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, 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.

13 Comments

  1. Over the years I have shown with some three dozen galleries. Of all those the ones that worked best were with owners whom I would consider as friends, and whom I would treat as such, as they would me. If they are stiff, dismissive, or too business like from the start, I stay away because it often devolves into a one sided relationship. I would run like the wind away from that gallery if I was the artist in the article. It’s not worth the anxiety.
    I don’t like to take care of my own display. It’s the gallery’s space so it’s up to them. If they do a poor job consistently then they won’t be in business long.

  2. The gallery – artist relationship needs to be one in which both parties are satisfied. Galleries should be open to hearing from their artists, as to if they are satisfied with how the gallery is representing them. Decisions such as how an artist’s work is displayed should ultimately be up to the gallery. Experienced galleries have reasons for doing certain things, like how they display artwork. Some works require a specific degree of negative space around them, and therefore fit into specific areas of a gallery. Other works may be of an intimate nature, and sell better if place in a more private / quieter area of the gallery where the client feels more at ease. Some areas of a gallery are considered hot spots, which generate better sales than others. An experienced gallery owner, who understands his / her business should know this better than anyone. It is important as well to be honest with yourself. If you are upset because you feel that another artist(s) received preferential treatment over you, and therefore had better sales, then perhaps it is your ego which has been injured. You should be able to sit down and discuss things with the gallery owner. Keep an open mind and cool head. Watch how the gallery owner , and his or her staff interact with the public. Ask yourself such questions as: “Do they sound intelligent about art?”…”Are they pushy with the customer, or do they make the customer relaxed?”…”What sort of character do they, project?”…”Does the gallery provide the right atmosphere for your art?” If you are not satisfied after a period of time, then this is not the gallery for you.

  3. I have been employed by two different galleries. Both galleries made the decisions on where to hang work. Both galleries were extremely courteous to artists and clients alike and friendly to boot. Both galleries taught the employees how to wrap purchases.

  4. I don’t usually respond to things like this but in this instance, I feel I have to put my two cents worth in. You are in the service industry. You serve the artist and you serve the buyer. If you don’t want my input about my art, fine, I can just as easily go somewhere else for representation. Would you have told Richard Schmidt he couldn’t have input? Robert Bateman? Your argument that the Gallery is the definitive final answer is facetious. It is true that when push comes to shove you need to understand that the gallery owner must do as they see fit, but the refusal by the gallery owner to allow the artist’s input is solely based on the arrogance that they know best. While I don’t expect, nor demand, that a gallery give my work preferential treatment or placement, I do expect to have my opinions at least considered. To ignore or just plain indicate my opinion is worth less than the gallery owner – well, that kind of gallery doesn’t need my artwork nor do I need their help in selling. There are other galleries, there are other methods of selling artwork. There is NO good reason to allow someone to control your destiny because “they know best”. You’re wrong Jason. But that’s only one of the reasons that galleries are dying. And to ignore THAT particular opinion is up to you.

    1. You could not be more incorrect! If art galleries had to concede to every desire of every artist, it would be impossible for them to conduct business. It is very much the same as if every the supplier of every product in the grocery store wanted to be on the same shelf, at eye level. To add to that…No…galleries are not struggling today because of artists’ demands, it is because of social media, and economics.

  5. I have to say that the artist in the article appeared to be be quite calm in spite of being insulted by the gallery owner (based only on her version of events). I can only assume that the new gallery owner seemed defensive and cannot take suggestion or criticism. When the artist indicated she had input in the other gallery, that seemed to me to be the wrong direction comparing the new gallery owner with a different gallery owner. I know nothing other than what I read here on how to run a gallery, but I wonder what the contract indicated on handling of art and display of art. If indeed there was a contract. It seems the gallery owner has a volatile response and the artist seems eager to “teach” the gallery owner how to run her business. I personally after 68 yrs believe that this relationship can be repaired but only if both parties indicate their failings in the previous exchange.

  6. I would not waste any more time on this gallery. Move on. Another gallery will appreciate your art and handle it carefully. The first gallery that I signed on with accused me of bad mouthing her on facebook, of course I never did. She called me and told me to “pick up my shit and get it out of her gallery within 12 hours or she would put it in the trash.” I was heart broken! When I went to pick my paintings up I tried to talk to her, but she threatened to call the police! But, I hooked up next with the best gallery owner that I could have ever asked for! So things happen for a reason as they say. Shake it off and move on!

  7. I found this whole article very interesting, as I am new to the art selling industry. And I’ve never shown in a gallery. I look forward to more information on the subject.

  8. I have had several less than desirable experiences with gallery representation over the years. One gallery blamed me for not having any sales in a year like I was suppose to send my clientele to her gallery. All along I thought my job was to create Art her job was to sell it. Another gallery owner warned me not to hand out any business cards during the opening (which I had not planned to do) I found her inherent mistrust of me to be very insulting. When I picked up my work after a year of no sales she had removed all of my contact info from the back of every painting and replaced it with one of her stickers (yet another slap in the face). I have found that a gallerist must be head over heels in love with your work to get any results as far as sales. It is difficult to find the right gallery let alone any gallery that is willing to represent you so any red flags at the onset is reason to run away. I rather sell from my studio and have all of my work available in my studio. It sucks when someone wants a piece that is across the state in a gallery that has had it for a year and you have to retrieve it to make a sale. You will probably be expected to pay the gallery a commission on a sale they had nothing to do with.

  9. Just last week I found myself declining to put a piece into a display that would otherwise consist of oversized abstract paintings. As Jason said, it’s a cost-benefit analysis. Putting my best foot forward would require using a compelling landscape that would do better elsewhere. I agree that it is important to be known for a consistent and recognizable body of work, and I recognize that new buyers can better figure out and value what I am doing if they see more than just one, or alongside other landscape styles. So knowing what to expect is important to the decision. I learned a lesson long ago when “emerging” – a gallery hung its special showroom alternating my paintings with those of a popular but generic plein air painter with absurdly low prices. My next show there was solo, and watching the visitors was much happier.

  10. I was invited to display my work at a gallery recently. The only problem was the cost. The owner asked for $5,800 to display my paintings for two weeks plus 50% commision on sales. She was warm and welcoming but my response was, “What?” Don’t artists have enough problems already. Artist beware.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *