Over the last several months, I have run into several threads online or in social media arguing that the age of the art gallery is over and that artists no longer need to work through galleries in order to make sales. The participants in these threads make excellent points, and I actually agree with much of what is being said in terms of the changing market, but I would like to argue the counter-point that, in order for an artist to build a successful, profitable, long-term business, galleries still play a vital role.
I would point to five key factors every artist should consider when deciding whether it is worthwhile to pursue gallery representation as a part of his or her business strategy:
- The Multiplicative Effect
Allow me to take a moment to explain each in more detail
I’ll begin with what I feel is the most compelling and important arguments: exposure. While an independent artist can set up a website, do open studio tours, and participate in art shows and festivals, all of which have the potential to put your work in front of potential buyers, these efforts simply can’t match the exposure you can gain by having your work shown and sold in a gallery.
Unlike a show or studio tour, a gallery is open year round. Over the course of a year my gallery, for example, will be visited by thousands and thousands of potential buyers. This consistent stream of viewers gives an artist the best chance at reaching his or her audience and making sales. The art business, just like any other business, is a numbers game. While there are many things you can do to target potential buyers and increase your chances for success, in the end, you’ve got to have eyeballs on your work in order to reach those who are going to feel passionate enough about the work to pull out their credit card and make a purchase.
Some argue that your website gives you exposure to a vast potential audience online. This is true, but if you are tracking your traffic and online sales, you know how difficult it is to get visitors to your site, let alone convince those visitors to buy.
I will concede that you could start to reach a broad audience by participating in a large number of art festivals and shows – in fact you might even be able to reach a larger number of people than you could through galleries, but this leads us to the next factor, efficiency.
Simply put, every minute you spend on self-promotion and shows is a minute that you are not spending in the studio. If you have participated in open studios or weekend art festivals, you know that tremendous preparation and effort is required in order to make the events a success. Unfortunately, all that effort is no guarantee of sales at any particular event.
You might argue that you have plenty of time to participate in art events because you have plenty of artwork and don’t need to be spending more time in the studio. I would encourage you to stop and think about what that means though; if you have plenty of inventory and plenty of time on your hands, you simply aren’t selling enough.
The artists that I show in my gallery would have a hard time participating in a lot of shows or studio tours because, quite simply, they are too busy creating to keep their galleries in inventory.
By working with a gallery, you will be able to focus on producing work while the gallery focuses on producing sales – each of you is able to do what you do best.
Moreover, very few artists are both creative and good at sales. Galleries are staffed by professionals who spend all day long, every day working on the sale of artwork. They are going to be better at moving a customer to the close than you are, and they are going to be better able to focus their efforts on following up with customers to close the sale.
The Multiplicative Effect
As an artist doing self-promotion, you are limited in the number of events you can participate in and the marketing efforts you can put forward because there is only one of you. As you expand your representation, you can show in galleries across the country (or the globe!). Now the effort you put into finding galleries begins to pay off in a big way. Each additional gallery now multiplies your exposure.
Compare this with trying to increase your income by participating in more shows or studio events. The work and effort you put into each event is only as long-lasting as the event itself.
By expanding your reach through galleries, and especially if you are able to secure representation in a number of galleries in a variety of geographic markets, you will be able to create a level of stability in your cash flow.
If you are relying solely on your own marketing efforts and sales slow-down, it can have a devastating impact on your finances. By diversifying your market, you will find that sales will begin to become more stable and reliable. Sure, one gallery may experience a period of slower sales, but often another gallery will then kick into gear, have a strong sales period, and make up for the dip in the first gallery.
The economic downturn of 2008 showed that no one is immune to a precipitous crash in the economy, but in my experience, those artists who were showing in a variety of galleries (as well as doing some direct marketing) were the ones who fared the storm best.
Many artists feel that gallery representation helps establish them as more legitimate in the eyes of collectors. Collectors will ask you if you show in galleries. While the quality of your work should speak for itself, the reality is that many collectors see gallery representation as a stamp of legitimacy. Showing with good galleries will enhance your resume and reputation making it easier to join professional art societies and get into juried shows.
Often galleries, especially those that have been long-established in their community, will have built relationships with people in the community that can be important to your career. Museum curators, arts writers, show organizers, publishers and other gallery owners all spend time in galleries. Your galleries can become great advocates for you as they work to promote you and your work.
Finally, art galleries remain one of the best venues to see your art at its very best. We had a show this last season and as the show was opening, the featured artist said, “it’s so awesome to see the art all together like this!” Sure, he had seen the art in his studio, but until it was all hung together in the gallery, he hadn’t been able to get the full impact of the body of work. Galleries spend a lot of money getting their space and the lighting just right, and they put a lot of effort into figuring out the perfect display for the work. Short of building your own gallery, or getting a museum show, you won’t ever see your art in quite this way, and neither will your collectors.
A gallery display is one thing that a website simply can’t replicate
Galleries Should Remain a Part of Your Marketing Strategy
The internet and the ability to sell direct to customers has made it easier than ever before for an artist to take control of her own career. There are more marketing opportunities available to artists than there have ever been. Some see these alternative marketing avenues as a sign of the impending demise of the gallery business. I agree that there is certainly a lot of competitive pressure on galleries, but I believe that galleries will remain an important part of the art market for the for years to come.
Over the last twenty years, I have had the opportunity to get to know hundreds of artists and have been able to observe what these artists are doing build successful careers. It is just as true today as it was twenty years ago: the most successful artists are those who are showing in multiple galleries.
I encourage you to continue building your market, doing shows and events, and maintaining your website. There’s no reason you can’t work to build a successful career by marketing your work on multiple fronts.
It can be difficult to find good gallery representation, and over the last few years, as the gallery market has shrunk, it has become even more competitive. I would argue, however, that anything worth doing is hard. Securing gallery representation requires preparation, research, and yes, hard work. But if you think about the work required to sell your art on your own you will find the time and effort required to find a good gallery is worth the investment.
What do you think?
Do you see a future for the gallery business, or do you believe that artists will be able to thrive without galleries? Are galleries a part of your marketing efforts? Share your thoughts in the comments below.