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. Thank you so much for your thoughts on the different types of galleries Jason. As an artist I appreciate hearing the pros and cons of each type. I still lean more toward the traditional gallery model.

    Interested in learning what your other readers think.
    Best,
    Mary

  2. I much prefer selling through a traditional gallery. I would have no studio time if I had to market my own work. I have sold from my studio and that’s great but making contact with buyers is difficult. It’s worth it to me to pay 50% commission and leave the selling to a professional.

  3. The bulk of my sales are through traditional consignment galleries throughout the southeastern USA. Wouldn’t know what I’d do without them.
    One additional model used in one of my most successful galleries is a monthly fee for a space (approx. 10×12) plus a 19% commission. The artist is totally responsible for hanging their art within this space. This works out well as long as you have good sales volume.

    1. If you mean paying a monthly fee for a specified space within a traditional gallery, it’s something I haven’t heard of before but sounds like a great idea, a melding of a traditional and a vanity gallery. Seems to me it would be beneficial to both sides…the artist gets the exposure of a traditional gallery and the owner gets the upfront monthly fee. I’d love to know Jason’s thoughts on the subject.

  4. I have no qualms showing my art in a traditional gallery. One of the advantages of them is that they already have a clientele/mailing list for themselves and for other artists- and the artist is not reliant on generating their own following in an area. (Which is kind of an oxymoron – how do you generate a following in an area without having a show or something there?) Also, a gallerist will likely have a feel for whether your work ‘works’ in their particular location. I have found through art fairs that my work needs a metropolitan clientele. Fountain Hills, Cave Creek – no, no! Scottsdale/Tempe – yes! The disadvantage can be that although an artist’s work is well received in a particular city, it may not ‘fit’ in a particular gallery. With other spaces, this is not so much of a concern, as you may well be having a solo or 2-person show, so will not stick out like a sore thumb.

  5. I have had the best sales success with traditional galleries although I had to leave the representation of about 4 so called traditional galleries that I had absolutely no success. The ineffective galleries mad a good portion of their revenue from workshops and classes as well as framing the also lacked one major ingredient….. a deep longstanding client base. My successful gallery has been in business for over 30 years and has a very large wealthy and loyal client base. It is very difficult to know if a gallery is so equipped but the number of years that they have been in business is a good indicator. Also these galleries tend to brag on their client base if they are considering you for representation. My ineffective galleries never mentioned a client base and were more interested in the size of my client base. I was at first put off buy the 50 % commission as it double the retail price of my work but once a couple of sales were completed and I received my money I realized that it didn’t matter I got what I was needed for the work and it was worth it to see the gallery make an equal amount. I just had to sit in the studio as they did all the work. I have heard of and had past experiences of slow or no pay galleries but I and blessed now with a gallery that sends my check as soon as he receives payment. One he trusted his client so much that he prepaid me. I only wish I had two or three of these good galleries but I have found that it would be difficult for me to support two or three with enough artwork simultaneously

  6. As a long-time buyer of art, there are definite advantages to buying at a traditional gallery rather than at a co-op or vanity gallery. My general experience is that the work for sale at a traditional gallery is of a more consistent quality and, if it is work that I like, it is generally of a higher overall quality. I think that this is because the work is being curated in a way that other venues do not. This curation also saves me time. When I walk into a traditional gallery I’ve not visited before, I generally know within seconds whether I want to explore it further or more onto another gallery because one can get a quick feel for what the gallery carries and whether it matches my taste. Again, this is a result of the work being more curated.

    The benefits to me of the other kinds of galleries is that the prices are usually significantly lower, which of course I also appreciate.

    1. Joe – very interesting to hear this from a gallery-buyer’s point of view. I rarely get to connect with my in-gallery customers so it is good to see it from your perspective.

