Monday, April 06, 2009

How to Do Your Homework, Part I

A while back a reader asked what I mean when I say the first part of getting a commercial gallery is "doing your homework." How do you go about learning what market your artwork fits into and once you do, how do you learn which galleries are both a good match and willing to discuss the possibility of working with you?

I had always thought this advice was sound, but after that question I realize that it's easy for me to say "do your homework"--- and then point to that advice if someone approaches a gallery that isn't right for them ("they didn't do their homework")---but how helpful is that advice really? What leads up to a gallery offering the feedback that "your work isn't right for our program" and how can you minimize your chances of receiving it?

I think it makes sense to break this discussion into two parts: 1) general homework/research for those just starting off looking to work with a gallery and 2) more detailed advice for those artists who have a good sense of which galleries their work fits in but for any number of reasons can't seem to crack the door on one in the market they most want to sell in. Because of time limitations, I'll discuss only the first part today and will delve into the second later. As with all such posts, these observations are from my limited point of view and I encourage those with other experiences to please add comments.

General Homework
One of the themes I'll hit on again and again in this section is you need to have a support network of artists and curators you can ask for advice and information. If there's an essential "first step" I would recommend, this is it. Many of the things I say to do below require having access to people who are more tapped in than you are. With that caveat, however, there are to my mind four basic elements in doing your "general homework" in finding a gallery.

1. Determine whether your work even belongs in the commercial end of things: Many artists who want commercial galleries are conflicted about what is commonly discussed (at least in many art schools) as the corrupting or irrelevant influences of the commercial art market. Personally, I have no qualms about artists who eschew the art fact, I find it highly impressive if done for the right reasons. I know many artists who like to think that way about their work, though, who will just as happily sell work if it doesn't cost them anything personally. (I think of a certain neo-Marxist who attacked me at a panel discussion for being the source of all ill in the art world because I'm a commercial art dealer only to confess over vodka that he too had sold work and liked doing so.) All of which is my long-winded way of saying start off doing a bit of soul-searching. I don't agree that the commercial side of the art world is automatically corrupting. Too many amazing artists were all too happy to work within it and/or work to improve it. Still, there's no reason to assume you need a commercial gallery just because you're an artist. You may not. It should be something you choose because it fits in with your vision of your career.

2. Learn about the art market hierarchy: I'm quite frankly surprised how many artists who want galleries are unaware of the structure of the commercial art gallery system. ("Why shouldn't that blue chip gallery at least look at my fresh-out-of-art-school body of work?") Professionals in other industries make it their business to understand which companies seek out which type of colleagues, but so many artists seem to think every gallery is like every other one. Here are the facts, though. There is a hierarchy. And the further up the food chain a gallery is, the more difficult it will be for entirely unknown artists (those with no important museum exhibitions or major press under their belt) to get into them.

As an artist, you can determine where a gallery fits within the hierarchy by a few easy-to-access-via-the-Internet bits of information:
  • Are they members of any art dealers associations? If so, which ones?
  • Which art fairs do they participate in (yes, you need to research the heirarchy of fairs as well for this information to be valuable)?
  • Do the artists they work with have museum exhibitions on their bios (yes, part of doing your homework is reading through them for clues)?
  • Do their artists get high-profile or lots of press?
Again, the take-away piece of information here is that galleries further up the food chain (getting into better fairs, getting more press, in more prestigious gallery associations) are generally more difficult to get a foot in the door of. Compare notes with your artist friends about where you feel Gallery X fits in the pecking order. Scope out the entire landscape of galleries so you feel you can order them all more or less (or at least any you would approach). There's no reason not to shoot for the top and work your way down, but have an understanding of who is where before you begin.

3. Learn as much as you can about what work like yours sells for: This can be the rudest of all awakenings for unknown artists, but it's really rather simple. In the art market, your artwork is worth what collectors are willing to pay for it. The better known you become, the more it's able to impress/amaze them, the better a bibliography or exhibition record you have, the more money they're willing to part with to acquire it.

Begin finding this out by asking your artists friends. Ask those who make work like yours what theirs sells for. Keep in mind whether or not you have a similar exhibition record and bibliography (just because Chuck Close is your friend, doesn't mean your work should sell for what his does). Or, if you're really good friends, ask them what they feel your work would sell for in Gallery X.

