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.

Xanadu GalleryWe 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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Starving to Successful

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

In his Amazon.com best-selling book, Xanadu Gallery owner Jason Horejs shares insights gained over a life-time in the art business.

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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 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

20 Comments

  1. The public has this perception that traditional galleries are simply rolling in money. The reality is that traditional galleries struggle through all sorts of challenges such as the stock market lows, inflation, political uncertainty, etc. A traditional gallery takes on an enormous risk with every artist that they take on. These galleries do want to feel comfortable that the work will sell, therefore if you are looking to simply hang your work and do not care if it sells or not, than consider other options such as having your work hang in a restaurant etc. On the other hand, a reputable rational gallery takes great effort to build the artist. If you succeed, they succeed. The cost of galleries also participating in other shows such as Art Basel, Aqua, etc is an enormous expense. Consider what you want your ultimate goal to be. You can float around doing pop up shows, and alternative venues, but if you really want to grow your career, than the rational gallery is your best route. It is important however to find the gallery which suits your style, and attracts the clientele which is right for your particular artwork.

  2. Any gallery that manages to stay in business (let alone thrive) is worth its weight in gold. Commissions? Please, TAKE MY MONEY. If you haven’t worked in sales/marketing understanding the daunting scope of commitment can be difficult.

  3. Hi Jason,
    I recently discovered another version of a traditional gallery in Los Angeles. They mainly rent art to movie and television studios, businesses and individuals. They also sell a good amount of art every year, but their main source of income is renting art by the week or month. This particular gallery took five of my paintings on consignment for 6 months. I was impressed with the owner and the people who worked there. It’s a very busy gallery, with a friendly vibe. It’s kind of exciting to think one of my paintings may end up in a movie or on TV!

    1. I too have had three pieces rented to a television production in Vancouver. There must be a good rental market for artists in areas where these productions take place. I also have work in a traditional consignment gallery in Alberta. Just signed so no sales yet. But I like the idea of someone who knows the art market trying to sell my work while i paint. Commissions gained are earned in my opinion.

  4. Ah. I should have held my comment on the last post for this one. This is the model of the galleries I’m familiar with and is the way ours in our tiny town is set up. The owners called it a ‘co-op’ because they wanted partners in the operation of it and it’s not co-operatively owned by the artists but only by a few members. Ours is closer to a gift shop than a true gallery, though, because the prices are mostly on the low end (caters to tourists) and the art isn’t all strictly fine art, though we do have some. Most of our sales are low end sales. The bulk of my own sales come from prints, notecards, and my handmade watercolor paints that I also sell there. Most of our patrons aren’t going there to buy fine art, and are unlikely to buy higher priced fine art. The potter who owns the gallery makes most of the sales in the house with his functional pottery. My works make up the second largest slice of income for the gallery, but it’s still not huge. All of my originals that I’ve sold, I sold outside the gallery on my own. We don’t collect commissions on art sold by the artists outside the gallery, though I know some do that. The owner does try to stay within the look and theme so not all artists are accepted, but we only take artists from within 50 miles, so the pool is limited. And he does rotate out if the artist makes no sales within 6 months or so. Our gallery is new, a year old in May this year, and we get more visitors now than we have in the past. I’ll start bringing in more of my smaller originals to see if I can place any of those with all the new visitors we’re starting to draw in from outlying larger towns and cities.

  5. I have always shown through traditional galleries. Maybe it’s what Jason said in his article that traditional galleries carry a kind of prestige for that artist. For me, it’s not so much about prestige as it is about sales and when you have your art hanging in a traditional gallery with a knowledgeable staff, sound financial and marketing skills, a proven track record and a pool of art collectors, and great artist/gallery relationships you can’t go wrong. You will not be successful if one or more of those things is missing (or if your art just doesn’t ‘fit’ in that gallery).
    I’m represented by 5 galleries across the country and all but one have every point I mentioned above. (That one gallery will soon be missing from my list – lack of marketing and promotion as well as poor artist/gallery relationship)
    I seek out those galleries that have been around for awhile, especially ones that anchor an art gallery area of a city and have consistently proven themselves as sellers or art in the community. That means the gallery has weathered the storms of politics, financial ups and downs, and societal changes. Look for a gallery that has been in existence for more than 10 or 12 years. Even better, one that has been selling art for 20 years or more. Thinking you are getting in on the ground floor of a gallery just starting out is very, very risky and can be a roll of the dice for your career. I stay away from new galleries.
    And take Jason’s advice. Read his book.

