“Have you ever exhibited?” I’m asked this all the time. It’s as if exhibiting alone is a mark of success. The truth is I gave up selling my art in galleries years ago and make far more money now than I ever did then.
So should you sell your art in galleries? I don’t and here’s why…
Galleries are merely brokers. Middlemen standing between you and your buyer. They guard their client list, insist on exclusive rights and require you, the artist, to hand over your work for nothing. You get paid when something sells at 50% of the asking price. The artist has no control whatsoever.
Let’s take a closer look. We’ll examine the realities of trying to earn a living through a third party.
- The Graduate Treadmill
- Provincial Galleries
- Online Galleries
- Conclusion and Solution
Selling Art in Top Galleries and the Graduate Treadmill
“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, without the confines of structure, discipline or even tuition, and where freedom of expression is valued more highly than traditional talent, a student may never pick up a paintbrush.
But never mind that, you end up paying through the nose to get your BA anyway. 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. Might as well.
Now you are saddled with a staggering debt. No pressure.
Think about what you could have done with all that money, but its an investment in your future right? Why should you care? Things will be fine when your exceptional talents get discovered at the end of year show.
The great and the good will be there and no doubt a gallery will sign you up.
Hmm, maybe, maybe not,
But let’s not be negative. Let’s say you stand out, emerge as an up and coming artist and 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 are on your way.
Eventually, you’re invited to have a solo exhibition. Now, this is the break you have worked so hard for.
It’s been tough getting by for the last few years, what with all the debt and rent to pay. The cash from a few sales came in handy of course, but it didn’t cover the bills. Never mind, this time next year things will be so different.
So now you’re all set to mingle with the big guys. The movers and the shakers. The marketing begins, the media will be in touch, there will be interviews, the press will write articles. You are now a story.
And the show goes fantastically well.
You chat over drinkies with multi-millionaire collectors from around the world. Your gallery has done a great job. Your work sells for thousands – its incredible. All those years have paid off. Now its 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 other graduates that took their arts degree.
You’re a shining star albeit without a client list of your own and totally dependant on the goodwill of a gallery. A gallery making millions as the middle-man between you and the super-rich.
But wait a minute!
You’re climbing 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 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 by BFAMFAPhD, 90% of art students are not not working in the professional 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 business. What a waste of time and money.
An evening class would have been more useful.
Selling your art in high-end galleries doesn’t sound so appealing does it?
Now, what’s the alternative?
Selling Art in Provincial Galleries
Perhaps you decide to walk a different path. You don’t need ‘training’ you have a natural talent and its easy enough to pick things up.
So you decide to approach the galleries yourself. You’d think they would be only too happy to see talent walking through the door.
Oops, not so easy.
High-end galleries tend to look down their noses at self-taught artists ‘peddling their own wares’.
They don’t want just any Tom, Dick, or Harry turning up unannounced. An unknown wannabe? Unrepresented? Think again.
Better by far to target the 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 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 as meeting someone face to face.
When you turn up unannounced, you’ve 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 be 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 work and then go out and sell them. I wanted to be paid there and then, all upfront. It was 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 painting under my arm, I would usually secure a sale or two.
This worked, but in order to make enough money, I had to be a prolific painter. I would aim to make 5 good landscapes/local views in a week and sell 3 of them.
Combined with weeks when I had commission work to do, I could make a modest living.
Boy was it hard work, but at that time, I didn’t appreciate that printing was the way to scale.
I realize now, looking back, that I had a brass neck and few people would be so brazen
Let’s face it, the stark reality is, you will almost certainly have to hand over your work on consignment (sale or return) and get paid only when it sells. That’s the system.
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 lean more on the galleries 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.
The secret of making a good deal is ALWAYS being prepared to walk away.
Selling Art in Online Galleries
It’s tempting to see online galleries as the obvious solution. In some ways they are,
the commissions are far less onerous, you can display your work quickly, and customise your presence.
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. Its 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 they keep control of your customers.
If you cannot connect directly with your buyers via email, your business is very insecure.
Yes, some make it big on these sites. Of course, some get to the top of the tree, but it’s not passive. The days when you could post work, get found and go viral are over. You have to market yourself through their sites and that’s a time eater.
Surely you’re wiser putting in the same amount of work on your own site instead?
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 Etsy shop (or the like), start doing some good business, and then out of the blue the platform changes the rules?
Your business can vanish with one tweak of an algorithm
Again 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 rankings. 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.
There are many online galleries to pick from and most are cluttered with so much junk, 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 listing next door looks just as good 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 which 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 internet 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.
Conclusion and Solution
If you are serious about earning a living think twice about selling your art in galleries. I have made money but it has been very hard work.
The world has changed since I began trading. Traditional galleries are fighting to stay relevant. Online sales are soaring but finding your niche is not easy within an online gallery space.
You are most likely to succeed by having your own small outlet in a market or fair and selling reproductions of your best work.
It’s far better to meet and deal with your customers face to face, cultivate genuine relationships and build a reliable client list.
Keep in touch with everyone via your own website. Make a basic e-shop, send out newsletters and promos and your collectors will return.
The way to make a living is selling your art face to face.
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