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 artist Kim Jones,

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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68 Comments

  1. Hi Jason,

    Can you clarify the difference between a “vanity” gallery charge and say a jury fee. The shows that I submit to here in upstate NY all have a “Jury” fee of perhaps 10 to 15 dollars per piece submitted…usually with a limitation on the number of pieces. I see this as the gallery being able to compensate a jury and provide prize money for the exhibition.

    So I guess I’d like you to put an approximate number on the “vanity” gallery charge. Just how much are they charging. I’m asking, partly because I’m in the process of opening a gallery (www.watergalleryandcafe.com) here in upstate NY and I’m sure I’ll be picking your brain much more in the coming weeks and months. I don’t plan to charge a fee to display but I do plan to charge a jury fee for pieces submitted to exhibition shows.

    Thanks!

    Steve

    1. Good question Steve – the amounts can vary, but I would think of the difference being that a jury fee would be one-time, whereas “Vanity” galleries charge ongoing fees as long as you are showing there.

    2. Steve~ I am curious as to where you are opening your gallery as I am in a town that is full of galleries and and antique shops in upstate NY , and am also an artist.

  2. I have shown work in several vanity galleries with positive results — three sales in NY and one in Bogota, Colombia — none in Venice. I would prefer to sell through a traditional gallery because I think they have more incentive to sell the work but my work doesn’t fit into the usual business model and galleries don’t want to take a chance on it — but when people see it they respond. Do I keep it in the studio and not sell or pay to have it seen? Being in Arizona doesn’t help either.

  3. While the market is indeed opening up more channels for connecting artists and collectors, the risk to anyone who wants to make art as a profession is that the time spent marketing your work is time not spent making art. This is where a relationship with a gallery becomes crucial. If a collector makes contact outside of your gallery, gently guide them to the gallery to consummate the deal. This is the ethical path in my view.

  4. Wouldn’t you have to consider all co-op galleries as “vanity” galleries? They require both funds and, generally, volunteer labor, in order to show.

      1. Jason: I belonged to New Century Artists in NYC when I was beginning my career. It was a good experience, even though I had to pay to rent wall space to show my paintings. I now have an offer from a gallery in FL which wants $3,000.00 upfront for a year and which takes no commission until after you sell $3,000.00 worth of paintings. It occurs to me that this is a real win situation for the gallery as even if a painter sells nothing the gallery has $3,000. in hand. Also, the gallery does not pay for shipping to or from. I will look forward to reading your article on co-ops. Theo Tamborlane Website: Tamborlane.com

  5. I used to be approached by vanity galleries in New York. My advice I st work the numbers. If they charge 1,000 plus a commission how many pieces would you need to sell just to break even? Don’t forget to figure in shipping to and from their gallery. I decided to make it my policy to never assume all the risk while the seller assumed none. Perhaps a more modest arrangement might make sense, especially if it was local. Don’t forget, the artist has a financial investment in work that hangs in galleries, too. Materials, framing, their overhead, it’s not all one sided.

  6. I was given the opportunity to show in a very well known vanity gallery in NYC and declined after speaking to them. Obviously I cannot speak for all galleries that charge a fee to hang work, but there were a few things that particularly struck me (and which you did hit on in the article).

    My biggest concern at the time was that the gallery had no motivation to sell my work. Although many artists complain that galleries take large commissions, I do understand that the artist’s job is to make the work and the gallery’s job is to promote and sell it. A good gallery will call their collectors and suggest they look at new work that may fit their collection. Without a commitment to reach out to clients, simply hanging your work on a wall and hoping the right buyer will come in an purchase within a very short period of time seems unlikely.

    In addition, I was concerned that a gallery that operates this way does not hang the work in any meaningful way that allows the various artworks to compliment and flow from one piece to the next. Rather, it is simply a jumble of whatever is there that month. That does not show off any of the work to advantage.

