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 next week.

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.

33 Comments

  1. Jason: Great stuff as usual!

    I took a slightly different approach when I first started out 15 years ago. I rented wall space in venues that I thought might have good visibility. At one time I had 10 locations and none of them were art galleries.

    They consisted of antiques galleries, tourist related spots and visitor information centers. It is an expensive way to go as a start-up with $1000 – $3000 worth of inventory at each site, but it provided tremendous on-the-ground feedback of whether my work would sell and what subject matter sold best. BUT, the artist has to take their artist hat off and put on their business hat and invest in themselves.

    Not for everyone I know, but it worked for me.

    Kenneth

    1. What a great idea! Here’s what I did along those lines. I took advantage of some empty stores in my town and approached the landlord to see if I could slip in in December for a month. Well, I lucked out and was able to stay for months at a time. I would paint at the gallery, which may or may not have been an added attraction, but it kept me busy and happy. Since I knew the landlord, I paid on a commission basis. Couldn’t lose!

  2. Having participated in a cooperative gallery, I really appreciate the hard work that gallery owners do. I think if you’re to be successful in any field, not just art, you have to find others who 1. do work you dislike and 2. are way better than you are at it and enjoy it!. I’d much rather be painting than gallery sitting, creating flyer and catalogs, etc. Not that I can’t do it, but they’re going to better than me. I know there are increasing numbers of online sales. I suspect the prices are lower because there’s not a commission like a traditional gallery. But the strongest argument to me is that nothing beats standing in front of an awesome painting, in the flesh and deciding it must be purchased, even if on layaway! It’s as close as the collector can get to the artist and that’s what it’s all about.

    1. Or, the collector can contact an artist through their online presence and visit them in their studio – even a closer contact with the artist! And they can have an extended conversation with the artist, not just a 2 minute chat at a show opening.

  3. Jason These Gallery Discussions have been informative as I have seen these different types of galleries around. I think you have left out a couple of other Options that are out there. What about Non Profits or the farther end of that spectrum small Museums?
    I also have encountered what would be defined here as a Traditional Gallery that is run by either an artist or an art instructor that funds their gallery thru Classes and Workshops held in the Gallery. I used to call these vanity Galleries but now stand corrected. They typically look like a traditional gallery on first impression but don’t operate as such. My experience is that they love to show good artwork but would rather not be bothered with a sale as it would create a hole in their decor. As a rule now I avoid Galleries that offer classes and workshops. You are correct about the number of Tradition Galleries dwindling lately and as a result the displaced artist from those galleries are flooding the remaining Galleries making it next to impossible to gain representation.

    1. Hi,
      I think that you are making a mistake if you avoid galleries that do classes. The Gallery that I am associated with in Missouri happens to have a dynamic director, who makes sales on anything art. I sell pretty often from there. We have a constant stream of people and participate with the Chamber of Commerce. It is not a co-op but the local art group sponsors the gallery. WE have 2 venues that we support, one is the local hospital which sells about 2-3 thousand a month in sales of our work that is posted through out the hospital. The exposure is great. Most of you won’t be rich in your life time, but I have loved my life as an artist, art teacher, show artist and salesperson who sells art. I do not whine when things do not sell. I love this forum, by the way and Xanadu is my online rep.

  4. I have never seen any suggestions for training staff. I work with a cooperative gallery, where artists sign on to work a minimum of one day a month. It’s large space with over 75 artists currently featured. Because we cannot afford to leave the sales desk unattended, the opportunity to actually assist visitors is very limited, but we definitely need to know how to approach folks, etc. when we do have the opportunity. Do you have any recommendations?

    1. In our coop gallery we have 3 people staffed each day so someone can always assist clients even if the other two are doing a sale and wrapping art. We have close too 100 artists to accommodate this. Sales and business operations are taught before an new member is allowed to work. Still some artists are terrible sales or people persons so there are inherent gaps and days where the sales type of people on not on duty. I hope this helps give your group some ideas for these very important challenges in a larger coop. This particular one is a non-profit so has those challenges to business like operations on daily staff needs. Look up http://www.newbraunfelsartleague.com for more about how this particular one operates. Good luck.

