How to Sell Your Art in Galleries: Is it Worth it? The Truth Told

Selling Your Art in Galleries: Is It Worth It? The Truth Told. Three drawings hanging in a gallery

“Have you ever exhibited?” I’m asked this all the time. It’s as if exhibiting alone is a hallmark of success. In truth, selling your art in galleries is easy, it’s making money that’s hard work. I’ll show you how to sell your art in galleries and you can decide what’s best for you.

This is how the gallery business model works:

Galleries sell art on a commission basis, usually taking 50%. Traditional art galleries act as brokers and will take care of the promotion and marketing, using their network of contacts and collectors to sell your art.

The artist has no real control over the art business. It’s a passive income when it works, but it seldom works well. In an ideal world, there would be a symbiotic relationship that benefits all, but that’s not easy to achieve with the power imbalance.

The gallery owner and art dealers have all the contacts, it’s in their interest to guard those clients well, they must, it’s the only reason they exist. In that sense, they are the gatekeepers standing between you and your art buyers

Online galleries are marketplaces where you can exhibit your own art for sale, They host your work but most do little, if any, promotion.

There are various business models, some specializing in original art and curated, while others are more of a free for all. Most of these sites take a lower commission fee and some have listing fees.

In this post, we’ll examine the realities of trying to earn a living selling in art galleries. I’ll cover:

  • The Graduate Treadmill
  • Provincial Galleries
  • Online Galleries

To begin with I’ll reveal the truth behind the graduate treadmill.

(I get commissions for purchases made through links in this post. However, I only promote products I like and recommend)

Selling Your Art in Galleries: Is It Worth It? The Truth Told Art graduate in a studio

How to Sell Your Art in Top Galleries

“With a talent like that, you should go to art school”.

The advice is offered with love and good faith but in total ignorance. The accepted path to success is to get some training and… then what? Be famous?

Once in the system, and without the confines of structure, discipline, or even tuition; where freedom of expression is valued more highly than traditional art skills, a student may never pick up a paintbrush.

But what choice have you got? This is the way you get into top galleries. It’s a closed shop and you have to play the system. It’s not cheap.

You end up paying through the nose to get your BA because that’s what you do right? You’re in debt up to your eyeballs, but hey, in for a penny in for a pound, you decide to stay on and get an MA. You might as well.

Now you’re saddled with staggering debt, but it’s a career investment, right? You’re young so why care? Things will be fine when you’re discovered in the end-of-year show.

The great and the good will be there and no doubt a gallery will sign you up, probably.

But let’s not be negative. Let’s say you stand out, emerge as an up-and-coming artist, and are given the opportunity to participate in a group show. This could be a big break.

Then it happens, WOOHOO! you sell some work, brilliant; you’re on your way.

Eventually, you’re invited to have a solo exhibition. Now, this is the break you’ve worked so hard for.

Now you’re all set to mingle with the big guys. The movers and the shakers in the art world. The marketing begins, the media is invited, and there’ll be interviews, a press release, and an opening night with the stinking rich.

And the show goes fantastically well. You’re now THE STORY.

You chat with multi-millionaire collectors from around the world. Your gallery has done a great job and your work sells for thousands – it’s incredible. All those years pay off. Now it’s a case of rinse and repeat, pay off the debts, and cash in doing something you love.

You’re one of the lucky ones who made it, you and a handful of others that year, out of all the tens of thousands of graduates that took their arts degree.

You’re a shining star, albeit without a client list of your own and totally dependent on the goodwill of a gallery owner; an art dealer making millions standing between you and the super-rich.

But wait a minute!

You’ve climbed all the way to the top and you still have no control?

It could all end tomorrow. If your work doesn’t increase in value as an asset, do you think the elite will keep on buying? The galleries only want their commissions and the investors only want a return.

As you slip off the radar, where do you turn? You don’t have the clients, the gallery does.
Your whole enterprise is built on a house of cards.

But this is all hypothetical anyway because let’s get real, you aren’t going anywhere, are you?

According to a report, 90% of art students are not working in their profession two years after graduating.

The uni’ has its fees and you’re out on your ear with nowhere to go, a meaningless degree, saddled with debt, and no knowledge of the art business.

Read this related post: Is Art School Worth it? Is it a Waste of Money?

An evening class would have been more useful and a better investment than a bloody arts degree.

The art world is not a meritocracy. Talent does not rise to the top. Your ability to self-promote and self-publicize is more important, and that has to be done within the right channels. This is a rigged market.

Walking through the door as a new artist and representing yourself is not going to work. Plain and simple.

Selling your art in high-end galleries doesn’t sound so appealing, does it?

Now, what’s the alternative?


Should you sell your art in Galleries gallery frontage

How to Sell Your Art in Provincial Galleries

Perhaps you decide to walk a different path. You don’t need formal ‘training’ because you have a natural talent and it’s easy enough to teach yourself.

So you decide to approach some art galleries. You’d think they would be only too happy to see fresh new talent walking through the door. OOPS.

You’ll walk out with your tail between your legs when you’re rejected out of hand by the high-end galleries. They look down their noses at self-taught artists peddling their own work.

