Should Artists Show their Art in “Vanity” Galleries?

In a recent interview, I was asked where I saw the  the art gallery business going in the next ten years. This is a very interesting question and could have resulted in an hour-long conversation on its own. Because I only had a few minutes to reply in the interview, I pointed to three trends I see as being very important to the future of the business. I mentioned the increasing importance of self-promotion for artists. I talked about the move toward increasing online sales. Finally, I predicted that we would see a rise in the number of art galleries charging a fee to show and sell artwork. Even as I write this, I can see that there’s great discussion to be had in all of those topics (watch for future blog posts!). It’s the third and final point I wish to focus on here, however.

I frequently have artists write me about their encounters with galleries that are asking for a fee to show work. Last week, for example, I received the following email from an artist:

Not asking for any advice this time. You have been very helpful with that. This is follow up info on a gallery I asked you about a couple weeks ago on N. Marshall. You gave me some insights on how to find out more about them. I did as much due diligence as I could and they seemed to be a traditional gallery, so I flew in to meet with them. They moved to Main Street just before I got there, which I only found out they were doing after I bought tickets. But since that seemed like a good thing, I was not concerned. I assumed it meant they were doing really well. When I got there I drove past their old gallery which was a nice medium sized space with lots of wall space and great lighting. Based on that and the photos they had of the space on the their website,(they have since changed the page) I expected the same set up when I got to the new one. I was in for a genuine surprise when I got there and it was this really small space, which is when I started to wonder if they had” changed programs on me”. If I understand “vanity gallery” correctly, that is what they are running. They charge a large fee for you to hang your work for a month. It does not hang in the gallery the rest of the time. I can’t say for sure what they had going at the other space, but I suspect this is a change in model of operation to some degree. They are offering this to people with more limited, if any, gallery experience that may not understand what they are doing. I realize it is perfectly legal as long as they disclose it all, but they are not up front before you come in. I think I even asked them before hand if it was a traditional gallery set up. I did get a couple things out of it. A great learning experience. Also, they liked my interpretive horses, which you commented on when I asked you to look at my work awhile back. That was a nice confirmation for me about my horses.

My purpose for this is because I think a lot of artists have naive assumptions about more established, well known art districts such as Scottsdale. It frankly never occurred to me that a vanity gallery would open up there.I don’t know why, just something I assumed. My biggest concern was how they were doing financially. You do a lot of blogs and on-line discussions about art and marketing and galleries, etc. It seems to me a lot of artists could benefit from understanding the various types of galleries that exist, the pros and cons of them, and what to try and avoid. I understood as soon as I got there that it was not what they let me think. ( I want to be clear they did not blatantly lie, they inferred.) But I am in a couple galleries and have perhaps done more research than an artist just getting started. Artists should know that location is not a guarantee of a traditional gallery, or even if it is ethical in how it’s run. I also understand galleries are having to try a lot of new ideas to survive, but I think that is a far cry from a vanity gallery. I , for one, would love to see me information on those subjects. Anyways, just an idea for your future reference.

Thanks, Kim J.

 

Kim brings up some great points. Just to be clear, what she is describing, a gallery asking for a fee to show your work, is the classical definition of what has been labeled the “vanity” gallery. For those readers unfamiliar with the term, let me explain. The idea is that these galleries, instead of taking work  on consignment based on the marketability and merit of the work,  play to the “vanity” of artists. Instead of waiting for their work to improve or waiting until they’ve gained further recognition for their work, these artists are willing to pay the fee to get the exposure.

The concept is similar to the “vanity” press. A vanity press will publish your book for a fee when traditional publishers decline to publish it. I suspect that the term started in the publishing world and migrated to the artworld.

The Art Market is Changing

I actually think our conception of these galleries is a bit outdated. The market has changed, and there are a number of galleries that are charging a fee to show artist’s work, but they are not doing it to prey on vanity. Instead they see a change in the market and an opportunity to create a new business model. In fact, I try not to use the term “vanity gallery”, because I feel it’s taken on a charged and derogatory connotation (I’m using it in this post in quotation marks because I feel the term will be understood more readily by those familiar with it) and I feel that for some of these galleries, the title and concept are no longer accurate.

