Gallery Shows: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

In a recent Art Business Academy Q&A session, we discussed the ins and outs of gallery shows and receptions. I thought I would share some of the key points here, as many RedDot readers will have the opportunity to participate in gallery shows during their careers.

Artists’ receptions at galleries are a time-honored tradition that dates back centuries. For many artists, having a show and reception surrounded by their artwork, with collectors flocking to the gallery to see their work, is a dream come true.

However, there is more to a gallery show and reception than meets the eye. As an artist seeking gallery representation, it is important to understand the dynamics of shows and what goes into making them successful.

Shows Have Become Less Effective, and Less Common

I’ve been in the gallery business for three decades now, and in that time, I’ve seen a decline in the effectiveness of shows. When I started in the gallery business in the early 1990s, shows were a huge part of galleries’ business strategy, generating a lot of sales. Over the last decade, attendance and sales at shows have declined. We now see more sales coming from the day-to-day operations and marketing of the gallery and less from shows.

Shows are still beneficial, of course, and they can generate sales, but the stakes are high. If a show doesn’t go well, it can be a real setback for the artist and the gallery owner. I’ve seen firsthand how a bad show can negatively impact an artist’s confidence, and I’ve personally felt the disappointment that comes when a show doesn’t go as planned.

It’s important to remember that shows are just one part of the gallery business and shouldn’t be relied on too heavily. There are other, more important, things to focus on, like building relationships with clients and promoting artists and their art in an ongoing manner.

Shows From the Gallery’s Perspective

Not only is a show a financial and emotional risk, it is also a big undertaking. A lot of planning and coordination goes into putting on a successful show.

We generate promotion for the show through our gallery newsletter, print invitations or catalogs, and market the event on social media.

Once the artwork arrives, the gallery has to rearrange artwork and create the display for the show. The gallery also has to prepare for the reception, a key part of the equation, as it is the opportunity for the artist to interact with collectors and potential buyers, and for the gallery to create a special experience for the everyone who attends.

Show Preparation From the Artist’s Perspective

From the artist’s perspective, there are a few things to remember if you are hoping to participate in a gallery show. First, building relationships with galleries and showing your work regularly is important. Second, when the opportunity to participate in a show arises, be prepared to take advantage of it by having your artwork in top condition and being ready to promote your work to the fullest.

With a little bit of planning and preparation, participating in a gallery show can be a rewarding experience for both the artist and the gallery.

Artist’s Preparation for a Show

Artists can do a few things to help make the show a success. These include:

First, getting on the gallery’s calendar as early as possible is important. This will allow the gallery to start promoting the show and give them time to plan. It will allow you time to create a grouping of your best work.

Second, focus on creating the centerpiece for the show early. This will allow the gallery ample time to generate promotional materials and help you create direction for the rest of your pieces for the show.

Third, the delivery of artwork should be scheduled as early as possible. This will give the gallery plenty of time to set up the show.

The Opening

Finally, the show opening reception is a time to celebrate the new work. Relax and be yourself, and the sales will follow. I encourage the artist to be outgoing (or at least as outgoing as is natural) and to share their story and inspiration for their artwork with potential collectors. If the artist is genuine and authentic, the collectors will respond positively.

My staff and I work diligently to help collectors make purchases at the reception or during the show. We also follow up after the show to ensure potential collectors who didn’t complete their purchases at the show have ample opportunity to buy.

Overall, gallery shows can be a great opportunity for artists to sell their work, build relationships, and practice talking about their art. However, there are some things to keep in mind, such as the added pressure on the artist to create work if they don’t have a substantial inventory already, the expense involved, and the possibility that the show might not sell well. With a little bit of planning and preparation, participating in a gallery show can be a rewarding experience for both the artist and the gallery.

What are your thoughts on gallery shows? Have you had any good or bad experiences? What do you think artists should do to prepare for a gallery show? Do you think gallery shows are a good way to sell art? Why or why not? Share your experiences and thoughts in the comments below.

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.

