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.
36 thoughts on “Are You Ready for a Gallery? A Checklist”
Great article, Alyson. I will add just one thing – you aren’t ready for galleries if you don’t have respect for what they do. You can’t bad mouth galleries and complain about the percentages they take and expect to successfully have a relationship with them at the same time.
Thanks for adding this, Karine. I am sure this comes from experience.
Thank you, Alyson. In my opinion you should sleep and eat well in order to feel strong to face rejection and critics. I often see myself and some fellow artists too stressed because we forget to take care of ourselves. I think that at the studio you are in a state of mind that consumes all of your energy. Then, to finish the process, you “have to” socialize it, to share your art with the world. It’s a process. Mindset, confidence and taking care of your well being is critical. Again, sorry for my English. I hope it helps. Thank you.
Your English is beautiful, Marta. And thanks for the perfect reminder to take care of ourselves.
This is a great article and brings up for me a couple of things I’m always thinking on, particularly couched with the book recommendation and comments you made in your email, Alyson.
“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.”
Don’t you mean “character” or “style” or “technique” and not necessarily just “quality”? Work can be of excellent quality but have a very different character. As a mixed media artist I continue to struggle with this continuing misplaced emphasis in the art world.
On medium: For many contemporary artists the medium is a tool for the message and few are married to one medium anymore. All you have to do it look at Art 21 or any contemporary gallery to see this. There are many artists making in a variety of media, all equally excellent, and with each medium and art work(s) they are addressing a concept or expressing something singular. See Vik Muniz, Ai Wei Wei, Janine Antoni, etc.
Speaking of series, aren’t we past this “body of work” and “series” obsession in the art world yet? Picasso didn’t do a series of Guernicas. There are many artworks (past and present) that are not part of a “series” or “body” of work. They stand alone as what was important to the artist at that time.
My love for art is rooted in the variety of ways to express an idea. Sometimes it’s a series, but not always. And often it’s in different media. To require artists to come up with a series of works (and how many works constitute a series anyway?) on one concept or technique or theme is unrealistic, and I’m not sure why it receives such emphasis. It’s as if artists who complete their study of a concept in one piece and move on are discounted as not having gone deeply enough.
Some artists spend their entire lives on one theme and that’s great, although to me it sounds like slow torture. My point is that working in this way is right for some and needs acknowledgment as a valid practice. As an artist with a consistent yet eclectic practice I’m finding it difficult to know what to present to whom and to stand firmly and rejoice! in the fact that I am not an artist who feels the need to work in series or even in a certain medium or style.
Kristen: I really appreciate your thoughtful response. One by one …
1. I used the word “quality” in that sentence because I thought it most appropriate to having to produce a lot of work to keep up with gallery demand. Style/character didn’t seem to come into play with that, but I understand that you might see it differently.
2. The only time I mentioned medium was when I encouraged you to add credit lines (including the medium). Otherwise, medium doesn’t matter. I agree.
3. I do believe we’re beyond “body of work” or “series” but a gallery will still want to see a consistent body of work as a first step. Picasso did plenty of bodies of work before Guernica and that’s how he made his name.
I didn’t use the word “series” anywhere in my article.
You can produce anything you want, but you have some proving to do in order to take the first step with a gallery.
“Body of Work” to me means…you are not wandering…you are working in some form of series…and within that…it may be medium, style, voice ( which we here little about).
I like this article. Great info, clearly stated and I know where I stand. Thanks!
Thanks for the nudge, Ann!
Thanks for the great article Alyson. I am in the process of sitting down and reviewing where I am in this process and where I need to improve . You have provided an excellent checklist. Please keep the information coming….
Keep us posted, Steve. Maybe you’ve made some progress since you wrote this.
Excellent article and excellent comments from the readers!
I’ve shown my work in many galleries since 1999 and each and every one of those galleries closed due to economics or owners retiring. Selling art is not an easy business and most of the owners I worked with lost money because overhead expenses (rent, insurance, wages, artist payments, marketing & promotion costs) were so high vs. actual art sales and profits. As an artist and a business person I absolutely support the split galleries take for selling an artists work, and I truly believe that owning and operating a gallery is a labor of love – not a “get rich quick” scheme by any stretch of the imagination!
That said, in today’s art market an artist needs to consider the gallery itself; its’ owner & staff; and the location of the gallery when seeking representation. Are they looking for a quick show of work or long-term representation? Are the other artists represented by the gallery happy with the gallery’s payment record, publicity and promotion? Do those artists work well with the owner and other artists? Are the sales seasonal or year-round? Is it a friendly, welcoming place to walk into or are potential collectors going to be turned off because the owners/sales associates are too busy or simply not interested in talking with walk-ins?
Many bricks & mortar galleries are closing due to economics; lagging tourism and owner burnout, and the closure rate is far greater than the new gallery opening rate. What is the future of the art gallery? I think there will always be a need and desire for collectors to buy from a store-front gallery or art/design professional (ie art consultant or interior designer) — especially collectors who purchase for investment purposes and who want to see the piece or meet the artist before they buy.
