How Galleries Select Artists

 

One of the great mysteries of the art business is how galleries select the artists they represent. The reality is that there are far fewer galleries, and far less wall-space than it would take to show the work of all of the artists who would like to show in galleries. It can feel overwhelming to think about the odds that seem to be stacked against you if you are seeking gallery representation.

So what is the process that occurs in galleries as they are selecting new artists to show? It seems like it would be helpful to understand this process in order to prepare your work and submission materials so you can optimize your chances for success.

Unfortunately, there is no such thing as “the process” for selecting artists. Every gallery approaches the question differently. Let’s explore the different review processes and discuss how you can best approach the galleries that employ each.

The Committee Review

committeeSome galleries follow a regimented review process with stringent submission guidelines. This review process is prevalent in the institutional world of museum and academic galleries, but it is also used by some long-established commercial galleries where the leadership structure of the gallery is spread among a number of people rather than being held by a gallery owner or partnership.

When a gallery follows a stringent review process, they typically will post very clear guidelines for artists to follow when preparing submissions. The benefit of this process to the galleries is that it allows for a streamlined and organized review process. The advantage for the artist is that this process provides clear guidelines to follow in preparing a submission.

Often galleries that have a formal review process like this will only review work one or two times per year, giving artists deadlines for submission. A committee of stakeholders will meet to review the submissions and discuss the merits of each submission. Sometimes outside jurors are brought in to participate in the process.

While there isn’t much room for flexibility in the committee review system, I have heard of many instances where exceptions to the process were made when an artist of particular note was sought by the gallery.

A formal review process of this nature is pretty rare in the commercial gallery world, and so most artists in the early or mid- phases of a career aren’t likely to encounter it very often. They are more likely to encounter it when entering shows, or submitting to museum events.

How to Succeed when Submitting Your Work For Committee Review

There aren’t any real secrets about how to succeed when you are submitting your work for review by a gallery that has a formal submission process. Follow the guidelines provided by the gallery and pay attention to artists who have been accepted in the past. Galleries tend to gravitate toward consistency when selecting artists. You will have the best chance at success if you are submitting work that has common characteristics with other artwork the gallery has shown.

It should go without saying that you will want to make sure that you are submitting your best work and that the photography of your work is of a high quality and captures the subtleties of your art.

The Partner Review

While most galleries don’t follow a strict review regimen, the longer a gallery has been established, the more likely it will be to have some sort of structured review process. Established galleries will typically have an idea of what the best process is for them to consider new artists. Sometimes these galleries will provide artists with a timeframe for submissions (often based on the seasonality of the gallery – submission review is frequently deferred until the gallery’s off-season), and with general guidelines to follow.

An established gallery will often have more than one decision maker. Artwork will be reviewed by a gallery director and then presented to the owner(s). Review might occur in a formal meeting, or it might happen via email, or during casual interactions. This review process might take only a matter of days, or even hours, or, if the gallery tries to review all submissions at once, it might take months.

How to Succeed when Submitting Your Work for Partner Review

Finding success in submitting to a gallery that reviews work among owners and directors is achieved in a similar way one would achieve it when submitting to a formal review committee. Consistency and quality are paramount. The more established a gallery becomes, the more risk averse it tends to become. There is some irony in this, because a more established gallery can lend credibility to an unknown artist, and an established gallery is better suited to weather the sparse sales that often come in the early months of artist representation.

The “By the Seat of My Pants” Owner Review

By far, the review process you are most likely to encounter in the early phases of your career is far less formal than either of the previous methods. Early in your career, you are likely to submit to galleries that are not long-established institutions, but rather are relatively new and are thus willing to take greater risks in bringing on less-established artists.

Often, newer galleries are owned and operated by a small group of individuals, lead by the owner/founder. Often (this was certainly the case when I began my gallery in 2001) the owner acts not only as CEO, but also as the director, the bookkeeper, the secretary, the installer, and the janitor. The owner wields complete control over every aspect of the business, including which artists the gallery will show.

Younger galleries are riskier ventures. Many galleries can’t survive the capital-intensive first years after establishment. The successful, young galleries often survive by bringing something new to the market. The newer gallery also tends to shift artwork around far more frequently than a well-established gallery, and they tend to accept a wider range of artists.

Quite often, the newer gallery’s review process is anything but structured. Artists might have their work selected by a newer gallery after a visit or email sent to the owner. Decisions are often made on the spot.

While there are obvious risks when showing with a younger gallery, there are also huge potential benefits. Often artists who are taken on during the early phases of the Gallery’s operations will remain with the gallery long-term.

How to Succeed when Submitting Your Work Directly to the Owner of a Gallery

In this less formal review process, the relationship between the owner and the artist becomes far more important. While the quality and originality of an artist’s work will certainly be a factor in a gallery owner’s decision, the chemistry between the artist and the owner. The quality of your portfolio is important, but your enthusiasm when showing the portfolio can be just as important.

Because the chemistry is so important, an in-person visit to the gallery can often prove the most effective way to approach the gallery.