  6. Thanks again for another great article, Jason. One of the galleries I had experience with had an owner with deep pockets as you described, one who went to very limited hours (who on earth closes on Saturdays?) He was a collector himself and the gallery was essentially a hobby for him. Some of my work sold from an exhibit, but I kept thinking how an art collector would feel wanting to visit and arriving on a weekend to locked doors. I’ve seen one art community where several galleries were closed with a handwritten sorry we missed you note on the door, posted next to their business hours, when they should have been open. I went back the following day, a Saturday, to see the same note still taped to the door. This one was not isolated, there were several places, one very large 4000 Sq ft., locked. I overheard a young couple walking by asking one another, why are there so many galleries and they’re always closed? Why indeed. I later learned that the owners were wives of surgeons and such, in other words, they didn’t really work at their art business, apparently they didn’t need to. I believe they opened once monthly for an art walk. It was sad because the city really gave incentives for galleries to open, and this attitude soon will affect the entire community. But from the conversation I overheard from the young couple, the locked doors have already not gone unnoticed. What a wasted privilege. The other thing I’ve often wondered about is a gallery that is open until 4 or 5 pm….when people with discretionary income are still at work. Anyway, all that to say I really respect gallerists who takes their companies seriously. It’s hard work and they earn every penny of their comission.

  7. I have been in “traditional” consignment galleries, co-ops, and those galleries in Las Vegas and Reno that won’t let you place your retail on the work ( they often triple it!), on and off for many years. I have pros and cons about all of them. Most have been friendly, helpful and I feel very comfortable stopping in and talking with them and checking up on my work. I even, eventually, sell one or two sculptures and once in a great while I might get a commission from one of their clients. But, this isn’t all that I need in a gallery. On the other hand, I have had very poor sales overall, especially when I leave it solely to them to sell my pieces. ( I try to steer clients to the gallery in the area). In order to find out why or how I can improve on a new piece for them to display, I ask about comments on my work and how they are marketing the gallery, me, etc. Most of them do little or NO marketing and have several sales people who should not EVER be in sales. Then, on the other hand, I have had 1 or 2 brilliant sales people who really try to sell all the artists in the gallery but the owner is a wet noodle. So, before I approach a gallery, I would like to know its sales record. No one really tells me anything but I ask how sales are going anyway. It’s always overly optimistic and I’m never sure that its a good answer. I’ve used Manta to check businesses but not many galleries are on Manta. I try to gather artist business cards to follow up when available but most galleries do not permit personal business cards on works.
    So, in short, I have been greatly disappointed in all types of galleries and how they do business. I’m at a point where I’m not sure now that I want to continue the search and the stress of all the research that must be done in order to establish a viable market. AND, this should be done regularly…

  8. The commission a traditional gallery earns is well worth it to me. They create the space and pay the overhead. They market and put on shows. Finally, they handle the transaction and also give you and your work a sense of validation by representation to collectors. Win/win.

  9. As much as I love traditional galleries there are two things you do not mention. Many demand an exclusivity for a 50 mile radius or more and do not allow the artist showing work at pop-up galleries or at benefit events, They also sometimes request that any other work you sell in that time period you have art with them, also garners them a per-cent even if they are not involved in the sale.

    1. I, too, am “in your boat”. A local gallery (which has two prominent locations and a good reputation) asked for some of my work. A rep came to my studio to choose pieces so I packed them up and off she went. A month or two later I visited both galleries but couldn’t find my work. I should mention that I did have to pay them to be shown. I asked the sales ladies where they were. They didn’t know or go back in the racks to check or look in their files. I revisited each one again about a month later. None of my work was up. This time I wrote the main gallery a diplomatically cross note. No response. I revisited. No luck. I asked my brother (lawyer) in intervene. That got a response. they said that I could come pick up my work. I did. I asked for my preliminary “membership” charge back, since they simply sat on my work for half a year! They gave me 1/3 back. I put my work back up on my studio/gallery walls and one sold right away. I enter several juried entry quality shows each year….just fun (and my work sells!). Otherwise, I’m going to rely on media and word-of-mouth. I want to sell, but my passion is purely creating!I