15 Comments

  1. I participated in a show in Boulder last winter. Good, reputable studio, the problem was that there many other sculptors all showing nude women…. including me. Think I’ll pass in future. It was like being in a models shower room…nothing but beautiful female nudes and all very similar to each other. Out of about 18 sculptors, only one had a sale. Think I’ll go to venues that provide some variety.

    1. John, the problem was not that many people were exhibiting nudes. The problem was that the pieces shown were too similar even for you, as one of the artists. You acknowledged that much. If an exhibition is comprised only of landscapes. That is not the issue. The problem arises if none of the artist painted a different landscape that goes above the conventional idea, colors or composition of a landscape.

  2. Having owned a gallery for 8 years as well as being an artist with a studio on site, I would agree shows are important but very expensive & time consuming for the owners.
    Invitational shows were far and away better.
    Becoming an art dealer is the best approach we found. This calls for knowing the collectors & their interests as well marketing certain artists work to other outlets. We ran out of gas & didn’t achieve the pinnacle of success we had hoped for but learned that keeping in touch with other galleries & sharing artists work to promote beyond the local area.
    The other observation is that when the recession hit, art became a luxury that many couldn’t afford but those less affected by the economy were the primary buyers.

  3. This is a timely blog post-my first solo show ever is coming up in March of 2023. With the economy the way it is I have already talked myself into the fact I may not sell much if anything. But heck, I am excited for the exposure and to just experience the event and practice on my people/selling skills! I am so happy I found this blog- I cannot imagine how I would have prepared without the wonderful insight and advice I am learning here.
    A question I do have: I took a 20 year break to raise kids. I do have some wonderful artwork (about 3 pieces) from the 1990’s. Is it wise to include it in my exhibit? It has to fit my present day criteria and it does. The gallery does not require a theme, but would love it if I did. What if I had something like “The early years to the Present” ?

    1. Michele: I’m certainly no expert, but I have participated in a number of shows over the years. I think if you want a theme build it around the nature of your subject matter or you methods and techniques rather than a time frame. If the three paintings that are twenty years really do work in context with the other work I would try to remove any reference to when they were done or at least soft pedal the issue of dates altogether. It’s probably not as relevant as you think. I have rarely had a buyer ask when a work was created , but I do think most want to purchase work they believe is new and fresh. Good luck with the show.

  4. I was invited to do a solo show in my community at the local art center. You are right, it is a lot of work on the part of the artist. I had invitation postcards printed and sent them a few weeks before the show. I posted on social media…Facebook and Instagram. I left postcards in local businesses. The venue sent online information to their mailing list people also. The show was a 4-hour event on a Thursday evening with wine and hors d”oeuvres and I sold 14 paintings. I also became more recognized in my community for being an accomplished artist so, for me, it was definitely worth it! In fact, a few years later, they have asked me to do it again…this November and I am really looking forward to all the preparation and hopefully, appreciation of my work with more sales.

  5. I have no idea about the cost benefit for the gallery and having a gallery show. I do know that between 25 and $30 per entry and to get hundreds of entries that
    it would seem to be a money maker for the gallery. I would think you would have to consider where the gallery is is at who the juror is, if he’s notable then I would be more likely to apply. And if you’re lucky enough to be selected it’s a nice resume builder I would think. Question for me would be can I make it to the opening if it’s more than 200 miles away then it’s probably not worth it to me.

  6. Our local symphony headquarters has a nice hallway gallery in which my art looked lovely in a show I had. You have to be curated into the show and my entry was successful. At one of the performances they have a reception in the hallway gallery – wine and stuff. People sit around at tables and chat but no one seems to look at the art on the walls even though the tables are up against the wall. I sold a couple of pieces but not from the reception. I had the same experience at a local theater which has a reception in the entrance hall where no one seemed to look at the art. I don’t think it is the quality of the art because I do win prizes for my work and other artists have had the same experiences.