What Galleries Seek When Reviewing Artists

So what are galleries looking for when they review submissions? In brief, they are looking for artwork that will show successfully in their gallery space. Remember, success can mean different things to different galleries. An academic gallery is looking for community interest and publicity, while a commercial gallery is looking for sales. Make sure your goals align with the goals of the gallery!

We are primarily interested in commercial galleries in this discussion, so let’s think about what factors a commercial gallery would take into consideration during a review.

First and foremost, the question a commercial gallery is asking when they look at your work is “will this artwork sell?” Speaking from personal experience, this can be very difficult to predict, and so a gallery owner is left to try and presage saleability by looking at proxy indicators.

  • Has the artist established a track record of sales? While they are no guarantee, past sales can be a good indicator of future sales.
  • Is the work striking? Do I love it? If the artist doesn’t have a sales history, an owner will often try to judge the work by her own reaction to it. “If I like it a lot, other people might too.”

Owners also take into consideration the price point of the work. A gallery is unlikely to take on an artist whose work is dramatically more or less expensive than other artists’ work in the gallery.

An owner must also weigh whether or not the work brings something new to the gallery. If your work is very similar to that of an artist the gallery already represents, the gallery will probably reject your work to avoid duplication.

Things you Should Keep in Mind When Seeking Representation

Treat gallery submissions like a marketing campaign

Let’s face it, because of the fluid nature of the review process, acceptance is, to an extent, a matter of serendipity. In order to get “lucky” and have a gallery agree to represent you, you are going to need to make a lot of submissions. This, like any marketing effort, is a numbers game. You may have to submit your portfolio to hundreds of galleries in order to find representation. Okay, many artists find success before submitting to hundreds of galleries, but you should be prepared to be persistent.

Realize that as a gallery owner, I can expect to receive dozens of submissions from artists every month. Your chances of finding success with any one gallery are small, but if you submit to many galleries you dramatically increase your odds of success.

Exceptions

Even in galleries that offer a formal submission process, there are times when a gallery will make an exception to that process if they see something spectacular in a portfolio. I know of many instances where artists found representation in galleries after having circumvented the formal review process. Some have done this by leveraging introductions to the owner by a mutual acquaintance, and others by boldly ignoring submission guidelines.

Don’t Take Rejections Personally

Knowing what you now know about the review process, I hope I can encourage you not to take rejection personally. As mentioned, galleries reject most artists who submit, so you are in good company! Think of a rejection as a favor. A gallery, by rejecting you, is saying “We don’t feel we would be able to do a good job of selling your work.” You might feel that they are wrong, but if they don’t believe they’re going to do a good job of selling your work, it’s better to keep searching until you find a gallery that is confident in their ability to sell your work.

What do You Think?

So there you have my thoughts on the review processes galleries use to select artists. Does my experience match yours? What have been your challenges in finding gallery representation? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

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27 Comments

    1. Hi Michelle, other than your time, I don’t see that there is any expense involved… except maybe a Dropbox account if you exceed the minimum number of photo files for the basic free account … otherwise, just follow the gallery’s instructions for submitting your photos and information online …

    2. If you do it electronically it doesn’t cost much. For an in-person visit, show them your website on a tablet or something like that. People don’t go in for printed portfolios much these days, and that keeps costs way down from what they used to be.

  1. Hi Jason,

    I was introduced to a prestigious gallery owner through a mutual friend. The owner agreed to meet with me to discuss my work and possible representation. She quickly scrolled through my website while stating that she couldn’t sell anything smaller than 48″ and told me to go back to my studio and make a series of 5-7 paintings and send them to her. I invested in well-made panels, nothing smaller than 48″x48″ and up to 48″x72″. It took six months to finish all of them. I submitted them in the format she requested along with a statement about the work. I never heard a word back. I resubmitted twice more, hoping it was an oversight. Nothing back, not even “I don’t like them.” I invested so much money in supports and oil paint and just hoped for the courtesy of a response. As you say, I am opting to believe that anyone that would be so unkind is not a gallery owner I want to work with. However, it certainly did hurt and I’ve been struggling to make good work since.

    1. That totally sucks. But she is just one person.

      UNSOLICITED ADVICE TO FOLLOW, READ AT YOUR OWN DISCRETION:
      I would advise that you write her a very nasty letter and yell at her for everything you went through and dump out all of the anger and hurt feelings and everything else. Then take it outside, read it out loud, and burn it.

      Then go back to your studio and play around and make stuff you love for you and the people who will love what you’re doing. You’ve given her free rent in your head and it’s time to evict her.

  2. Gallery relationships can be very complicated! David Findlay Jr my first New York Gallery, drove up to my Studio in Los Angeles in his town car and showed me HIS portfolio! I was laughing internally, “Here is a photo of my gallery and these are artists I represent. What do you think?”
    I told him I would think about it. He should call me tomorrow!
    He called,
    We did a show in 1977 on Madison Avenue I was astonished at his beautiful gallery, He sold every painting but one and most of the drawings,
    You would think this would lead to a successful relationship lasting a lifetime, wouldn’t you?
    But you would be wrong,
    For the second show he wanted more of a cut,.I knew I couldn’t do it. I did my “Black Forest” show in L, A, instead with Lonny Gans who had moved into Nick Wilder’s space he had vacated, Almost all paintings sold. David Findlay flew out to see it,
    Over the years I would visit his gallery, When he moved to Fifth Avenue he hinted he wanted to do another show. But it never happened He became more interested when my Florida Dealer began selling,
    But, alas, he then died,
    We never did another show It still beats me how such a brilliant start ended up in failure!

