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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32 Comments

  1. Thanks Jason. Can you say something about the marketing campaign to approach the galleries:
    –many many galleries post on their website “We do not accept unsolicited submissions of artwork”? Would you suggest ignoring that warning?

    And what would the content of the marketing campaign be? CDROMs in the mail? Links to an online portfolio? An email marketing campaign?

    Thanks very much, I enjoy your content!

    1. Thanks William, and you ask a great question – how should an artist approach galleries? There’s a lot of preparation required to be ready to approach a gallery effectively; answering the question adequately would take a book. Risking shameless self-promotion, it just so happens that I’ve written exactly that book – you can find it on Amazon at https://amzn.to/2TVl7Vj

      1. Jason, you give away so much highly helpful information that you most certainly are allowed to self-promote on your own site! Thank you for all you share with us.

  2. My work is mostly digital, so what I have to sell are prints. Is there a different approach to galleries regarding the prints of original art vs traditional media? I appreciate your daily blogs and online class; I’ve learned so much about the business side of art through them.

  3. Yes, my experience does match yours somewhat. However, I think perhaps I haven’t submitted to enough galleries based on your notion of sending submissions to hundreds of galleries. But my challenge has been finding those hundreds of galleries that have an interest in representational figurative work. So many are focused on cutting edge contemporary and even very contemporary figurative work. My work is more traditional in some respects and contemporary in others. So how does one find those hundreds of galleries that cater to the kind of art an artist creates?

  4. I’m a confirmed fan of yours…never missing any of your precious advice.
    Once and for all, I would like to be sure that I’m on the right track.
    Thus, this important question:
    What should a professional artist’s portfolio contain or look like?

  5. Very clear explanation on the different Gallery approaches. I agree that building a relationship with a gallery is very important and that the work is something the gallery feels they could sell so an owners particular judgements are valid and should not take away from an artist believing in their work. And yes Persistence is part of it all. Thanks

  6. Thank you for your blog Jason. You have hit on some very important points, one of which is the relationship one has with a gallery owner. So far I have not been impressed. Unfortunately, this opinion has interfered with how I usually do things and my integrity has suffered. Soon to be corrected. Should my relationship not improve, I will move on. Your information is always valuable.

  7. Hi Jason…I took your Starving For Successful course years ago, which was a valuable course for me. Since then, I have been in a few galleries within my area (up-state NY) and have had some success in selling my artwork. I say some, since I am a wildlife artist and find it takes that one particular person to purchase wildlife art in this area. That being said, I am now focusing on submitting to galleries in the western portion of the country. In my search of galleries to submit to I have found some having artists submission guidelines, in which I will follow.
    But now to my question – when there are no artist submission guidelines on their websites (so there is no way of knowing whether they are accepting artist submissions) is it best to send them a physical portfolio or email them a digital portfolio?
    My other question is – for these type of galleries would it be best to send them an inquiry email, such as

    “I am an upstate New York realism oil painter, specializing in wildlife who is seeking gallery
    representation. I am writing to inquire if you are currently accepting submission proposals. If so,
    could you please let me know which format or materials you prefer.”

    With sincerest regards,

    Johanna Lerwick, Wildlife/Nature Artist
    607-336-6218
    Email: info@johannalerwick.com
    Website: http://www.johannalerwick.com

    So far I have received only one rejection and no responses from galleries that I have submitted a physical portfolio to. I have sent two email inquires and have received answers back from both (both rejected and gave me reasons why – although one did say to submit again next year and that they will keep an eye on my work in the meantime.
    So what are your feelings as to the best way to submit to galleries that are not indicating they are looking for artists submissions?

  8. As a gallery owner in a town with about 59 other galleries, I can assure you that process of selecting art is a challenge. Each gallery tends to reflect the personal tastes of the gallery owner, and therefore every gallery is not suited for every artist. Personally I look for a variety of art which fits into my market. I look at art which is within a specific price point, is of quality, and which I personally like, and which I feel will sell. If the artist is professional and easy to work with, that gets my attention as well. The impression you make upon the gallery owner goes a long way. I like it when an artist can articulate about what they are thinking when they create their art, and can explain their reasoning and process. If you are not excited about it, then the gallery owner is less likely to be as well. Your work needs to be consistent, and have it’s own identity. I get a lot of artists into the gallery during the season who walk in looking to talk with me about representation. If it is slow, I may be able to talk to them however it is not the best idea. Most of my gallery neighbors will not even talk to an artist off the street. I have had artists hand me their card and tell me that they like my gallery and would appreciate it if I would go to their website to review their work when I have the chance. This suits me fine, as if gives me the chance to really look at their work at my leisure, and give it consideration. If I like the work, I will contact them and arrange for them to bring in a couple pieces for me to look at in person, or arrange a studio visit if at all possible. The importance of having a professional (up to date) website cannot be stressed enough. Artists tend to be lazy when it comes to searching for a gallery. It is a hard process and rejection is not pleasant. You should however always be looking at galleries, even if you currently have representation. Don’t settle on just any gallery as well. You need to have confidence in the gallery owner, and place your work with someone who loves and respects your work and has the desire to build you within their market. Never take it personally if a gallery tells you “no”. They are simply not the right gallery for you at that time.

