Does it Make Sense To Show Your Art in Commercial (Consignment) Galleries?

Over the last several days, I’ve discussed the ins and outs of showing your artwork in “vanity” galleries and co-op galleries. I would like to round out the discussion by considering whether it’s advisable for an artist to show his/her work in a traditional, consignment gallery. I won’t pretend to be objective about this model, since this is the model my gallery operates under, but I hope the comments will help keep the conversation balanced.

When most artists express a desire to gain gallery exposure, it is probably a traditional gallery that they are imagining. In a consignment gallery, the artist signs a contract to display work with the gallery, and then delivers artwork to the gallery for display and sale. The artist retains ownership of the artwork while it is on display until it is sold, at which time the gallery remits payment for the artwork, minus the gallery commission.

Unlike the other gallery models discussed previously, there is typically no up-front fee to show art with the gallery. The gallery assumes most of the risk of artwork not selling, but in return for assuming that risk, they typically take a 40-50% (and sometimes even higher) commission on the sale of artwork. This structure offers a real incentive for the gallery to actively promote and sell artwork. If the gallery doesn’t sell art, they don’t have revenue – it’s as simple as that.

It would be a mistake to say that all consignment galleries are created equal. There are many different types of consignment galleries. Some of these galleries grew out of frame shops that started displaying art for sale along with their frames. Some are created by art patrons who have a love for the visual arts and a desire to share art they love with their community (and they often also have deep pockets to help fund the gallery). There are small galleries that border on being more of a gift shop than a true gallery. There are also galleries that have been around for over a hundred years and are selling millions of dollars worth of art to collectors from around the world.

We should probably have conversations about each of these types of galleries, and perhaps we can in the comments and in future posts. For today’s discussion, I’m going to focus on galleries that are like mine, as I suspect these galleries make up a good portion of the traditional gallery market.

My wife and I established Xanadu Gallery in 2001, and we’ve focused on selling early- to mid-career, living artists. Average prices of art in the gallery range from $300 – $10,000 (although we do have several sculptures that range from $45,000-$95,000), and most of our sales are in the $1500-$7500 range.

I represent artists who range in experience from being very new to the art market (less than 5 years) to very well-established artists (30+ years in the market).  My gallery space is about 2300 square feet.

In other words, by the specs, I have a pretty average gallery. There are many galleries across the country, and, indeed, around the world that are very similar to ours. I like to think that Xanadu is doing some interesting things to more proactively market to collectors, and that we are innovating on the internet and in the ways that we engage with artists. For the purpose of this discussion, however, I’m going to ignore what we are doing outside the norm, and focus on what we do in terms of representing artists and selling their work in our bricks-and-mortar gallery.

As in my previous posts on fee-for-representation galleries and co-op galleries, I’d like to lay out some of the advantages and disadvantage of working with a traditional gallery.

Advantages

  • Because a traditional gallery is reliant on sales for income, long-standing, traditional galleries tend to have higher sales volumes than fee-for-representation or co-op galleries. It’s hard to back this claim up with data, but from the reports I hear from artists who have  shown in “vanity”, co-op, and/or traditional galleries, traditional galleries sell more work. I recently heard the sales figures for a major co-op gallery. This is a gallery with a large space and a number of great artists represented. The gallery’s total sales over the course of three years were less than one year of our art sales. I hope that doesn’t sound like bragging, because I don’t intend it to be. I simply want to illustrate that as a commercial gallery that has to sell to survive, we have to generate a high level of sales to stay in business.
  • Related to the first point, prices of artwork in traditional galleries tend to be higher than in other galleries.
  • Unlike co-op or fee-for-representation galleries, there is a much smaller up-front cost for an artist to show in a traditional gallery. Because of this, the initial financial risk for an artist showing  in a traditional gallery tends to be lower.
  • Traditional galleries tend to have better-trained, more proactive sales staff. Follow-up with clients tends to be better.
  • Many artists feel a sense of prestige by showing in traditional galleries. If a gallery was willing to take on your work, they must feel confident that your work will sell. In some ways, it can feel like an independent validation of your art.

