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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35 Comments

  1. What is the protocol to following up with a gallery after submitting your portfolio as per their stated guidelines? Calling? Emailing? Personal visit? How many times and with what length of time between? I want to show perseverance but also don’t want to be an annoyance.

  2. Thanks for a great article.
    I have always checked out the gallery prior to contacting them. The reason is I want to see the art they carry to decide if my work is a good fit. I try to go in person so I can also gauge the personality of the people I would be dealing with. Several times, while in conversation with the gallery person, I have just casually mentioned I was an oil painter which led them to ask to see my work. This resulted in being represented by the gallery. Each gallery has successfully sold my work, some more than others. I have been in the first gallery that represented my work for fourteen years.

    1. I think it happens this way a lot. I read a book once where a gallerist said when considering taking on a new artist what she looks for most is synchronicity, a mesh of personalities. I imagine you can get a better feel for whether or not you’re in the presence of a rational individual or a problem child at an opening, where it’s harder to hide “the crazy” than in a choreographed portfolio review. It’s a much more laid-back situation. Even if they look at your website and an offer is not forthcoming you’re probably going to make a friend and get some great advice.

  3. You know I just love your e-mail columns! The way you write is straight-forward so I don’t feel overwhelmed – in fact just the opposite; it fills me with hope and optimism. Thank you so much.

    1. Pauline, I totally agree with you. Jason’s emails are like a beacon of light that makes me feel that I’am not alone and that one day I will become an accomplished artist, represented by a gallery.

  4. Thank you Jason. There should be an award for your continued selfless sharing of gallery-related education for all of us artists!! I know I speak for all of us in saying how much we value you!!

  5. Thanks so much Jason for educating all the artists out there. You have filled a need for all the artists with your guidelines and information for us. Your blogs also give us hope that someday we might find gallery representation. Enjoy your blogs!

  6. I always love reading your articles, Jason. What you share with artists just really can’t be matched.

    For me, in finding and selecting a gallery, I look over the work that has shown in the gallery to see if my work would be a potential fit. If so, then I do my best to cultivate the relationship and then also start my marketing and possible client/collector interactions.ipush my envelope as far as I can think of and don’t stop getting my word out and improving. It’s a lot of work but I find it fun. Great articles, Jason, as always.

  7. Years ago, I followed advice from one source on how to find shows and representation. I applied to over 50 galleries that year and got into two. Those numbers did match what I’d read. It wasn’t until the next year, when I started showing up at galleries and making more personal connections that I started getting into shows more regularly.

  8. Great article! You always give us all such important and useful information! Thank you once again!
    I always visit galleries first and then give them a call, etc. etc. Nearly, every gallery I visit, including those that are co-ops, have no space for any sculptures over 12 inches by about 6 inches. They have no pedestals ( I’ve offered mine) and they tell me they have no room for any 3D art. I’ve been told that I must put it against the wall (no views of the back) . With rent so high here in (all of) California, I’ m not seeing how my 2 foot plus sculptures will EVER be in commercial galleries. I have good rapport with owners and all of the galleries love my ART -bots but so far but no luck in finding a place to put them. I’m beginning to slow down on my production until I can find space! Any suggestions? I still do my research and visit galleries but they don’t seem to have any floor space. Sad..

  9. Jason; My compliments, probably one of the best and most straightforward articles you have written. They are always helpful and eye opening, but this one is essential knowledge.

    Thanks, for caring,

    Paul

  10. I feel very fortunate to have come across your blog and work. I tend to let the emails stack up and then “binge watch” the videos and read the articles. Thank you for all you do to share this information….I truly appreciate it!

  11. The best two pieces of advice I ever had concerning a career as an artist were
    1. Paint what really lights you up. If you aren’t excited about your subject matter, no one else is likely to be either.
    2. Find a gallery where the owner and/or director really loves your work. If they don’t really love it, they won’t be very enthusiastic about selling it.

  12. What is your advice? From time to time, I get some feedback from good galleries on my paintings I post on social media. Some galleries even say they rally like my art. Can I tell them I would love to work with them ? Tell them I want an exhibition in their gallery?

    Usally I don’t contact galleries anymore. I’ve heard that galleries should contact me. So many artists are looking for gallery space and good galleries don’t bother to answer your request.

    1. Yes Erik, this is what I have heard also. As a result, I had sort of mostly given up the idea of getting into any galleries unless I manage to find a personal introduction. Jason, your article is very hopeful and helpful, so perhaps I will give it another go, and as you say, not take anything personally. Perhaps determination is the key, as with most things in life. Thanks Jason :O)

    2. Erik and Katya, please don’t wait for galleries to contact you! Part of your job is to let the dealer know about your artwork. And if a gallery responds on social media to say they like what they see, that’s an invitation! Call, say who you are, and say you would love to talk to them to explore further possibilities. Don’t tell them what their response should be – that’s a bit like. “Oh, you like me, can we live together?” Just suggest you talk. And be sure to follow up. Good luck!

