Ask a Gallery Owner | The Pros and Cons of Artist Owned and Operated Galleries

In the past, I’ve discussed different models for galleries: traditional commercial galleries (consignment), co-op galleries and “vanity” galleries. A recent email reminded me that there’s another variant of the traditional gallery that I’ve yet to discuss here: the artist owned and operated gallery.

An artist owned gallery shares many of the characteristics of a traditional consignment gallery, with a twist: the owner of the gallery is also an artist and showcases his/her artwork in the gallery. In many cases the artist couldn’t secure good gallery representation in the local market, or perhaps there weren’t any galleries around. Rather than ignore the market, the artist decided to open a gallery.

In other instances the artist may have decided that she or he could do a better job running the gallery and making sales than the galleries in the area; or, perhaps, the artist simply wanted to have the opportunity to interact with customers and wanted to control the entire sales process, from the creation of the art all the way through to the sale.

Whatever the reason, almost every art market will have a number of galleries being owned and run by an artist. It’s often the case that when the gallery begins it only shows the artist/owners work, but often the owner decides that it would be smart to diversify what’s being offered to clients, and so the owner brings on additional artists. The dynamic in this kind of gallery is interesting, and it was this dynamic that sparked the email from an artist showing in one of these galleries. The artist wrote:

I’ve been represented by galleries all across the US in my 20+ year career but one problem has always bothered me. Are galleries run by an artist or a pair of artists going to give you and your work the same attention as theirs?

I currently have a gallery [representing me] that is owned and operated by two jewelers. They do fabulous high end work. It seems though that potential customers are led to the jewelry counter first and paintings on the walls are a second choice. I’ve even been there when the one owner stumbled over my art philosophy to a customer.

Should artists steer clear of galleries where you will be in competition with the owner’s spouse or even both even though it’s in a high traffic area? The sales from this gallery are much lower than my other galleries (which happen to be run by non-artists) and I suspect I may have entered into a situation that isn’t bolstering my career. But pulling out of a gallery is always a foreboding feeling especially here in a high competition area [. . .].

What are your feelings about being represented by artist owned and run galleries?

I responded

This is definitely a dilemma. In my mind, there’s no doubt that an artist/owner is going to give his or her work the highest priority – they have a huge financial incentive to do so. However, they are showing other artists work because they know that their clientele is going to be best served by them having some variety.

Ultimately, it would probably be better to have a gallery where you are on a level playing field, but until you have another gallery lined up, I would think that some representation in a major market would be better than none at all. In other words, I would continue to show with them, but I would also be actively seeking other representation in the market as you are able.

Every situation is different, and I know of artists who have been very well-represented in artist-owned galleries, but it sounds like this particular relationship isn’t working as well as you would expect it to. It might be worth having a conversation with the owners to express your observations and ask if there’s something you and they could do together to help better the marketing of your work, and, by extension, the work of other artists showing in the gallery.

What is Your Experience Working with an Artist Owned and Operated Gallery?

Have you shown in a gallery where the owner was also an artist? What was your experience?

Are you an artist that owns a gallery? How do you try to promote the other artists who are showing in your gallery? Do you feel a strong incentive to prioritize your own work in terms of display and sales efforts.

Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

 

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22 Comments

  1. I joined a cooperative gallery where there are 40 local artists who each work two days per month. There’s a wide variety of items for sale which the customers seem to enjoy. Foot traffic is mostly tourists looking for smaller items which isn’t my target market, but as a fairly new artist I’m enjoying the experience and hoping for the best. I’ve contracted with them for a year, after which I will reevaluate and determine next steps. In the meantime I’m absorbing what I can from interacting with the other artists and customers.

  2. After selling my work in galleries for over 20 years, I have had an artist owned and operated gallery for 4 1/2 years (with my studio in the gallery as well). I represent around 30 other artists and find that if anything, I promote their work more than my own! Having been on both sides, as an artist in a gallery, and now a gallery owner, I have deep respect for the discipline it takes to create art at a high level and honor my artists’ dedication by paying them quickly and promoting them consistently, while appreciating the added sales it brings to the gallery. It has been a win/win.