Disadvantages

  • Traditional galleries charge higher commissions than other galleries.
  • There is no guarantee a traditional gallery will sell your artwork. Higher over-all volume is no guarantee for any individual artist that their work will sell.
  • Because the traditional gallery assumes more upfront risk, this business model tends to be more volatile. Galleries go out of business at an alarming rate, especially when the economy is bad. Unfortunately, we’ve all heard stories of galleries being slow to pay for sales, or going out of business without having paid for sold artwork. So, while upfront risk may be less, long-term risk might actually be greater with a traditional gallery.
  • It can be difficult for an artist to break into the commercial gallery market. Because traditional galleries take on more risk, they tend be pretty conservative in what they will show. Traditional galleries have to have a high degree of confidence that an artist’s work will sell before they will devote valuable display space. For an artist new to the art market, co-op or “vanity” galleries can offer space because it’s less of a risk for the gallery since the artist is paying up front for representation or membership.
  • As the art market becomes more competitive (with online sales encroaching on gallery sales) the number of traditional galleries is decreasing.

In my other posts on galleries, many of you commented that “success depends on how well the gallery is run.” This applies to fee-for-representation galleries, to co-op galleries, and to traditional commercial galleries. A well-run “vanity” gallery will probably sell more of your work than a poorly-run traditional gallery. So, once again, before you begin working with a traditional gallery that wants to carry your work, it makes sense to research the gallery and perform some due diligence. Talk to other artists who are showing in the gallery and find out if they have had a good experience, and if their relationship with the gallery has been beneficial to them.

If you decide you want to pursue relationships with traditional galleries,  I would humbly suggest a reading of my book, “Starving” to Successful. I wrote the book to help artists prepare themselves to successfully approach galleries, and I give a tried and true technique for making your approach to galleries.

Different Strokes for Different Folks

We have now discussed “vanity” galleries, co-op galleries, and traditional galleries. The comments to these posts have been awesome. The experiences you’ve shared will help other artists decide where to show their art, so thank you! Of course, as an artist is deciding where to show their work, the three types of galleries we’ve discussed aren’t the only options. Many artists these days are foregoing gallery representation altogether and going the route of self-representation. We will discuss the ups and downs of self-representation in an upcoming post.

What do You Think?

Is it worthwhile showing in traditional galleries? Have you had primarily positive or negative experiences working with galleries? What did I leave out of the advantages and disadvantages list? Please share your thoughts and advice about working with traditional galleries in the comments below. If you have something negative to say about a gallery, please don’t use the name of the gallery.

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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.

15 Comments

  1. As a gallery owner I am at times offended by other venues such as gift shops which sells candles, teddy bears, jewelry, etc calling themselves “art galleries”. An art gallery holds a responsibility to the public to sell work which they can assure the public is worth the value they are asking for it. They also hold the responsibility to stand behind that work should a problem arise with it, and serve as the middle man to get that resolved. A gift shop does not do that. The traditional art gallery is there to build the artist as well. Other venues for art such as co-ops,etc just cannot do that. Social media cannot do that. The traditional gallery should provide a greater service to both the public and the artist. Unfortunately some do not. It is up to the artist to ascertain the degree of professionalism a gallery is able to afford them. A good gallery does deserve a commission such as 50% for they do incur a great amount of expense and responsibility. It entails a great deal of money to operate a gallery professionally. Look for a gallery which focuses on a reasonable amount of artists, and not a huge stable. They will more than likely be able to give you more attention, and push your work harder. After some time with a gallery if sales are consistently good, ask the director what their intentions are to build you, and what measures are they going to take to do just that. At times galleries and artist work together as a team to develop marketing strategies. Never try to undercut a gallery by selling less for your work out of your studio or online. They will find out, and you will have burnt a bridge. It is important for the artist as well to be honest with themselves and recognize what they personally want as well.

    1. Thank you. These are great comments. Some artists do not have business experience and don’t understand the difficulty of a business operation. You earn every cent of the 50 percent. I do believe that social media is an important part of promotion because it has the opportunity to reach and emerging market. But social media is only one arm of the expensive promotion process. It’s one reason I totally agree that a retail price is a retail price (no under-cutting the gallery.)

  2. Why I didn’t “get” how marketing works before this article I do not know.
    This is what I realized and maybe I’m just finding out what everyone else knows.
    Once you make the work of art, what do you plan to do with it?
    If you do not wish to live it with forever, you have to find it another home.
    I think that’s called marketing.
    If you do not have someone to that, you have to whether you want to or can.
    Co-ops, vanities, and my attempts to find a commercial gallery have been unsuccessful.
    Here’s the realization.
    Marketing = finding the new home for the art work.
    You have representation. If it’s not an external representative, it’s you.
    Jason and many others would ask, “What outlay of time and expense are you willing to stand?”
    It’s a question to be asked whichever path you choose.
    Before my forays into Art Business workshops and courses, I would not have been able to reach this point.
    Thank you, Jason.