    Being not only an artist but a collector as well, I cannot imagine purchasing a piece without seeing it in person. Some look better online, some worse. It isn’t even clear, given all the parameters of computer screens, what the true color is in a piece. Really a gamble.

    So where does that leave those of us who are willing to allow the galleries to do the work they do to sell art? If the trend is to pay to hang and sell online, that seems like death for the art world.

    1. Thanks for this input, Leni.
      I’ve been approached by three such galleries in just the last few months and have been weighing all the pros and cons that Jason and others have laid out here. Your elaboration on the topic of motivation has expanded an into an area I was iffy on. I live in WV, and a trip to NYC just to scope out the locations would be both time consuming and expensive but I figured I’d have to do because I’d need to see location, size, etc. in addition to speaking with artists and getting a feel for the staff.
      You make a lot of sense.

    2. I agree. The vanity gallery model reverses the motivation of the gallery to sell space to artists rather than sell art to collectors. There are plenty of online gallery examples of this, too–companies that urge an artist to show their work through them for a monthly fee, but do little or nothing to drive traffic to see what they are showing. Xanadu earns their monthly fees by providing useful inventory/consignment software and, optionally, an independent website that an artist can build easily and market however they want. As a bonus an artist can display pieces in their online gallery, but that’s not what the fees are for (at least in my view). Not true of many other online galleries.

      1. Actually, I’m not sure that “sell space to artists” is a proper description for a vanity gallery. That sounds more like a co-op. The model is also common in antiques. The gallery creates the overall space and provides someone to watch the counter, the artists pay for a fixed space and decided for themselves what to place and how to display it. Sort of an on-going show where you don’t have to be watching your merchandise all the time.

  7. Questions for Steve. Is there an outside of the gallery jury process? Are their qualifications posted for all submitting artists to see? In my opinion if you can answer these two question with yes than a jury fee is justified. In my experience since the neighboring gallery to us does this but is juried by the owners I question these types of fees as only a twisting of the pay upfront to show concept but hidden behind a jury fee. We do not charge our artists to display but get a commission at the point of sale. I see the jury fee as a way to pay for wall space rent to the owners that are juried the art in. In the meantime they cover their overhead and eventually find enough good artists to do a more or less conventional gallery approach as time goes on.
    Hopefully this is good food for thought
    David

    1. You could use a ‘l’ in the link David … wildflower … Jason does some ‘fee to look ‘ … ‘jury’ … whatever it’s called … if it’s modest it seems justified … there are a lot of artists and whatever the merits of their work not all would be suitable to various galleries … seems to me a small ‘jury fee’ is preferable to the often seen “We are not currently looking at new artists work.”

      1. Jim thanks for your catch on website. Also I am not against jury fees that are truly jury fee In my opinion this means an impartial jury of your peers at minimum and at best truly qualified peers. If an owner is involved in the process it can’t by its nature be impartial. A hanging fee would be a more appropriate term in my opinion as the word jury implies some that may not be any legitimate part of this process. Let not muddy the water anymore than it already is for an artist. Respectfully

    2. David…thanks for the response and questions. Yes there will be an outside of the gallery process. I can’t imagine being the sole juror and also maintaining a relationship with my artists. I think that separation is crucial. and yes…each show will have it’s own specific criteria for the submitting artists in the prospectus. This does make me feel a bit better about the whole process. The idea of running a “vanity” gallery really does rub me the wrong way.

      1. One suggestion on running juried shows – be sure you are extremely clear to both jurors and artists as to what is, and is not, acceptable. I used to be a print maker, and there was a regional show I entered, and generally won awards in, every year. Then one year nothing was accepted. I drove to the state hosting the exhibition, and discovered that the juror apparently had taken it on themselves to refuse to accept any color prints – even though the prospectus did NOT say color prints were not permitted! Since my prints were all about color, they did not get chosen. I felt ripped off – I would never have entered if I had known in advance that no color prints would be considered. I never have known if the exhibition committee decided no color prints, or if the juror made an executive decision, but if you are not willing to accept work with specific qualifications that needs to be clear up front – and your juror(s) need to know they cannot work around that!

