Approaching a Gallery Dos and Don’ts

The helpful advice below came from Sarah Wiseman who owns an excellent gallery in Oxford. I attended a talk where she offered an honest and clear checklist for artists and makers wanting to approach a gallery. There are so many unwritten and often unknown rules in the game of being an artist/maker that I felt her words should be shared as widely as possible. I’ve added a bit of my own advice here and there as a working artist.

Before you approach any gallery

Do some hard thinking.

You need an identity and a direction and this must be an honest one: no artist/maker succeeds where they are merely aiming to produce goods to sell and no good gallery will be interested.

Do the maths. This really applies mostly to makers with overheads, but artists need to do some sums too. Can you afford to produce work?* Can you produce work in enough volume and can you continue to produce work? What are your costs and how will you manage them? Have you time enough?

Are you suited to be an artist maker? It’s a tough life with lots of challenges and exposure to the public. Be honest: if it terrifies you, stick to loving what you do and keep it as a creative outlet: maybe do open studios and the occasional fair. This isn’t being chicken, it’s having self respect and it’s a choice you can change at any time.

Find some honest feedback, not from family and friends. You need to put your work out in front of the unbiased and be prepared to listen hard. You might not like what you hear, but you’ll learn from it.

*see the section on money below.

Reality Check

These days professional artists and makers have many outlets and ways to sell their work. No one gallery is going to change your world!

Here are a few ways in which I make my living:

On line: through my own site and one other selected gallery site.

Galleries: I have several and I make sure they don’t overlap geographically.

Card sales: I make a good sum through selling greetings cards, good quality and at a reasonable price to the public. I also supply them trade price to galleries.

Booklets: I’m a printmaker and people will pay for the ‘how to do it’ information. Sell it to them in a pretty booklet. Don’t just give it away!

Personal sales: I am always happy to welcome people into my studio and I make sure that I always invite the interested. I have made several good sales this way and clients know they can call round for an emergency gift etc if needed.

Teaching: a double whammy this, I get paid to do this and also improve my practice through working with others. I also offer starter kits of equipment which sell well alongside cards at classes. I usually take browser prints as examples for my teaching and if they sell, so much the better. (Never ever use a teaching situation as a selling one though – it is entirely inappropriate and unprofessional. Make the kits, cards and work available and stand back).

Talks and demos: sometimes paid, sometimes unpaid; both valuable in terms of marketing yourself and never, ever a waste of time. Again take some cards and plenty of publicity leaflets.

Craft Fairs and Art Fairs: I am fairly picky now about the fairs I do. When you start out you need to embrace pretty much everything and be prepared for it to be tough: never expect your audience to be sensitive arty souls loving and supporting art. Most just come in to get out of the rain!

Public Art: I have been very lucky in catching an early break in a big public art job for my local council. I work in large scale hand painted enamel. Public art requires calm, planning, adaptability and a love of working with others and to deadlines. I find it a joy, but it’s a rollercoaster and takes nerve at times. How to do it is a whole other story...

Consultancy I haven’t done this in a while, but I have worked as a coordinator between artists and local business. Don’t underestimate how a desk job can further your progress as an artist, just don’t let it overwhelm you. I currently joint chair the Open Studios event in Buckinghamshire. This is a voluntary post, but is a fairly big PR stone lobbed into the pond and all those ripples will benefit me in the future I am sure.

Finding your gallery

It’s not just a matter of a nice space and getting in. This should be a long term relationship, not a one night stand, and one which you need to work for both of you!

Do your research and find a gallery where you think the fit is right. This may not be your local gallery.

Look at the work the gallery sells: is it within the same sphere as yours? Would you feel at home among the other artists?

Have a look at the shows and works in the gallery: the artists and makers who come up again and again are the ones who are selling regularly and they are the ones who will give you the best idea of what works in that gallery.

Take time to watch the gallery. Sarah suggests a year – she’s probably right, it’s a tough one, but it will pay off. Obviously you can keep an eye on several. Visit them if at all possible.

Found One? What next

This is where it gets scary. Sarah assured me that galleries know we are all scared and says she’s scared sometimes too. Best advice: man up, deep breaths and be calm. Nobody is going to set the dogs on you.

If the gallery has instructions on their web site for how to apply then follow it to the letter and remember that yours will be one in an avalanche of daily applications. Interestingly Sarah said that in the days when she had the instructions on the web site, she found very few suitable artists and an awful lot of shockers.

If there are no instructions then you must call the gallery and this next bit is really important!

Call the gallery and have a paper and pencil handy.

Ask them how to apply and what information they need.

Listen hard, write it down and follow it to the letter.

Supply what they ask for and send any jpegs in low res format anything high res will end up as spam. Seriously!

Don’t be put off by being asked for a mere four or so images; this is plenty for the gallery to decide if you are appropriate for them. Don’t be tempted to pop in any extras.

