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Should Independent Artists Seek Gallery Representation?

Q: I make my living selling my art out of my studio, at open studios, art festivals, art walks, and recently started trying to sell online. I don't make a lot of money, but have done OK outside of the traditional gallery world for years by selling direct to buyers. I've had a handful of shows during that time, but only at small galleries and exhibition spaces run by friends. I have Instagram and Facebook pages and a website, but don't really do much with them and to be honest, am not all that interested. As a result, people outside my area art community know little or nothing about me and my art. What's the best way to approach more established galleries for shows? Or should I even bother? I have plenty of completed artworks available, and I continue to create new work all the time.

A: Whether or not to get involved with the gallery system is a decision only you can make. On the one hand, you're in great shape because you make your living on your own terms and don't have to rely on galleries for income. On the other hand, no matter how successful you get, you'll always lack the so-called "seal of approval" that established gallery representations and shows provide.

Additional problems with going it alone are that you have no third parties pitching your art to collectors, institutions, museums, corporations, or other groups or individuals you can't easily access on your own. Establishing a resale or secondary market for your art is also difficult because public sales venues like resale galleries and auction houses don't know who you are and will likely be disinclined to accept your art if someone offers it to them for sale. On the flip side, many artists make good incomes outside of the mainstream and are quite happy living with none of the above perks-- and some of those artists even manage to get those perks in spite of operating outside the gallery system.

Seeing as you don't appear to be a big fan of selling online, going with a gallery that has a respectable online presence could be a big plus. Establishing and maintaining an online profile these days, particularly through social media, is pretty much required if you're serious about getting your work out in front of the public. The abilities of galleries as well as artists to reach broader audiences than ever before and sell art online as well is a substantial component of that. If you don't want to do it yourself, perhaps find a gallery to do if for you. At the very least, they can present your art to people who have no idea you even exist, but who may love your art if only given the opportunity to see it.

Before going the gallery route though, you might want to keep in mind that however distasteful getting active online might seem, it's a pretty effective way to get yourself and your art in front of larger audiences once you get the hang of it. Cultivating and maintaining an online profile is definitely worth considering. Sure it's work but if you commit to learning the basics, you may well attract a whole new audience, get to know all kinds of people who you would never otherwise meet, and ultimately sell more art, especially with your track record and experience. Think of the Internet as a huge extension of your studio, a place where people the world over can come to discover and learn about your art... and buy when they like it. More and more artists are selling more and more art online and are accomplishing this entirely on their own without the help of galleries. In fact, a surprising number of them are selling more art online than anywhere else, and the number of artists doing that is only increasing. In case you're interested in finding out more, here's a basic article about How to Sell Your Art on Instagram.

Getting back to the galleries, be aware that you may have to make sacrifices if you opt for representation. To begin with, you'll have to share your profits. Dealers get paid for services rendered, normally 40-60% of retail gallery prices, which means you're either going to have to substantially raise your selling prices if you expect to continue making as much as you're making now or more likely, raise them somewhat or keep them about where they are now and reduce the amount you normally make by the gallery's commission whenever something sells. The second sacrifice is that you may either have to stop selling direct or significantly curtail your activities in that regard. Depending on the requirements or contractual obligations of working with certain galleries, you may have to pay commissions on all art you sell, no matter who sells it. So be prepared to trade a percentage of your current gross income as well as direct dealings with buyers for a crack at potential future fame, fortune and a robust secondary market for your art.

The key word here is "potential." On the one hand, you might hit it big with the help of galleries, expand your audience, increase your exhibition opportunities, and have your prices rise beyond levels you ever thought possible. On the other, you might stay basically where you are now except with less money to show for it due to gallery commissions. Your stint with a gallery might even go nowhere, in which case you'll go back to the old way of doing things. If you think these risks are worth taking, go for it. You never know unless you try. Most galleries are more than willing to provide feedback on these topics in order to help you make your decision.

Another thing to think about regarding gallery representation is that you may lose a certain amount of your artistic autonomy. Your new world will be structured not so much by you, but rather in conjunction with whomever represents you. If you're one of those artists who likes to control the show, operate entirely on your own terms, and make whatever art you feel like making, your chances of getting gallery representation will likely be reduced-- or any representation you do get may well turn out to be short lived. For the first time in your career, someone else will be discussing your career trajectory with you and advising you to what they prefer you do or don't do. As long as you're OK with working like this and can live with the consequences, then gallery representation may well be for you.

Having said all that, getting shows at established galleries won't necessarily be easy at this stage in your career. You have to convincingly explain why you want to change now, and make a good case for yourself and your art based on your successes to this point. You'll certainly be able to skip a few steps over artists who are just starting out, but at the same time, you'll also have some explaining to do when galleries ask why you've avoided doing business with them for so long. The last thing dealers want is to enter into relationships with artists only to have them fall apart a short time later, so you can bet longevity issues will be on their minds. They'll want to feel pretty confident that if an initial show or period of representation goes well, a good solid longterm working relationship will have a good chance to evolve. So make sure you're prepared to answer some serious questions in these regards.

Your big advantage over less successful artists or artists who are just starting out is that you come to dealers with an established track record and collector base. They'll see immediately that you're in this game for the keeps, but at the same time, they'll also be looking for some sort of assurance that if they give you a show, they're going to sell art and make money. Depending on how negotiations progress, you may wish to present them with a list of individuals and institutions, both public and private, who own your art. The more recognizable names you've sold to over the years, the greater your chances of getting shows or representation. An impressive client list is always a great ally, so don't be shy about showing it.

You might even go so far as to offer them your complete mail or email list; galleries like that... a lot. Some artists think this is the worst thing they can possibly do, but think again. First off, just because a gallery has their contact information doesn't mean they'll instantly jump ship and start buying art by other artists they represent. They're loyal to you and will stay that way. Secondly, when your collectors begin to get announcements that you're having shows or being represented by an established gallery or galleries, you can bet they'll be impressed, and very possibly encouraged to buy more of your art. You've always told them you've got the chops, and they've always believed it, but now they have proof!

If all goes well, gallery representation will more than likely enhance your resume, increase your visibility in the art community, and provide you with greater financial security in the long run. Assuming you're willing to accept the possibility of a temporary pay-cut and are comfortable letting third parties exercise a certain amount of control over your career, you'll stand a much better chance of succeeding in the long run. Galleries love working with artists who sell consistently and well, and you've certainly proven you can do that.

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