Many artists are pinning all of their hopes to make a living on getting into a gallery. Most of them are adopting this outlook prematurely. In other words, they aren’t even close to ready for galleries.
This leads to unhealthy expectations, which only results in disappointment and a sense of failure.
Don’t get me wrong. I think galleries are a great way to go for some artists, but you must be realistic about the process. You have to understand what’s required for getting and keeping gallery representation.
With that in mind, here’s a checklist of what you’ll need before you start approaching galleries.
This isn’t a guide for actively approaching galleries, only for your preparedness.
1. Learn patience.
Gallery representation is earned. It happens after years of hard work in the studio and schmoozing at openings and events.
It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
2. Practice resilience.
Over the course of the marathon, you will be rejected—probably more than you could imagine. If you aren’t getting rejected, you’re probably not taking enough risks.
How will you handle rejection? Have you learned to separate yourself from the work?
Each rejection brings you closer to the right fit for you. The right fit might be the gallery that said No to you three years ago. You weren’t ready then, but you might be now. You must keep playing the game.
3. Develop a consistent studio practice.
Are you tired of hearing this from me yet? I’ve preached having a consistent studio practice until I have a Picasso-blue face, but you cannot be a spotty art producer and expect to get into a certain level of galleries. You can’t make art whenever you feel like it.
In order to introduce yourself as an artist, you must have a robust studio practice.
Galleries must know that they can depend on you, which is especially true if you’re trying to keep inventory at multiple galleries. How many can you juggle and maintain the quality of your work?
This brings me to …
4. Create a substantial body of work.
Again, galleries want to know they can count on you. The art you show them must look like it was all produced by the same artist. The quality should be consistent, not just a few lucky pieces.
A gallery might like to see 4-6 pieces, but it will be easier to make a selection of strong pieces if you have produced three times that amount.
5. Figure out your pricing.
Gallerists know their market and can help early-career artists with pricing, but they’ll want to know if your art has been selling and for what price.
For first-time gallery artists, you have to make sure that your pricing allows for a 50/50 split (60/40 in the case of bronzes) with a gallery.
You don’t know if you’ll fit in a gallery’s stable until you know the price range of your art.
6. Keep your inventory system updated.
If you are delivering art to this or that gallery, you’d better have a way to keep track of it. Your goal is a crystal-clear record of what is where at any one point and what work sold from each gallery.
If you’re looking for a Cloud-based program that you can access anywhere, I recommend Artwork Archive.
Your Professional Presentation
7. High-quality images of your art.
Galleries don’t have time for their introduction to your art to be the original work, so images have to do much of the work. They must be as good as the art, which means there’s no room for questions and no reason to photograph your art on a stockade fence.
8. Write your artist statement or statements.
There are the rebel gallerists (like the late Ivan Karp of O.K. Harris) who don’t allow artist statements in their galleries, but most gallerists will want you to be able to articulate what your work is about. There is no better way to do this than to take the time to develop an artist statement.
The process of writing your artist statement will help you become more articulate, and galleries rely on you to be an excellent representative of your art.
Gallerist Bobbi Walker says:
The more specific [the artist statement] is about a certain body of work, the more I like it because I want to see that an artist can really put together a body of work around a certain concept and that they’re able to articulate that concept…. People are looking for a connection, and the story is what allows me to connect them to you.
9. Demonstrate growth.
It’s helpful, early in one’s art career, to enter a lot of juried shows to build up your résumé. The experience might even get you noticed by a gallery if the juror is a gallerist or curator.
An exhibition record shows galleries that you are organized, meet your deadlines, and have learned how to prepare and install your art.
But don’t stay stuck in juried shows. Gallerists like to see that you’re moving forward.
Continue to expand your awards, education, increasingly prestigious venues, and residencies.
10. Learn how to present, pack, and ship your art properly.
A gallery shouldn’t have to tell you that yarn isn’t an acceptable hanging device. You should know what is appropriate before you reach that point.
You should also know how to pack art so that it arrives in excellent condition at the gallery.
Google it! There are all kinds of packing tips for art online.
Work must arrive install-ready at the gallery.
The Art Community
11. Become a student of your art community.
Understand the business of the art world and what’s involved in running a gallery.
It is said that a gallery doesn’t become profitable with an artist’s work until the third solo exhibition. That means they invest at least four years into your career before they see a return on their investment.
Galleries need to know that you fit with their other artists, as well as collectors, curators, and critics. You can demonstrate this by visiting the galleries often, attending their openings, artist talks, and other events, and showing respect for their artists.
Be seen. Often!
12. Cultivate your social skills.
The art world is a world of relationships. When you’re invited to the dance, or even if you hope to be invited to the dance, you need to learn the steps.
You must acquire any social skills that you might be lacking.
For example, don’t make the egregious faux pas of interrupting a gallerist in the middle of a business transaction or promoting yourself and your art at someone else’s opening.
Promoting Your Art
13. Maintain your website with your most current work.
Most galleries prefer to look at your website than for you to send them anything in the mail. A well done website should reveal your professionalism. Facebook cannot replace a professional artist’s website.
Since galleries are only interested in what you’re doing now, you always want your most recent work to take center stage on your site.
It should be your best work.
Yes, I know you probably haven’t made any bad art that you’d show in public, but if you’re honest with yourself, you’ve probably made some art that isn’t as strong as your other pieces. If you know this to be true, why show that art to a gallery?
Don’t forget to use complete credit lines on your site so that galleries can quickly see medium and sizes.
14. Promote your art now—don’t wait for gallery representation.
Getting your art in front of people shows gallerists that you’re taking care of your career. The more you do this, the more likely a gallery is to notice you.
In addition, a sales record, while not mandatory, can show galleries that your work already has an audience.
What did I miss? How do you think artists can best prepare for gallery representation?
Remember, we’re just talking about being ready—not about actually approaching or submitting to galleries.
How do you know you’re ready?
See what it's all about.