    1. I will second LeeAnn’s comment, heartily. Having owned and operated a gallery where I exhibited my own works along with the works of other artist’s I personally know has overall been very satisfying, tho it is not for the faint of heart. I remember when other artists gave me help, how necessary it was to my own survival as an artist, and thus I want to do the same for others whenever I can.
      I let clients make their own discoveries in the gallery. If it is one of mine, fine–but I get just the same kick if it is one of the other artists: plus, that helps pay the rent! Everyone has a different taste, thus I don’t think one can steer a potential client to art that doesn’t work for them.
      If I can’t place an artist into a particular show, I will try to provide advice about other venues–including to start their own gallery. I tell folks that having your own gallery is somewhat like placing a loaded gun to your head and telling yourself: you want to paint? Now paint! It sure helps clarify things.

    2. I owned a gallery/studio and eventually brought in other artists and this lasted for 18 (hard working) years. Yes artists came and went, but for the most part the core artists remained and grew as we all did over the years improving and building our reputations in the regional market. Artists were paid promptly and were promoted as much if not more than myself. In fact sometimes years would go by before I even had a solo show. I eventually received a lot of press for my own works having nothing to do with the gallery and subsequently clients who came in to view my works (and gallery website) also saw everyone else and helped all artists sales. Additionally, we started doing workshops with gallery artists and national instructors and that just made things even more a win/win. Eventually I decided it was time to just be a painter and get out of retail, selling the gallery after many years. I think every situation is different and artists should do their research before they take on representing others or joining an artist/owned gallery.

  3. I have a large, quite visible Studio of two rooms….I use one as a work place, the other as strictly a show place. Because I have a studio within blocks to two galleries in my town, the galleries would not consider having my work since my studio is so “close and visible” altho I was willing to sign a contract of “no sales” in my studio. Eventually, for the stimulation of artists, their visits and their work I wanted to showcase them too. But so I would not compete with them I put all my work away …out of the gallery and the exhibiting artist has the whole studio for one month. They do the mailing if they want a reception and cover opening expenses and “man” the space that month. When I am working in the studio and they are not “making their space” i gladly talk about their work and try to make a sale. Basically I am giving them an “exhibit space, a gallery affiliation, etc.” for a month. I take 20% if they sell, nothing if they do not. The main benefit for me is the relationships with the artists and the creative energy it brings to my studio. I do this only two or three times a year, sales for my own work is not the motivator….its interaction with the art community.

  4. I am an artist and gallery owner in Niagara Falls Ontario, Just opened this year and am showing other artist work as well, I rent wall space out at a low cost to artists ( I cringe at the term “Vanity Gallery” prefer cost share or a type of limited co-op- I’m in no position to fund other artists- its costly to have and run a gallery and for what I rent out it for it doesn’t even include gallery sitting as I work there when I am not doing business related tasks required to run a gallery- for most months I’m having to fund at least a 1/4 of the gallery out of my pocket but I look at it as studio rent- im sure as I get established that will change) or Im willing to rent the main gallery out to artists or groups on a 4 week period to help offset my expenses, I advertise their exhibition in art related media print and online, I do not promote one over the other or when its a group show and do not push my work instead of theirs- in fact promotion of my work is hardly ever and maybe I should rethink that, if you like my work you will buy it but if you are interested in one of the others then you probably wont be interested in mine, as a new gallery, the challenge is getting bodies into the gallery and getting a presence in the art world, sales have been picking up but I am a ART gallery, I dont offer crafts, jewelry, scarves etc, just fine art, no low cost items to take away sales from the actual artwork, the same way I wont do trade shows that have crafts – in my opinion it hinders the sales of fine art if others at the show offer $40 and $50 items- just my thoughts

  5. I have been in 2 artists owned galleries over the years and both times the owners promoted their art over my art. My best sales are with non artists galleries. It’s only natural to promote your own to keep the doors open and pay bills. The extra artists are gravy for the owners. The only exception would be if an artist in their gallery is a sure seller & well known or if the owner artist is an amateur artist & loves to be around art.

    1. Hello Patsy, I am an artist and new gallery owner.
      I promote other artist’s works first and foremost, and my own last. I am happy to sell ANY piece of art in my gallery !! If a client prefers my work of course it is lovely to sell your own piece.
      Our gallery is struggling to cover marketing and rent at the moment, and I do not take a wage as I am using up all of my savings to keep the gallery going. We are a very seasonal city and do not have the tourist numbers at the moment. We are unsure of the gallery’s future.
      My partner and I have spent thousands and thousands on marketing and events, along with other promotions. My own artwork does not usually feature in this, it is always our artist’s works we promote.
      The only people that benefit financially so far are the artist’s whose works we sell.
      We do not all operate like the artist/owner galleries you have shown with.