  7. Hi All,
    As a former traditional gallery (and frame shop) owner, and a practicing artist who was also formerly a coop member in a major city, many years ago, I found that I could sell more of my own art in a three month period than the entire coop sold in a year. The coop was a well established and well organized coop with a very good location. Yet, the model of artists selling each other’s work on an erratic basis, with no necessary training in sales, no necessary follow-up with clients or promoting on a regular basis to bring in collectors, is an almost total misunderstanding of how and why a more traditional gallery can be more successful than a coop. I found that most artists do not have a good understanding of the art business at all. Through Jason’s efforts, more artists at least have a chance to learn the rudiments of the art business and begin to understand how galleries of various sorts differ. I believe that in the modern era of the art business, with digitalized everything and many kinds of opportunities for exposure, one has to be strategic in how to approach the art market. I believe each artist
    will choose a combination of self-marketing techniques, combined with efforts to become involved with a more traditional gallery. Along the way, they may continue to do art fairs, international exhibitions, residencies, juried shows, Open Studios and build up their own collector base, etc. To maximize actual creation time, the successful artist will want to be represented in two to three galleries in several different major art markets.

  8. I’m an artist who has chosen not to approach representation at traditional galleries for these reasons:
    I’d have to double my prices to break even, factoring in the 50% commission.
    I could not sell effectively through the internet at 2x my current prices, and I’d NEVER undercut a gallery, it’s unethical, and I like and appreciate gallery owners too much to be underhanded.
    I’d miss the direct contact with clients who come to my studio to see my work and talk about art. I live adjacent to a metropolitan area, so there are a lot of potential buyers in my vicinity.
    I’d have a harder time getting commissions, which I really enjoy doing – because of the pricing factor.
    I have exhibited in numerous museums and national juried shows, so I don’t necessarily need the gallery imprimatur to convince people that my work is acceptable.
    I’ve heard a lot of horror stories about galleries that are slow to pay or require an in-person visit to shake a check out of them. My way is simpler, no PayPal, no ship.

    I get to paint what I want as I perceive gaps in my inventory or new ideas to explore. No one else tells me what I should or shouldn’t paint for a particular market.

    I can be present at every sale (in person or via phone or email) to tell the stories that lead to sales. No salesperson can tell the stories like I can because I can add details, not just read from an artists statement or explanatory paragraph. I can talk about that fishing spot that reminds them of time with their grandfather.

    Local consignment galleries in my area are disappearing – and the ones that are still open are “hanging in there,” not thriving. One has stopped doing any kind of promotion for shows. They pretty much just offer walls. That doesn’t sound like a good value for a 50% commission.

    So, I’m click-and-mortar for the time being, as it seems to be working. We’ll see what the future holds.

  9. Thank you Jason for bringing this particular discussion to your blog. I look forward to these posts and the ever expanding contributions from all of our different perspectives…
    I will always support the (now traditional) brick and mortar consignment gallery. In fact if you were asking me if I thought museums should close, I would react with the same passion and commitment. I believe that (traditional) galleries and museums are very important to our art heritage & should at all costs remain open!
    Now, have I showed in other venues? Yes in all types. Yet, where my work continues to have the best chance to be seen and purchased is in traditional galleries. I will add that some art consultant firms are also selling my work, but I still prefer all the benefits of being in a traditional gallery-by a long shot.

  10. I have had very positive experiences with traditional galleries and the galleries have done a lot to promote my art. I have had many sales and have no problem with them taking a commission.

  11. We need art galleries to be successful whether we’re in one or not. We need flagship businesses to promote art in cities and communities. We want them to have the respect they deserve. We want galleries and museums to be the go-to places for students, patrons, and lovers of art. We must have public venues to display and sell art … ours are the visual arts! Equally, never forget it is a business that must be profitable and no business can be without diligence.
    When my favorite gallery in San Antonio sold I honestly grieved over it. This was the place I went to see artists I admired. It was a respected regional institution for thirty years. The previous owners were wonderfully gracious and welcomed everyone even when they knew you weren’t a buyer. The gallery moved, reorganized, downsized … and eventually closed.
    I’ve always considered artists as blocks in a pyramid. The base of the pyramid are foundation hobbyists who will never make it to the top. Oh, so many! Move upward with the more talented and the pyramid narrows somewhat. Most of us are in that great mass through the middle section, proportional to expertise and hard work. As we near the top the space narrows and constricts with little room in the cap of exceptionalism … the greats reside there.
    We all know very capable artists that are lost in that bloated middle bulk and must settle for the aforementioned gallery business models, or self promotion. An artist rarely makes reputation except in traditional galleries of distinction. Comfort yourselves to know some of the greats didn’t either. You do what you can.

