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

I’ve already 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 overall 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.

12 Comments

  1. Hi, I am rather new in galleries and as of this last year in 5 now in 4 different states (Jason your advice has been helpful even tho u don’t know me). What has been fascinating to me is how different each is, not only their market but their communication, management, requests etc. I have had to “learn them” to be effective with them. My engagement with them has needed to be excellent and I expect they “learn” their artists. 3 are professional galleries in the upper midwest, one very large; 2 are in shops, one a trendy gift shop near Asheville NC and a frame shop in TN. The gift shop at least this last year has given me the most sales! I am keeping track of course. It’s a huge learning process.

  2. I once had thought that commercial galleries were all the same but I discovered that they all operate differently. I currently have no gallery representation after a long time of seeking out the right gallery. I had one good gallery out of about 10 or so tries. Sadly his gallery closed after he passed away. The one disadvantage to having commercial gallery representation that you didn’t mention is that your work is tied up for a long period of time at a gallery(not always on display) and it isn’t available readily for another gallery or for self representational sales without a lot of difficulty getting the artwork where the sale might be. You might have the cost and delay of shipping or picking up a work. Delays in getting the work in front of an interested buyer isn’t usually conducive to a sale. My negative experiences far out weigh my positive experiences when it comes to commercial galleries. I have had very good results with self representation since my good gallery shut down. I realize it takes time to build up a reputation that is needed to self representation and new emerging artist may find self representation impossible

  3. I’m “new to the game” being semi-retired from a solid career as a graphic designer and then basically throwing myself into fine art during the whole COVID thing. I’ve been trying to build a CV and due to many local gallery closings have taken advantage of showing in a vanity space a couple times. They are good for a line item “show” on your CV but ultimately cost me more than I ever made.

    But… the reason I write is, recently, I had a new collector discover my art in the most unlikely of spaces (the window of an insurance agency on the main street in town) and then go to my website to check out my portfolio of works. He contacted me and wanted to know where he could “see” more. My “studio space” at this time is basically a TINY room in my home – no way large enough to accomodate a visitor to see work. I thought about setting up something in the garage, but I dismissed that as “sketchy” and not the way I want my work to be seen. I ultimately decided to pack up the pieces he selected as well as a few other pieces and offered to make a house call.

    We went back and forth with timely emails which included a full selection of works in a “pdf portfolio” with the sizes and retail prices all up front. I put together a proposal which also included (full and discounted) prices (I’m not the best at negotiating on the spot) as he had alluded to purchasing multiple works.

    I dressed business casual and arrived masked and professional at his home. Both he and his wife were incredibly impressed with my professionalism and the fact that I went the distance to show the work. They ultimately purchased 4 pieces on the spot!

    Anyway, I write this because I now understand HOW MUCH WORK a real gallery actually puts into a sale. I spent TONS of time preparing my work for this sale. The administration time and branded marketing materials I put together ultimately showed that I was serious about my work and I was worth investing in. But it took a lot of time and added to stress I didn’t really need.

    It would have been much more pleasant for me to do what I do best – the art part – and have someone else sell in my behalf. I hope to one day connect with a real gallery that will do that part for me. 😉

    1. This is me. I had a career in arts education and upon retirement decided to jump into production full time.
      I’ve never had an accessible studio. Mine happens to be a second floor space, not large, accesible only by dangerously steep stairs. The other part of the studio is my laptop computer.
      Thank you for commenting on how you approached the issue.
      I would especially underscore two words you used- “Professional” & “Prepared.”
      Thanks again for posting.

  4. Not all traditional galleries are equal. The success of any gallery relies upon a lot of factors which includes such things as the gallery owner’s business acumen, location, financial resources, art knowledge, and sales ability to name a few. All traditional galleries are in business to make money, however some gallery owners are more invested in their artists than others, and truly want to build their careers in addition to simply selling art. Finding such a gallery is a challenge. Galleries generally focus on a specific type of art which reflects the director/ owner’s taste or interest. Your work my be very wonderful, however it may simply not align with the vision of a specific gallery. Don’t let the rejection from one gallery effect you. Most artists fail to accept the fact that it typically takes many rejections before you find a gallery who will even consider you.

    I differ with your opinion Jason on three points…You state that a disadvantage of a traditional gallery is that there is no guarantee that such a gallery will sell an artist’s work. The reality is that “no gallery “can guarantee that, and therefore it should not be considered a “disadvantage”. There is also no guarantee that the artist could sell everything of theirs on their own as well. On a second point let me say…I also do not view that traditional galleries being more selective about what they represent as a “disadvantage”. In reality, what hangs next to an artist’s work is just as important as where their work hangs. Most artists would prefer to have their work hang next to work of quality and substance, therefore I see the selection process of a gallery as being to the artist’s advantage. Another point you made was that more traditional galleries are disappearing due to social media, etc, and you listed that as a disadvantage. That may be to the disadvantage to the artist wanting to get into a traditional gallery, however it is not a disadvantage of choosing a traditional gallery. There are plenty of healthy galleries looking for talent.

    Not every artist is going to find a traditional gallery which is going to be able to assist them. Being able to identify who the typical buyer for your work is perhaps the first step in identifying where your work needs to be. The nature of your work, and the determination and insight of you as a businessperson will ultimately determine where your work ends up.

