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.

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Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of Dad was an Artist | A Survivor's Story and best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of reddotblog.com, and founder of ARTsala. 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. Connect with Jason on Facebook

15 Comments

  1. I’m not represented by any gallery as yet.
    I have been invited to be a part of group and theme shows from ti9me to time.
    I have never even thought about suggesting placement or preference.
    The idea that and artist and a gallery enter into a business agreement seems to me to imply a certain mutual respect and trust with both parties.
    I would not expect a gallery owner to come in to my studio and suggest I use more Naples Yellow.
    Why would I go in to a gallery and suggest my painting would be better on the other wall?
    While all my art pieces are my “children” so to speak, once I take them to the gallery, they have a “play date” with other children. Don’t know if that is an apt analogy but I offer it anyway.

  2. Although the practices and mindset vary from one gallery to another, galleries are in the business of showcasing art, promotion of artists, and selling art. It is their business, and they generally have reasons for how they want to operate. What may appear (for example) to an artist as an undesirable place to hang one’s work in a gallery, may actually be a “hot spot”. Good gallery managers understand how to market the artist. If you are concerned about the way the gallery is packing your work, then inquire if they are insured for full loss of the work. Galleries generally do not like to be told how to run their business. The artist also needs to be honest with themself. Other artists may sell better than you do because their work is priced better, or the quality of their work may actually be better. It can also be that the appeal to their work is stronger, which can be attributed to a number of things such as the size, the palette, the style of execution, the subject, name reputation, etc, etc. Don’t blame that on the gallery. It is important to establish a good working relationship with the gallery, and there are times when you have a reason to suggest why things should be hung in relationship to one another, but it is usually best to let a gallery do it’s job, while you concentrate on creating. The “artist and gallery” are very much a relationship. As with any relationship communication and compatibility are key to making it work. It is best to establish right up front what you expect from the gallery, and include that in your contract from the start. An example might be that you require that at least 3 of your works always be hanging. This is to prevent the gallery from simply putting them in a bin. If they do not agree to your requirements as well, than you need to be ready to move on. That can be difficult to do, however it is important. If after a fair amount of time (ie: 6 months) you feel that the gallery is not working, then sit down and express your feelings and concerns with the gallery owner / director. Give them a little more time, and if you still feel unsatisfied with their performance, than it is time to move on to another gallery. If you do so, you always want to part on good terms.

  3. I would always expect the gallery owner or the curator of a group show to decide where to display the work. I once took part in group show where the artists could choose where to hang the work. This led to arguments, bad feeling and unfairness, where those with big egos got the best spots and the other artists felt resentful.

  4. As both an artist and multiple gallery owner i have heard this scenario very often. I say to the artist butt out of the set up. the gallery owner knows better than you where the key selling spots are in their gallery for particular types of work. yes there are specific spots that work better, and its often not the most prominent positions physically. the type of client for your work may require private discussion not suitable to being front and centre. alternately if its all flash and appeals to a particular client or group front and centre works. As the owner of multiple galleries i would often watch in amazement as the individual operator/partener would know exactly where to place pieces to attract the attention of specific buyers. it is their business to know that. as to damage if they break it they eat it. The gallery business is about reading people not about selling objects, let them do their job.

  5. I was represented by a gallery in a large city in PA. A friend of mine who had seen me working on a piece that took me about a month to complete. He saw it in various stages many times and told me he would definitely buy it when it was finished. In the meantime, his wife got very sick and he became very involved with her recovery as well he should. Months passed. I figured he had completely lost interest in the drawing, and of course, under the circumstances, I was not going to bug him about his promise to buy it, so I put it in the gallery. And, wouldn’t you know it, he calls me the next day about purchasing the piece. I told him what I had done and explained that I didn’t think it would be beneficial to my relationship with the gallery owner to yank it out of the gallery a day after I put it in. He said no problem. He would buy it from the gallery. I warned him that he would be paying double for it. He said No problem. He went into the gallery and explained the situation. The piece wasn’t even hung yet. He bought it and the gallery owner had no problem taking his 50% cut, $1800 for doing absolutely nothing. That really pissed me off.

    1. Robert…It is generally considered unethical and unwise for an artist to undercut the gallery by selling direct to the public at a price different from the gallery. If you are with a gallery, your prices should be consistent with the gallery. If you want to be represented with a gallery, than you need to respect them at the same time. Your gallery is more than likely not on top of things with their contract with you, if this is not spelled out in black and white.