  10. I like traditional galleries very much. They can sell while I paint, they are better at selling than I am, and they can praise my work in ways that would sound ridiculous coming from me. I’ve been in about a dozen traditional galleries over the years, now in 3. That’s not enough by itself to make my career work, so I also do plein air events, juried shows, art fairs, etc etc. My gallery presence helps with all of those things too…if I post my bio on the wall at an art fair, people can see that I’ve made it through the gate at several galleries and I’m not just some guy standing under a tent.

    As Jason points out, not all galleries are created equal. I like to take a close look at the gallery before putting my work there…is the space good, the work well-displayed, the owner or staff accessible and friendly, atmosphere feel right? So far my gallery experience has been overwhelmingly good, though I know from other artists that it doesn’t always work out that way.

  11. I’ve so far only had the fortune to establish a relationship with one traditional gallery. The owner has great taste and represents a few other local artists whom I admire, so I was thrilled. I was only in the gallery for a short time, however. My pieces apparently garnered lots of attention but generated no sales, and at the end of three months I was asked to remove my work. I had been getting the feeling that the owner had some ambivalence about my work — I never saw any of my pieces featured in her ads, for instance — but was still surprised to be sent packing after such a short period of time.

  12. Hi Jason
    I show? In your on line gallery. I am not really sure if it still exists; eve though at your request I list your gallery on my business card.

    Since joining or being juried, not sure of this process, I have been busy with several other “ traditional “galleries where I sell some of my work .I also do shows and festivals and sell in these venues. I bought your book, too! I obviously get your newsletter too. I participated in your annual table top , for want of a better term, book. I really appreciate comments from other artists
    I am curious, since I am re writing my business plan and seriously thinking of removing your identity from my card, would you address your on line gallery and on line galleries in general?

    I have a website with FASO which I am re evaluating too. I am in the process of re designing it too. Especially since it appears to have changed access

    Are on line galleries worth the exposure to the artist in your opinion?

  13. Although some traditional galleries are not run well, the well run galleries in good markets offer the ideal: a high income clientele who pay high prices for art at a relatively high volume facilitated by high quality gallery management & staff.

  14. I am fortunate enough to be represented by two galleries on the Big Island of Hawaii and all of my experiences has been positive. Both gallery directors are enthusiastic about my work, and I have sold more in the 8 years I ‘ve lived in Hawaii than all the previous years of exhibiting in California. I am an abstract painter and I am very grateful to all the collectors from around the world who have given my art a place in their homes.

  15. The RISK of artwork not selling?!! Pray tell, what RISK is that?!!!
    You risk NOTHING when you are being provided with free inventory!

    1. The display space artwork occupies costs money every month in rent, and sales staff wants to be paid, whether art is selling or not. Any art that isn’t selling is costing a gallery owner lost revenue.

  16. I prefer a commission based gallery/show. Unless the gallery has skin in the game, they don’t do much to promote it or bring in buyers.

  17. In Australia we had laws passed in 2010 and 2011 that really hurt the Traditional Commercial Galleries. Restrictions and costs that affected income streams of galleries that depended on Art as an asset of self managed retirement funds. Another law involved the galleries chasing around securing a payment for the increase of a payment to the Artist if it resold for a higher price. Galleries told me clients were trying to sell their paintings back to the galleries. Not may painting ld though. Consequently most galleries have sold. Co-op models have come and gone but tend to sell cheaper paintings below my price points. These days I rely on private commissions. My new website is not generating any sales. I am yet to find an alternative. My Figurative as is fast and cheap but I haven’t found a Gallery on-line or elsewhere. A few years back you would see me in 5 to 8 galleries in Australia France and the US busily trying to supply them! Artist’s and galleries in my case need to adopt models that suit both or I don’t use galleries. I would prefer to use galleries mostly because they handle the marketing and selling.
    Thanks for the blogs and advice you give
    Regards
    James Boissett
    http://www.jamesboissett.com

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