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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18 Comments

  1. I agree with Jason down the line. Keeping the work in the show is important, it shows your commitments made are solid, and that is a message that has great value in your expanding network. I also suspect that once the show ends, you politely retrieve your works and move on. This gallerist may need some time to tune her business acumen, but the relationship as described is not one that will flourish from here on out.

    Best wishes in getting better representation with a gallerist who is sympathetic with your work and working style.

  2. I asked her about it and she said “what you want to fight with me now!?”

    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.”

    JMHO, but a monumentally obnoxious and disrespectful attitude such as this coming from a gallery owner would be a deal breaker. No artist should have to endure this kind of arrogant and unprofessional conduct.

    Life is too short to let others treat you like a doormat.

  3. Communication is the key to building relationships with artists. I appreciate input from artists. When it’s a one person show, we are open to having the artist help with setup. Artists frequently point out when a piece is not in the best spot for exposure. Over time our artists learn that it’s the piece that is hidden that sells or the one on the floor. As a gallery owner I need to help customers see the artwork. If I see a customer respond to a piece on the floor, I move it to the wall so they can get a better look at it. I must admit we are much better at this now than we were in our first year of business. An artist pulling work in the middle of a show would have negative ripple affects.

  4. Excellent feedback in the article and comments. Most of my galleries, now and over the years, do their own set-up, especially when I ship to out-of-state venues. But I appreciate it when they check in with me about my thoughts. My concern with this gallery owner is, it almost sounds like they are already in a conflicted relationship with the writer (accepting fewer works from the writer than the other artists, and the display sounds atrocious.) These factors also sound like a newbie who has a steep learning curve ahead of them.

    My strategy has been to go along, and remain professional, even when I know I’m not going to continue with that gallery. Pulling work mid-show will not only blow up THIS relationship permanently, word could get out to other galleries in the area and affect the writer’s opportunities there.

    This gallery owner will have to clean up their act. Word WILL get around in the artist community, though there will always people who either don’t know, or know and don’t care.

    And yet, a few bad experiences with galleries (or juried events, or juried open studio tours, etc.) should not discourage artists from pursuing these venues forever. Over the years, I’ve convinced quite a few people not to take such set-backs and disappointments personally. If you had a bad dining experience, would you never eat out again? Or would you simply avoid that restaurant? Or even give them a little time, and another chance, and order something else on the menu next time?

  5. As a gallery owner, I feel it is important to not only treat the public with the upmost respect, but also my artists as well. If there is a problem…I want to know about it immediately, and address the situation to the satisfaction of the artist. The artist has every right to vocalize any concerns which they have with the gallery within reason. I say “within reason” because the reality from the gallery owner’s side of things, is that at times artists can impose or expect things from the gallery owner which are simply not realistic. I had one particular artist (for example) who wanted me to adjust his work down to the 1/8 inch time and time again, until after an exhausting amount of time with adjustments I finally let him know that it was perfect in my keen eye as the gallery owner, who has supervised the hanging of art for 30 plus years. The gallery owner should know his or her business, and it is their responsibility to represent the artist with the expertise which is expected of them. I no longer represent the artist I mentioned earlier, because he was extremely demanding of the gallery, and too controlling. It did not matter how well I sold his work…It simply was not worth dealing with him. I found out that another gallery experienced the same sentiment with him.There comes a point where the artist needs to hand their work over to the gallery, and allow the gallery to do what they do best. If they are unable to deliver on representing you to your satisfaction, then you need to sit down and express your dissatisfaction and find some sort of resolution. The relationship between the gallery and the artist is also of paramount importance. You should both be on the same page with a plan in mind. There has to be a great deal of trust and respect on both ends, and if there is not, then it is simply not the right gallery for you. This particular gallery owner sounds as if she is rather inexperienced, or lacks the sensitivity to the artist. If the gallery owner is willing to speak to you so harshly, then I would be concerned as well, of her manner with the public. This is not someone you want representing you. Take it as a lesson and move on. There are plenty of galleries out there.

