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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24 Comments

  1. One more twist: artists who actually Buy the building they operate out of also gain a real estate investment.

    Of course, the gallery business really works best if you are in a destination location. Just visit Carmel…and you’ll see that the main strip is full of big box shops (now)…very few real art galleries compared to the late 90s. So it’s not a surprise that artists with successful businesses, those that have a type of work that’s proven to sell well, they know how to sell…well, it’s easy to see why they open their own galleries if they live in places people love to visit.

    I’ve had good experiences with artist run galleries…they have heart for their business.

  2. I live in Maine and as I think over about the galleries that I have shown in, many are or have been run by people who are also artists. However all of these artist/owners have been devoted to promoting and selling the art of their stable of artists. I think all of these galleries were started as galleries to show work of many artists rather than just the owner’s art. One prestigious gallery, that I show in, the couple who owns it are both artists but they never include their own work in shows. So I guess it depends……..

  3. I have been with a “co-op” gallery for just under 10 years. I am leaving at the end of this year because the balance of “running the gallery” has outweighed my “time at the easel.” Aside from the couple of days a month we each gallery sit, (15 members) I have taken on tasks like, maintaining our website, composing/sending eBlasts, printing signage throughout the gallery and many other small, time-consuming projects. All those little things add up.

    I do recognize that I took these tasks on myself. (Life lesson in there somewhere.) An artist friend of mine said it best… he finally got control of his time in the studio when he stopped saying “yes” to everyone.

    There is truth in that statement!

    I feel like I have been chasing my tail the past few years. My sales are pretty good at this gallery, but I am always trying to catch up creating new work. A sale of a painting is detrimental to my body of work as I have only a few paintings in my inventory at any given time.

    I am looking forward to my new venture with another local gallery where I have sold many paintings with before. I am excited about dropping the work off then getting right back to the studio.

  4. I personally feel that no one person understands the struggles and perspective of an artist better than another artist. I personally began my career as a professional artist 40 years ago showing in New York galleries and through that experience learned how to treat (as well as not to treat) other artists as a dealer myself. For 30 years I have represented artists and have worked hard to build careers. The primary focus of my professional life has been , (and continues to be) to represent other artists. My background as an artist, has only enhanced my understanding, and my ability to bring greater success to my artists. I continue to paint to this day during the off season, however it is not my primary focus. Running a successful gallery requires an enormous amount of time, attention and energy to consider much else. I remember when I was a young artist dealing with one particular New York gallery and the director said that the gallery business was the last of the buccaneers. I soon learned how true that is with many galleries. Because of that I am ever mindful to treat my artists with respect and to watch out for their best interests. I pride myself that I aim to be the most transparent gallery owner that an artist could hope for. I realize that my artists rely on me and feel a sense of responsibility to that as well. Being in an artist owned gallery can have it’s benefits, however not every artist who owns a gallery is a good business person or has their gallery artists interest as a priority. If considering an artist/owned gallery, you really need to visit the gallery in person and get a feel for it. You also need to have a long discussion with the owner what their objectives are. Be confident and upfront with them about any reservations you have. If they cannot meet your expectations, don’t waste your time.

    1. I find it very hard to approach galleries owners in NY, without an intermediate who knows them and you. One thing is to see what the gallery looks like but when you hear they have their full book of artists and not interested in getting new ones, without even seeing the work, it is just like hitting a brick wall. I will continue hitting until I find a positive response but it is quite an unpleasant process for someone less outgoing than average.

  5. My wife and I used to show in a local artist-owned gallery. We and the owners are all painters, but the gallery also showed jewelry, ceramics, glass art, etc. The owners claimed all the wall space for their work, with free-standing shelving for everyone else. Needless to say, we found this rather restrictive, as the shelves couldn’t accommodate anything bigger than about ten inches high, and paintings required easels, which took up space. The owners gave priority to their own work, but would engage visitors about anything that caught their eye. Some of the other art forms sold occasionally, but none of our work sold in the 18 months or so that we showed there. We should have known better than to try to show under such circumstances.