  6. Dealing with a gallery owner is no different than any other business or even personal relationship. When you negotiate, it is paramount that you know your terms. Your terms are the unalterable expressions of who you are as a person, as an artist, as a businessperson.

    You will intuitively know when you are in situations where your terms are being tested. You feel it in your gut. If you know your terms and live by them – it would be very hard for anyone to derail you from your track. If on the other hand you loose sight of your terms you may easily violate your own terms. That’s when your power gets sucked out of you.

    Decisions regarding to do or not to do, go on with a relationship or not; are easy to make when you know your conditions, thresholds and boundaries (based on your terms).

    – Alex Samson

  7. I would expect that any artist offering advice about where to place art would first have done a study of traffic patterns in the gallery. The artist would also need data on selling history for each location not to mention the relative quality of any particular piece. But I am guessing this was just an artist opinion with no thought for any of these real issues.

  8. This was an excellent subject, with excellent replies. I don’t own or work in a gallery, but I have participated and assisted in installing group exhibits. These shows are a real challenge for the team hanging/arranging the pieces. It’s often ‘the luck of the draw’ where your pieces are placed, and sometimes it is a real challenge to find places that bring out the best in pieces. Gallery owners and staff really appreciate the attention an artist gives to make sure their work is ready to hang securely, and present well. It is also to the benefit of the artist to bring their work, if possible, in a carton or crate (with appropriate identification) packed sufficiently to prevent damage, when the piece is sold, or returned after the exhibit. This aspect of being an artist is quite a learning curve, and your columns really are a great help!

  9. When my work is hung in juried or invitational shows, I leave the placement to the gallery or museum. Hanging a show is a lot of work and I would rather they handle it. Ninety-nine percent of the time, they do a great job. Once in a while I am less enthusiastic with the placement. I deal with it. So as far as setting up a show, I would suggest the artist leave it to the gallery; it’s supposed to be their expertise.

    But in every other aspect of this story, I found the gallery owner to sound rude and arrogant. And very unprofessional. I would take my work elsewhere.

  10. I have mentioned it before on this forum that it is imperative for the artist to be on a similar business type wavelength as the gallery owner. There can be no doubt about this. Oddly enough, my writings on this exact matter did not strike a chord with any of the readers, as I never received any response – which understandably, is not my problem.

    To reiterate – here ARE galleries out here who should not be allowed anywhere near a piece of art or near the artist. I’ve met quite a few and I have wondered how they’ve managed to get this far or who ties their shoe laces. A great deal of owners are exceptionally uncomfortable with an artist who appears confident and shows distinct signs that they won’t be ridden roughshod over.

    However, there are galleries who properly represent the artists, their works – and their stories – but they are in the minority and will remain so for the foreseeable future.
    Quite how undeserving artists manage to fall out with those is beyond me.

  11. This was really great advice and comments. I’m not in a gallery yet but gave me very good pointers on what to expect and what I should do to make it a win – win for all.

  12. I have worked in two galleries. In neither gallery, did the artist decide where the work would go. In both galleries, the help was trained to be careful with the art. As an artist myself, I have also had work displayed in galleries. I have never told the owner where to display my work. Only once was I disappointed (my painting was displayed in a window with the light shining through it).

  13. I’ve been in one gallery. Never was I asked or allowed to have input on how or where my work was hung or shown in the gallery. I say “how” because the gallery owner on a couple of occasions, changed the wire on the back to hang it vertically or horizontally for “space.” She didn’t think it would matter because my work is abstract. To me, it did matter because the “energy” of a painting changes based on how it is hung. Then I had two paintings ruined when she hung them on the outside of her building in the back garden area when she had an outdoor event. Something was spilled on my paintings and stained them. She wouldn’t take any responsibility for them and said I delivered them to her that way. I had to redo those paintings. After that and a few other issues, I just gave her a written notice that I was pulling out of her gallery and would be back at a convenient time to pick up my paintings. I also left her with a list of those paintings. So I’ve learned through you, Jason, that not everyone is a good gallery owner, but not everyone is a bad one either. You just have to decide if your expectations are the same as the gallery you wish to be at, and most of all, does the owner respect the artist enough to take care of your art and have productive communication with you, so that both of you feel like the relationship is working.

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