One of the questions a dealer you finally get over to your studio or to talk with you about your work is likely to ask you is what your work sells for, so you really want to be prepared here in order to assure them you're ready to work with a gallery.

If you've done your homework here, you can say you feel it needs to be priced at $X. If you have sold work tell them what it sold for, but also in what context it sold. If you've never sold a piece (or if you've only ever sold to friends or family members who were only too happy to help you pay studio rent), say you'd appreciate their advice or recommendations on that. They may not have time, but generally they'll be forthright about what they feel it could sell for. (Don't misinterpret their willingness to share this information with a willingness to exhibit your work at this point though.)

If your work is considerably less expensive than most of the work shown in a gallery, it might be more difficult to get a show there (selling out your entire show might not cover their overhead). Research what the work they show sells for. If they don't put out a price list, ask around or check auction records where applicable. Art fairs are a good place to get a sense of what work costs in any given gallery. You may not want to ask yourself if you'll later (not at a fair please!!!) present yourself as an artist interested in working with them, but conscript your friends in finding out. Then again, I don't think it's that big a deal. Art fairs are about broadcasting such information in most instances.

4. Learn as much as you can about what type of work the galleries you plan to approach exhibit: This is the hardest part of the general homework. It takes time. But it's time well spent, if only in how it is likely to garner you the most useful feedback, even if it takes a while to find the right match. Casting your net too widely, without knowing whether a gallery shows work like yours, results in an artificial degree of rejection feedback. You might be the best photographer in the world, for example, but the swift way in which a gallery devoted to painting shows you the door may lead you to doubt that.

Begin, again, by asking your artist/curator friends which of the hundreds of galleries out there they feel might be interested in your work. Narrow it down before you move on to the more detailed homework to avoid wasting your time and discouraging yourself. Once you have a short list (I'd recommend whittling it down to about 10 to start), then begin the real research.

Fortunately, most galleries if not all that you want to approach will have websites with lots of images of the artwork they exhibit. An easy first step in determining whether your work will fit into their program is whether or not you like the majority of the other work they show. If you don't, then it's probably best to cross them off your list. If you do, then move on to the second step: Is what you do too close to what someone already in the program is doing and/or does what you do conceptually or aesthetically conflict with what someone else in the program is already doing. For (a lame, but simple) example, if an artist in the program is arguing that identity art is dead and you make identity art, the odds are not good the gallery will want to undercut all the work they've done to build a market for that other artist by exhibiting your work. A third step here is to see if your work fills in any gaps in their program. As Sara Jo Romero says in Darcy Bhandari and Melber's book Art/Work, many gallery programs are built like a color wheel. To quote myself summarizing her on this idea: "You have connections between the artists that mimic the relationship of complementary colors and those that are more akin to the relationship of colors next to each other, both formally and conceptually. It may not be immediately obvious how artist A makes sense in the same program as artist B until you see how one completes a segment of the same wheel."

So in doing your homework, look not only at a single artist whose work seems a good match for yours, but look at the entire roster and see whether you, er, "complete," the program. Is there some element of their dedication to new media art, such as not enough work dealing with the aesthetics of digitally generated images for (another lame, but succinct) example, that they're a bit weak on that your work would strengthen?

Once you're closer to thinking a gallery is a good match, you'll want to check the bibliographies and resumes of their artists. Track down and actually read some of the reviews, learn what the rest of the art world thinks are their shortcomings and/or strengths (not only of the individual artists but the gallery as a whole as well). Scour the Internet for gossip and/or press about the gallery. If you learn the gallery will be participating in an art fair you can attend, go see their booth. If you see an artist they exhibit will have a show in a gallery or museum near you, definitely check it out. Information is power here.

Finally, and this can't be overemphasized...visit a gallery you wish to exhibit in before approaching them. This is, in my opinion, an essential part of your homework. Know what it feels like in that space, how big it is, how high the ceilings are, whether your 2-ton bronze sculpture will fit up the narrow staircase to their third-floor space. I know all the arguments about the time and money it takes to do this, but it gives you a great deal of useful information and an edge over those artists also approaching them who never take this step.

I do expect this will generate as many questions as I've tried to answer, and by all means please add what homework you've done that was helpful in your own search.