  12. Just a thought about location. I lived in an area adjacent to a large metropolitan area. Being ignorant of marketing as I was, I held a “Studio Show” in my house which was neither a studio nor enough space for a show. It was however on a busy road which gave me the idea. It was quite reasonable successful. (I put out a few flyers and put out a sign a day or so ahead. The success was a few of my prints sold and a few people left cards. Had I been really savvy, I would be in a different place now because a couple of people were “connected” to galleries. Connections that I do not know to this day because— I never followed up. Did I say ignorant of marketing? This was in the early 80’s.

    The other thought on location is, if you are not near a metro area (as I am not, currently), the choices of exposure and art sales are very limited because the areas away from any metropolitan areas may have beautiful scenery but little collector interest.

    I’m seeing that any future I may have is tied to a consignment gallery that knows how to curate good work AND is practiced and committed to selling art pieces to collectors and clients. While I might be scared off a higher price for my work, like a frame, that commission is an investment.
    My responsibility is to make work befitting the price that is asked.

  13. Thank you Jason for your clear explaination of the differing types of galleries. It has been very helpful in clearing up my fuzzy understanding of the differing types of galleries and their advantages and disadvantages. I look forward to your blog concerning on-line marketing of artworks.

  14. Thank you once again for reddotblog Jason, always helpful. I have only been pushing my art commercially for about eighteen months. I had two pieces in a traditional gallery, when after two months the owner asked me to pick them up because the gallery was closing!

    I have sold several originals on facebook & quite a lot by word of mouth. I partnered with an online gallery three months ago that are based in Dublin, I am based in Brighton on the south coast of the UK. I take high resolution photos of my artwork, then email the photos to them. They market & sell the reproductions from their website. They have sold six canvas prints of my artwork in the last two weeks!

    In my limited experience, I would say don’t rely on any one selling method, or as they say ‘Don’t put all your eggs in one basket’

  15. Many of the co-op galleries not only charge for rent for a spot to hang your art, they also charge the Commission in the sale. By the time I get done paying rent and additional Commission I haven’t made any money and I’ve paid for somebody else to take my heart away. The only good thing about this type of gallery his if you have nowhere else in your area that is a traditional gallery it still helps to get your art out there and known. I would rather work with the traditional gallery that takes commission any day over the coop type galleries. One of the problems is where I am currently living which I just moved to recently, there are no traditional galleries here and I’m involved with e Gallery that I have to pay rent and then volunteer. It’s a good organization and they are promoting art to the community and the people are nice but I would still rather have a traditional gallery. They are becoming hard to find without having to drive across the state to somewhere my art has sold in the past.

  16. Great article Jason. I have experience with both co-op and traditional B&M galleries and I much prefer the later. Yes, I made good sales in the co-op – but my sales in the B&M gallery were far higher.

    There were two big downsides in the co-op model. The sales training of the artists manning the gallery at any given point was variable. Some were great marketers and others not – or pointed potential collectors to their work or their favorite artists in the gallery.

    The second was the big selling point to the public that much of the art was fresh every month as artists moved physical location in the gallery every 30 days and brought in some new works to trade out. Yes, trading is much easier than having a B&M gallery out of town ship unsold work – but I had excessive frame damage – totaling over $1000 in a 6 month period because other artists would come in the night before the big “swap” and take down mine or other’s art to get the process moving. I was so surprised that so many artists would stack frame against frame with the hardware gouging the frame behind it or chip a front edge on a wall. With a contract making me stay, despite the inability to handle my own art and damage occurring every month – it was a tad of a nightmare. The gallery owner was not aware that she was responsible for the care of the art in her possession. Again – great article and I’m looking forward to reading about the other gallery models.

  17. Very interesting article Jason, and some great comments. I live in a small community and am just getting started in a traditional gallery in a more art oriented area, so I don’t have too much experience here. To date I’ve made one sale in about six months. So far I’ve had better success as a guest in a local co-op, selling five pieces in a one month period, and through local outlets such as a flower shop/gallery which promotes 3- month shows that have sold between one and three paintings during these shows. Problem is I have reached a saturation point in my small community and the sales are dropping here. This is why I am now looking to locations outside of my local area. Time will tell how this works out for me.

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