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

23 Comments

  1. I have done traditional and vanity galleries and they both have advantages. Since I am still working in a non-art field, my time to create is limited and I can’t create the volume gallery representation requires- I have been doing local art fairs. My sales are good and I still have visibility in my community.

  2. I have enjoyed and learned from this set of discussions. I’d much rather be in a traditional gallery, but they keep going out of business. I am planning on checking out some of the more established “vanity” and co-op galleries in some of the bigger art markets. My work is not of a kind that many people would buy, (nudes on paper), but it does have a market. Most of my buyers have been from the Northeast (Boston-NYC-DC), other artists, Europeans and the gay community. (in my opinion, tastemakers, so I am not without hope for bigger success eventually)

  3. My business sales model is to be in traditional galleries, a coop gallery, to mount my own shows twice a year to sell my own work, and to participate in organized events (plein air competitions with their attendant shows), all as means of selling my work. Although my own shows bring in the most income, they are also by far the most labor-intensive revenue stream. With a business background in direct mail and marketing, I am careful to track income vs. expenses, and I run about 2.5/1 for the direct sales I manage myself, not including cost of materials. My three traditional galleries take the least of my time, just shipping paintings and a once-a-year visit, and I am satisfied with the regular income I receive from these sources. The coop gallery requires a fee and gallery sitting time, so I have never been quite sure if it is a worthwhile model. I sell more work than other artists in my coop, but it is certainly not a stand-alone sales tool, accounting for only 10% of my income. The shows associated with plein air competitions I would do anyway, as the competitions are one of my primary sources of new work. However, sales are hit or miss, and nothing to count on.They can be terrific or nothing at all. So for me, the traditional gallery sales are the most dependable and the second highest source of income for me, as well as being the least labor-intensive of all my sources. So I am very glad and feel fortunate to have them.

      1. Katherine,

        I am fortunate to have both a large Amish-built barn on my property that can house a large summer sale (it’s not climate controlled, so although it’s gorgeous, it has limited use for me other than a glorified garage), and also a large finished basement area that houses my own permanent gallery and studio where usually more than 100 framed and priced paintings hang at any one time. For the barn sale, I invite the public; the home sale is confined to invited guests, either for just one evening as an art party or over a weekend as more of an open studio.sometime during the winter holidays. I have used postcards for invitations but mostly rely on my email list of contacts and clients, for which I have amassed around 500 local names over the years. If I had to rent the spaces, I would definitely not do as well. As it is, hiring someone to clean the barn, move the paintings to and from that location, and hiring cashiers plus food and drink are still substantial costs. As another idea, I once teamed with a realtor and made an “ArtHouse” for a weekend out of a property that wasn’t selling, and we were both happy with the results. Hope this helps.

  4. My experience matches your forecast, Jason. I’ve been in all 3 types of galleries and my selling rate with a traditional gallery has far exceeded my sucess with either the vanity or coop galleries. The vanity gallery did excellent press releases nationally and internationally but for a very short period of time. I saw very few sales of anyone’s work in the vanity galley. My experience in coop galleries is that a majority of artists tend to be too introverted to engage with customers and clise sales.
    The traditional gallery has very engaging personel who make sll feel welcome. There close rate seems quite good.

  5. Most of my sales have been thru traditional (commission based) galleries, or privately. I’m reluctant to join a true co-op or artists collective because that requires members be there to act as sales staff, and I’m not comfortable doing that. I also don’t drive, so getting someplace that’s not conveniently close makes that kind of commitment pretty hard. I can much more easily commit to being present at a traditional gallery’s opening reception and maybe some other dates, but not as a regular staff type person. I’ve improved my art business skills and ability to talk to buyers, but not enough to feel I want to ‘run a gallery’ or even work in one. That’s why I’m happy to pay a commission based gallery their cut, because they earned it. If I make the sale privately, I earned it, but my private sales are much more low key than trying to be a staff person in a gallery.

    So many galleries have closed, it’s sad. A few I showed in, in the past several years, and had good sales in, are now gone or have changed their model to a collective or other, to survive. Despite rosy reports of a recovering economy, I see that many people, including myself, are hanging onto their money a little tighter again, not quite sure the future is secure enough to justify spending hundreds or thousands on art right now.

    1. I noticed the same thing, Cindy, starting in 2008. I was in a rather depressed area that really took a big hit with the housing crisis. This happened to be the time and location where I began going out on my own, having worked in visual effects studios, receiving lots of appreciation of my work. I had to tell myself over and over again that the people aren’t necessarily not liking my art–they were just stressed about their top priority of being able to keep the walls that it would be hanging on. I shopped around a little, talked to artists living outside this location and found a new area to move to where I could get a more “fair” start. I’m very glad I did! Your comment about the “Rosy economy” is true for me too. It’s my challenge to try to create things that someone not having such a great time with these things will like so much they’ll find it inspirational and something that will help carry them through the rough spots. I love it when I’ve accomplished that.