      2. You are welcome Steve. Sounds to me you are trying to create a good balanced approach that can create a win & win which is what I hope all galleries try to do unfortunately ethics and art don’t always come together. I wish you and your artists much success. There are obliviously many ways to create solid business models that helps both the owners and artists to benefit from their relationship.

  8. Hi Jason
    Thank you for all the info you post have been very helpful. I don’t think we have vanity galleries in the UK.
    I don’t put work in galleries. This is a matter of choice. And I have very busy studio. However I think I like the idea of vanity galleries.because it give a chance of exposure to artist who don’t not have many choices.

    Basma

  9. No thanks! I will continue to bust my ass and create great work and do it the traditional way. Patience, hard work and dedication will bring good things. Why would I want to spend all that money to a gallery that is having a hard time selling enough work to keep the doors open?

  10. I have had experience in 2 interesting gallery types. The first was a vanity gallery, where the owners collected a space rent fee plus 40% commission, and a 3-day work commitment per month and 3 month contract. They covered their expenses by constantly bringing in new artists as artists dropped out after paying the fees with no sales. The owners rarely showed up and often closed the gallery when they were short of help. This model kept the owners going for a few years, but they are now starting to run out of new artists. (I dropped out after 3 months) Putting art in this gallery now is probably high risk for the artist, since the doors could close at any time with the artist losing their artwork.

    The second gallery was right next door to the first gallery, but it was structured as a working studio, composed of 6 artists cooperatively sharing the space rent and committing to be there 3 days/wk. No commissions were deducted from sales. In this gallery I had excellent sales. We enjoyed friendly conversations with customers and each other. The sales meant we could be productive and constantly rotate in new work, keeping the gallery interesting and relevant by knowing what sells and how to price work. People liked seeing the original work and meeting and engaging with the artists.

    Both galleries were in the same location, had the same customers, and both offered high quality artwork. This lesson was not lost on me, and I hope it may provide some insight to others.

  11. I have experienced only one pay as you go gallery and I did not join up. I did what you recommended and called all of the artists who were showing work at this particular gallery. What I learned was very disconcerting. 2/3 of the gallery artists were paying for space and the other 1/3 was not. The pay-as-you-show group was receiving 75% of the sale price and the traditional gallery group was receiving 50% of the sale price.

    I’m certain if the pay-as-you-show group knew this, they would withdraw from the gallery immediately. As a gallery owner, whose work do you think they will be trying to sell…..the ones that give him or her 50% or 25%.

    The gallery owner never mentioned that there were two sets of contracts going on in this space. Shame on the owner, but shame on the pay-as-you-show artists who didn’t do their research first.

    Since this incident five years ago I have shown only in traditional galleries. It soured my feelings toward the pay-as-you-show arrangement. I’m very sorry the market is moving in this direction. I do think we will see an alternative to both the traditional gallery and the pay-as-you-show brick and mortars. I believe it is only a matter of time that online artist coops will become the main source of distribution for artists. I foresee groups of painters, sculptures, photographers, etc. will join together to have group websites. There will be an overseer who will be in charge of the site and promoting it for a small monthly fee to each of the artists. Unlike Saatchi Art where the quantity of artwork is overwhelming for the buyers, these will be small boutique sites specializing in only one or two art specialties. In addition to the fee paid to the overseer, the artist may choose to promote his or her work with links to only their work on the site.

    Just some thoughts about the future of art marketing.
    Thanks

    1. I rather like the idea of an online coop/boutique site. The sites like Saatchi for fine art or Etsy for crafts are too overwhelming as you said. And why do I want to send my potential buyer to a site where they can easily buy from someone else?