  5. Any advice for an artist who’s new at getting into a gallery? I have sold my work online and at outdoor festivals, but the past year I have focused on production and now turning that focus to getting gallery representation. But galleries have passed me up because I don’t have gallery experience. Not wanting to go the co-op route or vanity as I cannot afford those options and have heard too many negative stories from them. Thanks!

    1. Brian, I’ve been in a few dozen galleries over my career and don’t think I was ever rejected due to lack of gallery experience. It’s almost always whether the owner thinks they can sell your work, period. Different places have different clientele and an experienced gallery knows what sells, so keep looking. May I suggest you focus on making your most excellent work, rather than production? Then success will likely follow. Good luck!

  6. When I was first represented by a gallery thirty years ago commission was 20%. It was standard at the time but the gallery eventually closed – economy. When galleries went to 30-40% I was still okay with that if the gallery was aggressive in promotion. Many aren’t. The observation all galleries are not created equal holds very true. Established galleries will often invest a terrific amount of money in shows for successful artists, prime display, but will not push the newbies. I understand … they make more off a $60,000 sale than they do the $3,000 sale. It is purely economics. Galleries have to have an affordable piece for every person that walks in. They must.
    When standard commissions when to 50% I gagged. Gallery operating costs along with everything else has risen and we all want galleries to be profitable … if you’re not, another one bites the dust and the art community suffers. To quote one gallery owner, “I don’t care how wonderful you are. I only have so much wall space.”
    I have gotten more mileage out of saying, “I am represented by …..” than sales through them. It impresses people that a gallery feels my work is worthwhile enough to accept. I strongly feel I need a physical presence in a traditional gallery for just that reason even if sales are slow. I cannot depend on them for all my sales. I think any artist is foolish to do so.
    One point to be made for gallery sales: I would love to see galleries more patron friendly. The ones that are develop a following and will be revisited again and again, if nothing else to talk about the art we all love. They must for their survival – its critical. Lose the attitude. If you look at any other high end retail setting the staff strives to be warm, informative, knowledgeable, an inviting venue, helpful. (“Have you ever been in a gallery before?”) !!! Worse, to be ignored.
    I’ve watched coop artists welcome a customer and go back to what they were doing without another word or glance. That is not sales; that is keeping a chair warm and checking off your day. Surely, you can look at any piece and say something positive about it and express enthusiasm for its quality. Engage the patron!!!
    In this day and time a person doesn’t need sales training as much as they need to be observant. The old Golden Rule still applies.

  7. How do you know, without directly asking, which gallery is traditional, co-op, vanity and such? Some might have it on their website or statement but I had encounter some that I can’t really tell. I had heard of galleries that charge thousands of dollars upfront plus commission, I don’t want to even be close to those businesses. How to spot them?
    Thank you

    1. Regular galleries do not charge a cent to display an artist’s work. The artwork is jury’d to see if it fits the gallery. There are rules, even for beginners, on how to approach a gallery for displaying or representing your work. I’ve been in the art business for years and have slowly climbed the ladder to artist representation. I STRESS ONE POINT brought up in this article and the comments. I strongly suggest and have never heard in an article any advantage to a VANITY gallery. There is none. You pay high fees to display your work. The high fees are their commissions for ALL your art. So they have their money already and have absolutely no incentive to sell your art. Vanity galleries are on the rise unfortunately. Their prey is the beginning inexperienced artists who think this is the way all galleries work. If you disagree, then read all about these kind of galleries. There are many articles on the subject and I have never heard of anybody endorsing a vanity gallery. They are wrong and misleading.

  8. My family maintains its own art studio with inventory consisting mostly of my father’s and my work, and we’re trying to improve our self-representation. I started one of Jason’s online tutorials, which offered a lot of helpful advice, and after reading “Starving” to Successful as part of that course, I decided to also try pursuing traditional gallery representation. After approaching nine galleries in two cities with my portfolio, I have my first contract! The gallery is one of the frame-shop-gallery models. The owner is enthusiastic about my watercolor landscapes, and I will be shipping my first set of paintings to him shortly. So I’m mixing it up a little, but since this gallery is out-of-state, undercutting each other shouldn’t be a problem. We’ll see how it works out, but I did want to say thanks to Jason for his tips and encouragement, especially for his step-by-step “how to approach galleries” method. Thanks to him, I didn’t give up after the first polite rejection!