  6. I’ve had the interesting experience of being on both sides of this fence. I’m a working artist, exhibiting and selling and teaching (oh my), and worked up until a couple of months ago helping to manage a local “vanity” gallery, which ran a new exhibit 9 – 11 months out of the year. Logistics were a challenge, as you can imagine. Because of the nature of the gallery, many artists were new to exhibiting; yet many groups wanted to hang their own work. (This resulted in enlisting volunteer Hanging Directors – and plenty of tussles over the “good wall”.) Compromise (to an extent) and communication were key. Managing expectations IS extremely important – and making sure artists understand what is expected of them (even something as basic as “no sawtooth hangers” or “your work must be framed”!) Since we did most of the marketing and leveraged our email list for each show we did take a small percentage in addition to gallery rental. Since we were charging rent, we also gave more leeway than more traditional galleries might be able to provide. That said, when you are hanging works from 5 to 75 different artists each month, you WILL have unhappy people…

    This experience made me much (MUCH) more appreciative of all the behind-the-scenes work – marketing, promotion, tracking, putting up and taking down, paperwork (endless), website, social media – even just cleaning the space – that goes on. I have become much more of a rule-follower, realizing that any show has put these guidelines in place for a reason (and from experience – probably one I don’t want to replicate for myself.) As an earlier poster said, the Gallery’s job is to show and sell the work – mine is to make it to the best of my ability. When you think about it, who has the easier job, really?

  7. I would simply say that it is essential for an artist to determine what services a gallery provides before agreeing to place work there. When first offered representation by a gallery, i neglected to do this and only later found that the gallery was open only 24 hours/week, did not participate in the monthly ArtWalk opportunities and when its web site was hijacked by a cosmetics company, never bothered to fix it. So not surprisingly i sold only 1 piece there.

  8. Have a contract with the gallery before displaying any art. I made that mistake. It was always about to be available and I sent the art anyway. It took a year and a half to get the unsold artwork returned and the payment for the sold work. I ended up brining in my attorney.
    This same gallery owner has a collector for another one of my pieces and I am holding the art until I receive full payment.
    Keep all emails and keep a record of all calls and visits.

  9. I actually prefer to let others arrange my work. They bring a fresh eye to it. I think most gallerists are quite adept at this. That said, the verbal responses from your gallery owner are rude, disrespectful, and obnoxious. And that’s an enormous red flag to me. You need to have a working partnership with good vibes; you don’t. I’d walk.

  10. So, if gallery staff break a piece while wrapping it or because it was incorrectly wrapped, who is responsible for the cost of that piece? It’s not the collector, I realize. But is it the gallery owner ie: their insurance? It shouldn’t be the artist, as they didn’t have any control over the situation. Or does the artist just has to “suck it up”?

  11. All good comments and questions. I do agree with Jason’s points. Another angle to consider is your reputation (either the reputation of the artist or the gallerist). As Jan Anders Nelson said above that it may be necessary to “politely retrieve your works and move on.” If it comes to this, instigated by either side, I think it is very important to place emphasis on the word “politely”. Regardless if an unfortunate incident results in leaving (or letting the artist go) your reputation will follow you in the relatively small world of gallery owners and artists. I think it best not to have a possibly incorrect or undeserved reputation be my legacy.

  12. Jason, what is your answer to the question about who is financially responsible for an artwork broken or damaged during the process of packaging a work of art in the gallery. How would you handle this?

  13. I think maybe the artist in this situation may have invited the response she got. It is unclear if the Gallery owner had ever led her to believe she would be consulted about layout and included works or if that was just her expectation as one of the artists.

    About show layout and contents, I have always assumed a Gallery owner who is running a business is always in charge of presentation. And after numerous shows in the US and abroad I have always found it is the gallery owner who takes full control. The only exception would be is if the owner clearly asks for the help from the artists in a show.

    As for the owner being rude, perhaps that was just how the artist took it. A savvy owner is less likely to be rude to their artists as they know they need their artists to be in business at all and to be successful. If the owner was actually rude then maybe it is time to look elsewhere for representation, but then getting into a gallery is not all that easy to do. Maybe diplomacy is the better strategy.

  14. As an artist and former managing partner/ curator of a gallery for 8 years I can appreciate the responsibilities and obligations of each individual in this circumstance. Let me approach this first as a gallery owner and curator of exhibitions for the gallery. It was my responsibility to do the installations for all works in the gallery, featured artist as well as the work of the other gallery artists in the remaining gallery space. I had what amounted to “absolute” control of the installations. Absolute is in quotes because I was open to discussion about placement of pieces but I would still have the last word. When arranging the works for the featured artist’s show I always sought input from the artist to the point of having them arrange the works if they so desired. I would, on those occasions, review their placement of the works for the show. This may seem odd, but I have always viewed an installation as the creation of another work of art, and within the confines of the spaces available creating the best composition possible for both visual and spatial considerations. Out of respect for the featured artist and their artistic sensibilities, I worked to provide the artist with an opportunity to have their work presented as they thought it should be. After their selections were made we would discuss why they made the choices. I would, if I thought it necessary, make suggestions for possible changes to the arrangement prior to my beginning the installation. With rare exception, my suggestions were accepted. When they were not the artist almost always had a valid reason for their choice which I had not considered. My view was that it was their work in a dedicated space and that they should have the most input possible for their featured exhibit. Most of the artists in the gallery happily brought the works they wished to include in their exhibit and turned the installation over to me. I came to this approach many years ago after viewing retrospective exhibits of major living artists at our regional museum, where discussions about the installations were always part of the artist’s and curator’s lecture and q&a. The artist always had some level input and or control of the museums selections and placement in the exhibit.

