Ask A Gallery Owner | Is a Recovery Possible After Getting Off to a Poor Start with a Gallery Owner?

Much of what I write on the blog and in my books is aimed to help artists better work with galleries. There probably could, and should, be as much written to help galleries work with artists. There is a fair amount of mistrust of galleries among artists  because some gallery owners and staff are poor at communicating.

I recently received an email from an artist who is struggling with a gallery relationship. Names, locations and identifying details have been modified to protect the innocent . . .

There are 6 artists involved in [a] show (3 sculptors/3 painters) at a local gallery – which has been open for a year. I was pretty impressed with the gallery owner at first with her ideas going in. I brought in one of the sculptors as she had asked for my help. She told the sculptors to bring 7 pieces for the opening/month and she would set it all up. She did NOT want any of the artists to help, which this is the first thing I found odd. I never witnessed the other sculptors dropping off their work as I was the first to deliver for the show.

I arrive at 5:55 pm for the opening starting at 6. My 4 [sculptures] are on a tall glass shelf with the top one showing over 7 ft. high. and a [sculpture] on the bottom shelf which was on the floor, and the two others in the window. They are small works (8-10″). They specifically created this shelf the previous night (and after seeing the setup) realizing they made it because there was nowhere else to put my work after the amount of work they had from the other sculptors. I asked to remove the window pieces and placed them on the remaining shelves. My large [sculpture] (21″ tall) was in the back in a cubicle on a low table with young children running around it all night. Needless to say I was quite upset. I asked her about it and she said ‘what you want to fight with me now!?” Not the reaction I was hoping for. I sold nothing and the other two artists each sold 4 pieces. The night was lovely except for this as over 25 of my fans showed up and purchased [other artist’s] work, in which one broke due to no bubble wrap.

After writing down my thoughts I went to visit her yesterday. She was very busy with a workshop that was just ending so I asked her if I should come back. “No No, have a glass of warm wine…” I wait about 10 minutes and then follow her to the back. I started off with all positives. I expressed my surprise when walking in to see how much work the other artists had and told her I thought we were all supposed to bring 7 pieces and have equal exposure. She [said] “no, I put out what I want and I don’t work with artists on display”, and [if I wasn’t happy] to go find a gallery that does. I almost walked out, took a deep breath and expressed that I have been in a gallery for 13 years and she always works with me on where my work goes. I also said I’m trying to help her as this is a young gallery and if artists and gallery owners don’t work together or respect each other and their work – then why work together. She was insulted and quite rude to me.

Here are my questions to you:
1) Should Gallery owners work with the artist re: setup (if they are in town or willing to be present)
2) What do most gallery owners do re: setting up the artist’s work and how much communication goes on between artist and gallery owner?
3) What can an artist do to create better relationships with gallery owners?
4) Should an artist continue (one month) with a gallery with this experience?
5) Shouldn’t a Gallery owner train the staff (even if it’s family) on how to wrap up each artist’s work?

This is certainly a challenging, complex, and, I’m sure, frustrating experience. In an ideal world, an opening would be a cause for excitement and celebration, and would generate sales for everyone involved.

From my reading of the events, it seems that much of the frustration in this case comes from expectations not being met. I would suggest that both parties have some part in the deterioration of the relationship. The gallery seems to be at fault for making a number of blunders and communicating poorly, and the artist may have set some unrealistic expectations about how the gallery would behave.

So let me begin by saying that if you, as an artist, are looking for a definitive answer on how galleries should behave, or some set of guidelines that they should follow, you are looking for disappointment. The art gallery industry is a disjointed, completely unordered group of privately run businesses. There simply is no “standard operating procedure” to speak of among galleries. There are some norms in the business, norms such as commission percentages and expectations of exclusivity, but these norms are governed by nothing more than custom.

Every gallery owner is going to have her own idea about how her particular gallery is going to work. Practices evolve over time. It’s important to be flexible, and to try to approach each relationship on its own terms. What one gallery does, or how they act, will having nothing to do with how other galleries might approach the same circumstances.

With that in mind, let me respond to the specific questions the artist raised in the email:

1) Should Gallery owners work with the artist re: setup (if they are in town or willing to be present)

This is completely up to the gallery and the artist in question. Some galleries will welcome the input, but others have very strong opinions about the display of artwork. These galleries won’t value or appreciate input from the artist. Gallery layout is squarely within the domain of the gallery owner, and only when invited will artists have a chance to give input.

Speaking from personal experience, in most cases it’s not practical for a gallery to take input from their artists as far as the layout of the gallery and the display of the artwork. This is especially true if multiple artists are involved.