  6. I run an owner/artist gallery. As yet I am not showing any work but my own. My remark to the person who emailed you is that he made a mistake showing his art with jewelers. They are artists in their own right but have a completely different mind set from a traditional visual artist.
    I will probably show others art at some point in my gallery. It only makes sense to be as proactive for others artists as for myself. I will get a percentage of the sale and a chance for repeat customers who may buy from me at a later date. If you are not going to represent the other artist properly there is no point in showing their work. It is a win/win if you sell theirs or yours.

    1. Charla, I wholeheartedly agree. Jewelry enhances the human form, whereas a painting or sculpture enhances the environment it’s placed in. As a consumer, I would not go to the hardware to purchase a bottle of aspirin. That is maybe a stretch, but you get my point.

  7. Hi, My name is Jacek L….a….z….u….k….a…. I have experienced a similar situation. In terms of being under represented and misrepresented. The gallery scene in Southern California is that of Ego just like the rest of this world, it’s the Art World. Thinking that the best art is displayed is a misunderstanding. Its about who you know and how to network that crowd what-ever that crowd may be. They’re not looking at Art anyway, it’s about mingling and associating your position in the scene with that crowd. I do see it coming to a spectacular closing. Historically, in Florence, Italy, During the times of Leonardo DaVinci & Michelangelo. These two spectacular Artist came from a flourishing art market similar to this one. An abundance of art was being made with know public education on how to view art. Therefore, I believe, the scene will eventually transform into people looking at art. Leading into a more subjective art viewing experience, rather than this current objective art market we are now in. The subjective will tell the story of art for art histories eternity. Until then will have to go through this period of an abundant art market of objective art and learn to apply filters when look through all this new space junk & finding the relevant Art. It’s there hiding in plain sight, we must learn and teach others how to view this new Art. So, take your Art to where it can be represented best, for your business is your priority whether that is you personally or someone you can trust.

  8. I have a studio and only open up a few times a year to show my work. However, I teach and will be doing a show for my students, at which time my work will be downplayed. I may have one or two pieces up, but the main studio will be the collection of the students. This helps me and them. I get more individuals interested in taking classes, thus more students , more know about my work now, and it’s good will to my so deserving students. I can’t see expanding unless I have another artist who makes sense, works the gallery as well, and is equally represented, on both behalf. It’s unfair for an artist run gallery to represent artists and focus on their own work, very selfish.

  9. I am a working artist based in Harlem, NY and I just open my own art gallery this year called the Underground Gallery. My hat off to all the gallerists out there, specially you Jason. It’s a lot of hard work. For me my primary reason was I could not find the right opportunities to show / sale my work. So I took it on myself to do so. To date, the gallery is supported by the sale of my work. In 2019, my plan is to host 3-4 solo exhibitions/installations of my work and 5-7 group exhibitions by an independent guest curator. Since, I estimated that I will make very little money of the group exhibitions, I am planning to host artist talks/workshops, corporate events and so on to help to support the space. One thing I don’t want the space to be is a “vanity gallery”.