  12. Steve, I also regularly pay jury fees to exhibit in Chicago and nearby. It is how many artist collectives and small new galleries can afford to hire a juror, cover reception costs etc. However, the jury fees are usually minimal ($15 -$30), in contrast to a large NY vanity gallery that approached me with fees of $500.month for a year. Also my participation in juried exhibits has had many benefits: exposure (since I only recently began displaying my art), meeting many local artists, learning about new opportunities, even the occasional sale! (Although I’ve sold more art online.) Yet another factor is the opportunity to have a really distinguished juror view my art. So basically I think your plan is fine. Good luck, Leon

    1. Leon, I’m pretty sure I was approached (and hounded repeatedly) by that same gallery in NY. And I see many of the same benefits from juried shows – IF I can attend them, or if they’re thematically in line with what I do. Most of my sales come from people seeing my work online or at a fair-type show, and then approaching me with commissions after the event is over.

      1. I’m curious where people see your work online? Your own website, other online vehicles? My experience is people don’t want to buy 2D work online unless they’re very familiar with your work, so know the quality and can guess at colors.

  13. I am a full-time artist (photographer) and earn my entire living that way. I have been a retail store owner for 18 years and have also owned a gallery for a short time. I also have an MBA which has proven invaluable in avoiding many of the pitfalls of being a professional artist.
    I don’t think the point of sales motivation can be overstated with “vanity” or “pay to show” galleries. While my work sells well in traditional galleries, I have sold very little in co-op or “pay to show” galleries and have chosen to avoid those models when I search for additional representation. When the motivation to sell work is removed or diminished the artist is likely to be the one who suffers.
    Perhaps there is a hybrid business model that features a smaller fee to show as well as a smaller commission but I have not seen that model in my inquiries.
    I have had some good experiences with non-traditional venues however. I currently show in a local restaurant as well as the lobby of a high-end condominium. Both of those venues have been successful for me.
    The take-away, for me, is to do the research and take a very business-like approach. Remember this is a business as well as a great, fun way to earn a living!

  14. “This artist might simply consider the fee an advertising expense.”…

    That about sums it up. This topic reminds me one on many of the photo forums…should I give away or do photography for free?

    Whether it is the vanity gallery question or doing photography for free, the answer lies in the marketplace and not your wishes and desires. In other words, if a commission gallery will take you on, then forget the vanity gallery. If you can’t get a commission gallery to rep you and you don’t want to go for vanity galleries then you need option #3.

    What follows is a project taken from my artists’ book Presenting Photography to Curators and Museums. This exercise will not only give you a good grounding into the real-life art market, but more important, it will provide you with the benefit of exposing your work to a large section of the art world.

    Here is a list of photo galleries.

    http://art-support.com/galleries.htm

    For artists working outside of photography, here is your list of art galleries.

    http://art-collecting.com/galleries.htm

    Solicit them for accepting an artwork from you that you will donate for free for them to sell with the understanding if it does sell they will represent you. It is a no-risk offer for them. They only need to invest a little square footage of display room, but that is it…you even pay for shipping with your initial artwork.

    Contact them via mail, email, send a CD, a ‘leave behind’ or even sample prints. Don’t call them, art is visual – send visual solicitations. See what type of response you get (if any) for offering free artwork to them.

    Just make it clear that your offer is subject to prior placement. This will allow you to pick and choose which gallery you wish to work with if you get a few takers and you are only offering one artwork for free. You always have the out of ‘prior placement’ in your corner – unless you wish to offer free artwork to a few galleries to get things going quicker. Now, I’m not telling you this to play games, I am just telling you to protect yourself when you make free offers.

    If your an artist that is looking to enter the field of museum placements, here is a list for you to work on.

    https://sites.google.com/site/universityartmuseumsinvirginia/national-directory-by-state

    It is better you make your mistakes with smaller museums than larger institutions. So, start out with university art museums. I didn’t do that when I started out and made some mistakes that ended up hurting me. I didn’t have anyone breast feeding me how to go about it – I learned from the school of hard knocks. If you have an academic connection to the institution, that may help you a little. But if your art is not to their liking, connection or not, you won’t get in.

