Should Artists Show Their Art in “Vanity” Galleries?

In a recent interview, I was asked where I saw 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. Recently, 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 art world.

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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About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of reddotblog.com, and founder of the Art Business Academy. Jason has helped thousands of artists prepare themselves to more effectively market their work, build relationships with galleries and collectors, and turn their artistic passion into a viable business.

15 Comments

  1. Vanity galleries are a scam. If someone gets your money before a sale is made they are in the business of making money through the artists not really in the business of making money through selling art. There is a saying in Spanish “Musico pagado toca mal son” which translates to if a musician is paid before his performance, most likely he won’t do a good job. So these galleries will take your money but will make very little to no effort to sell your work. There are so many people out there trying to take advantage of artists by preying on their dreams. You wouldn’t hire a musician and ask him to pay you money because he will get “exposure” and then he has to give you 50% of his tips because you are the nice person allowing him to play his music at your venue, right? That would never happen. Why do artists have to work for free and then pay for the “exposure”?

  2. I agree with the above comment in regards to sales. Where is the motivation to sell the work, if you have already received payment from the Artist. I have never shown my work in a “Vanity gallery” even though I have received dozens of email invites, but I have exhibited my work in a “Modified co-op” Gallery. My experience there was neither good or bad, I did not feel the owners were taking advantage of the Artists and the fee was definitely reasonable. At the same time the majority of my sales came from previous collectors of my work, that followed me to the gallery.

  3. A fee gallery would only make sense to me if they offered a reasonable contract. If the gallery takes a fee to hang work and does little to promote it, or make any effort to sell it, there’s not much point. I can hang my paintings in my living room with the same result.

  4. I’m eager to have my work seen. It’s been quite an arduous journey and one that has hung out on the avant-garde fringes.
    I’m a bit cerebral. I think about art and what it takes to make an image.
    The amount of time, energy and resources it takes for me to enter shows, plan exhibitions, curate shows (on now rare occasion) makes me quite circumspect in what I take on.
    I have been fortunate to be included in some good well-attended shows.
    I have been fortunate to be asked to put my work in venues.
    I have never written a check for the purpose of hanging my work
    In last Friday’s zoom session with Jason he said, “Put on your ‘A’ game every time.”
    So- I thought about that. A big part of my A game is that thoughtful circumspection- NOT in the moment, but ahead of time in the “due diligence” place that is worthy of habitation.
    I sure would ask what I could expect from the gallery in terms of traffic (Average Daly and Total)and business handling (how and when do I get my money on sales) at the very least.

    It’s your reputation and career on the line every time you pick up a brush, every time someone has stopped what they are doing to take some time being with your work. That counts for a lot.

  5. I would like to suggest a third model I’ve had a little bit of experience with and that’s artist collectives. They charge a fee yes, but the organization is a group effort. It was a positive experience and I learned a great deal!

    1. I think an artists collective is different than an artist co-op? I was in a co-op for a while and because it depended solely on the artists to make the sales it turned out to be too passive in that regard as most of us were not trained in the art of sales. Then there was the problem which I have heard is not uncommon, that the small group of artists on the board created an llc in their names and never told the other paying artists. We only found out because in spite of group meetings, all of our ideas were dismissed as not able to work. There was never enough money to pay for the lights or the membership fee to the wildly popular gallery stroll, and excuses for not having a visible sign or advertising. The s@#$ hit the fan when the building owners had to raise their rents and we all received a letter telling us to pay up or else. We had contracts with the amount of rent. So it meant more bodies with checkbooks and little oversight of quality. I sold 3 painting in over a year and only after I gave my notice. Their best artists left with their already established contacts and buyers. They are still there trying to get people to pay. They became the worst type of vanity gallery in that they lie to the artists who want a jumping off experience in a gallery and get a money pit with no say. Honestly even with a good location they still rely only on walk ins and the occasional Facebook or Instagram announcement. The other type of venue that shows up is the shady one night pop up that combines with music and theater. You have to provide everything yourself and you have to sell a lot of tickets for the venue. They show up around here about once a year and hit up local artists. Most people find they cannot sell tickets enough to get entrance to the venue they were “invited” into participating. I think the pandemic has slowed that one down but I am sure they will pop up again.

  6. I paid a fee to show my large photographs from my series “Alice In Chinatown,”
    on Orchard St. NYC, for Chinese New Year 2020.
    I helped hang the solo show, and was very pleased with the display over all!
    The show was brief, and not well advertised. Weather was bad on the main sales day.
    So no sales. However, the gallery owners were wonderful to me. Very appreciative and
    conscientious. Took me to two fabulous dinners. Printed the brochures. Had the Lion
    Dancers dance through the gallery! I took some classic photos while I was in town!
    I had the most fun I could possibly have, and my resume is now superbly Up To Date!

  7. Interesting topic. There are so many variables, so I would expect some vanity galleries to be good options for artists who need some exposure, and don’t have other opportunities. This exposure may be worth the fee, even if sales are not amazing. Some advance research should help weed out the ones that probably won’t offer enough to justify the fee.