    1. Sound like greed got the best of him and he wanted to make more from you. Such a shame in the long fun, but maybe it was best for you.

  3. Thank you so much for this timely article! I’ve been wrestling with an issue, and wondering how to address it. I think your article just provided the (indirect) answer but would love your two bits on whether I should let this go…

    My issue:
    My work was recently accepted by a brand new gallery (definitely your 3rd scenario) and while it was still leaning against the wall, the gallery owner contacted a collector who came in the next day and bought 4 of my paintings. Great marketing on her part, however…

    Since the work wasn’t yet on the wall and didn’t yet have labels (even though I had provided a detailed inventory list with prices), the owner mixed up the paintings and sold one for 65% less than it was priced, then took another 15% off the top of all the paintings to seal the deal.

    She called to apologize to me when she realized her mistake – immediately after the customer walked out, however only paid me 50% of what she sold it for, rather than it’s agreed upon price.

    My dilemma:
    Other artists are telling me to stand my ground and demand that she take the hit on her admitted mistake, not me. However, I have resisted doing this for the simple reason that – the owner and I have great chemistry and I appreciate that she has gone out of her way to not only fit my artwork into her already full gallery – she actually took down pieces by other artists to create a space for my work, and has been turning down dozens of submissions each week – but is also actively marketing my work. Also, she is new to the gallery business and I think the mistake was due to overwhelm, not malice.

    Should I let this pass in order to maintain her positive thoughts towards me, and her excitement about marketing my work?

    1. Let it go. You have good chemistry with this gallery owner and hopefully now trust her. It sounds like an honest mistake that she most likely will not repeat.
      Hope you have a great future with her. Look ahead.

      1. I really don’t understand how galleries do not want artists to tell them how to do their business and yet you have to hear about this mistake that is totally unrelated to your actions. I think you should have never heard about this situation or only after you get paid what was the original agreement. One thing is to support the gallery in bad times, the other thing is to not get paid for your work when it sells because they are disorganized. The thing is, the mistake was not to have a human error but to not fix it by taking responsibility for it. So is it a mistake or a flaw that will reappear in other future situations? We all have flaws, but if you are dating or working with someone you have to know if you can tolerate their flaws.

        How much you can let go? well I think these types of things really are about how balance really is the relation ship and how much it affects or helps you to stay working with them. It is like a date, maybe you will pass a mistake because they are wonderful people and things are great in other aspects.

    2. Even though it might have been an honest oversight on her part, the gallery should own this mistake and at least go part way with you. For example, she could offer to split the difference between what you would have earned from a correctly-priced sale and what you actually got.

      If that’s too big a financial hit for her right now, she could pay you a little each month. Or she could offer to take a reduced commission on your future sales until she’s compensated you for her mistake and then revert to a normal commission.

      There is no reason you should be the only one to suffer for her error. Saying “I’m sorry” without offering a financial remedy sets a bad precedent for future business dealings. Beware.

      1. I will also watch closely that situation of they bringing down the work of other artists to make room for your art. It might be you are a total match and they already have issues with another artist but what if they kick an artist that has invested time working with them for years or if the artists have no idea their work is not hanging on the walls when they have a contract. Would you like to be that artist one day that gets her work put down that easily, when a better fit comes to the door? I would research more about how and why hey do their business that way.

    3. You should let it _mostly_ pass. Seems it would be fair to ask her to give up her commission on the undersold piece, or at least reduce it. That would effectively meet you half way and it gives her enough skin in the game that she won’t repeat the mistake.

  4. Another fabulous article Jason.
    We are a new gallery, and I fit the “owner/do everything else as well” title.
    We get approached daily by a number of artists: by messaging on Instagram/Facebook, contact form from our website, emails, and also just walk-ins.

    My advice for the walk-in approach, is to state your intention as an artist straight up.
    Don’t engage me in an hour long conversation about art, and then say you are an artist wanting to have work in the gallery.
    Don’t make me watch you scroll through your phone to find images of your artwork.
    Step aside if a client comes through the door.

    Respecting the above will make for a more positive interaction, and I will view your work with more enthusiasm 🙂

  5. Thank you Jason, It’s been years since I have actively searched for gallery representation. After many rejections I eventually decided that I needed to work on my portfolio and I’d try again later. Since then I have applied most of my energy to public art. I have thankfully been successful with that. I have recently been thinking that it’s about time to try the gallery thing again. I recently pulled out of a co-op gallery that wasn’t working for me and just agreed to showing my less expensive work in a small local gallery. I have been researching some higher end galleries so this post couldn’t have come at a better time. Always good advice!

  6. I have recently been thinking about producing a high-end, glossy brochure to mail to galleries. Also I would produce a video of my studio and some processes that I use. The brochure would of course provide info with large images of my work and my website including a link to my video. Do you think this a good approach or am I wasting my time?

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