    For book arts…here is your list.

    http://www.andrew.cmu.edu/user/md2z/ArtistsBooksDirectory/ArtistsBookIndex.html

    Museums seldom buy art unless it is something they really, really want. Art museums acquire most of their art via donations. The general rule is this – if you solicit a museum to acquire your work, they would expect it being offered as a donation. If the museum solicits you to acquire your work, you may be in the position to negotiate a sale.

    A photography curator at a smaller, regional museum told me in her 15 years on the job the museum only purchased 2 objects. The rest of the photography was acquired as donations. Every museum is different, but the fact is most of the art that makes up a museum’s collection are acquired as gifts. So, if money is what is a driving force in your art – museum placements can be a tough way to generate income unless you are someone very special.

    As you solicit galleries, museums and institutions I suggest you work blind. Just go down the list of contacts A,B,C,D,E,F,G all the way to Z. You never know where a contact will lead you…don’t second guess or overthink things…work blind!

    Even if you have no success, when the list is finished start back up with the beginning to re-solicit with a new approach, new projects and new art. Over the years I’ve changed my approach on solicitations a number of times as I have refined things.

    Just keep your name out there. A big part of the success in anything is to not quit before you start and to show up and do what needs to be done. Sure there is a chance the gallery may cheat you, that I part of that business world, just like any other biz.

  15. Like some others above I had the opportunity to show in a large NYC vanity gallery and turned it down. Two reasons. First was that after questioning I realized they would leave all the marketing entirely up to me, and second they wanted $500-800 a year to show my work which I felt was more than I wanted to pay considering I had no idea if anything would sell. Also I hesitated because after several vigorous online discussions about the evils of vanity galleries and how having them listed on your resume could negatively affect your reputation, which left me uneasy about joining. However the thing is I also agree with Jason that it would appear that Galleries facing spiraling financial problems are or will drift towards a new business model where the artist will be asked/required to pay more of the freight of showing in the bricks and mortar Gallery. And also as online art sales increase (and they have already) these Galleries are faced with losing artists and also sales because artists are finding a way to market their work outside of the traditional Gallery system.

  16. I guess the question comes down to, in this age of internet sales, and so much virtual contact between customer and artist, who is going to pay for brick and mortar wallspace. I was recently on El Paseo drive in Palm Springs, during what should be their high season, and the shops and galleries there were sooo quiet. 10 years ago they were bustling. Alarm bells went off in my head about the future of brick and mortar galleries.

  17. A gallery in Tucson approached me about 15 months ago wanting to show my work. The arrangement that was offered was a monthly fee plus they would retain 20% commission. I had a struggle deciding if this arrangement would work for me as it required a year’s commitment. I did decide to commit and my work has been in the gallery since that time. It has sold very well. I’m happy and they are happy. For someone in my situation it has allowed me to focus on the art itself and not the business end. I understand the gallery owner’s need to have a guaranteed income through the slow summer months, and I have never had sales, even through the summer, that didn’t at least pay my monthly fee, as well as buy some art supplies. It can work!

  18. I have had off and on experiences with various kinds of ‘galleries’ over the years. The earliest ones were primarily frame shops that would hang work on commission, but made their money framing. There was ONE frame shop that would buy my work outright if they thought they could sell it… this shop also referred me for commission work.
    I have had only one experience with a ‘vanity gallery’…. It started out well. It was in a very good location in a coastal city where my son was in college. The owner screened everything that was there. My paintings were hung well, and lighting was good… although the way the shop (two story, very old building) was broken up it had a crowded feel overall. They sold several pieces for me, but I did not feel I was getting as much promotion on their website and social media as some other artists and sales were slacking off so that I was not making a profit. Due to other opportunities at the time I took my work out after several months. Actually, my son removed them and his roommate (a photographer that had just run into a deal on a very small space in the gallery district) asked to hang my work in a solo show. He was a good salesman and the show sales were very good. Unfortunately, he could only show work by appointment only due to his photography biz… so he did not renew the lease.
    Last fall I was invited to do a show in gallery in a very small town…. THAT show was a bust. Seems no one shows up unless the artist is a local… I still have work there, but plan to pull it out.
    I do participate in juried shows… but those generally – whether sponsored by galleries or art groups – never seem to make any attempt to sell anything. But it adds to the CV I guess.
    Not sure what to try next. I have had a website since the ‘early days’ (1980s) and sales used to be pretty good from that and just local word of mouth. Now, not so much… so I would LOVE to find a traditional gallery or two that would actually promote and sell, not just as extra wall decoration… (thanks for letting me vent)