One can imagine that, in this particular case, the gallery owner would be dealing with a zero sum game. Each artist would want the gallery owner to give him/her the best space available. For each artist happy with placement, another would have been unhappy.

2) What do most gallery owners do re: setting up the artist’s work and how much communication goes on between artist and gallery owner?

Most well-established galleries that I have experience with expect the artist to either ship the work to the gallery or drop it off, and then leave the display setup in the hands of the gallery owner and staff.

If the gallery asks for input it would usually be in the form of wanting to know the artist’s vision in terms of which pieces should be grouped together. It would only rarely be about which artwork belongs on which wall, pedestal or shelf.

The exception would be in co-op galleries, where the artist is responsible for their own display.

3) What can an artist do to create better relationships with gallery owners?

Communication would be key in this regard. If you have questions about how the gallery is going to be set up, ask. Once you get an answer, I would encourage you to accept the answer at face value and to remain positive. Remember, if you don’t have the best placement this time around, you can hope for better placement next time. And if, ultimately, you don’t feel you’re getting the exhibition your work deserves, you can terminate the relationship with the gallery. (More on that in a moment)

4) Should an artist continue (one month) with a gallery with this experience?

So far, I seem to be laying a lot of the “blame” on the artist. In this case, however, the gallery owner seems to be doing a poor, undiplomatic job of communicating. I suspect that this might be because the gallery owner is fairly new to the business. She could certainly have been more careful in her responses, and could have better explained the reasoning behind her decisions to help the artist understand her thinking.

I would argue that it makes sense to continue displaying the work through the remainder of the exhibit, but it’s hard to imagine a successful way to get back on the same page after so much tension. Take it as a learning experience and move on to the next opportunity – unless the gallery manages to generate a bunch of sales for you during the course of the exhibit. Sales change everything!

5) Shouldn’t a Gallery owner train the staff (even if it’s family) on how to wrap up each artist’s work?

Absolutely. An artist has every right to expect that the artwork will be handled carefully and protected while in the gallery’s possession. In this case, you might tell the gallery that, because of the delicate nature of your artwork, it needs to be handled carefully. You could explain how best to handle and package the artwork.


Some artists will say that it’s challenging situations like the one described above that make them not want to work with galleries. I believe thinking that way is harmful to an artist’s long-term prospects for building a successful art business. Instead, I would encourage an artist to think of every relationship and potential relationship with galleries in terms of cost vs. benefit.

Ultimately, this all comes down to asking yourself if the relationship with any given gallery is worth the cost.

The benefits of working with a gallery could include increased exposure, prestige, and, most importantly, sales.

The costs of working with a gallery come in having your inventory tied up (and therefore unavailable to other galleries or to your direct sales efforts), dealing with the stress and inconvenience of dealing with gallery owners and staff, and the risks of artwork being damaged.

So, in this particular case, to the question of whether it’s worth showing with the gallery, I would do the math. Is showing with the gallery preventing you from making efforts to show your work elsewhere? Is the potential for sales worth the frustration of working with the gallery owner when it’s clear that your outlook and personality isn’t a fit with hers? These kinds of questions can only be answered on a case by case basis.

This business is all about relationships, and if the personal relationship isn’t working  (it doesn’t really matter who’s at fault) it’s highly doubtful that the business relationship will work in the long run.

What would you suggest this artist do?

Have you had similar experiences? How did you resolve the issues? What advice would you give to this artist? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of reddotblog.com, and founder of the Art Business Academy. Jason has helped thousands of artists prepare themselves to more effectively market their work, build relationships with galleries and collectors, and turn their artistic passion into a viable business.

18 Comments

  1. In my many years of exhibiting at various galleries I have always understood that the gallery space is their territory and it is up to the gallery to decide how works will be shown. A couple of times I have seen an artist participate in installation if an art work needs the artist present during set up, but even then the Gallery must take the lead in asking the artist to be there.
    Installing an exhibit is almost an art form in itself and I can see how the person planning the placement of works might find artists hanging around during installation a real annoyance. But then it sounds like the gallery owner in the incident cited above handled the situation very badly and might do well to sharpen up her interpersonal skills. However I think as Jason was saying above the only choice an artist really has in such a situation is to back off and then make a reasoned decision later about whether they will have any further contact with the gallery and owner.