Labels: getting a gallery


Anonymous ROb, Art gallery owner said...

Owning and running an Art gallery business is no different from any other type of business.
Consequently, the very same rules apply "at least". At least, because once again, dealing art is quite not the same as selling bottles of milk or printed thirts. That makes it even more difficult..

4/07/2009 11:47:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric Casp said...

If you can travel, sometimes you get a sense that cities favorise different types of art, and you may find that you would feel better if you lived in Berlin, London, or New York. Some places favorise the art market, while others work with different systems (funds).

Personally, there is always about 3 to 5 artists I love on any gallery roaster (more if the dealer represents 50 artists), so it's hard for me to tell what a gallery likes (I sometimes wonder, if I opened a gallery, how it would be to have a roaster that I love 100%), but some are definitely specialized in trends (conceptual) or medium (technological arts, for example).

I think a little rejection can't hurt anyone. If a young kid thinks he's all prepared and everything goes smoothly, it can be bad for later on in their career. A dealer shouldn't feel guilty to say "NO!".
If the kid goes up to his room and cry, either he does it until he dies, or he decides nothing is ever going to stop him.

Unfortunately, in life, no one is ever going to help you if you spend your life crying up in your room, so I would strongly suggest situation no 2 (and add a little enthusiasm if you can afford it).


4/07/2009 12:19:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Casp said...

I feel strange about my previous comment, because things were looking good for me when I started making visual arts in the mid
90's. Sometimes the only person that really rejects you is yourself. Or maybe I wasn't serious enough. "Are you prepared to work hard?" would be my next question.

Making art always sounded way more fun than when it was actually time to make it. Arggh. If you don't think "arggh", than lucky you, maybe your art is too easy to make.

Cedric Casp

4/07/2009 01:10:00 PM  
Blogger pam farrell said...

Thank you for this comprehensive outline on determining how or if one's work might be a good fit for a particular gallery. You've mentioned things that I would not necessarily have thought about and gave great examples, especially the "color wheel" idea.

4/07/2009 02:12:00 PM  
Blogger Bromo Ivory said...

One motto I have heard in other sectors is "Know your customer's business better than your customer."

This is a great skeleton for putting together a "sales penetration plan."

And of course, I think it can't be emphasized enough, placement in a commercial gallery does not equate with success - if the gallery can't sell your work, it will damage your career via word of mouth.

4/07/2009 02:53:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Casp said...

Aren't there cases where a dealer have a hard time selling an artist, yet it receives critical praise and the artist is invited in biennials?

I hope so.

Having an art career means two thing: 1) you make money 2) you get invited to show in all the cool places. You can have much of no 2 for many years without ever seeing a penny. It depends of your ressources. Also, the costs of where you live. Apparently, a New York dealer can cope with 2 more difficult artists if they have 2 or 3 that sell. That's interesting, but the difficult artists must be aware that they don't sell and have their own ressources.

If I buy the next Arcade Fire album or the next Rapoon album, I'm very aware that one of them will make less money than the other, and I don't think he's in it for the money. A label that signs Rapoon will always be a great label. It's not about the money.

Ok now: I've just proved that I'm cool forever for being a Rapoon fan. Try me.

4/07/2009 04:09:00 PM  
Blogger J. Thomas said...


I've read your blog for the longest and always appreciate the open and honest advice you offer young artists. I've put a lot of it to good use, despite the fact that it's essentially common sense and manners.

However, I wonder if you could be so generous as to shed some light on similar strategies for emerging curators, specific to the commercial gallery system. I've been fortunate enough to work with some museum curators and exhibition organizers at alternative spaces/not-for-profits. But I also note the number of curated shows happening within galleries (you've had a few yourself).

I'm wondering how those sorts of relationships are initiated - do these curators work for the gallery or are they coordinating the show as a contract employee? Do they get paid or is it a more academic affair? Oftentimes, they seem to be one of the represented artists, but not exclusively. How would you recommend approaching a gallery whose work you appreciate and whose dialogue you feel you could contribute to or enhance?

The other confusing aspect of this, to me, is the nature of the endeavor. By this I mean that I can totally understand a group show of the gallery's roster - that's pretty straight-forward. But oftentimes, these curated shows present work by some (or even mostly) artists who are not associated with the gallery. What is the gallery's interest or investment in hosting these endeavors, and how do they get actualized?