  13. Thanks Jason!

    There is one other thing you can do if you’re desperate – put on your own show and invite all the galleries 🙂 Even if they don’t want to buy your work there and then, they’ll remember you – and they may keep you in mind for future exhibitions. Sometimes you just can’t wait for people to accept you – you just have to strike out…

  14. Someone recently said that the secret is to attend exhibition openings at galleries. Talk to people, get to know people, artists as well as gallery owners and buyers. See and be seen. Then when you approach a gallery owner, they already know your face from seeing you around at local exhibitions or their gallery. I haven’t put this to the test. What do you think?

    1. This is something else I hear a lot. Gallery owners, I’m told, want to know that you care enough about art to get out and see what everyone else is doing. Also, I’m told, they want to know you know a lot about the art and artists they currently represent.

  15. All such good advice! I’m beginning to talk to people “in charge” to inquire showing my ART-bots in busy, potentially positive places. Currently, I ‘m getting ready to show some of my sculptures at our city hall’s rotunda. Never give up! I think I’ll contact all the city hall people in our neighboring cities.

  16. Good article. I am getting ready to hunt a gallery out west. This article is a good push. I do think if the artist is good socially, meeting the owner and developing a relationship first helps. That’s not easy for distant galleries.

    What I hear is that so many galleries are discouraged right now by poor sales. I’m not sure what the trend is for them. I know they are unhappy with their artist selling direct from websites and just a general lack of interest in buying one of a kind art. I just wonder what can be done to help art galleries gain the sales they need.

  17. It isn’t that the article is not helpful. But it is quite different than what you have to say in your book which I bought and have referred to frequently. In your book you say that following gallery submission guidelines is not going to improve your chances because the systems are set up to reject and eliminate artists, not to accept them.

    I believe you went on to say that the best approach is to take some of your best work, walk in to the gallery in person and make your case.

  18. I appreciate the articles and “chat” very much.
    I feel very lucky to have my first solo show running November 29 to December 9th and a second solo show at the same gallery from August 21 to September 1. In between I have been asked to show a couple of pieces along with other artists at ano there gallery.
    This is beginner’s luck. I have never approached a gallery before.
    Don’t ever give Up!

  19. All good useful advice. I use all social media sources, get into as many shows as possible, get to know other artists, particularly those that sell well & do joint shows with them, their success can rub off on you. Gallery representation is a tough long slog!

  20. Thank you Jason
    Wonderful advice as usual. Just wanted to share a new experience I encountered with a Gallery. I was fortunate enough to be invited to a particular gallery where the owner kindly gave me an hour of his time. He studied examples of my recent work and made suggestions how I could develop themes where I and his gallery could benefit from. I was extremely grateful that he spent so much time with me. He then asked if I could leave 2 pieces of work with him. He added that he would contact his client list who he thought might be interested. With everything signed off and receipted I was hoping to hear from him within the next couple of weeks with some news. I was aware that it was Art Fair season and their gallery was involved in some exhibitions abroad and locally. I have contacted the gallery since as a follow up on a couple of occasions but without any reply. I don’t want to appear to be a pest to the Gallery – but do you have any advice for follow up without giving the impression that you are not too desparate for news ? thanks again Niall

  21. Awesome article Jason with lots of useful and practical advice. It is an on going process for me to thicken my skin and not take rejection personally. I have been fortunate to experience what was rejected in an exhibition or by another gallery often sold somewhere else.

  22. Jason, your advice is invaluable. Great article! I love Lorna’s advice. I can’t say that is something I ever would have thought of. Right now I don’t have the courage to do that but the idea gives me something more to work for. All of the responses from others help to encourage me on my own artist endeavors. Its like having mini mentors all the time. Thank you all so much!!

  23. As a small gallery Owner myself, if you want to get into a gallery is to provide the owner the information they request. After being recently contacted by an artist, I requested a price list and asked the artist if their work would be a good fit. The artist wouldn’t provide the price list, saying that the prices were different for different paintings. And the artist insisted that since she sold a painting to a notable local, that her work would be popular here, without having stepped into my gallery. When a gallery asks for a price list, give it to them. Of course prices vary, but I need to see the range and sizes of the work. Don’t assume that your work will be popular with everyone. Art is very personal and Gallery owners know their collectors tastes. Also, don’t make the gallery work to find out about you and your work. If you want me to do you a favor by exhibiting your work, make it easy for me.

  24. As a small gallery owner, I would just like to say, I’m honored that you think my gallery would be a good fit for your work. However, don’t walk in the front door and make a bee-line for my desk. I cringe when this happens because then I know right away that you are going to ask to be in the gallery. Look around, talk to me, ask a few questions, then ask me if I’m accepting new artists. I’ll start asking you questions and may ask to quickly look at your work. The best way for me to meet new artists is to have you visit to see if you think we’re a good fit. Send me an email with your information and pictures, let me know you stopped by…if I like what I see, I’ll ask you to stop by at a certain time so that I can give you my full attention. If I don’t think we’re a good fit, I’ll tell you and I won’t waste your time and vice versa.

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