There’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time…whether or not I should work with galleries.
I really don’t want it to sound like sour grapes, but I do believe that for most artists it’s a bad idea to work with galleries. There are exceptions to this rule and I want to explore them here later, but first I’m going to start with the negative aspects.
The three main reasons why I think working with galleries might not work for most artists are economic, emotional, and career building.
The main and most rational thing to base my decision on is money. At 52, I’ve been showing with galleries for around 25 years or so, and with the exception of two or three instances, I have never made back the money that I’ve invested in any gallery show. This includes group shows.
For the last 10 to 15 years I’ve sold somewhere in the range of $20-$30,000 worth of artwork each year. In the last two years I’ve been able to pocket two thirds of this money. This is because in the last several years I sell my work on line through etsy.com, eBay, Amazon, and several other venues. I’ve found most success at Etsy.com.
Before this, I’ve had shows in quite reputable galleries such as: Karen Jenkins Johnson in San Francisco, Klaudia Marr in Santa Fe, as well as several galleries in Dallas and other parts of the country. Those are just the most reputable. I am not trash-talking any these galleries and that’s not what this is about. I do however have tons of horror stories about working with galleries.
The empirical evidence is that whenever I’ve had a gallery show I have ended up spending almost all of the money that I made from sales in that gallery on: shipping the art, helping with gallery promotions (catalogs, postcards, and travel expenses.) I am leaving out the costs of actually MAKING the art such as supplies and time. In each instance I usually sold between 2 to 7 works and sometimes these pieces went for as much as $5000. So my art was not cheap and sometimes on a show I would sell around $10-$15,000 worth of work.
Sounds good doesn’t it? But it wasn’t. The breakdown is: the gallery take is 50% on each sale, which is standard. I don’t begrudge the gallery because they pay overhead expenses and are also investing in me. That would leave me with around $7000. Shipping art to a gallery—especially out-of-state—can cost as much as $1000-$2000. So now I’m down to about $4000 in my pocket. Next, if it’s out of town, factor in airfare and hotels. I think you get the point. Plus, at the end of the year, I get hit with taxes on the original amount.
So, even though it looked like I was a successful, selling artist, I was only really pocketing at the most (and this includes studio sales) around $8000 at the end of the year. At the time, I was lucky I had a tenured teaching position at a community college, making $110,000 a year. In fact, I used my art career as a write-off at the end of every year to decrease the taxes I pay.
My wife and I are not big spenders and I managed to put aside some money for retirement which I wasn’t going to touch until I was 62 or 63. By selling work online for the last five years or so, I was able to figure out our finances and “retire” at 52 and I can afford to paint full time.
I want to bring up one notable exception. It took me about five years, but I completed a graphic novel and each one of the panels was a separate watercolor. Just after I retired, Will Wilson, director of a community gallery in Tracy California, offered me a show. The show included a stipend as well as extra money for painting a mural and they took care of most of the other costs—including a hotel if I wanted. So I walked away from that show with a considerable profit. Thank you William Wilson!
Okay, so I’ve laid out economic reasons for not working with galleries. Now the emotional ones.
I am not complaining about specific galleries, so I will speak about it in the most general way. Every artist has their horror stories but this is not the place for those.
Working with a gallery is, at its base, a collaboration between the artist and the gallery director. Gallery directors have a different point of view about what kinds of art the artist should make and what kind of shows should be offered in the gallery. It’s their right. They own the gallery. Pressure from a director can really add up by the time you get to the opening reception, making an artist kind of irritated. Especially if the artist is bit of a prima donna. I know both sides because I ran a gallery for about five years at Ohlone college in Fremont.
Believe me, some artists are tough to work and often have an attitude that far exceeds the quality of their work. As I said, this is not a slam against any specific gallery director. I’m merely pointing out that collaboration is really hard and can lead to a lot of conflict and hurt feelings.
Most artists personalize the experience of showing their work because the artwork is themselves. I’ve internalized the lack of sales at galleries even though a gallery director might have fumbled a sale or not made enough effort. I’ve had a strong emotional reaction to some gallery directors not selling work that I feel they could have. Many artists I’ve talked to often describe an angry, irritable relationship with gallery directors who represent them. I am also sometimes surprised by the vitriol and anger some artists express toward gallery directors whom I know to be hard-working and decent people.
Generally, they mean no harm and in fact, they’d like to help but often artists have bad reactions to situations
Another kind of emotional drag about galleries are receptions. Unless you really like a party, find it easy to talk to people and love those gallery receptions, they are a nightmare for people who have a hard time being the center of attention or have any kind of social uneasiness. That type of person is me. I appear to be very outgoing and know how to schmooze people, however, inside I am just crawling with anxiety. Perspiration is usually soaking through to my suit jacket and beading up on my little bald head. The experience is a total freak out for me and I really don’t like it.
That brings us to the next and final idea of why I think what you shouldn’t work with the gallery. Career building. You have the basics of my experiences, so now I will bring in the experiences of two other artists and their stories. I will not name the artists to protect the innocent.
Case study number one. This artist is way better than me and managed to obtain an exclusive contract with an important gallery that has worked with other “blue-chip” artists. When this artist describes whether the gallery built their career, the clear impression is it did not. The gallery promised to promote this artist’s work, take care of expenses and have some big shows, but they didn’t. The artist complained about the lack empathy the gallery had and their failure on the promise to represent, promote and propel them into being an important, influential artist. They did none of that.
Case study number two. While I was director of the school’s art gallery, I visited an artist in studio and listened as they complained about their gallery for nearly 2 hours. I don’t begrudge the artist (well, I do a little), but according to this artist, the gallery didn’t sell enough of their work (even though they sold everything the artist made) and also said the gallery often cock blocked them on studio sales and even wanted a percentage of those studio sales. I don’t really know what the reality is because my experience with that gallery (who I have showed with) was pretty positive in general. However, I understood how the artist felt.
Both of these artists, in my opinion, are top shelf artists. Honestly, they are so good that I’m jealous of their work and yet the gallery itself didn’t make their career. In fact, one of the artists has gone off on their own, has been getting shows all over the world, started their own organization and is doing fairly well promoting their own work. They are still going to gallery root however, but they don’t have an exclusive contract with a so-called important gallery again. I think they’re happier for it.
Okay, I have a lot more experience and a lot of anecdotes that I could share to back up all of my observations, but I do want to make one sort of positive comments about working with galleries.
Occasionally, galleries can make an artist’s career. Historically, the artists like Picasso and Basquiat have had very fruitful and excellent experiences working with impresarios and art galleries that have given them salaries and promoted them, literally making their careers. Art history is full of these notable exceptions. Perhaps some of the artists that I really appreciate, such as Bo Bartlett and Macolm Liepke, have also had some really good experiences with galleries. I do think that in the contemporary world, because of the egalitarian nature of the Internet and the fact that people can buy stuff online, this might be less possible.
I’d love to hear your opinion.
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