Introduction to new clients
– Good media coverage for exhibitions
– Upfront and efficient payment to assist in the preparation for shows and the creation of new artworks
– Covering costs of marketing, invitations, media releases and promotion
– Advancement of funds for works they have on consignment
– Helping with exposure to international fairs and art shows
– Arrange talks and workshops where appropriate.
– Keeping in contact and consideration of new works for potential sales

Of course, galleries have their own list of requirements from an artist, but these can only be realised after you have developed a relationship with a gallery, so it’s tricky.

The first step for an artist is to find the right gallery to represent them. As there are many types of art galleries, you’ll need to do your research here. Before finding the right gallery, artists spend much of their time developing works and a portfolio to show potential galleries. Then they will spend time travelling for self-promotion and getting their stuff out there. Possibly self-funding trips and training courses locally and overseas.

I know one Australian artist who gave up a great deal to set herself up, so she could study in New York for two years and progress her career – it worked. But after a major show and good exposure she felt lost in the system – what happened?

If a gallery does not represent artworks in their full creative light, and if there’s a perceived imbalance between what a gallery gets, and what an artist gets, the artist and the art usually falls flat. Or they become just another commodified product.

Gallery directors are out there sourcing and finding artists

They will attend end- of-year exhibitions at art schools and universities and other gallery openings. Many will spend time crossing Australia to find artists and bring them to their galleries and potential local sales.

Gallery owners and directors don’t really troll the internet to find artists. It’s simply not a viable tool for viewing and assessing artworks. Most will tell you they need to feel that up-close emotional response from an artwork and an artist before they can take them on. For a painter, the internet is not a place where viewers will get an in-depth understanding of their works. Or for developing a relationship with potential clients. Buying an artwork based on what it looks like online, might strongly disappoint when it hits your wall. There’s no place like a gallery for getting in touch with an artwork and an artist.

Do artists believe that most galleries have art as their first priority? The answer is, not really. Artists are looking for support and think that good galleries should have the art as their first priority. Good galleries show a commitment to nurturing the artist and to help develop their full potential. Artists are looking for galleries who can provide them with not just a living, but a broad ranging “growing” experience; one that is dynamic and professional. Galleries who are linked in with the mainstream art market, but smart enough not to be trapped by it. Artists want galleries who instill trust in the artist and offer a genuine commitment. These are seen as the good ones.

For an artist, developing an alliance with an art gallery can be as intimate and intense a relationship as any. So sourcing and keeping these galleries close can be a lifelong and rewarding experience. Each gallery has a distinct style and voice. Some focus on the contemporary, others on a broader selection from the arts world and others on particular market trends, or they are issue driven. Some galleries offer artists a direction for their works, which leads to a consistent art market for the artist.

Galleries and artists can only work well together if there’s an open-ended understanding between them

Artist must be fully self-informed of the commercial galleries guidelines. Artist cannot solely rely on the gallery, and must actively build their industry knowledge and contacts. Artists must be professional in their dealing with commercial art galleries. If a show is organised for you, your works must be there on time, and complete. All pre-show requirements finished and clearly understood.

Being with a good commercial gallery has unique rewards. They handle all sales and media enquiries (which some artists hate doing) database lists, pricing, etc. You will find that most galleries are passionate about their artists, they care about them and their art. They go out of their way to get an artists’ works noticed and sold. Some galleries go to incredible lengths to get their artists’ careers moving; this unburdens the artist. It leaves them to focus on creating their works. However, there are those galleries that don’t, and put their commercial venture before any art or artist. These are usually singled out by artists and kept well away from by those that know.

If you’re not represented by a gallery or even if you are, an artist might think about developing a website to promote themselves and their art. How is this going to affect any current or future relationship with a gallery? More importantly, how will this affect the art? Will a website bring you closer to the buyer? With a gallery, you may have direct contact with the buyer. What will a gallery think of an artist with, or wanting to establish a website?

Most galleries assess artists’ websites based upon what type of site they are

If, as an artist, you just want to show the world your works, most galleries have little comment on these sites. The clever artists will have all sales enquiries linked back to their galleries anyway. However, if your website is set up for the key purpose of sales, then there’s a different view held by galleries. Some websites and artists who own them, are seen as the opposition, and treated as such. But some are more understanding, and due to things like an artist location or their ability to interact with the wider arts world, different views are held by galleries.