    Now about the arrangement of the works of multiple artists in a shared space, that has to be the decision of one or no more than two people. As the person responsible for all gallery installations I was committed to presenting each piece in such a way that it was not in conflict with other works, that it had sufficient space so that it could be viewed as an individual work, and that each of the artist had at least one piece in a prominent position in the show. There were places in the gallery that I would not place work simply because there was a space for another piece. My goal was to install the works in such a way as to have the customer who entered the gallery find a natural flow through the space while viewing the work. For the general display of work in a gallery setting the old adage, “ too many cooks spoil the soup” is most appropriate.
    As an artist, if I am featured in a space of my own, I expect to have input on how my work will be displayed. If I am part of a group exhibit I trurn over placement of my work to the curator/installer as there are many more considerations for the placement of works where a group of artists is involved and I understand that responsibility.

    I have been a participating artist in both juried and invitational exhibits and understand what those obligations and responsibilities are. I have, as noted above, been a gallery owner responsible for the installation of works for the entire gallery. I have also been asked to curate or direct installations at various art venues in my area over many years; I’ve seen this from both sides. The artist who is not capable of or willing to finance and manage there own gallery has to relinquish a huge amount of control over which of their works get displayed and the manner in which those works are presented to the public. Even if the gallery and owner are new to the game, much has been invested for the purpose of marketing the works of others. If the management of the gallery is not what the artist expects then they should have a reasonable discussion with the owner about what they would like to happen. The owner is free to accommodate at some level or not. If the artist and owner can not establish a working relationship then the artist needs to pick up his/her work and find another venue. If the gallery owner is a lousy manager, the gallery will likely fail. In which case, the artist is looking for another gallery anyhow. I am part of a broad community of artists in two major cities and several associated small towns. Few of the artists I know, want to or know how to manage the business end of marketing themselves and their work. If they had to pay someone, up front, to do what the gallery does for a commission after the s sale, many would not have enough left over to buy supplies.
    As for the gallery owner who has a poor working relationship with the artists in the gallery, they will likely have a poor relationship with clients as well. That owner will soon find themselves without enough significant artists or clients to sustain the business.

  15. My thought is to treat this like an awkward family or long-time friend dispute: keep conversation to a minimum, and at the end of the designated period, politely remove the work on display. The artist could, if it felt right, offer to leave one or two pieces for a longer duration, realising that this offer may be shot down. Agreed that the gallery owner seems pretty fresh – and I mean that both ways – and is probably working with a learning curve. You can’t weigh other people’s struggles for them. But you can do what’s best for you, and often that means keeping a line of communication going. Maybe monthly, or bi-monthly, email and just ask how everything’s going at the gallery.

  16. I do not and will not tolerate arrogance and disrespect in my personal life, it certainly flows into my professional life. I’ve had business dealings with a couple galleries that would send you for the door. One charged me $250 for representing and showing my work for a whole year. He/they did nothing but take my money. Naturally I spread the word for artists to avoid the thieves. The second one got away with treating people badly. My low tolerance for stupidity had me look them in the eye and tell them no. Not today or ever. Galleries should not be arrogant,
    be-little or talk down to people. It’s a fact galleries would not make it if it weren’t for the artist who put their trust and work in the hands of the gallery. Period. That’s why I dont understand the smart-mouthed, the arrogant who THINK they can control their artists with stupid redderick and an attitude. Life is too short to be dealing with those people.

  17. I completely agree. Overall the goal is to find a win-win solution. Coming together to discuss specific expectations would be beneficial. If that is not possible a “no-deal” scenario might be best. As in other businesses, it is up to the individuals to outline what their expectations are and to work for mutual benefit; galleries need artists, and often, in order to access an audience, artists rely on galleries. Working together effectively will serve to benefit both parties, but never be afraid of walking away. Both are responsible for the relationship and eventual success of sales.

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