  3. I had a drawing sell out of a Philadelphia gallery one day after I delivered the piece because a friend of mine had seen me working on it in my studio. As my luck would have it, he decides to call me and express his desire to buy it the day I put it in the gallery. Not wanting to screw up my relationship with the gallery, I didn’t want to take it out the same day I put it in. So, my friend pays double for it from the gallery. The gallery owner did absolutely nothing toward selling the piece, hadn’t made any calls about it, or hung it, BUT he had no problem taking 50%. $1400 for nothing.

    1. I am new to the commercial side of my art. I am intentionally exploring social media for marketing, preparing a solid portfolio, understanding my role and that of the gallery owner. Not only are the blogs key in my learning, I have to recommend Jason’s book From Starving to Successful! I’ve dog-eared, highlighted, and taken notes. I recommend it for your toolbox!

    2. Your price of your work should be the same regardless of selling it in a gallery or out of your studio. I believe also that your price should not change THAT much even if you are selling to a friend or an acquaintance. Your prices are what the market allows and should not be influenced by other factors. It undermines your credibility as an artist, in my opinion.

    3. Robert that is the choice you made when engaging with the gallery. While the 1400.00 may seem lost income as you discount from retail for studio sales it really was not. Any gallery taking on an artist incurs costs of promotion and handling that artists do not see. Over many years as a gallery operator i calculated those costs at approx 10,000 so if i dealt with an artist i made a financial commitment and accepted the risk. The gallery should more than earn their keep through future sales. The relation will not last long however if prices from the gallery are not the same as your studio. , that is the kiss of death. When that happened to me as a gallery owner as it did many times i first pointed out the contract, then the economics of the process. 2nd occurance the artists work was returned immediately. i would choose to take a small loss immediately over a larger loss later on.

  4. Thank you Jason for sharing so much about the business side of being an artist. I’ve been in many galleries over the past 25 years, many of which have sadly closed. One thing to consider is if a gallery has a lot of artists, your work might rarely get shown. I was in a very reputable gallery in Denver early in my career, and my work mostly stayed in storage with most of the other artists, which meant I was not able to show it elsewhere. While it “looked good on my resume”, it was worthless. My best galleries were ones that gave me a solo show once a year or every 2 years, or at least had a part of the gallery that had representations of each artist.

    The other challenge is that I do very well with selling my work directly during local Open Studios tour, and many galleries want an exclusive for a local/regional market (which could mean a 100mile radius) . My current gallery is fine with me showing during Open Studios, but most have not been, so I was forced to choose. I almost always chose Open Studios.
    Another thing to consider, I’ve been in more commercial galleries that aren’t as prestigious but sold a LOT of my work, and very reputable galleries that didn’t sell as well but looked good on paper. After shipping expenses etc, they often weren’t worth it.
    Every situation is so different , and things are changing all the time as we know! Best of luck out there!

  5. Thank you, Jason, for a well written and well thought-out post. I’m wondering if in another post, you might give your thoughts on working with galleries associated with not-for-profit art groups. I’ve had considerable experience with working with three such galleries. One was stellar, and the other two ranged from so-so to abysmal, all depending on their boards of directors and policies.

    Thanks again, for your timely and helpful posts.

  6. Hello Jason as you pointed out there are many forms of commercial consignment galleries most being independent operated businesses like yours. The artists should assess their comfort level and artistic fit with the individual gallery model and operator. Art representation models work well if both parties recognize the responsibilities thereof and act as parteners in the sales and promotion process. The artist accepts the costs of production while the gallery accepts the costs of the business transaction process. Artists should be willing to give over control of those business aspects that they in most cases are ill suited to perform. Let a professional do it for you and both will benefit. They will sell far more art at higher values than you can realise yourself in most cases.
    The corporate consignment galleries should be a consideration only after much experience is gained in individual operations as the stakes are higher and responsibilities of representation are strictly enforced to the benefit of ALL parties.