I realize this may all be woefully off topic and perhaps outside your area, but any knowledge or advice you could provide would be very much appreciated, as always. Thanks.

4/07/2009 05:04:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

It's a great topic, J. Thomas, and your questions are the same I asked three great independent curators kind enough to be interviewed for my book to comment on (yes, you can all expect me to start promoting the book where it makes sense until I can't stand it myself). My publisher has noted that it's OK to republish small sections of it here for promotional purposes. I'll double check to see how much that means and see when it's cool to start "teasing" everyone with those interviews.

The short answers though, are, for a truly independent curator (not a gallery artist)

1. shows arranged mostly through networking...sometimes through cold proposals, but not as much
2. payments vary but generally are either a flat fee or percentage of sales (most prefer the flat fee)
3. curator is NOT a gallery employee and no one should treat him/her as one
4. the credibility and followers of the curator are the biggest advantage in working with them (both solidifying an aspect of your program in the eyes of your followers and and bringing a new crowd in)

4/07/2009 05:22:00 PM  
Blogger Matt Dunn said...

Excellent post.

4/08/2009 08:19:00 AM  
Blogger Brandon Juhasz said...

I have a quick question:

If I want to reach out to a gallery in a different city obviously email is a starting point. Who on staff should I direct my email. It seems going to the director is like a mail-boy asking the CEO for a recommendation. Is there one person usually on staff who is the "new talent" filter?
I do realize some galleries only have a small staff so maybe you do go to the top?

4/08/2009 12:30:00 PM  
Blogger J. Thomas said...

Ha, Thanks so much for the short answers - looking forward to the book's release!

4/08/2009 12:44:00 PM  
Anonymous S. OBoyle said...

One of the unique situations possible now is to have had quite wide exposure of work via a website without having had any gallery shows or any opportunities for work to be displayed publicly. So work may be fairly well known in small circles without having had a public brick and mortar venue. That is the situation I am in, I've been a photographer for a number of years, am working on my first book with a publisher, self publish four books, sell fine art prints via my website, but have had no exposure through the traditional channels. I would like to change that and break into the gallery scene, but it feels like I have just graduated from art school again when I approach a gallery, with no history of shows, they don't seem to be interested. Your advice here is priceless and well appreciated. Any further advice for this frustrating new reality of the internet age, from a gallerist's point of view, am I essentially starting from scratch?

4/09/2009 10:15:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

how come my post didnt get on?

4/10/2009 12:35:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I've had a bit of a steep learning curve with posting comments from my iPhone. I apologize if yours didn't go through.

I have rejected some posts that seemed too far off topic or too intentionally antagonistic, but I've also accidentally rejected a few through having fingers too big to use that keyboard obviously designed for elves.

4/10/2009 07:59:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ok, i'll try again:
I think its strange how as soon as an artist gets into a gallery, all critical discussion of their work by their peers changes. In some cases its like a hush-hush about it and often people just jump in and accept it, who in another set of circumstances would have bashed the work. I guess this mirrors that lack of critical writing about art shows in general.

4/10/2009 02:07:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It’s not strange at all anon. It has nothing to do with being critical and everything to do with politics.

Especially if it's a gallery that another artist want's to work with in the future. They hope to curry favor with the now represented artist by becoming more supportive.

Like high school.
See: Social dominance theory 101.

4/11/2009 12:54:00 AM  
Anonymous Ravenna said...

Thanks for this, Ed; excellent and clear as always. I'm personally looking forward to the next installment and elaboration on question 2).

4/12/2009 10:47:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

so if that is how it goes, then one can only expect critical discussion about peer work in a grad school classroom? is it gone forever once one enters the professional art world?

4/12/2009 07:51:00 PM  
Blogger ewallartist said...

I have no idea if this was a direct response to a question I (an artist in Sweden)posed about 3 weeks ago here in the comments section of the blog, but it sure seems like it. Thank you very much for the information. I was already doing 90% of this by instinct, but it is nice to fill in the other 10% and see the I was already on the right track. I can not wait to read the next part.

4/13/2009 05:36:00 AM  

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