    1. As a Gallery Director, I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Wiggs.
      I appreciate artists coming in, checking out the gallery space, artists and even our team. I think it’s important to get that first impression. I invite artists to even introduce themselves and tell me they are looking for representation.
      However, I have set up a very simple but specific submission process that I ask artists to follow – quite simply, email me a link to your up-to-date site, your bio and a price list. I get turned off entirely when artists ask me to check out their website then and there, and even more when they whip out their Smart Phones and start swiping through trying to find examples of their work.
      The most important job I have as a Gallery Director is to sell the artwork of the artists I represent. If an artist wants to be in my gallery, I want to love their art and them. A new artist introducing him/herself and asking me what my submission process is is going be the best first impression, and I will look forward to getting their email. It shows a respect for my time and a professionalism of that artist.

  9. I have done a marketing campaign by submitting to about 250 galleries. I gleaned these gallery submissions by looking at gallery websites or if possible visiting the gallery to see if I could be a fit for the gallery. This process took about 3 to 4 months and tanked my painting production that year. The result from the 250 submissions was about 200 no responses about 40 rejections and 10 galleries were interested of those 10 upon visiting about 5 wanted to tell me what to paint and 5 were viable after showing at those 5 1 closed its doors and 4 were unable to make any sales. Only one gallery was able to sell my work and we have had a good relationship for 7 years now. It is a numbers game but the odds are stacked against the artist. I learned from several gallerist that galleries post submission guidelines to deter submissions and that because of the time it would take to review them they simple delete the request with no response or at best a form letter email of rejection. Even if you are accepted by a gallery for representation if they aren’t able to sell your art it could tie up your artwork for years with no results. This could keep some of your best artwork out of the hands of a producing gallery. It is all very daunting and barely worth the effort but the alternative is no representation so it is probably necessary

    1. Since those were your results, what was your solution. Do you just market yourself to competitions and shows, or have someone who can do it for you? Or is this one gallery doing such a great job you feel it’s out of your hands? Your work is incredible by the way. I am also in NC and find pockets where my work is very well recieved and others not so much. Being that my medium is super diffrent I find people love it but galleries are a bit unsure.

  10. A really concise explanation and what the artist needs to do.
    I’m thinking I’ve made enough blunders for 2 artists. Maybe time for an alias.
    The problem with blunders is one does not know how permanent the damage is.
    Your point at or near the beginning that there are not enough galleries or gallery wall spaces to accommodate all the artists that want a piece of that space, should be a cautionary tale.
    The take away is – (1) do the homework on the galleries (2) Grab any opportunity that comes along (3) be fearless and undaunted.
    Easy to say- hard to do but necessary.

  11. Hi Jason, In my gallery search, which is time consuming, I have found that the galleries that I have approached with my digital portfolio almost never respond. A follow up phone call results in a number of really lame responses. “can’t find your submission, director is out of town, the gallery will review your later this week, we are moving our gallery to another town and will review your work at that time, on and on.” As a business courtesy, just mail me and say NO. No is better than nothing. Tell me no, but don’t ignore me. If this sounds like a bit of a rant….Perhaps…On the lighter side. If I find a gallery that I feel my work would fit, I call and ask. It saves time a frustration. Some galleries have an “Artist Submission” on their menu. Other times submission guide lines appear on their Contact Link. On the artist submission, more often than not, it states “With the number of artist submissions that we receive, we can not review them all. Yours included. Thanks for your interest in our gallery. Beat of luck in your artistic carer”.

  12. Galleries that post guidelines do so for a reason. A submission that does not follow them will likely be ignored. A Professional artist will do what is requested. I know of several instances where the folk in charge got angry when a submission guideline was not followed – can’t people read? If you want to go outside the box, be prepared to be ignored.
    Commercial Galleries are all about sales. They have to be as they survive on them. Visit the Gallery you are considering to see if you would be a good fit, or check out their website. No point in approaching a space that shows abstract work if you are a realist!