They don’t want just any Tom, Dick, or Harry turning up unannounced, unknown, and unrepresented. Think again.

It’s better by far to target respectable and established second-tier galleries. Good quality provincial galleries are far less snooty. That said, few will appreciate a cold call, especially on a weekend, but you can get away with it.

I started this way. I just turned up with work under my arm. As soon as they saw my stuff they would change their tune.

I only ever experienced condescension and dismissiveness in top galleries. Those guys are on another planet.

The accepted modern approach is to send high-resolution files and book an appointment. If that suits you, go for it, but I’m telling you now, there is nothing more effective than meeting someone face to face.

When you turn up unannounced, you’ve already got a foot in the door. Plus you arrive as an equal. The power shifts more in your favor.

If you dress up for an appointment, at a time and date of their choosing, they are dictating the terms. It’s like going for an interview, it makes you subservient.

A gallery isn’t hallowed ground, although they often present themselves that way. it’s hardly surprising that galleries are always empty. Ever seen a full gallery? You have? must’ve been offering free drinks.

To hell with all that crap. When I started, I was having none of it. My approach was to paint a batch of original artwork and then go out and sell them. I wanted to be paid there and then, all upfront. It was a rare achievement then and I suspect an even rarer one now, but that’s what I did.

I was happy to walk away and try another gallery if I didn’t sell anything.

My lack of real concern was my trump card. Rather than see me walk off with a saleable piece of art under my arm, I would usually secure some art sales

This worked, but in order to make enough money, I had to be a prolific painter. I would aim to make 5 good original works of art in a week and sell 3 of them.

Combined with weeks when I had art commissions to do, I could make a modest living.

This will help: How to Get Art Commissions The Easy Way: Best Guide

Boy was it hard work, but at that time, I didn’t appreciate that printing was the way to scale my business. That came much later

Printing is not a simple business read this first: How to Make Prints of Your Art – Printing Art Explained in Detail

I realize now, looking back, that I had a brass neck and few people would be so brazen as to just present themselves on a take it or leave it basis. Call it the arrogance of youth.

There was a drawback that I haven’t mentioned. In order to get the gallery owners to part with cash, I had to price my original paintings at a bargain price. The easiest way to get their attention was to present an opportunity to make a fat profit.

I didn’t care what they sold the painting for, it meant nothing as long as I got the price I wanted.

The easiest way to get their attention was to present an opportunity to make a fat profit. It’s a trade-off. I sacrificed a higher return for instant success. I preferred to have a bird in my hand, than two in the bush.

The secret of making a good deal is ALWAYS being prepared to walk away.

I might have lost out in the long run, who knows? I certainly didn’t have too many left unsold.

Let’s face it, the stark reality is that you’ll almost certainly have to hand over your artwork on consignment (sale or return) and get paid only when your art sells. That’s the system. Your cash flow will suffer.

This should be read: Most Artists Fail! 5 Reasons Why Things Go Wrong

Not only will your cash flow be wildly unpredictable but you’ll also have to resign yourself to getting only half the proceeds. Some artists have issues with that but this time, I’m on the gallery’s side.

You, as the artist, have foregone the benefits of a higher profit by accepting the services of a broker. They have the contacts but they also have the overheads. And it must be said, a good many creatives are such a pain in the arse, the gallery deserves some compensation!

Yes, they double the price but so what? Your job is to get the profit you need in the first place. If it isn’t worth your while don’t do it. And don’t fall for the ‘valuable exposure’ BS and agree on a poor deal.

At the end of the day, small gallery owners are usually very pleasant people, in my experience, and they try their best. They often get into the business because they are art lovers themselves.

When you do establish a rapport the best way to proceed is to leave them your business card, resupply them regularly, and call in from time to time. Business is all about building relationships. It isn’t rocket science.

If your type of art is a good fit for their business they will want to deal with you. If you can find the right gallery at the right time, you’re off to the races. It can be fun.

Selling Your Art in Galleries: Is It Worth It? The Truth Told online galleries list

How to Sell Your Art Through Online Galleries

It’s tempting to see online galleries as the perfect solution. In many ways they are, the gallery’s commission is usually lower, and you can display your current work on your own terms, and customize your presence in any way you wish.

The flip side is you are very much one tiny face in a very large crowd. To get results you must do all the marketing and networking yourself. It’s very much hands-on.

These companies are not there to promote you, they are in it to promote themselves.
All you are doing is building their site for them and most will keep control of your customers.

There is no relationship.

That said, there are a few gems. Take a look at my other blog for some ideas.

Check out these, I’ve done the work for you: 25 Platforms for Artists to Sell Their Art Online and Make Money

If you cannot connect directly with your buyers via email, your business is very insecure. But one way to side-step this dilemma is not to invest everything into one platform. Think of online shops and gallery sites such as Etsy as a side hustle and proceed with that mindset.

One of the most tempting ways of selling art is with printables. I’m still learning but I intend to give it a bash. Think about it, no stock, no postage, and it’s mostly profit. Sounds appealing, doesn’t it?

