I regularly receive emails from readers who are considering opening art galleries. These prospective gallery owners are looking for any insights or advice I might offer. I’m happy to help when I can, though it’s difficult in an email to even scratch the surface of what it takes to run a gallery.
Still, the conversations give me the opportunity to think about the business from the perspective of someone who’s just beginning. For example, I received the following email from just such an aspiring gallery owner (conversation edited to protect the identity of my correspondent and for clarity and brevity):
We’re opening a gallery at the end of June. My husband and I are going to be changing careers (me first) instead of retiring and have been collecting art and fine craft for the last 42 years.
The gallery will sell art, ceramics, glass and some wood and jewelry.
My top three questions are – If you could go back to when you opened, what is the one piece of advice you wish you had had?
How did you decide which artists to represent?
How do you find the sweet spot between educating the collectors and selling the work?
Question #1: If you could go back to when you opened, what is the one piece of advice you wish you had had?
There are so many things! First, I learned very quickly that everything we did was going to cost more than we thought and that sales were going to occur more slowly and at a lower level than we hoped. It takes time to get established and build relationships and awareness with buyers. We were underfunded and had to scramble to keep up with cash flow.
I also wish that we would have done a lot more to follow up with clients who expressed interest in work. We are very efficient and pro-active in this regard now, and if we had been more so in the beginning we would have certainly increased our sales.
I also would have offered a wider range of price points. We are in an area that attracts both very high-end collectors and casual tourists. We’ve always catered to the high-end collector, but over the last few years we’ve expanded our offerings to the casual art buyer, and it’s turned into huge business for us.
That’s more than one bit of advice, but those are the main things I feel would have been helpful to understand going in.
Question #2: How did you decide which artists to represent?
This is more of an art than a science, even to this day. I primarily still go with my intuition. I have to be personally intrigued and excited by the work first, and then I have to believe that it fits well with the other artists I’m carrying. I look for quality of presentation and consistency of style. My goal is to build a long-term successful relationship with each artists, and consistency and quality are critical to doing this.
Question #3: How do you find the sweet spot between educating the collectors and selling the work?
This is a great and incisive question. For a commercial art gallery it’s critical to always have the goal to sell as the primary focus. Educating visitors and building relationships with them are tools that help you move toward that goal. This isn’t to say that we are trying to force sales or use pressure tactics, but we also can’t be timid about our purpose. We are not a museum, and we aren’t doing ourselves, our artists, or our collectors any favors by trying to disguise our sales efforts as education.
We certainly have many visitors to the gallery who don’t end up buying, either because they aren’t in the market for art or perhaps can’t afford to buy at this point. We won’t know who these visitors are, however, so we are going to put our best efforts into selling art to every visitor. It’s often surprising who will turn into a buyer. Regardless of whether someone buys or not, I want all visitors to have a positive, engaging experience in the gallery, so we work very carefully to be professional without being overbearing and high-pressure.
The prospective gallery owner replied:
We haven’t even opened our doors and I’m already learning the first lesson.
I think that your second point – sales are slower than we expected, is one of my worries. We should be good with cash flow, between my husband’s salary and my pension to cover our living expenses, but it is a worry. I’ve been told 3-5 years.
I have been planning on a wide range of price points – to bring in a first time buy and to build serious collectors.
One place that we are going to be spending money on is display units – we’ll be carrying fine craft and need shelving and pedestals – sometimes I worry that we are trying to do to much – but I firmly believe that a beautifully made bowl that you eat your ice cream out of is as much a piece of art as a bronze sculpture and that it can lead to larger purchases – I know that the $50 perfume 30 years ago led to a collection of contemporary glass that fills four cabinets in our house…..
I also feel better about how I’m choosing – I have to love the work or at least really respect it. If I can’t find something special about it, I’m not sure how I can sell it.
The hardest part for me will be closing the sale – that also keeps me up at night. I go to galleries and have point in low pressure environments, but I don’t know that sweet spot.
I really like your website – right now I’m not planning to sell a lot through a website, but will offer concierge services and help people find the art that they are looking for. We will build out our website as we start to get work in, but right now I’m thinking about it more to showcase the artists than to have a large internet store.
Tell me what you are thinking for location – do you already have a space leased? Does the area get tourists?
New Gallery Owner:
We’re going to be located in a historic building that’s being renovated in downtown. We have leased about 950 sq feet of space (to include back room, etc). Our town doesn’t specifically get tourists, but is the arts district for the area. The town is undergoing a renaissance with the opening of a number of superb restaurants (1 on 10 best new restaurants in the country 2 years ago), and business incubators for tech, entrepreneurs and “makers”. Warner Brothers recently rented out two floors of a major building for animation and animators. In the last year two other small galleries have opened. The town also has a farmers market that attracts more than 10,000 people on summer Saturdays and we’re in easy walking distance of that. There are music festivals and other weekend events that are promoted by the city. Because of our location we will be listed on maps provided by the Business Improvement district as well. We’re also on the main walking path between a college and the main restaurant district. Our building is new and will have 100 new apartments as part of the redevelopment.