    Consignment galleries should not be confused with art dealing where the artworks are purchased outright and the dealer accepts all risk thereof. These business forms DO NOT promote artists they focus upon the individual art itself. Thus historical works or the works of deceased artists although high level contemporary producing artists sometimes will fall within this category. The economics are vastly different between the models. This is the totally commercial end of the business where individual artists representation does not apply.

  7. Hi Jason.

    Over the years, I have had experience with one cooperative gallery and a number of traditional galleries. While the cooperative gallery was a nice way to get to meet and develop friendships with other artists, I found it had very little to do with making a living as an artist.

    The traditional galleries I dealt with all followed the consignment model.

    My first gallery representation was a good experience. I was a young artist so had a lot to learn but the gallery owner was very nice and we became good friends. She sold quite a few sculptures for me, paid me promptly and gave me my first solo exhibition. Sadly she passed away and the gallery was closed. The only problem I had was I never knew who she sold my artwork to.

    The second gallery representation was not a good experience. The gallery was nice but the gallery owner sold artwork without telling me. I didn’t find out until months later. When I confronted her, she stalled for another six months until I threatened to take her to small claims court. At that point, she paid me a portion of the $8000.00 she owed me. Finally, I just gave up and withdrew from the gallery. The bazaar thing is, she asked me to come back to the gallery.

    This experience caused me to take a break for gallery representation for a few years. During this time, I exhibited in various galleries but did not ask for representation. Then I became a member of the cooperative gallery. Nice experience but not a lot of sales.

    Now I have again signed with commercial consignment galleries and plan to expand on that. In preparation for this, I signed up for the ABA class and think taking the class has helped me see galleries in a different light. For one thing, when I met with the gallery owners I made sure I felt we would be good partners, signed contracts and talked about what we expected. We will have to see how it goes.

    While I think commercial galleries are the best fit for me, I am open to other outlets as well. Recently, I have partnered with Artists for Conservation. I did this partly to sell artwork and partly to give to environment groups. I already donate to these groups so I saw it as a way to expand on that but with my artwork.

  8. I have been involved in many different galleries for about 40 years of selling. The majority of them were traditional art galleries. I have never been in a co-op or vanity gallery. I have been represented by a decorating store twice and though they were not big on the sales, they were honest and the work was being seen. I tried it and decided to forego that type of retail store. I am also represented by an Art Association where I am involved and have a second home.

    I just made a list and see I have had eleven different representations (if I have remembered them all). Most of the time I have been in at least three or more at any given time. Some of them have closed, but at different times. I was lucky in that at any given time I was probably in at least three regional galleries. I have only been with one that was across the country (Georgia for me, and Sedona AZ for the gallery), but it was a wonderful gallery that closed due to the downturn in the economy probably about 8 years ago. We had a couple of years of a good partnership.

    Most representation lasted several years or longer, and mostly the only reason we parted ways because of the business closing. I have had a very long term relationship in three different galleries within my state, and have created a good following in all (though one has closed now). The only hiccup was one of them was sold and the third owner and I did not see eye-to-eye. I did leave on good terms and always went in just to see her and the gallery. I was being courted by a retail store, where the owner had a couple of my pieces of artwork and he really wanted to represent me. He eventually sold, and I put my work solely in the local Art Association. But, wonderful thing is the gallery I had been in was sold to a new owner a year ago and they wanted me back! I am back there and I have sold quite well this past year since doing so.

    I know traditional gallery representation is not for everyone, but it works for me. Sometimes I blanch at the 50% commission, but then I remember how much they do to earn that money… and how much I don’t have to do to make the sale. I do promote them as often as I can, and I send them clients that are interested in my work!

    Having said all that, I will say I occasionally sell my own work to people that find me and want only to deal with me. I don’t undercut the gallery pricing. I also have an Etsy shop where I sell my studies at a different price point. These are experimental pieces, some unfinished plein air work that has charm, and much older pieces that I need to clear out of inventory. They are usually smaller pieces, and my local gallery and I discussed it and they are fine with the arrangement.

  9. I have a question about galleries. In my town 3 out of the 4 are chains, those that buy the art are in London or somewhere, deciding who to represent in the galleries. The independent one was very helpful, but my work did not fit, much of what I see in galleries here is what I would call pop art. I don’t know anywhere that sells ‘traditional’ landscapes etc. Does anyone have suggestions about how you find galleries that are a good fit for your style?

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