      1. I’m an artist, and I owned a gallery for seven years, four out of seven I represented other artists as well. I can say, although I promoted other artists more than myself and spoke with passion about their work since I picked only the ones I liked very much, I have to be honest, of course I sold more of my own work. It’s not because I tried to do that, or diminished other artists work or because my artwork is better. It’s simply because I was there and people liked to hear about art piece from the artist. To be fair to my artists I only charged 30% commission and always paid them right away. The experience showed that I bit a piece to big to chew. I couldnt jugle both roles. My love for people and friendliness back fired in decline of my productivity, since people just came to the gallery/my studio to hang out, inadvertently pulling me away from work. Eventually I made a decision to wrap it up. But today if I’ll be represented in artists owned gallery I wouldn’t expect that I’ll have more sales than the owner, even if my work will be a better quality. It’s the ability to meet the artist in natural for them environment that often times makes the sale. So yes, to some degree it’s not an equal chance of sales for other artists, but it’s not because the artist-owner doesn’t promote your work.
        As for the jewelry and paintings mentioned above, at one point I was part of artist coop as well and to my observation most people just love jewelry and gravitate toward it first, I don’t think it’s polite or wise to steer them away from what interests them in an attempt to be fair to other artists. I personally only glance at the jewelry cases and as a client wouldn’t like if while looking at paintings I’m being distracted with something that does not interests me.

  6. A co-op gallery sales effort is only as good as the artists that are fulfilling their obligation to two four hour shifts a month. A natural conflict of interest happens when clients browse the gallery and are steered to the work of the artist on duty. As I give client tours around the gallery I have more to say about my own art and often will negotiate prices on the spot. People are genuinely interested when they discover that I am the artist of the work on display, this interaction often leads to sales of my own work. I honestly try to know the stories of my fellow artists and I am trying to improve my sales skills for their benefit. But I am not a good sales person and I think all that I have discussed here would apply to an artist owned gallery.

  7. My perspective is a bit different. I was a gallery sales person, and ultimately gallery manager at a high end gallery in a competitive market, at the same time my artwork was represented at another area gallery. It was an understanding from the time I was hired that my work would never be shown in the gallery where I worked, and I was very careful not to mention the other gallery or discuss my work, at my place of employment. It definitely would have been a conflict of interest (or conflict of my employment) to do so. BUT I wasn’t the artist/gallery owner which is a different situation. I was at one point represented by a gallery/owner/artist where the situation was more like Patsy mentions above – an amateur artist who loves to be around art. She definitely had better sellers than her own art, knew it and was fine with it. Sadly, she was a bit of an introvert and not the best sales person. That gallery closed during the economic recession in 2008-9.

  8. Jason, I’ve given you bits and pieces about my first and only time in a gallery. It was also owned and run by an artist, but she also had artwork from 126 other artists in her place. I eventually left the gallery after 8 years for reasons I won’t mention here, but in my contract with her, there was a clause stating that I would not show in another gallery within a 45 mile radius for one year following my departure. I don’t know if this is standard contractual language with galleries, but this could also be a problem for anyone wanting to find a different gallery to get into, in the same market. With me, it didn’t make a difference because I was so soured on my experience I wasn’t ready to rush out to be in another gallery. Now that I’m getting close to doing that, is this standard language and is it something I should be agreeing to? I’m curious because if I don’t feel like a gallery is a good “fit” I would want to be able to leave without hurting my ability to go anywhere else.

  9. Our small local gallery is owned by an art association and each artist belonging to the association can choose to display their art in the gallery, or not. Those who choose to display must host the gallery one day per month as well as pay $25 per month. With about 20-30 artists displaying and hosting each month, I can only speak for myself as to how customers are handled.

    I personally feel it is immoral to steer a patron to your own art above anyone else’s. Each person coming through the doors has their own taste in art. I greet each person and invite them to look around. They will linger in front of the space of a certain artist whose work appeals to them, or they will come back to a piece after looking around. If it’s my art, great. If it’s another artist’s work, fabulous. The point is to promote and sell art, no matter whose it is.