There are positive stories that come from artists with websites. Here’s one from Tasmanian artist Linden Langdon. “I was very lucky to have had my work noticed by Melissa Loughnan, a woman who was at the time launching her career as an arts manager in Melbourne. In a mutual agreement with the Ballan and Pannan Gallery in Armadale, they were working on introducing contemporary art to their exhibition schedule, so they were seeking new artists.

My work had been selected to be shown at Hatched, an exhibition in Perth that highlights work from around Australia annually, and through the internet. Melissa decided my work was suitable for her project from my website.”

If you’re an artist with a website, the news is not all bad

If you have gallery representation and are contracted to them, they might still ask for their commission through your internet sales. There are no industry standards, it’s what is agreed upon by you and your gallery. You will need to weigh up all the benefits, and not just internet sales versus gallery sales. Selling an artwork is one thing, getting it ready for sale is where the fun begins. There’s the marketing, networking, and promotion that also gets a work sold. Sales are not simply based on the look of an artwork.

If a buyer has lots of money and doesn’t care how an artwork is promoted and wants to buy it anyway, great. Artists need all types of buyers.

But what I’m constantly hearing from artists is one of the most annoying things a purchaser can do, is not ask about the artwork. Or show little interest in the construction or the creative side of the artistic process.

Most galleries hold a deep interest in the art and artist they represent. But some just see art and artists as a commodity. The most commercially important thing for an artist is to build a relationship with a gallery over time. When you have built that relationship what about national and international representation? Your gallery may help with this. An artist needs several galleries in numerous states and countries to support and promote them, as it is very difficult for an artist to succeed with limited outlets. You will find that most good galleries have these national and international connections.

Having only one gallery as an outlet for your art will not ensure an artists’ career. Artists should look to have a choice of gallery spaces. This will enable them to have options for different and developing work, while only paying a standard commission.

The subject of commission is always a difficult one

There is no across the board industry standard, though a lot do use a similar figure. Some galleries have a non-negotiable view when it comes to setting commission, others will come to agreements. Like sharing costs on things such as advertising, drinks at the opening, brochures and promotional material. Some galleries expect the artist to pay for these in full, which supposedly help sells an artwork.

It’s a matter for an artist to find a middle ground with the art galleries and to what percentage of commission a gallery takes. In the dog-eat-dog world of business, it pays to be smart, loyal and tough – respect usually follows.

There are other options for artists when it comes to getting your works shown in a gallery. A dream of many is to start their own art gallery. Where they can show the kind of art that they like. Here they might get better ownership over the promotional and commercial aspects of their artworks. A gallery of this type could also be a working studio. Maybe even a group of artists might come together in this place, or it could be simply used as a solo space to create. The time commitments for such a venture might strangle the creative process for an artist, and might even destroy it through the requirements of operating a successful commercial space. Artists tend to avoid creativity killers like running a business. Websites can also heavily cut into an artists’ creativity time and thinking.

An Artist Run Initiative (ARI), might be a place to get your work shown and your name out there

There are about thirty in Sydney alone. One, China Heights, has its own particular audience and market. If your art has a design, computer based or edgy aesthetic, places like China Height’s might be the best art space for you. Because their audience is going to these spaces to find these works, works which are not represented in the commercial galleries around Australia.

You will find they take less commission, there are less set up fees and you might find a much stronger connection to your audience and potential buyers. A show doesn’t take a year or two to get to happen, and the networking opportunities for an artist through these types of galleries might be greater – which are not really there for artists hooked into most commercial galleries. However, your art might only show for a week, maybe only a weekend.

Artists and galleries depend on one another, and both come and go. There are many highly creative and profitable ventures had by both, and both should know that art comes first. Art may not define us here in Australia, and for some, it’s just another commercial product. No artist really see’s their work as a product, but they desire the rewards and benefits of what art can bring – internally and externally.

Experienced artists and galleries should know what works for sales and art. And that’s art that comes from a specific and unique personal view. Not from any commodified perception of what art is. Good art comes from artists who create from a voice that is individually them, and not something else – most of us already buy this.

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