  8. Vanity Gallery, Traditional Gallery, they’re both in the business of taking money from artists. The only difference is that Vanity Galleries might only take their money up-front rather than wait for the payout at the end. Less risk for them. That being said I do not know that the Vanity Gallery only charges the up-front fee and no commission. Either way, both of them are charging an exorbitant fee for a marginal service. The Traditional Gallery most likely gives some semblance of earning what they charge but I prefer the online approach to sell my artwork. If I am being successful then I can hire someone to promote my art over various social media platforms at a much significantly lower cost to me than either the Vanity Gallery or the Traditional Gallery.

  9. My opinion. I would focus on the quality of artwork they accept. You still want to it to be curated. I would look at how professional the gallery looks. I personally have a rule that my art cannot be displayed on the floor, so if a gallery is crammed full, showing art on the floor, and every piece from every high school student in the community, this might be a very welcoming gallery for amateur artists, but not a boost for your business, and not attracting the clients you probably need. I spoke to one gallery owner who said they don’t turn anyone down, (being kind or whatever) . They basically turned into a dollar/craft shop and are out of business now. I agree with talking to another artist who shows there to get a realistic feedback.

  10. I ran a gallery for 15 years that I guess would have been considered a “Vanity Gallery”. I think maybe that is a derogatory term for artists who want to take charge of their own careers. As a working artist I wanted to be able to make and show the art that I wanted to and not just what the traditional galleries accepted. Remember that gallery owners can also be narrow minded in their tastes and focused on the market and not innovation necessarily. I was finding that these galleries were pigeon holing my work and accepting a narrow category and things were getting boring. I was correct in my assumption. In my gallery, the work that I made outside of my “genre” was appreciated and sold. Because running a gallery is a whole other job I started to rent space to other artists who had to also work a day/week. This gave me more time to work and diversified the gallery. The suggestion in calling something a “Vanity Gallery” is that the artists there aren’t quality. There are a lot of great artists out there who can’t find representation. The artists in my gallery sold work and the clients were happy for the opportunity to meet the artist. It was a hybrid/cooperative model of showcasing art and it worked. I no longer have the gallery but currently my career is better than ever. I attribute a lot of this to the exposure and marketing that the gallery provided. I don’t think I would have had the same notoriety as an artist if I had depended solely on traditional galleries.

  11. This blog post is very timely for me. I’ve been contacted twice by galleries in NY that have a “pay to play” model, and one of them has reached out to me twice, very recently. Who doesn’t want to show their work in NY? Certainly I do. So, of course, with the email subject line “Gallery Representation” my immediate attention was gained. But I learned from my years as an author/illustrator that the money should only flow in one direction. It was always FROM the agent TO the author/illustrator, and never the other way around. I think of galleries the same way. If I hadn’t been invited to show in good galleries who did not ask me for money up front, I might find it tempting.

    This gallery in question advertises themselves as much as artist “promoters” as they do gallerists–maybe even more so. I suppose one could make a case for showing in this sort of gallery by comparing the experience to doing an art fair–in which you have to pay to exhibit. But somehow showing in a fair setup with other artists seems more appealing to me. Out of curiosity, I have asked to be sent additional info, indicating I will not be paying any application fee. I was unable to find any info regarding the percentage they take from sales on their website.

  12. As both an artist and a gallery owner I feel
    like I can see both sides now. As an artist I
    Work constantly to build a noteworthy career and I have a strong list of collectors who continue to invest in my work however, a recent move to a much larger space in a budding new arts district in Los Angeles opened up the opportunity for me to exhibit work from other artists. After many years in LA I have made friends with artists whose careers have really taken off and I want to share their work. The vanity part applies to me in that I’m getting a cross pollination of great collectors and building my email list of potential new collectors and art lovers. Now, I’m getting inquiries from lesser known artists who want to show in my space. They are not bringing clients, not paying for advertising or other expenses like rent, security, liquor, etc. That is a big risk for me. I plan to charge for the rental of my space for some future exhibits but that can be offset by sales. If an artist sells enough work to cover the rent of the wall space then I’ll take the commission(s) and waive the fee. We are still in the midst of a pandemic and both artists and gallery owners need to be creative to make it through this. Times have change so don’t judge people for trying to stay in business. And by the way, since I started showing /sharing work of my artist friends, I have never worked so hard in my life! I barely have time to paint so I’m making huge sacrifices in addition to paying for everything. Just know there’s two sides to every situation and we can all make something positive out of all of this is we respect the efforts of all involved who work to bring original art to the masses. My two cents.

  13. My first experience with a “vanity gallery” was quite shocking, to say the least. I was invited for an interview with the gallery owner of an established well-located gallery to show my work with them. After about a half hour of praise and talk about the exposure my Holocaust series would receive, I was told that a fee of $5,800 for two weeks would be charged as well as a 50% commission on sales. I didn’t walk, I ran away from this “opportunity “. I guess one has to decide just how much you want to “pay to play”. Was I wrong?

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