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 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

14 Comments

  1. The gallery owner clearly has some learning to do when it comes to working with artists and possibly clients. The lack of diplomacy coupled with the lack of respect for delicate artwork would be a red flag for me. I guess I would weigh my options and might give the gallery sometime to get their stuff together. However, if the mismanagement continued and their were no sales, I would end the relationship (and do it very professionally with no emotion) and move on.
    In any case, I would continue my search for more suitable venues.

  2. I have had several artists ask me if they can help me with hanging their work. I always respond that it is very kind of them to offer, but that is part of my service. I also explain that I think of the gallery and its look as my art. There are certainly “sweet” spots in the gallery, and I try to give that space to each of my artists at some point; but really, things have sold from all parts of the gallery (my gallery is small so “all parts” sounds a bit grandiose).

  3. Being brought or juried into a gallery is an honor and privilege. Your work is chosen above other artists’ who would be grateful for that opportunity.
    Any questions about policies and operating procedures are best settled before signing a contract.
    That said, a lot can be revealed about a person’s demeanor through those early conversations and by talking to other people represented by them. I like to think of it as homework.
    One gallery owner I worked with was especially salty and had strong opinions. She even went so far as to say, “Oh take that one home with you. I don’t like that one!”
    I just laughed and said no problem.
    The painting was of an older man in a skiff on rough water. I found out later it reminded her of treacherous waters in the area.
    While my approach was to embrace the wild, risky voyages – she had lost neighbors in the bay and the reminder was unpleasant.
    Our exchange was an opportunity to learn that everyone communicates differently, and the comment wasn’t meant as disrespectful or to hurt me personally.
    As wonderful as it would be for people to put more thought into their words or actions, the best solution may be to develop a respect for their individuality and ownership of the premises. Or not. There may be a better fit for you elsewhere.

  4. iI am inexperienced with galleries except for the occasional group show or juried show (institutional sites). I’ve always considered that the gallery space belongs to someone other than I. My work is selected to be in that space for a bit of time but it’s not my space.
    As a human being, I expect a bit of “fairness”.
    I have been hurt by the lack of it a few times and hurt is the right word. I have been within earshot as 2 jurists for the show talked about my work. One stated his displeasure that the committee decided not to award the graphics prize to me and instead add a second drawing prize to a deserving new artist who was a close second in that category.

    Most of the details in the article I feel are shameful. The established artist at least can put that bad experience aside. Some of us do not have that leeway. The gallery can continue its cultural tracking either surviving on the small group of friends and followers or close its doors.
    Life is too short not to move on. I’m guessing the gallery is in business to sell art work or else it’s a hobby. The artist is either in business to make art, exercising that inner creative passion or they are indulging themselves.
    Where the goals of two business people meet is a very fragile place which I’m finding out.
    I’m also in need of a skin thickener.

  5. The art business certainly is all about relationships & we must seek good relationships. Most galleries want 50% of the money achieved from our Artworks so I want at least 100% of their efforts to sell my Artworks!

    1. Absolutely! While I am not an Artist who puts his work out in gallerys, I certainly don’t think that if the gallery isn’t willing to put out a 100% effort to sell my work, they certainly don’t deserve 50% of the profit.

  6. I worked with a newby gallery owner years ago in a growing but not yet sophisticated art market. She sold a painting of mine out of a group show, an abstract with 1.5″ deep, plain white gallery-wrap edges. The check she gave me was for less than my 50%: she explained that the buyer “loved it” but refused to buy it unless it was framed. So without contacting me, she had it framed and then deducted the cost from my share! It wasn’t a huge amount, but I was furious that she had placed the cost of framing on me, and not on them. She was my only venue at that time, so I stayed with her, but we had a loooooong discussion about framing pricing and practices. Also I was told once, very angrily, by the chair of a small local art fair to take my paintings home if they weren’t framed. It seems to me that there are two kinds of galleries here with two ideas about framing. Galleries that sell “pretty pictures” seem to want the work framed, the more expensively the better; edgier high-end galleries not so much, or galleries that sell large-scale works where framing would be ungodly expensive. My worst run-ins with galleries have always been about framing. Anyone else have thoughts on this?

  7. Well, that is a shame ….
    Anyone in business must have people skills regardless of the product or service. Opening night stress could account for some difference of opinion but working under pressure is part of entrepreneurship. It appears the gallery owner wasn’t quite prepared with her space limitations … that element will probably improve. The gallery/artist relationship may not.
    Gallery space belongs to the gallery and it is theirs to set up as they desire. It may be to your benefit, but someone has to be in a less desirable spot.
    I left a gallery when I realized the owners (mom/dad/son) were promoting the son’s work and there was no way they were taking me out of the back display area. Still, we parted on good terms. I’ve noted since then they sold their prime location and moved a block away into an older building. I wasn’t the only artist that got second billing but they had that right. It happens ….
    I left another new gallery when I realized they were completely dependent on walk in traffic. They were so new their website wasn’t even complete. One of their artists was doing the work free but the only work online was his. Surprise! 🙂 A month later the website only featured three artists and we had a discussion about it. Amazingly, web design was never in their budget. After six months I left because I knew if they weren’t going to invest in a website they certainly weren’t going to promote their artists. Lovely people, and again it was an amicable parting.
    Asking for a sit down conversation to lay out expectations is in order. The sculptor may want to give them a month just to confirm her decision to leave or stay. If she can’t get that from the owner, then leave … things definitely won’t improve.
    I don’t know of any business person or artist that can afford to burn bridges. Smile graciously and state this isn’t the gallery for you.

  8. If you didn’t get along with them and they still sold your work anyways, that would be one thing. If you didn’t get along with them and they sold none of your work, that would be quite another thing.

  9. Dear Jason, I am a Gallery Owner & Curator of 4.5 years in Maryland. I love my gallery and greatly value the local artists that I have asked to join. My business model is that when I ask an Artist to join my gallery, it is for the long haul. Either party can terminate the relationship at any time, but this has rarely happened. Having said this, I have lots to learn. Sometimes Artist get very upset with my curation input & my willingness to take their work in my gallery & display it where they want. Sometimes they don’t like feedback on their work. And sometimes my communication skills are poor. This creates suffering and conflict for both the Artist and myself. If you do decide to write a book for Gallery owners about how they could better work with Artists, I would be greatly appreciative. Much kindness, Robin

  10. Years ago, I talked to a fellow artist about working with galleries. He had a few sales tactics that were somewhat off off-script, but often effective. So I always listened to what he had to say. This one puzzled me at first, but it is so true:
    “Gallery owners are just customers with stores.”
    We can make up all kinds of stories about who they are, what is going on, and why, but in the end, it’s just two different people crossing paths and connecting, exchanging something, and both of them wanting to benefit, who may also have very different ways of doing things.
    And one of them has a store.

  11. I would leave the gallery and take my work. This is the reason I gave up on most galleries. They keep work stacked in the back, often damaging frames, they often only send “checks” when you call because they just happen to sell one. Many think they are doing the artist a favor for showing their work, instead of a mutual benefit. I have 3 galleries that I work with now and they are golden. I know to many stories of abuse by galleries, never got work back, never got paid and angry directors acting entitled. I show mostly outdoors at festivals now and sell way way more than I ever did in galleries. Still if I can find a good gallery that’s honest, fair and good at selling I grateful for the mutual business venture.

  12. Jack White in his book “Mystery of Making It” available on Lulu.com says to visit a gallery. See how they treat you as a possible buyer. If you are ignored, keep looking. If they are friendly and helpful, take the owner to lunch. Talk about them. Get to know them. Buy the lunch. Eventually they will ask about you, by then your friends.

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