So what do I mean when I say the market is changing? In past posts and podcasts, I’ve talked about how the internet is opening up opportunities for artists to interact with and sell directly to collectors. This is great for artists who want to promote themselves and manage their own sales. It’s also great for collectors who wish to seek out artists outside of the gallery scene. It can sometimes lead collectors to find good values. These direct sales are putting pressure on traditional art galleries to an extent. While it is sometimes the case that these collectors simply would never have bought artwork had they not been able to buy it directly from artists, there are also cases where the collectors are buying directly from artists instead of buying the work through galleries.

In some cases, the artists are showing in galleries, but the collector then approaches the artist to buy work directly from the studio, cutting the gallery out of the sale. This is especially harmful to the gallery. Now the gallery is paying high overhead to show the work, but not seeing any financial return for the expense. Galleries are dealing with this issue in many different ways. Some are going out of business. Some are working harder and being creative to find ways to provide more value to the artist and collector and earn their commission (I like to think that this is what we’re doing at Xanadu Gallery!). Some are starting to charge a fee to show work.

Instead of thinking of traditional galleries as “good” and fee-for-display galleries as “bad”, I just think of them as very different businesses.

For an artist who wants to focus on creating art and avoid dealing with the sales and business side of things, a traditional, commission gallery probably makes the most sense.

For an artist who wants to do their own promotion and sell directly to buyers, a fee-for-display gallery might make sense. This artist might simply consider the fee an advertising expense.

Do Your Due Diligence Before Working with a Vanity Gallery

Of course, if you are considering showing your work in such a gallery, you would want to make sure that the gallery is offering value for the fee. Simply having a space and opening the doors is no guarantee of exposure or sales. I would recommend that before agreeing to pay a fee to show your work with the gallery, you speak to three or four artists who are showing, or have shown in the gallery previously. Ask if they feel the exposure was worth the fee. Make sure that you understand how the gallery will promote and display your work. Ask how a sale will be handled. Does the gallery also take a commission on sales? If so, you would expect it to be significantly smaller than the 50% traditional galleries ask. I would certainly recommend a written agreement.

Interestingly, this is exactly the same advice I would make to an artist considering showing in a traditional gallery. Remember, you might think that a “vanity” gallery is charging you a fee, and a traditional gallery is not. This is simply not the case. The traditional gallery is taking the fee after the sale; the fee-for-display gallery takes it before. Because there is no guarantee of a sale, this means that in the traditional gallery, the gallery is taking a greater risk if the work doesn’t sell. If you are paying fee to show  your work, you will be taking the greater risk.

Ultimately, this means that a traditional gallery has more direct motivation to promote and sell your work. The fee-for-display gallery also has motivation to sell your work in the long-run, however. If they don’t sell any work, they will eventually run out of artists willing and able to pay their fee.

Another concern I often hear is that artists are afraid that showing in vanity gallery will hurt the artist’s chances of getting into future galleries, or hamper future sales to collectors. I feel this fear is unfounded. If you can generate exposure and sales through the fee-for-display gallery, those sales and followers will be a positive on your resume. It’s unlikely future galleries will even pay attention to where those sales came from.

Share your Thoughts on Whether an Artist Should Show in a “Vanity” Gallery

You’ve heard what I think, now it’s your opportunity to share your thoughts on the vanity gallery. Have you shown your work in a fee-for-display gallery? Was it a positive or negative experience. Did you sell art or get some other benefit from the relationship? Please share your thoughts and experience in the comments below. Please avoid naming galleries or giving gallery locations – I wish to keep this discussion based on broad principles, not specific galleries (I also would like to avoid law suits!). I am particularly interested in hearing from artists who have had positive experiences.

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19 Comments

  1. The concept which you outline in this article is basically a “pop up” gallery which is under the control of a gallery. The idea is actually not bad if designed correctly. Many high end galleries host other venues to show new talent in , and test it on the market to see if it would work in their primary space. A pop up gallery can serve that purpose it that is truly what the owner is doing. I have seen galleries take out a higher percent on their end with sales of art to cover their expense, and beyond that it returns to the standard 50%. You better believe that if your sales are good, then they would want you in their main gallery. This scenario feels acceptable to me. On the other hand, if it is simply a space which they are basically renting to you to show your work, with no other intent, then I would be wary of it. Your objective as an artist should be to search for a gallery which will not only show your work, but also build your reputation as an artist. That is something which an artist can’t simply do by putting their work online, or in a pop up. Do your research and ask a lot of questions before signing on for such a proposal.