But my gut tells me the typical gallery will need to re-position their business and marketing strategies as they are forced to compete with on-line galleries becoming a more popular way of purchasing art; artists who open their own studio galleries in “art buildings” and produce their own shows; and regional Open Studio tours and high-end art shows that collectors flock to personally choose art and meet the artists in person.
With these growing trends, it also means an artist needs to be able to market his own art and grow his web presence and collector base vs. relying on a gallery owner to do it for him. An artist who counts on their livelihood happening from one or two galleries needs to keep these trends in mind……and be aware that if their gallery goes away, so does their income stream. It may not be as easy to find a replacement gallery if that happens, so in my mind it’s best to be prepared and not put all my “canvases in one place!”
Judy: Thank you for your thoughtful response. What you address (the viability of the gallery model) is a different article, of course. But important to consider nonetheless.
I agree that it’s tempting to aim for galleries too early, because it’s a well recognised ‘step’ in taking your own work seriously. Although my work sells well, I still feel like I am finding my feet as my approach develops. This isn’t something that can be rushed! However, following small steps that consistently move you forward towards this stage is helpful to remember. Even if you aren’t in galleries yet, it’s all part of the process of making sure you are consistent and professional in your approach, and the way you manage your art and share it. Thanks, this is a great list!
Alice: I’m glad you found this helpful. It sounds like you are realistic about your progress and the process required.
Can a sales record simply be a list of paintings sold with dates, to whom and price?
Beth: It just means that you have sold work. No one will ask to see an official list. You just have to be savvy about the process.
As always, great article. Lots of good information here – I’m saving this one! Thank you.
I just have one question: Alyson, you said “…I think galleries are a great way to go for some artists…”. So – what are the alternatives for other artists, besides the obvious website presence? Are there other possibilities which I have not yet considered?
I am really quite new to all of the business of fine art, after 35 years in the business world. I would like to create a presence/ place for my art – am still working on my website – and have thought about gallery options. I don’t care about the money as much as just thinking that I have something to say in my art – and I am tired of talking to myself. I would like to have this “conversation” with others in a public setting. I think. The idea of going through the process to get into a gallery is a bit daunting.
So, besides a website, what avenues are available other than galleries? Juried shows? Coffee shops?
Cleta: I’m sorry to be so delayed in responding.
Yes! Loads of alternatives. Take a look at my Venues category on this blog for more ideas.
Having a substantial body of “my” work is a problem I’m always working on other peoples designs. I have to much of a spotty body of my own work.
Jason: Are galleries even a goal for you?
Just what I need at this point. I look forward to your information and encouragement to keep working!
Thanks for being here, Rachel.
This really translates for writers too!
Substitute publishers for galleries…
Excellent point, JR.
As a mid – career artist already in the gallery world, it is important to also remember, once in, keep going. Still a marathon. Economies go up and down, and that adds to the stress. You will lose galleries as some will close, and you will gain new ones as others will open. Keep the faith. It’s not you or your work. Sometimes outer influences are at work. Have faith in what you do! You are here to make your mark. Good advice from the checklist.
Thanks for sharing your experience, Anita. I have seen too many artists be complacent – only to wake up and all of their galleries are out of business. Keep on keepin’ on.
Thank you for your article, it was very helpful. I am just beginning this journey as an artist and have found the whole process somewhat confusing. I started school much later in life and have just begun as a painter in the last few years. I have sold many of my pieces but honestly feel a little behind in the game as far as knowing what galleries are looking for. I’m thinking your advice for being more involved in gallery openings is the most useful step right now.
Tammy: I’m so happy you found this. I think it’s confusing because there is no single path that works for everyone. Stay tuned because I have many resources that might help you.
Really enjoyed your article, and am in the process of much of which you have written about. My work has always been based on my love of animals and wildlife, more often than no, it is hard sometimes it seems to get brutally honest interactions from other artists or galleries. I find these opinions much more helpful than the typical “that’s nice or beautiful” responses. I am a self taught artist and have been and artist for many years but sometimes I feel I may be headed in the wrong direction, confused.
Bill: It might be helpful for you to pay for a critique by a pro artist in your area. Sometimes there are “crit groups” available, but there might be an artist who could get straight to the point.
PS: I just checked it out and I think your work is fabulous! I pinned it for a possible feature on this blog in the future. 🙂
Very interesting. A greeting
I loved the article and printed it to see where I need to be at this point in my art journey. I do need a little bit more advise though. I create and sell most of everything I make, as soon as I post the painting its sold within a few weeks. I may never have enough pieces to get to a gallery which is disappointing because that’s been my dream since I was 5 and started creating my art. Should I hold pieces off my website, to build a portfolio to send to just a gallery? I think at most I always have 5 or 6 pieces on hand while most are going out the door. Help!
Sam: Great question. Why are galleries a dream?
And … can you earn a living from what you’re selling right now on your own?