  10. I have been a professional sculptor for twenty years. I opened my studio to the public fourteen years ago. As a single mother, I wanted to stay home for my children, and felt I could not fail at something I was so pattionet about and could not afford to fail. When I opened I only displayed my own artwork, but have had a gift shop and some local artisans such as potters, stained glass, jewellry in my gallery/giftshop. I had a feedstore for four years as well, which brought in some local people but took my focus away, so I sold the feed store. I also used galleries at the time to sell my artwork. But it seemed that people liked my destination gallery and studio. They liked to see the “artist at work”. I felt I was doing a better job selling my artwork out of my own gallery/studio in the country than a large gallery in the city. So, I pulled all my artwork back home. To be honest, I make more selling my own art than giving the gallery a cut of it. My prices are not as high as gallery pricing as well, which opens up more opportunity to sell to people on a lower income bracket. I have a tea bar, and everyone who came in I welcomed them into my studio offered them a cup of tea or coffee, a lump of clay to take home and maybe some homemade pie as it was home to me after all. After I sold the feed store, I started picture framing, for cash flow, so I could still work at home. I opened a satellite store on main street of the closest large town, to get the framing business going. But I still did all the work at home. I moved from main street back to my studio after two years, and I am getting enough business framing and still have time to work on my sculpting. Lucky for me, most of my sculpting is commission work and have contracts so that gives me a guaranteed income for several years ahead. I am presently expanding my studio, mostly to work on a life size bronze, but in the future will be a gallery that I am planning to incorporate local artists work as well as mine. I will have lots of wall space, lol, and am planning on featuring an artist each month, with a wine a cheese, local music, meet the artists, etc. My commission from sales from other artists will be low, if any. I will charge a monthly fee to have their artwork in my gallery, maybe $20 to 40 a month. This will pay for the advertising, wine and cheese, etc. for me to promote their art. This will be a social event for the local people and a destination for people who are not in the area. I also give free sculpting lessons, just to get people out of their houses and feel good about themselves and be inspired. People love to feel good. And I just open the door for them to do that.

  11. Jason, do you show or sell your Dad’s work? Do he or your Mom ever work in your gallery? Ir so, is that awkward in any way? Doesn’t seem like it would be a problem, because it is in your best interest to sell everything in your gallery. It probably comes down to the ethics of the artist/gallery owner, and many people’s ethics do get challenged when backed into a financial corner. (And I am in no way questioning your ethics – if you were an artist too, I’d still want my work in your gallery!)

    1. Hello Jana. I know for a fact that Jason’s mother works in the gallery because I met her. If I had not known through this forum that she worked there, I would never have known. She in no way indicated that she was Jason’s mother. I found that odd at the time, but now I understand why. She is there to represent ALL of the artists, not just her husband, Jason’s father, who shows there. Cool beans, I would say. And a lovely person she is.

      Cheers,

      Verna

  12. If I am not mistaken, aren’t there art(sit) reps, art brokers and brokerage houses that market/sell visual art and other art forms without necessarily having the word ‘gallery’ in their title? I guess what’s most important is that the artist (seller) knows the details of the agreement/contract they are getting into with an art dealer or any kind. Knowing the right questions to ask when making and signing an agreement to have your work sold or represented is essential.

  13. Hi,
    My name is John Boyd and an artist living and working in the South of England uk. I have been placing my work in an artist owned gallery at Lynton Devon and have not, as yet, had any problems doing so. The owner displays her own work but not to the detriment of others and the bonus is if things get tough she won’t be closing down as so many do, as she lives there too.

  14. I showed with an artist owned gallery and sold work for a while. The owner was pretty low-key with her own work at first but began painting more and showing more of it. The gallery assistant also made work which was college grade-abstraction at best. Pretty soon the majority of hanging work was theirs. I noticed the owner and assistant both were building their own names and reputations and leaving the other artists to make do themselves. They will show your work, do an e-blast or invite, but that was it. I felt they were using other artists to maintain their own private art shows. Sure, they’ll give you a show or a weekend Pop-Up, but they still have their work everywhere. If they have another show elsewhere they promote that as well as any mention of their work or any photos from print/web publications. Other artists do not get this treatment. I just walked away. I refuse to give them any credibility.

    The thing I hate most about this is they promote lesser work (theirs) and treat more accomplished artists as something to pay the rent. They undermine Art in the community by making themselves seem so successful because they sell, not because the work is that great. The work is mediocre and a cliche of abstraction. And yet, the uneducated spend their money on them. It’s amazing what MARKETING can do. Life in a small city I guess.

  15. From a marketing perspective, I think artists and art marketers need to be proactive in getting to know their buyers/customers, buyer/customer profiles, their needs, lifestyles, reasons for buying or motivations, etc.

