How Do Art Galleries Work?

Emerging artists often ask me, ‘How do art galleries work?.’How do art galleries work

Many artists wonder if galleries are still relevant? I tell them that even though the internet has made it easier than ever for artists to share and sell their work directly, gallery representation still holds tremendous value.

If it’s your goal to find gallery representation for your artwork as you build your artist career, this information is for you.

What are the benefits of working with an art gallery?

Many artists are drawn to working with galleries because it removes many of the administrative tasks, allowing you to spend more time in the studio creating. Art galleries generally handle things such as invoicing and shipping, framing and even photography.

But perhaps the biggest drawcard for working with art galleries is that most dealers have spent years cultivating strong relationships with collectors. They have an established database of clients and these can even include museum curators, art critics and other art world decision makers. Gaining access to an art dealer’s database is an invaluable opportunity for growing your career.


How to find the right gallery for your artwork

The next thing to understand about how art galleries work is that they won’t represent just any artist. It’s important to make sure the gallery is the right fit for your work before you approach them.

Start by taking a look at the other artists the gallery represents. Some art galleries specialize in a specific style or medium, while others look for new artists whose work complements their existing artists (without being too similar).

You might also investigate artists you admire and find out who represents their work. Instagram is another useful tool for researching art galleries, as are local art fairs.

Create a shortlist of potential art galleries to approach once you’ve determined that your artwork would be a good match.


How should you approach art galleries?

While it makes sense to visit an art gallery in person to get a feel for the space, whatever you do, don’t turn up with your portfolio and expect to have an impromptu meeting with the art dealer. You may walk in to find them having an important meeting with a client or otherwise not receptive to your visit. Making an appointment is essential.

What about contacting the art gallery via email?

Before you even consider reaching out to an art gallery via email, make sure you have a professional website with well-lit images of your artwork. When sending an email, don’t attach files or make the recipient download photos of your work (most won’t bother). A link to your website is best. (and no, your Facebook page doesn’t cut it)

To score extra points with an art gallery, go old-school and pick up the phone first. Call them and ask about emailing through a link to your website. This opens a dialogue with the art gallery and automatically makes your email stand out.

You might be tempted to DM an art gallery through their Instagram account but this isn’t often effective. While Instagram is useful for finding art galleries to approach, often their social media accounts will be managed by junior employees or an external agency. Contacting the art gallery directly is generally more effective.

Timing is another factor to consider. Be sure to check out the art gallerey’s website thoroughly before you make contact. Is it the opening week of a new exhibition? Are they preparing for an upcoming art fair? If so, hold off on contacting them because their attention may not be in their inbox.

Most art galleries decide their schedule two or three years in advance, leaving little room for new artists to have solo shows. So don’t lose faith if a gallery chooses not to represent you.

It’s always worth asking if the gallery is planning on holding any group shows in the future, as this can be a lower-pressure way of seeing how their clientele responds to your artworks. In fact, this is the best way I know to get your foot inside a gallery’s door.


How much commission does an art gallery take when they sell your work?

So you’ve researched art galleries, approached a few, and have managed to gain representation – great! How much commission should an art gallery take?

Most artists and art galleries split the profits of a sale fifty-fifty. I’ve seen less. I’ve seen more.

Now you might balk at giving half your money away, but it’s important to understand that there’s a huge financial risk that the art gallery takes on when they represent your work. Art galleries also have big overheads, including rent and payroll, and the financial costs associated with exhibiting at art fairs.

I hate to be a downer but it is worth noting that you need to be mindful of online scams. While rare, if you do get approached by an art gallery that offers to hold an exhibition for you for a set fee, this could be a red flag. If you can’t verify or visit the gallery in person, you could be getting duped.

Even if the offer is legitimate, this model doesn’t offer as many perks as building a long-term relationship with an art gallery. Relationships are everything in the art world, and if you can build a mutually beneficial partnership with an art gallery, they will continue to support and champion your work outside of any solo exhibitions you have with them.

This doesn’t mean that I frown on vanity galleries. You just have to know that they aren’t going to support you, they’re pretty much just going to give you the space. The rest is up to you. If you take a course like The Working Artist Masterclass for example, you’ll know how to fill that space and make your own sales. Just saying….


Questions to ask before you join an art gallery

Before you enter any kind of business partnership it’s important to ask questions. Not all art galleries have written terms of business, so you need to understand what you’re getting into before you agree to anything.

Here are some questions to consider;

● Does the art gallery’s insurance cover your artwork while it is under their care?
● How is the price of your artwork calculated? Does it include VAT or other taxes?
● When will you receive payment after the artwork is sold?
● Does the gallery expect exclusivity over your work?

Remember, if you do show your artwork elsewhere the pricing needs to be consistent. If the art gallery finds out you are selling work from your home much cheaper, they will not be happy. They may even tell others and you’ll have hurt your professional reputation.

It’s worth asking for a written consignment note for your artwork, many insurance companies require this if anything should happen to your art. It’s even better to prepare one of your own and present it to them, keeping a copy for your records.

Again, I cover all of this in much more detail in my premium program, The Working Artist Masterclass. Check it out if you are looking for more support in finding art gallery representation.

So now you know the answer to the question, ‘How do art galleries work?’. Your next step is to start researching art galleries and building those relationships.


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Working in the international world of contemporary art, Crista Cloutier has spent her career selling art and marketing art to art galleries, museums and private collections. 

Using her professional experiences, Crista has created The Working Artist Masterclass, where she’s developed a global reputation as an artist’s coach. Crista can teach you how to be an artist; including how to sell your art, how to sell art online, how to sell photographs, how to price your art, how to succeed at art fairs, and even how to find your art style. 

Crista has worked with established, blue-chip artists to raise their profile and attract greater opportunities. And she’s also helped thousands of emerging artists to build a professional art practice. To learn more, visit https://theworkingartist.com

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