  9. And I’d like to add that I am represented in a gallery such as yours, and I enjoy that immensely. I like the owner, his wife and their staff and I think it’s wonderful to be part of that scene. Having sold stuff on my own, I appreciate the work involved to display and sell the artwork.
    Thank you for all the insight you give to professional artists.

  10. I want to believe that being in a gallery like yours is the way to go. I am working my ways toward that goal. I have read your book (several times), challenged myself, have art in several shows around town, enter competitions, do art walks (to get my name out there), and now I am just working on finding my “brand” if you will. As I continue to grow as an artist, I know that a gallery will (or should) work hard for their money. Marketing is a time consuming task which takes away from an artist’s time to create new paintings. My goal is to have someone else do the selling for me. I wanted to thank you for all your wonderful tidbits of information. I have watched your videos, read your books and continue to read your emails. It is very generous of you to share your wealth of information with us “starving artists”.

  11. I have always favored the traditional gallery model and overall I’ve had very good experiences with the galleries that have represented me. I would encourage those who are approaching a gallery to evaluate the chemistry between yourself and the gallery owner and staff. Find someone with whom you share a good rapport; if a gallery agrees to represent you but you dread interacting with the owner or the staff maybe that’s not the right fit for you, even if they manage to sell a little of your work. Also find a gallery that will give as much effort in promoting your work as they do the works of other gallery artists. It does you no good to say “I’m represented by so-and-so gallery” if that gallery hangs your work in a dark corner and seldom promotes it.

  12. Excellent observations! Many of our co-op members follow your blog, Jason. We learned a great deal from you as a guest speaker during the Lost Pines Art Conference, and your teaching is helping us to be better at sales. I highly recommend your book Starving to Successful! Am hoping to reread it again while on vacation his spring.

  13. Excellent observations! Many of our co-op members follow your blog, Jason. We learned a great deal from you as a guest speaker during the Lost Pines Art Conference, and your teaching is helping us to be better at sales. I highly recommend your book Starving to Successful! Am hoping to reread it again while on vacation this spring.

  14. Having been in both, traditional and vanity galleries, I prefer the traditional. The vanity gallery I was with, charged the artists for gallery wall space in their gallery, and to exhibit at the shows they had a booth at. I spent a lot of money, didn’t sell and had issues with how my artwork was handled. I would much rather show with a gallery who is working to sell my art because that is when they make their money. They put in more of an effort. They also decide if my work is what they feel they can sell, before accepting it, not show my work because I paid them to.

  15. I have been showing in traditional galleries such as yours, Jason for 42 years. I have had very long gallery relationships, with very good sales. I have been very successful, and have continued to show at these type of galleries. As the gallery owners have retired over the years, I continue to find new galleries to show my work. But it is getting more difficult to find these type of galleries. I have also tried Vanity galleries, one in New York for one show, and two in the town I live in. I do not recommend the New York type of vanity gallery. Very costly, no sales. It is the same problem in my own town. I am also showing in a co-op gallery in a town close to mine. I agree with the comments regarding vanity galleries, and co-ops. Because my prices for my art are higher than most artists showing in the co-op gallery, I have been painting smaller paintings to have a few lower priced art works. My best sales are larger paintings, which are impossible to show in a small venue, with many artists who show photos, and jewelry. My very best sales are in traditional art galleries, showing only fine art. The price ranges of art galleries are critical to any artist in the upper price ranges, $600 to $6000. The vanity galleries sell nothing. They have art classes, but no sales. The co-op gallery sells lots of lower prices prints and jewelry. Also, The galleries in tourist areas seem to have the highest percentage of affluent clients. This is essential to sales in the $600 to $6000 price range for original art. One of my biggest problems, since I am a wildlife, realist artist, is attempting to compete with photographs of wildlife. I really hate hearing”oh, your paintings look just like a photograph”! This is really frustrating, since I spend 30 or more hours per painting. They are not photographs! However, I really believe that traditional galleries are the very best way for me to sell art.