Last spring I took an entrepreneur’s course through our local Chamber of Commerce and the instructors agreed that with the exception of a nearby town (tourist industry, but based around the race track and horses), our city is the only place in the capital district to open a gallery.
I learned early on that getting qualified buyers through the door is the most important aspect of building success (obviously) and that it’s one of the greatest challenges. When we first opened we were in a great shopping area, but one that catered more to locals than tourists. It also didn’t get a very high volume of traffic. We did okay in the location, but when we moved into the gallery district five years later, an area that gets a lot of tourism, our business increased substantially. It also helped that there were many other galleries around us so we knew that just about everyone who walked through the front door was interested in art.
Our market is likely different than yours, but I can’t overstate how important it is for us to have a steady stream of tourists coming through the door. People who are traveling seem to be far more likely to spend time in the gallery and actually buy. In any given year, 70-80% of our sales are shipped out of state.
Of course, because we’re in a travel and arts destination we also pay a fairly high rent. It may be that your moderately-sized gallery will be significantly less expensive to operate and won’t need tourist sales. Does the building and immediate neighborhood already get a lot of foot traffic?
New Gallery Owner:
The building and neighborhood does have a fair amount of foot traffic, especially in the summer (but then with our northern climate, foot traffic in the dead of winter can be hard.) Our rent is quite reasonable, about 1/2 of what the local malls charge. There is a huge business improvement district program that drives traffic from throughout the capital district into the neighborhood (in the 1000’s to 10,000) 2-3 times a month. We’re keeping our fingers crossed.
There is certainly much finger-crossing in the gallery business! Each gallery is going to face a different set of circumstances and challenges, and you can only overcome those challenges by working through them.
What Would You Like to Know About Starting or Running a Gallery?
Share your questions, experiences, and thoughts about opening and operating a gallery in the comments below.
Whether you are opening a brick and mortar gallery or an online one there is one thing that remains the same. Making people feel comfortable and not embarrassed about what they can afford is essential. I have been selling commissioned and finished art for one artist for many years. We have a range of styles so that practically any customer can afford something. I have been asked many times if the art is affordable. I answer by saying I don’t know what people can afford, however we have a large price range and I will show them a variety and they can decide.
I think the idea of a large range of prices and styles is a good idea. Department stores have flourished for years with this plan.
I recently read the reviews of a high end gallery in an expensive tourist area. Potential customers were insulted that they were treated ignored by the sales staff if they weren’t dressed up. Many had a lot of money to spend but since they were on vacation they were dressed casually. They left and did not return.
It is always a mistake to assume someone cannot afford the product they want by how they are dressed.
Lastly, when you have spend many years building a business and learning from mistakes and triumps it is impossible to convey all that knowledge in an email. We learn and change and often forget exactly the way we have grown into a successful business.
It is nice to know that there are some people opening galleries when so many have been forced to close. Good luck!
My background has been in Advertising. National accounts in Large advertising agencies. Acquiring new accounts was always a major part of business strategy. But we had a few qualifiers for all new prospective business and one of the major requirements was that a marketing plan had to be in place and functional. If there was no marketing plan we could not help with a new image or advertising sales or service. Most larger advertising agencies I worked for would take a pass on any new business without a marketing plan, It is astounding how many time I have heard how wonderful a product or service is and how hard the new business owners are willing to work. They make plans to get loans to buy equipment and lease space and forget or don’t understand the essential nature of a marketing plan. One of the main reason the average life of a new business is only two years. Talking to a new business owner about a target audience is always an uphill battle, they want to sell their stuff to the whole world and to include every possible buyer in a worldwide target audience, on a budget of $5,000. They will spend $150,000. on interior decorating and signage, thousands more on office or factory equipment, but ask them to define a specific target audience and you get pushback, denial and even a little anger. An agency can help with most things but no marketing plan means very little chance of success.
The idea of owning and running an art gallery seems romantic to many people. The reality of the business is usually very different than what one would imagine. It is perhaps one of the riskiest and most challenging endeavors to undertake. The profit margin for the gallery business is very low. It is typically 6.5% on revenue. This goes for the blue chip galleries as well, which incur a tremendous increase in expenses over the mid tier galleries. When you factor in all the unseen expenses ( which are many) of running such a business, it had better be a labor of love. Art is a luxury item, so you are also at the mercy of the market and the economy. There are many factors which effect the art industry. Political election years for example are typically slow years for art galleries no matter who is running. You need to have a good reserve of money to cushion you through those difficult times. It is typically advisable to have at least 3 to 5 years of reserve money on hand to get you through those first years as well.
It is important as well that you know your market. Not every work of art is going to sell in every geographic locale no matter how wonderful it may be. You need to know who your audience is, and what they can afford. It is wise to have several price points within the gallery. Each gallery is going to reflect the taste of the gallery owner. Don’t try to imitate what another nearby gallery is selling. You need to build an identity of your own, and couple that with your audience you are attracting. If you are dealing in craft driven items, then your audience is going to be different than a gallery selling “fine art”. If you are dealing in fine art, then you should be very knowledgeable on the subject. That knowledge will be a big degree of what builds your reputation.