  2. I show in a gallery where I pay a monthly fee, so long as the gallery sells something. They also take a 50 percent commission. The gallery would have gone under without artist support, so we had a meeting and decided on this plan, for now. In exchange, I get massive wall space, and exposure in a prime location in a high spending resort town. I generally sell about ten paintings a year with them, so it feels like a good arrangement. I would still prefer a more “serious” gallery, but I wouldn’t get nearly the wall space.

    1. I have had series of experiences those kinda galleries, paying a fee to get shown, and there’s been no positive return still. They are just too satisfied with the fee they’ve collected from you and doesn’t bother if you gain from the contract or not.

  3. Such operational models have been present in the large art centres globally for decades. As i operated doing high level art shows focused on corporate and prestigious collectors periodically i would RENT one of these show spaces as opposed to another shorter term model in a commercial hotel for an event. While they were usefull and cost effective the ability of the facility owners to promote and sell was at best minimal, i often forbade them from participation or access to my level of clientelle. The other artists who contracted with them had varying degrees of success. the positives for them were generated by exposure to gallery owners in the area [say london england] who would check out the art to see if was suitable to their businesses. individual sales were rare. most ameteurs should be carefull and look completely to doing their own promotion. be watchfull of them closing down and taking your stuff!! it is not uncommon and not related to finances just to opportunity to acquire FREE art.

  4. I opened a “vanity” gallery 5 years ago. It’s been awesome. I have divided the gallery space up by space and give the artists the option of participation, and how much they spend monthly. Each artist that inquires for entry must send me 5-6 images of their work and a resume. I have a strong board of directors who understand my vision and can help me sift through the artists.
    What we look for:
    #1 talent, of course. My gallery is edgy, and original so the artists I represent need to reflect that.
    #2. New artist pieces that are Different than the other artists already on display.
    #3 I state in contract that they cannot show in any other shop with in 2 miles. Street festivals are ok.
    #4 I require a 12 month contracted commitment due to the distinct selling seasons throughout the year. I can’t survive if folks come in just for Christmas time and then pull out.
    #5 My artists are offered the classroom space for a small fee to conduct their own classes to supplement their income.

    It’s worked beautifully until now. I’ve had 8,000 people come to my sip n paint classes in 5 years.
    I’m trying to figure out how to set up the “sip n paint “ at a distance! This will be difficult moving forward in this new world in my small town!

  5. There are a great deal of galleries – about 99.99% of them who have absolutely no insight into any art that requires themselves and the viewer to move onto a different and exciting path of discovery.
    Walk past ANY high street gallery and you’ll notice an abject similarity to all others, whether it be paintings, sculpture – anything.

    I have been repeatedly approached by the Agora gallery – a NYC Vanity gallery who have no qualms advertising themselves as such (albeit in not the same terms).
    Some years ago they contacted a friend of mine in the UK – and who put their ‘approach’ with much fanfare on his FaceBook page indicating just how honored he felt. Naturally, it didn’t take long to discover that they wanted $3850 upfront and a large % of sales.

    As odious as vanity galleries sound, I feel that a great, GREAT amount of artists simply have no choice but to face this ignomy full-on, even if there’s no guarantee that these people will provide a better service than the other galleries.

  6. I have been in a artist coop gallery (a more preferred term then “vanity”) for over 6 years. The gallery is in a unique tourist location, and has over 1,000 visitors a month. I have seen artists grow in their reputation and sales, and move on to commercial galleries. I have stayed because I sell enough work to keep my inventory in control. I have also seen people overprice their work, and leave.

      1. I spent about 9 months in a ‘pay to show’ gallery that required several days a month of gallery ‘sitting’, which made it feel a bit like a co-op. Paying to work, did not work for me! I then moved to a gallery that did not charge for space, but offered to take a lesser percentage of the sales to artists who chose to work. That seems fair enough!

