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/owner’s 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?

My response:

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.

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.

6 Comments

  1. The situation this artist is encountering may be because the gallery is run by artists — but it could also just be that the gallery is not run as well as she would like. While gallery owners should ideally support all their artists equally, this doesn’t always happen: I’ve worked with plenty of galleries where the owner preferred one medium over the others, or one artist over the others. Sometimes this preference is based on their knowledge of their customers (which is great), but sometimes it’s just personal. But whether run by artists or not, if a gallery isn’t representing your art as well as you like, that’s a sign to have a conversation, and see how they respond.

  2. I am both an artist, as well as a gallery owner, and know the pros and cons of such a gallery relationship. I made the conscious decision years ago to open my own gallery, simply because it was something I had always dreamed of. I never wanted the burden of being the sole producer for my own gallery, so I looked hard and wide to find a variety of artists whom I admired, and believed would fit into my market. I have now had a gallery for over 37 years. Most of my time today is committed to my gallery, with a lesser amount of time committed to producing art. I well understand that I have a responsibility to my artists, and that they are reliant upon me for their income. It is a responsibility which I take seriously. Of all the work in my gallery, I show very little of mine. Evan my website has very little of my own work on it. Instead, I use another agent to represent the bulk of my own personal work. Being an artist, I know how I want a gallery to treat me. As a result, I bend over backwards for my artists and go the extra mile. My artists recognize that and appreciate it. My objective is to always build my artists within my gallery and maintain that relationship. I cannot do that without giving them plenty of exposure and selling their work. A primary objective of mine is also to establish an artist within my gallery , and assist them in finding another gallery other than mine as well. It is a lot of additional work for myself, however I believe that the more successful they are, the more successful I am.

    If you find yourself in a gallery In which the gallery owner puts their work ahead of yours, and does not really offer equal representation, then you need to have a heart to heart talk with them, and lay it all out on the table. If they cannot afford you the same degree of representation, then you need to move on. You will never be fully satisfied by being in such a gallery.

    Being both an artist, as well as a gallery owner has also equipped me with a greater understanding of art, and therefore I am also better able to look at a painting and recognize the process and technique better. I am skilled at looking at a painting and recognizing it’s strengths and weaknesses. Consequently I am better equipped to talk more intelligently about other artists’ works , which makes me a better salesperson than many other people not trained in the studio side of art. My background has also enabled me to have an art spot on both radio and television which helped a tremendous number of artists. There are plenty of art galleries out there looking for good art. If the gallery you are in is not working, and your art is truly good, then there are plenty of other galleries which would love to represent you.

  3. Jason – I have shown nationally and internationally in both gallery situations you have mentioned. In most of them the gallery – client relationship dictated the exhibitions and sales. When run by artists my art and the concepts behind it were usually presented in an honest manner that honored my overall intentions. I can’t say that was true of commercial high end galleries in major cities, whose inclination is to stay clear of stating the original concepts that underlay the visual presence of the artworks. The art was then left to defend itself and at the mercy of sales. The attempt to educate and inform the viewers of my art was at issue.
    The term ‘Gallery’ I have experienced throughout this nation is not an equitable business model that represents an artists aesthetic principles on an even playing field. It’s business comes first . When my artworks were properly exhibited and spoken for with integrity then an informed clientele purchased them in great numbers, but those art dealers are rare and those areas of the country are limited to an educated cultural informed public or specific class of people.
    Another issue I have had with a gallery like Xanadu is that I have done watercolor field works in national parks in the southwestern states since the 1980’s and used those studies to create the aesthetic for the paintings, sculptures and works on paper but for some reason they have not been given serious consideration by their staff for actual on site exhibit presentations, instead they have just been digitally shown. This attempt by them and other galleries to try and show art on a computer does not allow the depth of aesthetic input to be viewed in total, especially if they are multi – layered visuals.
    So for now I am continuing to research in my Dallas studio my quantum art concerns in a new color/sound directed artworks that someone with insight will sponsor and exhibit.
    Sincerely, David W. McCullough, Dallas Quantum Artist – Scholar

  4. I owned my own gallery in a tourist area for several years…and loved it! Originally thought I would just paint in my quiet studio and have someone else represent me…and found I wasn’t wired that way. I liked talking to people, and when they weren’t there, I could -and did – paint. I also found that once it was on the wall, I got just as much of a charge out of selling someone else’s work as I did selling my own. Ah, the good old days! Would pick it up again in a heartbeat, but the art world is in a different place now technically, and I would need to learn to sell better, although I wasn’t bad at it. Plus it is a LOT of work. There are times when one has to let professionals whose ONLY job is to do that do what they are best at and you need.

  5. Myself and two other completely different artist have owned and operated our gallery since 2015. Prior to that time, we were the resident artist at this gallery. We have done much better since we have become the owners. Besides our work, we have several “guest” artist that help make our gallery diverse. When a customer comes in, we introduce ourselves and then give a brief overview of our work as well as the others. It does not take long to see where their interest lies and we can focus our attention toward that work. Like all galleries, we collect a commission so we are motivated to sell any piece that a customer is interested in.

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