  6. Having showed in so-called vanity galleries in both London and Miami, I can only emphasize the advice from Jason, do your due dilligence.
    I didn’t well enough in the first case of the London show. It was a joke really. No sales efforts whatsoever and a lot of excuses afterwards. In the Miami case it was different. I had good relations long before the show, during, after and still (the show was in 2016).
    I would however like to share my overall experience. It is indeed expensive to show in a vanity gallery with pretty hefty upfront costs. Add to that transportation of your artwork/insurance and not to forget if you, like me and my wife wanted to attend at the opening night. Still I don’t regret the show in Miami. I’d do it again when I can afford it. I understand that the business model of a vanity gallery is exactly this, just another business model. There are great vanity galleries and bad, just as there are good and bad traditional galleries. Make sure you do good investigation before you make a decision.

  7. Thank you, Jason, for these informative articles – so helpful to emerging as well as established artists. I have ordered your book and look forward to your expert advice. I have a question: would you be interested in writing an article about online art galleries – (e.g. auction as well as traditional sales)?

  8. The 30% – 50% commission is worth it to have someone else promote, advertise, attract buyers and handle the business aspects of my art. Finding good ones who can sell the work that stay open [or who accept artist submissions] is a challenge.

  9. Have had the most success in traditional galleries for sure. Like Cindy S above I have been involved with co-0p galleries and done local weekend shows but that takes a lot of work and energy that I not longer wish to or need to expend on the sales end besides not generating many sales. Years ago when I first started to get into galleries I did try the vanity type, coop type and local shows which really helped me build up my resume and experience and I would suggest any artist to do that in the beginning too. But now that I’m an experienced (read “older” lol) I cherish my relationships with the 11 awesome galleries that sell my work across Canada. I pay for shipping to their door and my prices are the same across Canada except for a couple of galleries that add a frame after they receive it. They are all the traditional type galleries that mostly take 50% commission which I am happy to share with them on any sales. They more than earn it and we have all made a lot of money together. I stay in touch with each gallery and have a close relationship sharing what works for them as far as sizes, colors or suggestions they receive from their clients…that info is invaluable to me. I am not saying they tell me what to paint because they do not….it’s more like trends and it’s up to me to react or apply suggestions. I also keep them abreast of what I am working on or a new series so they know what’s coming down the pike. I absolutely LOVE not selling my work so I can have more painting time each day.
    There have been times when a gallery has closed it’s doors and I have had to look around that area for a new gallery. You can do a lot of research online these days in finding a commercial/traditional gallery and I know I have found a good one when most of my friends are at the same one. I have artist friends online (have not met them in person to date) that I can ask on the side about a certain gallery they are in such questions as if they pay on time, good to deal with, sales history and fun to work with, all important stuff. You have to do your research! I used to also sell directly thru my own website but have given that up. I did not like people coming to my studio taking up hours of time (including my time to tidy up and make it more presentable) while they looked at my work then low balling me for a deal or just saying thanks and see ya. They were all kind folks and genuinely interested but I am just not a salesperson and don’t have that gift. I agree that traditional galleries tend to have dedicated knowledgeable staff in order to generate sales and survive that co-ops or vanity galleries just don’t. I do know some artists that do fantastic sales at art shows but that doesn’t work for me and I don’t know too many artists that do like to sell their own work.
    Jason, was in Scottsdale a few weeks ago and came across your gallery while touring the old town Scottsdale. Your mom greeted us and showed us around. Very nice young lady was also checking on us to see if we had any questions. Both very knowledgeable about the artists the gallery represents. Loved seeing your dad’s work, very inspiring. Gorgeous gallery in a great location, I have been in a lot of galleries over the years and Xanadu is one of the best. Not buttering you up… Nice to see that your bricks and mortar business match your professional presence online (not always the case).

  10. Though I know this is never going to be a reality, I personally believe galleries should charge an admission fee. Art museums have shops where patrons can buy things: books, posters, mugs, etc., but they also charge admission. Too many people see galleries as a form of cheap/ free entertainment, but never contribute to the costs of running these places by actually purchasing something.

  11. I love bricks and mortar galleries! I always have and I’ve had success in the few I’ve been fortunate enough to show in. I have no problem paying them their commission. They have dedicated sales staff who are good at what they do, while I have absolutely no sales abilities. I also appreciate the validation that comes from showing in a proper gallery. I do have a website with sales capability, but to-date have not had any online sales through it. Long live galleries!