  2. How about asking the gallery owner what would work best for them ? This is respecting them with the question and receiving the answer as whether you should stay or go. As an artist my work = my children and I know I get defensive and protective and it doesn’t help to do that. This situation sounds like a lack of clear mutual expectations. I once had a gallery back pedal me for months on payment for sales and it was frustrating. Sometimes situations change and it helps to renegotiate if you can ask for clues. I wish you success!

  3. It sounds to me as if this gallery owner is still so new to the business that she may have been super-stressed about even getting the show together in a timely fashion, let alone getting pieces displayed well and with sufficient care. This could have left her in an extremely defensive position, and even colored the way she received the artist’s comments. It might be worth watching the gallery over time to see whether other artists appear to be disparately treated as well, or whether this sculptor can spot a gradual improvement in display and customer as well as artwork handling. There are certainly other galleries to approach. Maybe this one will be a better fit in a few years, if it lasts that long. But that’s just how it sounds to me. Go with your best instincts.

  4. In all of the galleries in which I have been associated, I have depended on the owners to determine not only where to display my work but also which works they want to display. Really, at the heart of this issue is trust between the artist and gallery owner and that entails building a relationship and that means forthright communication from the get-go. Fortunately, I have never been dissatisfied with how my work has been displayed (always at the gallery owner’s discretion) and have had good relationships with my gallery owners. However, I have walked away from galleries where the owner doesn’t seem interested in fostering a relationship where both of us benefit. They have to be enthusiastic about my art and, if that means not accepting whatever I bring through the door, so be it. They know their customers’ tastes best (well, maybe not the case with a newbie owner, like what happened above) and it does go back to trust, which has to be developed right from the start. Artists shouldn’t make any assumptions; you have to interview the owner and not just have the owner interview you. If your goals don’t mesh, seek out a different gallery. I don’t know if you can just push a reset button. That judgment depends on the artist and owner.

  5. I am the gallery manager for a small non- profit gallery in Hawaii. This is not a traditional gallery so we’re are different.
    So I will describe things from the gallery owner side. I try very hard to keep most artists as happy as I can. However, most are new to selling their art. We also have mostly customers who are on a vacation so price, size and theme matters a lot. Getting that basic info to an artist seems difficult at times. I have had to explain many times that extra large art is difficult to sell. Very breakable art ( watercolor with framed & glass ) , photography
    That is not exceptional are examples of art that is hard to sell.
    Bottom line is IF you are not a well known artist please consider
    Just who is likely to buy your at in that gallery. For example, African art while nice is not what sells in Hawaii.
    And sometimes personalities of the gallery owner and some artists just don’t mix well. I don’t have the time to deal with extremely moody artists. Sometimes an artists needs to just keep trying. There are a lot of traditional galleries closing and frankly there is not a shortage of nice art to sell.

  6. I would suggest that this artist should consider her part in the gallery/artist partnership as the one producing original, top quality work. And that the gallery owner/manager’s part is to market it in the best way she knows how, which would include advertising, shows and display etc. As soon as the artist walks through the gallery door, they are walking into the territory of the gallery; it’s not the artist’s studio or domain. Having said that, there are kind, diplomatic ways of informing an artist of the process & expectations on both parties’ part – up front and at the time of consigning an artist’s work. Both are professionals, and both should treat the other with respect and as a person working in their professional realm.
    Some of the dialogue I read didn’t sound professional.
    As to treating an artist’s work with care and respect within the gallery, that is a must and should be something every artist can expect.
    Both the gallery owner and the artist could get a bad reputation with the behaviour displayed here. Truly a sad example of an artist/ gallery relationship.

  7. Communications with gallery owners is my biggest frustration. I owned a gallery a number of years ago and know the stresses of putting on a show and dealing with the business side. Still, no excuses for rudeness or for simply not communicating. My current galleries are good – and yet still don’t let me know when a piece arrives safely, sells (my notification is a month later when a check arrives) or when a client has a question (like what other work of mine might be available). The first two issues are annoying; the last one is unacceptable. My best recommendation is to keep looking for a gallery that ‘fits’ in the areas most important to you. Start by talking to other artists that are already in a gallery you are considering and ask about the things that matter to you.