  13. Im going to elude to a previous post and ask if you have any suggestions on how to research what galleries tend to gravitate towards in style or subject matter. This would save myself and numerous galleries countless hours of wasted time by better matching my artwork to what gallery that might be interested in it. Thanks for the blog-always good discussion!

    1. Review art magazines at the book store or even the library, or sign up and look at the FASO daily emails. Find other artists you like and who do something that complements what you do (not the same stuff). Then visit their websites and look at their gallery lists. Then visit those gallery websites to see what other artists they represent, and the price range. They often have photos, even the opportunity to “walk around” the gallery so you can see how they hang the work and the mix of work. If you find a fit, look for the submission policy. Though it’s sometimes on the menu, It’s often hidden in the “contact” area, or even in the site map at the bottom of the page. Then do what they say. While most of my galleries have been through walk-in visits – and NOT when there was ANYONE else in the gallery – it seems like those are less common these days. In 26 years, I have been in and out (and sometimes back in and out) of some great galleries. And I’m still in great galleries. But as noted above, it’s a business. Those gallery walls are EXPENSIVE. The owners and directors know their market and their collectors, and they must have sales to survive. If it’s not your work that fits and then SELLS, too, you’re heading for your next gallery. But the same applies from your side of the venture. You can’t afford to have your work tied up in a gallery that doesn’t fit AND sell. Though we’re sensitive, thin-skinned critters, artists must get some thick skin to get this done. It’s big fun when it all comes together.

  14. Argh! Most galleries now don’t take unsolicited submittals. Read the fine print to make sure they do. Otherwise you are wating your time. I have submitted to many galleries over the years. I have received a formal rejection twice. Other times , nothing at all. Frankly, it sucks.
    I got into one gallery and had one sale in five years. Turns out my work was tucked away in the back room! And of course I had to pay for shipping, both ways.
    Getting into a gallery is mostly who you know these days. Of course, you need the tale t as well, but lots of amazing artists never get shown.
    Sorry to be somnegative, but this business is not;for the weak or the unemployed.

  15. Wow. Great article and timely. I am a new gallery owner, here in Harlem, NY. As an artist myself, it’s been hard telling artists, that I can’t show their works. I will print and distribute this article. Of course you’ll get all credits. Thanks for the information.

  16. I received gallery representation at a good venue in a good market after being contacted by the curator when an image of my work was published in a weekly newspaper arts & culture supplement as part of a promotion for a very local art event I was helping to organize. The curator emailed me after seeing my image and I have been with that gallery since. I have to think, however, that my experience is not typical, and I know I will have to take the initiative and pursue additional gallery representation at some point, so this topic is of great interest to me. I was wondering if it was worth my time and $$ to have some kind of compact, folded brochure with a couple of my best images, a very brief bio, contact and web site info, and take around and leave with galleries that I’m interested in.

  17. I found this all to be helpful, even comments, and builds on Jason’s books that I read, and in the process of following (Both Starving to Successful & How to Sell Art). I really believe and want a working relationship with galleries. The blueprint for artists to make a carer isn’t straight forward, thank you Jason, and others here for helps me understand the other side.

    /r
    Monica Marquez Gatica
    https://mmgartstudio.com/

  18. Thank you so much for this very informative article. I find the comments very helpful as well. My question is about CONSISTENCY. I paint both landscapes and still life and anything else that catches my fancy. I also have a couple styles. I am getting looser as time goes on.

    Consistency in quality goes without saying but what else?Subject? Style? Genre? I have a variety of work on my website CherylPetersArtist.com. Is this wrong?

  19. According to Clint Watson in the article, “12 Steps to Get Your Artwork Noticed by Galleries” at FINEARTVIEWS he summarizes:

    1. If you simply send in a portfolio, it may get ignored, at least for a long time.

    2. If you call ahead, you likely will be seen as a time waster…after all you’re not buying art and the gallery has never seen your work.

    3. If you just walk in – you’re risking interrupting or upsetting someone….at the very least, you’ll put the person in the wrong frame of mind to look at your work!

    4. Email is unlikely to upset anyone, but it’s really super easy to ignore and hit “delete.”

    Having read this article I expect nothing from galleries.

  20. Agree with your analyses, good post. I will only add re your comment about having a good rapport with your gallery: it cannot be overestimated. It is huge; you must have a mutual trust and respect, and the ability to talk frankly about your work and their sales. If that blossoms into friendship, as has been the case with several of my galleries, well, you’ve done a great job of selecting your gallery. And this last is important: having a great fit with a gallery is a two-way street. Yes, your first priority is getting your foot in the door, but it is just as important to make sure it’s the right door for you.

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