    1. I am currently involved with two traditional galleries, two coop galleries and two online (free) galleries. The online galleries (one is yours), since they are free and take only a very few minutes a week, are fine – possible exposure and no significant investment of time or money. I joined the coops in order to get involved in a worthwhile project, working with other people as I enjoy team playing. The commercial galleries appear to be exactly as others have commented, useful in proportion as they are well run by good sales people who love the work and whose customers enjoy my kind of stuff. In other words, one has done great for me and the other has done nothing. So far, anyway.

  12. I really appreciate this blog and the great comments as I am just getting started in the art business. I have been getting into group exhibitions so far, and I found a little gift shop to sell some prints that charges a 40% commission. I am working on a book with local interest, which I think will get my work in my own little town atleast. I am just painting as much of the time as I can to build up a body of work so that I would feel ready to approach a gallery. I am thinking traditional gallery, because it seems to me the co-op galleries here are focused on art that is very different from mine and don’t seem like the right market for me. I have an Etsy shop which is a good place to show off my art, but so far I’m only getting sales of the calligraphy pieces, the paintings aren’t moving. I should get to work on a proper web-page to sell privately, but one step at a time. The biggest problem I’ve had is the time it takes to market my art that takes me out of the studio.

  13. The biggest advantage of traditional galleries is the reputation it affords the artist. The distinction received by being represented by a reputable gallery is immeasurable. Many do a great deal of advertising and have spent years cultivating collectors; that is worth their commissions. If you’re represented the public assumes your work is good enough they will want to evaluate it for purchase. The gallery owner has culled less desirable work for them … subjective, of course. I’m not the first artist that blinks at promoted work while ours was politely declined. It is simple disproportionate numbers … not enough wall space for the glut of working artists.
    Jason, you make a great distinction; not all galleries are created equal, brick and mortar, notwithstanding. I’ve been in traditional galleries, left a couple, two closed, tried a vanity one, and have settled on hybrid marketing … whatever works.
    I’m a decent self promoter. I do very well at a biannual regional home and garden show where the residual keeps me busy for months. That is where most my commissions come from. I display at an award wining winery where they afford me far more wall space than any gallery can … a location I can send people to see my work. I have a commission agreement at a high-end furniture store alongside European antiques. I do a few markets and regional shows. I’ve sold at all of these. I want to enter more competitions and do more direct advertising … working on it. I’m behind in my email and website updates because I’m painting. 🙂
    My point is, none of us can sit back and think the marketing end of our art business is taken care of. We’ve been in a continual state of flux since the Internet became the game changer, coupled with economy ups and downs. Neither is art the only business that has suffered. I doubt any of us know where all this is going … just keep at it.

  14. I have yet to land a traditional gallery. My experience is largely with coop galleries and some artwalks. I find I do a very poor job of selling my art on line or from my own gallery space. My plan is to continue to submit. In this I am rather inconsistent. It is probably a matter of committing to a schedule and following up. My studio practice has improved tremendously with Jason’s suggestions. I so enjoy what I do.

  15. I rather think it is obvious that being represented by a commercial gallery is the best way to go. A vanity gallery and even a co-op is more of a shot in the dark, more like “hope” marketing (you hope people will see and like your work and you hope it will sell). Having been in a co-op gallery for about 15 years I have sold only 2 works in that time. The other artist members are great people and interesting artists but then not too swift on selling. Some even have problems finding and filling out a sales slip, let alone finding a red (sold) dot to put next to the work. But I enjoy being around them and we have fun. That is why I stay in the co-op, they are my local community. It is not for sales.

    But also the other reason I stay in a co-op is that I am in a small upstate New York town and there is no commercial gallery in my immediate area to consign my work. There are galleries in towns or cities a few hours from here but then I am also not convinced these galleries can be good for sales as they are still in relatively small population areas. Moreover I have to be willing to travel some distance to not only bring works back and forth but also to attend openings, be present at events, to create a physical presence to show I am interested in being an active participant in the gallery. There is some truth to the saying, “out of sight, out of mind”.

    Hence I believe the answer for artists who want to sell through consignment galleries is to get their work into galleries in larger towns or cities where there is a larger populations of potential buyers and maybe collectors. But this becomes more difficult for those who do not live more metropolitan areas. And finally it is pretty much common knowledge that there are many more artists than spaces available in commercial galleries, so commercial galleries are harder to get into than vanity or co-op galleries where one can just buy your way in.

    So even though I realize my chances could be better for sales of my art through commercial galleries there are also many more difficulties involved with getting into those.

  16. Jason, are you going to address on-line galleries as well? I’m thinking that I have 8 or 9 of them, including yours at Xanadu and my own website, plus the websites of the several art organizations I belong to, etc. I can’t say that I am able to keep up with posting new work to all of them, especially those that are free, At some point, maybe a survey going out to your artist constituency here might be useful to everyone–what venues we have chosen to market our work, how those venues break down in percentages, perhaps, and their relative performance–what percentage and dollar sales actually come from each source. It something I’m thinking about now!

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