Ask a Gallery Owner: What Advice Would You Give to Someone About to Open a Gallery?

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?

 

My responses:

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 we’re 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.

My response:

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.

My Response:

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.

 

 

Starving to Successful

StSBookSHave you always wondered what it takes to show your work in galleries? Is your work being seen by qualified collectors?

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About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of Dad was an Artist | A Survivor's Story and 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

12 Comments

  1. In my many years in this business I have often been involved in gallery/framing combinations. They are really an easy mesh to imagine but still two separate businesses and different skill sets. Framing entails both sales, designing and building a framing package that works for the art and client. There is some creativity in it, inventory, machinery, tools and labor too.

  2. Dear Jason, Thanks for airing this topic. I’ve been an artist for 45 years and also have worked in the art industry in various “day jobs” I have never sold art myself (except for my own). During that time I’ve seen a lot of galleries come and go–many opened by artists who thought it would be a good way to sell their work. I was wondering if you were already selling art as a private dealer before you actually took the plunge and opened a brick and mortar location, i.e. did you start cold or did you already have a customer list or at least some qualified leads to help with the transition?

  3. I have worked part time in a gallery for five years (sales and display). We are located in an area that caters to wine visitors and tourists. It has certainly taken five years to really get going, so I think that is accurate. Our location has eight galleries nearby and those that are visiting the other galleries seem to be more open to buying. Many others come in to just “look around” but they often buy the lower priced items (cards, smaller glassworks, smaller ceramics). I try to just be pleasant and welcoming to all, as you never know if they might return one day and buy a significant piece. Plus, it is the right thing to do—be pleasant, that is. The hardest thing for me, personally, is to hear criticism of my own artwork that we have displayed, but it has also taught me a few things (have a thick skin and believe in yourself) and it is fun when I do sell one of my own pieces!

  4. Okay, I am going to be the wet blanket here…

    I am now closing down my gallery of roughly 20 years and retiring. I have been thinking about writing a book on the subject of opening a gallery, but I have not decided if there is enough desire for such a vast amount of experience and information.

    IMHO you could not find a more difficult way to earn a living as opening an art gallery. While I started off by opening a custom framing gallery and sold both my work and some local artist’s work, I discovered that I could not be all things to all people, so we sold the framing business and focused on my own fine art photography works.

    Jason wrote in an excellent piece a few years ago describing his story and I could not have agreed more. His story was for the most part, my story! Do yourself a favor and find the piece, and read it!

    Opening a gallery is not for the faint of heart, or wallet. As a friend of mine once said, “If you want to end up with a small fortune in the art gallery business, start with a large one and wait!” It doesn’t have to end up that way, but there are many reasons why there are only a very small fraction of galleries left in operation today verses 20 years ago.

    Either I was lucky, or too damned stupid to quit, but it is impossible to give the OP any serious information other than your number one challenge will always be to attract interested and qualified buyers. There are many, many pieces to that puzzle alone.

    Finally as a general observation, setting up a gallery will take twice as long as you think and cost 3 times as much as you expect.

    I would be happy to try and answer any questions the OP has if you care to email me. No guarantee that I can help, but I will try.

    I honestly wish you well.

    Kenneth

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience Kenneth – I agree wholeheartedly that this is a challenging business, and until you are in it, you have no idea of how monumental many of those challenges are going to be. Best wishes for your retirement!

      1. Thanks Jason! I remember reading that piece you wrote about your struggles thinking, “Did I write this piece?” because it was uncannily similar to my own journey. That piece should be required reading for anyone wanting to take the plunge and open their own gallery!

        Best wishes Pal!

  5. I’m going to agree with Kenneth. We live close to two very large metropolitan suburbs where a half-million people live, but neither are what you would call “tourist destinations.” Both of these suburbs have very affluent parts as well as areas that are less affluent. Galleries regularly open here, then close. There are only three still operating in this area. One gallery recently opened in the last year. Another is diversifying to offer other services than art for sale and a third is home-based by appointment only, not requiring a standalone brick and mortar presence. Based on observation of the market over 20 years, I would strongly suggest not opening a fine art gallery at this time unless one is in a high traffic tourist destination area which would bring in a steady stream of new buyers. There are too many other ways for people to buy art these days. and they no longer rely on galleries to make purchases . It appears they do still buy on vacation – especially in the pricier destinations such as Carmel, Scottsdale, Jackson Hole, Santa Barbara, Santa Fe, Laguna Beach – to name a few in the west. Galleries in those areas seem to still be around after decades in business.

  6. Dear New Gallery Owner,

    As a mid-career artist, I’ve been working with galleries since 1992. It’s been a great roller-coaster ride.

    From the artists’ point of view, I would add that we are fragile beings. Real people. And you need us as much as we need you.

    We understand (well most of us do) that you’re trying to curate art that excites you, fits with your other artists’ stuff, and will work in your neck of the woods. And we understand that you’re trying to limit the number of artists you represent to those you can represent well.

    Some of us just don’t fit – yet. If we’re not “there” yet, please treat us just like you would treat your best customer – responding to our new artist submission emails, even if it’s a quick, polite “no thanks.” After all, we might get better or change what we do. And even get famous one day. You may want us then.

    If you are excited about our work, please don’t lead us along toward representation then stop the e-conversation without even a “10-4.” Maybe you’ve just lost the “thread” of the conversation or didn’t get our message. If you don’t get another message after you’ve expressed interest in our work, for most of us, it’s unlikely that we’re no longer interested in your representation. We’re mostly shy and afraid of rejection and reluctant to send you a follow-up for fear of offending you. Keep trying.

    Make sure you have some kind of official written consignment agreement for new artists, and give us a signed consignment sheet with a letterhead on it when we deliver – or take out – art.

    And please, please pay us in a timely manner. Don’t make us beg or worry. We’re not all starving, but some of us could be. And while sales aren’t our main inspiration to create, they do validate what we’re doing and encourage new and better work.

    We love you, new gallery person.

  7. This had been one of my favorite articles! So interesting to read about actual experiences setting up a gallery, like your Pine Top series. It gives so man try practical insights.

  8. I’d add just one more suggestion to Chuck Middekauff’s excellent advice: treat your artists fairly. By fair, I mean making sincere efforts to generate sales for all the artists represented, not just a chosen few. Apply contract terms evenly; don’t forbid one artist from offering hand painted note cards on Etsy, while allowing another artist to hold studio open houses and post their work on Saatchi. If you require exclusivity within a given geographic area, apply that restriction to everyone. Treating the artists you represent equally and fairly is the basis of happy, longstanding relationships, and it’s a vital component in a gallery’s success.

  9. New Gallery owner, Be sure you respond to the people walking into your space with a smile and a greeting. You could perhaps indicate you are there if they have any questions. I have entered Galleries where the person ‘in charge’ of the Gallery is sitting behind the desk and ignores new arrivals. How can you make a sale if you do not even acknowledge a ‘could be’ client? Your approach can make or break a potential sale. Also, don’t give a person the once over and dismiss them because of their attire. Looks can be deceiving. You might be surprised at how much your pleasant positive greeting/attitude can affect the outcome.

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