  5. There may be a middle ground; the local Art League Gallery. If an artist is fortunate enough to have membership in an Art League that maintains and supports a brick and mortar location (granted it falls into the co-op vanity type, and price points are generally $200 to $2000), the membership and exhibit fees are usually less than the private vanity gallery. and the commission fees are usually less than traditional galleries. For my annual $70 member & exhibit fee (and 7 to 8 hours monthly as a docent) my Art League gallery has sold four pieces of my work this year. They do take a 25% commission on sales which keeps the doors open. They do all the paperwork, collect & pay the sales tax, and send the 75% to the artist. My Art League hosts ongoing community outreach, regional promotion campaigns, juried public art shows, various outside sales venues, and learning opportunities for members and public. My seventy dollar gallery investment has become twenty one hundred dollars in my pocket, so far this year. While that might not be a living wage for most folks, the situation works for me and my Glorified Hobby speed of life. And while I am totally pleased with my Art League gallery association, outside sales venues, fairs and markets, while being labor intensive, have been my biggest money makers by far. And now, back to the drawing table.

  6. I appreciate your insight and comments. I have produced and marketed (or attempted to market) my drawings and fine art limited edition prints for more than 50 years. During that time, I have had one really fine consignment gallery experience in Chicago. The proprietor of the gallery regularly exhibited my work in the gallery, invited her collectors for private appointments, submitted my work to various juried exhibitions at no cost to me, and made contact with universities for solo and group exhibits. In other words, she worked hard to represent my work in various venues. And it paid well for both of us. Since then, having completed a university teaching and administration career while continuing to produce drawings and prints, I have shown in Europe with success, but here in the U.S., not so. I currently am under contract with a traditional gallery but not doing well…NO SALES WITHIN THE PAST YEAR. I am however under a restrictive clause within the state of my residence. That has been the most troublesome aspect of working with the gallery. If I market out of my studio, I still must relinquish 50% of the sale to the gallery that will have done nothing to earn it.

  7. The first real Gallery I was in was just wonderful. they promoted the art and the artist by having seasonal galas with wine and cheese etc. and the Artists present. It was great for the artists as we got to meet the patrons and hear so many compliments about our work. I couldn’t wait to get home to start to produce more! The last gallery I joined, two years ago was a low point. The owner enthusiastically accepted my work then called me a week later to say “I sold your piece and got $700. for it!!”
    I said Whoa! It was priced at $950!? He said “Well, with your 10%off and my 10%, you know, we sold it!!” I reminded him that I don’t barter. Sad to say he never paid me anything at all.
    All the other galleries I’ve been in have been very positive experiences. But this last experience has left me quite gun shy. I’ve just been asked to join a brand new gallery. How do I protect myself??

    1. This is a pretty good example of a less than professional gallery. It is typical to discount down works to designers or special buyers. Designers typically get 15%. off. The higher the price on a work, the more flexibility you have in discounting. The gallery should also be assuming 50% of whatever they discount. A 20% discount on a work priced at $950. is absurd. I will never discount down any work priced $1,000. or under in my gallery. When you leave your work with a gallery insist that the agreed upon prices be attached to the consignment agreement, along with what they are allowed to discount certain works down to.

    2. When interviewing a gallery to represent you, testing them with questions related to what you value and want out of a relationship with them is paramount. In other words, the gallery owner/representative’s values have to align with your values…not the other way around. They like to make you feel like they picked you…and you should be grateful. Not always of course!

      Asking about their ideas around pricing: whether or not they discount, and if they do ..how, exactly, do they do that; marketing: how often and where..print/social/shows; how long have they been in business? How did they come into owning a gallery? Research can answer some of this. How these questions are answered will shed light on how passionate they are about art, artists and representing them.

      The point I’m making is it isn’t just luck or being chosen by a gallery…you, the artist, are in control of who you do business with.

  8. It seems we are all looking for a symbiosis of sorts.
    I’d like to believe there are enough galleries, artists, and collectors to go around but I’m not so sure.
    One thing I can say for me as an artist, the work I’m doing comes from my confidence as an artist.
    From that, I can be confident that there are gallerists and collectors who confidently know where they are coming from.
    This does not alleviate my doubts of finding a relationship, but it does give a modicum of hope that what I am producing from what I am as an artist may be resonant somewhere, sometime.
    Be that as it may, I have learned to be unapologetic and embrace who, where, what, and how I am.

  9. I have been a gallery represented artist since 1990. The last 10 or more years I have 3 top well known galleries representing me. Located in art centers. Two sell well, (even Thru the pandemic,) one does not. My conclusion to this is the way they display, & not knowing the sales people personally. The two selling well give each artist a wall with 3 to 5 paintings grouped together.( I believe this impresses the public ). The gallery that is not selling does monthly shows, Which tells me I may be in the closet, or only have one painting hung in with a group of artist. I am an animal artist, which means I keep new & fresh paintings coming into a gallery & moving older paintings to another gallery.
    I left a well known gallery last year that sold my work the first week with them, then nothing for 6 months. A friend stopped by & told me why. A long hall displayed 50 or more paintings, & I had ONE hanging. Because of my subject matter My sales have proven I sell more if several of my animals are displayed together. . I paint what is marketable in all locations.
    I have the book Starving To Success

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