  7. My artist friend and I have an upcoming show in a local gallery in October of this year. The gallery no longer serves refreshments or food–we are bearing the costs. I did an online search for food to serve at gallery openings and I am practicing a number of recipes–all on a stick for those afraid of illness. Getting a liquor licence here is too difficult so it’s non-alcoholic drinks. I’m counting on exposure although this gallery has dropped sending out invitations to its patron lists as they stopped having receptions during Covid. We will both be actively contacting all whom we know: friends, other members of groups, neighbours to ask them to come to the reception. I will employ my own patron list to send out invitations. Interesting times!

  8. I broke ALL the ‘Rules’ that my Fellow Artist Friends said I should follow and had a completely Successful and Fun show this past June 3rd….
    For my 1st Show ever as a completely Unknown Painter, I presented SOLO.
    The Exhibit was in a 3,000 sq ft Hotel event venue with an additional 1,000sqft outside pool patio.
    I had 137 (Yes, One hundred thirty seven!) Paintings on Display.
    Paintings ranged in sizes from 8”x8” to 4’x5′
    Prices from $75. to 2,500.
    A DJ AND a Live Jazz/Blues singer keep the air filled with Music and Dancing for 4 hours.
    Most guests said it was their 1st time out since Lockdown.
    I had a No Host Full Bar and Complimentary Wine and soft drinks.
    Appetizer table full of Cheese & Crackers and Fruits 7 Veggie with dip.
    125 Guests total.
    Set up took 2 hours breakdown took 1.5 (All Volunteers and 3 family members)
    31 paintings sold that night.
    12 additional within 1 week.
    50% profit after payout for Hotel Employees and 1/2 of the food.
    Impossible Right?
    Photo Proof at Franksack.com
    Site still under construction hit Menu dots at upper right.

  9. I haven’t had a truly ugly show. Thanks to my wife, the best one was preceded by a regional half-hour CBC interiew in the gallery that drew many visitors. Another thing that made that show work was that the gallerist is a painter (wallspace) and I am a sculptor (floorspace), so we had a joint show to maximize our use of his space. All his paintings were new, and each was coordinated in some way with one of mine: sometimes the connection was colour, sometimes form, and some came through meanings he projected into the sculptures. To give kids something fun to do, I placed a ~125 pound sculpture that turned freely on a low plinth. Although some parents were too protective of my work, I saw no kids at all pay anything but the highest respect for the work, almost as if it were they and not me who was honoured by their attention.

    Also, I decided finally to deal with the fact that people won’t touch sculptures that demand to be touched. On a wall near each scupture I placed a poster with an abstract graphic of the piece, a title that invited full, unrestricted touching, fingertip touching only, or demanded no touching at all, and a poem describing why that sculpture needed that treatment. The radio interviewer made a big deal of that aspect and many visitors said that’s why they came. Some people read all the posters first, some looked at all the sculptures first, and some worked their way through the painting/sculpture pairs. The posters gave me an ideal excuse to approach visitors, for example women who were obviously too embarrassed to touch but just as obviously wanted to. Two of my five sales followed directly from semi-smartass, too-familiar comments like “You don’t have to be shy on my account. Please do what you clearly want to do”. Those comments always drew deep blushing, but they quickly forgave me, accepted my special invitation, and got into the experience with abandon.

    I don’t remember how many paintings sold, but both of us were very happy with how it went.

  10. I have been in many exhibits. I Prefer to sell privately. This takes away the pressure of being in a show. I often found that who you know behind the scenes, so to speak, can make a sale or break it. Two galleries kept a drawing and a painting and pretended otherwise. It was
    not only disheartening, it was traumatic.

    There are, however, many respectable galleries.

  11. I have never done a formal gallery represented show, but did arrange a successful book release party when I did my coffee table book of paintings of Portland street scenes. We used my friends’ glass art studio where she is used to doing art parties with wine and snacks.

    Otherwise, what brings in reliable fun sized sales every year for me is signing up for month long coffee shop wall and bin displays of 11″x17″ unframed digital prints in cellophane seal bags, that I sell for $25 each. They’re easy to pushpin onto walls with room for my artist bio.

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