    Every once in awhile someone will come in asking for something specific, but that is not the norm. Most people want to browse without feeling pressured by a hovering salesperson. I’ve been in galleries where the salesperson – without ever asking me what I was looking for – tried to steer me to a certain artist’s work. I didn’t appreciate it, and I won’t do that to somebody else. People know what they like! Let them determine what they buy! If they want more information about an artist or a piece, they will ask you.

    If I ever open my own gallery (not where I live now – too small a town) I will be showing my own work as well as other artists. It’s the right thing to do to treat every work as you would your own. There’s a buyer somewhere for every artist’s creations.

    1. This is a co op type of gallery and yes, I agree that it’s low to steer to your own art above others. I was part of the same model and luckily we had a very good group of artists and very wise owner that we never had this problem and there were no quarels.

  10. Have been a member of a cooperative gallery on several occasions. My experiences:
    – Difficult to control the level and quality of other artists who come and go
    +Enjoy the comradery of the group
    +Enjoy the ability to paint what I wish at a pace I feel comfortable with
    -Need own agent for sales.. these galleries seldom get sales
    – Plagiarism is a problem
    – Competition among artists is a problem
    – Artists are not as a rule good business managers or sales people

  11. I too, highly agree with Lee Ann’s comments. Recently I took over a gallery that had closed and chose 12 artists to show with me. I didn’t want it to be a “vanity” gallery so assume all expenses. In my area we have Art Walk every other month, so there’s only 6 shows in the year, that run for 6 weeks each. Difficult for a gallery selling-wise, but it gives me some down time to paint and do other pop-up shows that are fun. The first show was a group show to kick everything off, and then scheduled 2-3 of the artists at a time to give them each a bigger show and better exposure. As the gallery owner, my studio is in the back room where people are welcome to go look, but I promote the artists I’m representing at all times. Each artist has a page on the website as well. As an artist/owner, being on the other side of the fence, I feel an keen obligation to promote and sell the gallery artists. In the yearly schedule, I’m in two of the shows, but have representation in other galleries.

    I’m into the 4th show now and it is hard work! Sales are getting better, but I don’t get to paint much as the promotion and gallery sitting is very time consuming. I’ve committed myself to a year, giving it my all. I’ll re-evaluate as I get closer to the end of this first year and how I will continue. At another time I’d like to talk about the options going forward.

  12. Hi Jason,
    Like yourself I come from a family of artists, both my mother and father are professional artists. In 1996 we opened our first Dalozzo Art gallery with only the works of my parents and myself. Up till now we have had enough variety and choice between the three of us that we haven’t needed to bring on any new artists but the option is there for us in the future. With rents, utilities and staff costs so high and the next generation of collectors more at ease buying their art online there are definitely going to be challenging times ahead. Owning and running a profitable art gallery is not for the faint-hearted. There are a lot of options for artists to sell their art today and an art gallery is just one of them.

  13. I am an artist and a gallery owner, called the Underground Gallery, here in Harlem, NY. The gallery is primarily to sell my works and to create commission works. I can’t afford to depend on other artists sales to keep the gallery open. However, I have a “Guest Artist” wall featuring several artists who shared my entrepreneurial spirit. As a result, they promote themselves and sell they works directly to the customer. In lieu of paying commission some performed gallery seating. Here, 98% of the original works sold are one to one. Most people wants to purchased directly from the artist themselves, they want to speak and connect with the artists. Here, authenticity is very important to the customers.

  14. I am an artist and I own a gallery/gift shop. Everything is by local artists. When I opened I had 12 artists and I now have 68. All different types of works. I can tell you that I definitely don’t give my work more attention. I never have. To me it is one big team and every sale is important.

  15. I have just moved to a new area with a vibrant tourist market. When researching the galleries here, I found that all of them are either privately owned or collectives. It has taken a few months for me to decide whether I want to share with, in this case, 6 other artists but at the moment it seems one of the only options. The problem with this is that the galleries in this town are closed in the winter but we all still have to pay for and maintain the space so the rent continues during the downtime. I do have other venues such as online sales but I find it difficult to ignore the obvious high volume of spring, summer, and fall tourism here. The artists in the collective are all pretty professional so wish me luck, I will let you know how it works.

  16. It has been useless to me. In all the years that I have shown my art, I don’t think that I have derived one sale from a bin. People just don’t bother, and then there is the framing issue. I would rather show my work completed. I find that people in general are not that visual.

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