  16. I have recently tried self promoting my work through art fairs, markets and social media. I have found it to be a lot of fun and exciting meeting and talking with new people. I feel that my art sells better when I represent it myself because people like to meet the artist. One of the things I have found that really draws attention to my booth at fairs is doing live painting. People love to see the process and feel like they are an audience at a free show. I have also found that taking photos with customers who buy prints or originals and posting them on social media is a good way to build a following (people love seeing pictures of themselves). I think if you’re going to sell at shows it is good to have an identity through your art and marketing material. I recently created a logo and invested in some banners and promotional postcards I try to make sure that anyone who comes into my space leaves with something in their hand. I also show work in local galleries and by self promoting at fairs I have generated sales through the galleries. Sometimes people don’t buy anything at the fairs or markets but later visit galleries and recognize my name. I also read as many of these blogs as I can and find them extremely helpful thank you for posting them!

    1. Jacob, what you’ve written is for most artists the way to go. Start out with art festivals, most areas have many, then small galleries who look for artist with some experience, then you can and will climb the hierarchy of galleries from small to better and better galleries. By now and this takes time your artwork has matured and is much better then it was. Then do the preparation for gallery representation in the best gallery that fits your work. You’ve earned it, be positive, believe you can do it. Then when your ready and you will know reach for the top that very few artists achieve, the museums. You’ve reached the top of the heap. The only thing any artist has to decide is if you want the recognition of being an excellent artist or you want to sell as much as you can. In these days of a million artists and a bad economy you cannot have both.

  17. In my own experience, I notice that the place matters less than the sales competencies of whomever is IN that place. And, I do mean whomever. I’ve witnessed sales happening by way of either the artist, gallery staff or even a passerby — anyone who can generate interest in the artwork and help the listener through the buying decision. The two places I see the most art sold are 1) traditional art galleries, and 2) art fairs. In both cases, people exercised art sales skills, they engage viewers in both interesting and comfortable ways. This is why I study Jason Horjes (videos and writings) — I notice that he engages his listeners skillfully, yet I sense he genuinely wants to help people, not to take advantage or to just use them for the sake of a sale. I get this sense from the volumes of videos and written materials that he makes available to us artists. More than a little generous.

  18. I have been in a number of traditional art galleries. I find that the two factors that make a difference in selling my work are:
    – space to breath. If a gallery is crowded with art, the pieces seem to all loose out.
    – the better my connection/relationship with owner and sales people, the better my sales. People are the key to finding the right gallery for me.

  19. Wow! ,This is awesome, being totally new to the art scene; I feel truly blessed to have run across this blog site. The knowledge represented here is invaluable and inspiring! Thank you Jason for such a wonderful gift! And to this community…thanks for sharing! Alaire Chappell

  20. Jason, I have definitely seen a trend here in the Southeast that galleries are losing sales to a growing number of young artists who self-represent, selling their work directly to their thousands of followers on social media. It’s a problem for those of us who have gone the traditional gallery route. Most of the galleries I’m in don’t like it when customers contact their artists directly (usually in an effort to get artwork more cheaply). I basically use social media to direct interested customers to one of my galleries rather then sell directly, which I don’t enjoy. I think galleries earn their commission!

  21. I have belonged to five co-op galleries and one where we hang our painintgs in businesses and assisted living venues. I am now down to two. The co-op I still belong to has the best foot traffic, thus more sales. The non-gallery venues do purchase our paintings , except for the assisted living venues which I have stopped hanging my paintings in because they already have their own paiinitngs hanging everywhere. Both groups are friendly, supportive and cooperative.

  22. I am just starting out and am showing in my second gallery. I am wondering how much to expect the gallery to do to earn their commission? As far as I can tell, all they do is wait until someone walks in and wants to buy a painting. Should I expect some promotion? If not promotion of my own work at least some promotion of the gallery?

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