Add a link to your web site if you have one (Sarah is not worried by artists who don’t and is happy to view slides and read letters instead of jpegs and mails). Never expect the gallery just to look at your site, it’s lazy and they won’t.

Wait for them to get back to you. Do not chase. This is early days in your relationship and the gallery will be looking for a professional and confident artist/maker, not a bunny boiler! Trust them; if you are good they will want you as much as you want them.

The Artist’s/Maker’s Statement
 

Keep it simple.

Keep it short.

Be honest.

Be straightforward.

The gallery usually has about thirty seconds to engage a client with your work. If they can’t catch the client’s attention with a clear explanation in that time you are unlikely to sell.

Need a laugh? Look here for how not to do it: www.artybollocks.com

Never Ever
 

Cold call with a portfolio in the gallery: they will be horrified and cross and rightly so. Time in the gallery is spent working for the current artists – would you want your gallery owner to be distracted when they should be selling for you?

Don’t send out a general email to lots of galleries. Keep it personal and remember the relationship bit: nobody takes those mails from Russian girls who ‘want to make friend’ seriously.

Don’t get anyone else to apply for you, they want to hear from you and it is important they know who you are.

Don’t say your work is too unique to be seen in an ordinary application, it isn’t.

Don’t say you are afraid your ideas will be stolen if you send in pictures, they won’t.

All work, however bizarre, can be photographed so don’t tell the gallery it can’t. You just look incapable.

Rejection

It happens to us all and it’s not always a bad thing – not all relationships are meant to be and a gallery will do you no favours if it takes you and can’t sell your work.

Very few galleries can give feedback, don’t blame them for this. Move on.

Remember that it is never personal and your work was simply not right. If you have followed the rules at the beginning of this document then you will get there.

Have a moan if you like, but keep it to mum, the dog or your other half. Never ever bad mouth a gallery – it’s unprofessional and you are a consummate professional aren’t you?

If they say no, they mean no. So no tantrums or stalking!

Have a bit of chocolate and dust yourself off and try again.

Accepted? A bit of etiquette

I came to art late having had a career managing the work of several photographers so am gamekeeper turned poacher. Believe me, a gallery is more than a space to hang work and the owner more than a person sitting back counting the money. A good gallery works hard for you and the benefit to you and your career will be far more than just money. If you have the right gallery this should be obvious to you as you will have a good honest and open relationship.

Be happy with what you are given. You may only be a small part in a shared show to start. Celebrate this and publicise it. Nobody wants to work with a diva.

Be professional about following through: do paperwork, supply statements, correctly framed or mounted work, be there for meetings, be pleasant and, even if it means staying up all night with a radio and the cat for company, meet the deadlines. The gallery will do the same for you.

If you have a crisis, tell the gallery. They want you to deliver, but they should care about your welfare and they will help you where they can. But you need to be open and honest if there are problems!

Money

Work out your pricing and once you have it, keep it constant. Read my blog on how I do this at The Colour of Money.

Having one price only will save you from being caught out: the internet reveals your prices everywhere you sell and no client will forgive you if they feel they have paid more than they should. At best you can refund and apologise, but I doubt they’ll ever forget it.

Fixed prices are the professional way: you will get peer pressure and be told you’re foolish for doing it, but good practise demands it in my opinion.

This works both ways: don’t ever be bullied into giving a client a ‘special price’ on the promise of ‘we’ll buy lots more in the future’ – they won’t and if they do, they will demand an ever more ‘special’ price. Walk away from this with your self respect intact.

Allow galleries a bit of what Sarah calls ‘wiggle room’. This is a 5-10% discretionary discount for clients buying multiple pieces. The gallery is smart enough to know when this is a good move and will have the best sale in mind: they want the payment as much as you do.

If you change your prices, it is your job to ensure that all your outlets publish the new price. Don’t neglect to do this. It’ll come back to bite you.

If a client approaches you in person and wants to buy because they have seen the work in a current gallery show, do the decent thing. Send the person back to the gallery to buy through them if the work is on show still or arrange to supply through the gallery if more copies are available (speaking as a printmaker here).

Sarah suggests a small percentage ‘referral fee’ of 10-20% for the gallery if the work is not on show and the contact is a direct result of seeing the work in the gallery. It will give the gallery faith in you and they will work all the harder on your behalf.

Finally...

There are some nasty scams out there.

Don’t allow yourself to be flattered or pushed.

Take your time to decide: no honest gallery will rush you or demand money up front etc. If it feels strange, it probably is. Be pleasant, but explain you need time to think. Do some research and never be afraid to say no.

A maker raised a scenario that had happened to her. She was approached at a fair by a buyer saying they were a gallery owner who wanted to buy a lot of work at a trade price from her stand. They offered a card, but she had no proof they were a gallery and not a private buyer pushing their luck. Sarah advised telling them that she was only selling retail at the fair and would supply work to them from her studio at trade and would help to meet transport costs if necessary.