    Everyone loves art (novice to expert) and art is so much more accessible to everyone these days (novice to expert). Artists and art marketers are up against a lot … competition, technology, etc. There are many opportunities, but the competition also knows this, and definitely buyers know this.

  16. I was with an artist owned gallery for about six months and it was a HORRIBLE experience. My instincts told me to avoid artist owned galleries, mostly for the reason that many people have mentioned above, that we run the risk of not getting a balanced showing. Yet I was recommended to them, they liked my work, so I took the gamble. I should have trusted my instincts and stayed away. However, there were two owners, so I figured at least if the artist was painting, the other owner may be focusing on sales. As it turned out, the non-artist owner had no business capabilities and was often traveling- and the artist owner turned out to be completely narcissistic. The artist runs the galleries Facebook page and features her own work there 90% of the time. For my own solo show with the gallery I had to keep asking them to promote my upcoming exhibition, which no artist should have to ask their gallery to do. She, the artist owner, even went as far as sending over 50 friend requests to my clients and friends on my art related Facebook posts, I guess desperately trying to accrue more contacts for herself. At first when I asked her about it she said it was for the gallery- but they were personal friend requests that she sent my clients (and then requests for them to like her personal art page)- not requests for people to like the gallery. All just weird and shady. But there were other things that were much more than weird and shady. The artist owner said that they had sent a check to me for a painting that sold- but they had not sent the check. In the end, my husband went to the gallery and demanded it. They, both owners, dropped the ball on many things that a professional gallery would have taken care of. When I brought an art consultancy commission (for my work) to them, a client to that I found, they forgot to invoice the client and did not get me my deposit. I got multiple lies along the way- all attempts to cover up their mistakes and tardiness. They took no accountability for any of their mistakes. So I found a better gallery and left. At one stage I called the artist owner out on some of the many areas where she dropped the ball and she screamed at me- “you try running a gallery!!” Well, I wouldn’t. I’m a painter, that’s what I do and there is no way that I would take time away from my painting by opening a gallery. Ultimately, I learned that it is most likely that artists who own galleries will focus on selling their own work, first and foremost, so other artists will never get a balanced showing. And because they have painting to do, they won’t have the time to run a gallery as well as someone who is purely focused on the business of selling art.

    1. Excellent response. The art world is ego-driven in many ways. Trying to get attention and sales in an artist-owned gallery is almost impossible, especially when they can easily sell their high end creations to clients and their own collectors. You just become eye candy on the walls.

      1. Thanks for your reply Brad. Absolutely agree with your comments too. I shared my experience above to hopefully help other artists make an informed decision, with regards the ‘potential’ challenges of joining such a gallery.

  17. Some of these responses are disheartening at best. I have been an artist owned gallery for 5 years now. My space is unique in that it contains working artist studios, an art gallery and a gift shop that is mostly artist created items. I have sank my entire life savings into this business and committed enough to take the plunge and purchase the building I occupy two years ago. I have stood by my belief that no one succeeds alone and I get very excited to let one of my artists know a piece of their work has sold. I enjoy giving the opportunity to show works from artists who have not shown publicly before. I do not charge people to show, receiving a 30% commission on works sold. Resident artists who sell out of their studios do not pay unless I handle the sale for them. The historic art and entertainment district I am located in has other galleries that have different set ups, but this one works for me. Every business is going to have its own model for operating. I would caution anyone into not checking out how things are ran or from lumping all artist owned galleries into the same pot.

    It is indeed a lot of work trying to run a business, being a single mom and still trying to find time to work on my own artwork. I don’t see it as any different than any other artist trying to balance a job, family and creative time. All about balance.

  18. I am being represented by One Gallery in Hilo, HI, which is run by an artist Deborah Beaver. She has never pushed her art over the other artists and actively promotes us all. She encourages us to work in the gallery and promote ourselves when customers walk in. She is an excellent business person and I feel very privileged to be in her gallery.

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