It is a different market today. People once enjoyed “gallery hopping” to look for art. Today’s generation enjoys seeing a lot of art under one roof. Exhibition shows now happen all over the world. These are also very costly for galleries to participate in, however they are finding it necessary. The market now understands that once a person of today’s market stands in front of an artist’s work and takes it in, they are more comfortable in purchasing it online. The gallery business is a most challenging business. It is a business which requires skill, knowledge, money and a lot of energy.
This information is pertinent to artists as well. As an artist, my job is to create art, and I spend all of my time working on this. I don’t see art as a business, like galleries do, but I see what I do as a driving passion. Because of this, I am happy to hire a bookkeeper and accountant to manage my records and pay my taxes. I am very happy to let a professional gallery do what they do best: sales.
I am focused on making sure that my work presents well in any gallery. I want to be certain that my paintings are properly stretched and braced, that I am using the best archival paints, and work that is shipped is properly packaged. I am also concerned that every color, every brush stroke, is perfectly placed. I am focused on these details. A gallery should have no concerns about selling my work to a high-end client.
Building a relationship with a gallery is just as important to the artist as building relationships with clients is important to the gallery. Give them all the tools that they need. Most clients want to fall in love with the artist as much as the art.
Very good points, Douglas. Nice to see another artist weighing in. I couldn’t agree more. Even thought we’re following our own artistic path and vision, if we’re selling, we’re running a business.
I don’t believe a business can thrive without a quick to load and easy to navigate website. As a collector I expect a gallery to have an excellent website that lists prices and is updated regularly. I would think an artist considering a gallery would expect the same.
I am an artist, inactive at the moment due to health issues, but I have spent the past couple of years studying online marketing for artists. I would think it is important for a gallery to have an online presence, especially in the current times.
How do you plan to entice customers into the gallery? I agree with the comment above that I do think you need at minimum a “marketing” plan to define who you are as a gallery and who your ideal customers are. And I think the artists you represent would be considered customers, because it’s their art you are selecting and selling. That could help you decide what type of online presence you need.
What will your website look like? Will you have a page on Facebook, have an Instagram account or even video such as TikTok? What is your preferred age group? Younger buyers are so much more web savvy.
Best of luck to the new gallery owners.
I have been an art dealer for over 40 years and art has been my sole source of income for that time. My book, “Art Gallery – How to Do it Right” will go to press in the next two weeks and be available for sale, hopefully in the next month or so. It is a “nuts and bolts” guide to opening and operating a gallery. There are also 2 older books, one by Magnus Reich and another by Ed Winkleman, which focus more on sales techniques, which are quite good.
As an artist and former gallery owner, best of luck to the new ones! I agree with all of the points made…including being well enough funded to outlast tough times as a startup. The other point I would make is that Jason’s extensive sales professionalism is tremendously important, and something I could have learned more about. I loved the gallery business, would do it again if I had more youth and money!
This discussion has been so helpful to me, as an artist and an art entrepreneur.I am in four galleries, including an online one, and had a wonderful year last year, profitable enough to pay taxes. Things have slowed considerably this year, between elections and the economy.
And, yes, I am saving money to take me through tough times, so this discussion has eased many fears, and downright urges to quit. As an artist, I’ll continue paint, keep up a website, and enjoy creative life. Thank you!
One small comment from a sculptor. If you plan to include sculptures in your offerings, please plan your lighting scheme accordingly. Sculptures require different lighting than paintings.
Location, Location, Location
I sell through a series of nine galleries in the southeastern USA. I target galleries in tourist locations. Also, foot traffic in front of the gallery is extremely important.
The advantage of tourism is that you constantly have new eyes on the art. Galleries in non-tourist areas must constantly market themselves to the same population.
This may be obvious, but the Small Business Administration is very helpful when you’re thinking about starting a business, especially their info about writing a business plan. Back in the day, I started a business (writing studio) after thinking about it for about a year. I thought I had thought it through, but actually writing a plan brought forward a lot of things that I had kind of ticked in my mind but not fully considered.
I am an artist and I greatly appreciate your on going informational essays. It is nice when someone with knowledge is willing to share. In that light recently I have been thinking of hiring an SEO company to get more people to my web site with the hopes it might generate sales. I would rather have a few galleries and have them deal with sales but a lot of the places that represented me went out of business and some ended our relationship because they could not sell my paintings. Do you have any advice about SEO companies Thanks
In 90% of the galleries I have visited, the sales staff stay seated behind a computer while greeting me,
the potential customer with, ” Hi, I am Carla (or Joe or whatever), if you have any questions I will
be happy to answer them.” I cruise the gallery, head for the front door, and wait to be hailed by the
gallerista. “Thanks for coming in.” And then I am out the door.
Along with a marketing plan, a new gallery owner had better take a course in salesmanship and take
the potential gallery staff along too. A gallery is not in the art business, it is in a consumer sales
business. You must ask for the order to become successful. Good luck if you don’t know how to sell.