Yes, some make it big on these sites. Of course, some get to the top of the tree, but it’s not passive income. The days when you could post your work, get found, and go viral, are over. You have to market yourself through their sites and social media channels, and that’s a time-eater.

Surely you’re wiser to put in the same amount of work on your own website instead? Sounds simple but it’s a steep learning curve and quickly takes over your life.

Now be honest, do you really want to spend half your time painting and the other half marketing online in front of a computer?

And what if you put in the work, set up your online store on Etsy (or the like), start doing some good business, and then out of the blue the platform changes the rules?

Your business could vanish with one tweak of an algorithm.

This post is directly relevant: Is Selling on Etsy Worth it? Pros and Cons for Artists and Crafters

Update: Etsy has just hiked its selling fees out of the blue. They went from 5% to 6.5% and informed businesses with a $10,000 turnover (Not Profit), that they will now be charged an extra 12% marketing fee for offsite marketing with no opt-out.

You have no control.

I put my work on eBay many years ago when the rules were far more relaxed and there was less competition. I made an extra £10000 ($15000) that first year, with no effort.

My eBay sales dipped the next year to £7000 but settled to a constant £5000 per annum after that. It was a nice little earner which paid for my winter trips.

Each year eBay would change a rule or two and I re-adjusted my listings accordingly, until a few years ago when they changed their algorithm and it killed off my business.

My listings dropped like a stone in the search engines. The lesson I learned was simple. You cant trust 3rd party platforms.

Just as Facebook and Instagram effectively stopped organic search in favor of paid boosts, the big boys will always look after themselves and dictate the terms.

Not all platforms are equal, check this out: Social Media For Artists: The Best 13 Platforms for Creatives

If your reach requires paid advertising what do you do? Well, you don’t experiment that’s for sure. You’ll be wasting your money. You must target your specific audience to get a return and you’ll have to take advice.

This Course on Domestika is very popular indeed, with over 138,000 customers! The catch? It’s in Spanish with English subtitles. Never mind, it’s cheap as chips.

There are many online galleries to pick from and most are cluttered with so much junk art, how do you stand out from the crowd?

Your first impression online is so hard to get right. Why should the public click on your thumbnail when the next listing looks just as good as yours when seen in miniature?

It’s only after wasting a lot of time clicking through the rubbish that you realize how hard it is to find any good stuff. Indeed, I have works that sell readily in real life but which never sell online.

You cant see detail and finesse on a thumbnail!

Only bolder more vibrant images stand out. Forget subtlety.

If you painted an animal within a landscape and posted it next to the same animal, drawn or painted as a portrait, which one would get the most clicks? Yes, the portrait, even if, in real life and seen side by side, customers prefer the landscape.

In other words, you should paint specifically for the web to get seen more!

In an attempt to regain my lucrative sideline I expanded my presence online to more sites. I thought that fewer sales, on many sites, would be the answer.

I spent hours upon hours making my listings, and it didn’t work. It doesn’t work because there is no organic traffic. You have to market the work and that is a giant time suck.

I’d have been far better off working on my own website.

If you haven’t done that yet you should. Don’t be put off by the ‘tech’, it’s easy to make a WordPress website when you follow instructions. That’s what I did.

Selling Art in Galleries – Final Thoughts

There have never been more opportunities for new artists to succeed. Where once you were confined to your local market, now the art market is worldwide.

The art industry has changed out of all recognition, and with the rise in online art galleries, print-on-demand sites, and social media platforms, independent artists now have access to prospective buyers from across the world.

Are traditional galleries dead? Not yet, but who knows what the next few years will bring? Hard times are ahead. Galleries will have to adapt, perhaps they could start by offering lower commission rates.

Back in the 80s, when I started selling my paintings, a gallery’s commission was 35% and not the 50% it is today.

I’m optimistic that the art trade will survive. I didn’t notice any difference in my trade when the markets crashed in 2008, and I started my original business in the depths of a recession.

Traditional galleries are fighting to stay relevant and online sales are soaring, but finding your niche and your audience is not easy within an online gallery space. Where once you could be the biggest fish in a local pond, now you are just another online artist.

It’s one of the drawbacks of pooling all the great artists of the world onto sites such as Instagram. There is a change in perception with the public. It’s a great way for art enthusiasts to enjoy more art and it’s nice to be part of an art community of sorts, but it also devalues talent.

Art becomes ubiquitous and it gives a false impression that good art is commonplace. It’s reduced to eye candy, consumed in a second, and it’s gone.

So what’s the answer?

You are most likely to succeed, in my opinion, by selling your own art in markets, or at art fairs, and selling reproductions of your best work. That’s the way I worked for over 20 years.

By cutting out the middlemen and selling direct, you can make a greater profit and still offer your art for the best price.

It’s far better to meet and deal with your customers face to face, there’s a better chance to cultivate genuine relationships and build a following. Make sure every buyer gets your website address and contact information.

Try to get each customer on your email list and keep in touch with them with an occasional newsletter promoting your new artwork. In time you will have fans and avid collectors.

It’s your own mini gallery.

That’s how it works!

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Selling your art in galleries. Is it worth it? The truth told