  8. First of all without seeing the gallery or the artist work my next statements may not be fair. I think an artist should be trilled to even be represented by a gallery as they are becoming quite rare and over populated by thousands of artists. Secondly it is difficult to find a good gallery with an established client base. My experience has been that a gallery that has only been open a year does’nt have one. If a gallery has to give lessons or workshops it is not focused on sales (Bad Sign). Thirdly if the gallery owner is not totally in love with your work they will not sell it , unless someone asks to buy it. If they are IFY walk. As far as placement I am sorry it is none of your business how the gallery sets the show unless the work is in danger or a grouping or is an installation piece. The window might have been a good location. It is a tough competitive market for gallery representation. I think Jason has got it right

    1. Kevin. I totally agree with you. My experience with a new gallery was somewhat similar but the owner wasn’t rude. She just doesn’t gave a client base. After four months I took my work out but she asked if she could still post it on her website. She felt bad about not being able to sell anything. Also I hate hanging my own work. Sometimes a gallery director will hang two pieces together that I never thought of – making a diptych. I learn something every time someone hangs my work.

    2. Kevin, While I agree with most of what you wrote, I have to disagree about your belief that galleries that “give lessons or workshops are not focused on sales.” That is a fairly generalized statement. 🙂

      There are many different types of galleries with different business models. A gallery can do a smashing job of selling art for the artists they represent while *also* offering art classes, art demonstrations and other events. In today’s art market with so many ways to sell art online, a physical brick and mortar gallery that offers more than just a place to browse for art, that also offers many other experiences such as learning about art, socializing with friends and artists … is a good thing! We need more of these galleries in the world. It is not a “bad sign” that a gallery has lessons or workshops. I consider that smart business.

  9. I didn’t see any mention of fairness. If the gallery manager did indeed ask each artist for a fixed number of pieces and it is a group show, they should have been scrupulously careful about making sure that all artists received equal display space and exposure. You can’t even argue that the other artists’ work sold better because a poor location where the pieces could not be seen well would contribute to poor sales.
    I took part in a group show where my work was not displayed with the rest of the group. I could see no reason why mine was in a couple locations where it would likely not be noticed by people who were invited to the show by our group. I have not wasted my time with the gallery. I was very uncomfortable at the opening. As you pointed out, communication is king. If they had warned me, preferably with an explanation, I could have made a choice how to deal with it, but walking into a show and not seeing my work was unacceptable.

  10. As an exhibiting Artist I have never had the pleasure of telling a gallery where my work should hang.. Simply you go drop off your work and they do the rest.. you arrive on opening night to see where you have been placed..
    As for gallery director rudeness.. I’m afraid this is one thing you just got to deal with.. Learn to smile.. that’s as honest as I can be with you.. If you do not mesh with the galleries director you just put it down to experience and move on.. There is never a moment when you start arguing with a director of a gallery.. They all know each other.. its a smaller world than you realise.. Last thing you need is to be blacklisted by everyone in the gallery world thru your inability to smile/shake it off..
    I am aware you feel hurt and frustrated by the experience but what I have written is 110% honest.. This is 20 years of exhibiting experience I am sharing with you.. I hope it helps you out.

  11. You said it all Jason & encapsulated it with ‘It’s all about relationships’ forget about who was right & wrong (probably both were right & wrong) learn everything you can from the experience & put those lessons to work with your next gallery experience… An artist must try to distance themselves & although it can be very difficult, do not take these things personally! Be humble & be nice always!

  12. What I’m reading is that the artist felt “dissed” because they had been asked to help with bringing in other artists, in this case another sculptor–essentially an artistic competitor. By complying, the writer had helped the owner to create a better, more well-rounded show. They then felt they’d received the short end of the display stick.

    So you’re trying to be helpful and a team player and then have all your own work nudged off the prime shelf space? Unreasonable for the artist to expect to control the display and tactless on the part of the gallery owner to fail to give some consideration for the artist’s positive input.

  13. Many of us artists are a sensitive bunch. I’ve run into a situation like this and the only way out was to bow out. It’s not helpful to continue an abrasive or prickly conversation, especially in the gallery where others are present.
    Yes, “it’s all about relationships”. I would say, let the situation cool off for a bit. Maybe the fact that there were a number of people around and the gallery owner was under pressure during the opening prompted her to be sharpish.
    All delicate conversations should be undertaken face-to-face, but also in privacy. If the conversation doesn’t improve on the second try, then let it go. Insisting only makes things worse.
    In my case, I found out the person was bi-polar and everybody who dealt with her had major problems with her. If I had insisted, I would have been in a very poor business relationship. I counted my blessings that I hadn’t insisted.

  14. First of all, let me say that I really enjoy your columns Jason and read every one of them that show up in my email. I’m a realist oil painter and just starting out looking for gallery representation in the US.

    I have a question that was introduced in the above situation. If the gallery caused a piece of art to be damaged because it was poorly wrapped (indeed, for what ever reason), is the gallery responsible to pay the artist for the art?

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