  7. I Believe that no serious artist should ever have to pay to show their work. I can think of no other profession that works that way. Authors that use the vanity press are actually just paying to get their books printed. That business model doesn’t charge them to display their books in book stores (that I know of) So the book printing would be akin to having Giclees printed. The only exception to paying for gallery space would be a co-op gallery which is essentially co owning and operating your own gallery collectively. I am not sure if any gallery business models work anymore as the number of good functional galleries decline and the number of professional and want-a-be artists is exploding. The Metric of art sales$= artist success is flawed. Yes an artist needs money to create art but if they tie their success as an artist to sales surely their art will suffer under that metric. We all need to think out side of the box

  8. I exhibit in New England, a very competitive market. I generally have my work in anywhere from 6 to 10 galleries throughout the year. Some are permanent traditional galleries and some are seasonal. Spanning Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Maine and Vermont. NONE are vanity galleries, I would never consider it. Vanity galleries are generally considered for amateurs only, as these wanna-be artists can’t come close to getting on a traditional wall competing against accomplished experienced professionals. There probably are exceptions to this rule but I do not know one professional, and I know quite a few professional artists who would never consider paying to get on a wall. Quality speaks for itself, and they all know better then to allow a phony huckster just blowing smoke up our ass and stroking our ego to fall for the pay up front scam. The point is the traditional gallery only makes money if they sell your work, not by stroking your ego. I advertise regularly in American Art Review, a respected national magazine. Other then paying my framer, art supply store and photographer, that’s it. If a gallery wants a buck, start selling, otherwise close the door and leave it to more capable hands to succeed. This is a tough competitive business to succeed in, not for wanna-bees and the feint of heart.

  9. I tried a vanity gallery out many years ago. It was a waste of my time. I don’t think we can avoid paying to sell our work– one way or another. Art shows & fairs have fees, galleries charge consignment fees, etc. That being the case, online is the best way for me.

  10. Jason, This is such a timely subject for me. Six months ago I decided to approach a coop gallery here in the wine country. Having been out of the ‘art market’ career wise for over 15 years, 3 years into my return to painting suggested that I should try to connect with the local community somewhere. I did not do much research about the gallery and within a few months learned first hand what a ‘Vanity Gallery’ is and how its business model operates. The small town gallery caters to tourist traffic and a few dedicated locals. Most of the sales are <$300 and mostly not off the walls. The gallery business model is really about collecting exhibition fees (calling them sales). It's not a bad model but the reputation of the gallery works directly against the artist collector relationship. My concern is answering how to find fit for my artwork in the market? Should I be thinking of modifying my artwork to produce items that fit the business model of the coop gallery or stick with what I love doing and look for other exhibition opportunities? Mainly, I am showing in juried exhibitions. It is not clear to me that the business model of the coop gallery could not be tweaked to be more sales oriented. Thanks for your thoughts.

  11. I wonder if the “vaniety galleries” co-ops, and pop-ups have increased due to the decrease in traditional galleries. In this area, a more rural/tourist setting in BC, Canada, there are currently no traditional galleries, and a few that there were in cities and towns within an hour and half drive have closed down. I am not sure if this is purely a monetary problem with rising real estate costs, or if it is in part due to them being reluctant to evolve in their business practices to involve online presence. However, fact remains they are gone. Artists are looking for ways to put their art in front of the public however they can.

  12. If I had the money to do it, and if the gallery was located in a good location and had a healthy population of buyers through the doors, it wouldn’t bother me if others thought of it as a ‘vanity’ gallery if it met the conditions I listed. I would consider it to be like renting prime real estate.

  13. I think the question is: Are these type of galleries help art or not? Did they increase exposure of new artists? Can they increase sales? Can they support gallerists and people who love art in their businesses? I think yes to all of these questions. Things change. It was inconceivable a decade ago a “serious” film actor/actress working on a Netflix series/film. Not anymore. Or a famous singer doing a soda commercial. Not anymore. What is the problem of sharing the risk (between gallerist and artist) of selling art? Selling art is still a business, isn’t it? A business is a business. If you don’t want your art to be a business, you don’t sell it, you keep them, you give them as a present to friends and family, you keep them as an inheritance for kids and grandkids, you donate it to a nice charity or your church, etc, etc. But if you want to live selling art, you need to sell it, and any activity that helps this goal, it is a good thing.

  14. I was invited to show in one room of a coop gallery, but I would pay a fee for 2 months and they would get their usual percentage. The fee was low and the gallery was 1 hr from my usual show space so I took a chance. The gallery did excellent advertising, extending my work even an hour farther. That advertising would have been more than the fee. My work was up for 2 Art Walks which brought in new people and I had fun. But, I’d look for other advertising now that I’m wiser.

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