  19. I’ve walked that road and left two similar galleries last year.
    1) A couple opened a small gallery purposely to sell his work, plus a few friends. They were minor investors who kicked in funds as needed. One donated website services, and after a year his was the only work featured. It was basically a dead site. Different medium, but I found my work competing with the owner. No advertising except for his work. They depended totally on walk-in customers. I left after four months.
    2) Another gallery could have been lucrative because of its prime location. They supposedly “juried” the work but I saw craft work increasingly introduced. Each artist was charged by the linear foot of wall space, display case, pedestal, etc. You chose 1-3 work days a month for a reduced commission. I left when they opened up a third more gallery space and invited unaffiliated artists to display at $25 a piece. The juried artists had to show their work as well but the invitees weren’t required to work. I figured this gallery was making upwards of $7000 a month just on leased space with free labor … sweet deal. They had no incentive to sell anything, and had only token sales. This business model is way too common and I’m not even sure it is legal. Even commissioned car salesman earn minimum wage if they don’t make a car sale.
    3) I’m now in a traditional historic gallery in an “art town.” They regularly advertise in nationally respected art magazines, architecture, and antiques. High commission, but no fees unless I want to contribute to local advertising for increased exposure. Totally my call. The relationship is quite satisfactory.
    4) Non-traditional commercial: I display more paintings in a respected winery and they have sold more than anyone. I’m looking for more commercial entities.
    5) Some established artists open their own studio gallery. I wouldn’t suggest that unless you had a reputation to draw from. I know of one small gallery of five artists; one oil painter, one acrylic, one jewelry, one watercolorist, one sculptor. They’ve been successful for twelve years, each contributes 1-2 days work. None are in competition with the other. Unusual to find five compatible people that mesh so well.
    6) Regardless of the type of gallery the biggest mistake I see artists make is thinking they don’t have to promote their own work. Never, ever leave it to your gallery or chance. Marketing is never ending.

    1. I forgot to mention a public gallery I am in but in a distant location. It’s not on anyone’s route to anywhere. As wonderful a facility as this is it is an educational and cultural center for the city. I display work for a perfectly reasonable member fee and standard commission. I wish it were local.
      And last, a nondescript museum gift shop that has more clout in movie production circles than here in Texas. I see potential later and am willing to invest my work and time.

  20. Hi,
    Question: Is a Gallery “Co-Op” different from a Vanity Gallery? I belong to two (2) artists organizations in my area. Both have a relationship with beautiful, large, well appointed galleries in shopping malls. The malls see the value of an art gallery and are making special rental deals to allow them to stay – at least until some company comes along and offers full rent. The commission structure is much less than a traditional gallery, about 25-30% instead of the 50-60%.

    In both cases, the organizations put on a gallery exhibition every 3 months and charge a fee for the time period. During that time, we are also required to staff the galleries a given number of days. They both put on a wonderful reception each new exhibit, print cards and do marketing for each show. We the artists, invite everyone we know and bring food and wine.

    At both galleries art is sold, but it does get expensive for a year’s showings (over $300.) I purchased your book and software and track my showings and sales, so I know I am just slightly ahead financially.

    Is this a different animal?

    Thanks for your insite.

    P.S. Could you modify your software to help us track this type of gallery expense?

    Thank you for all your work !

  21. I also was offered a show in one of the galleries on Main st, & I was all excited about it. Then the owner asked for $300 up front for”marketing.” Needless to say, I didn’t go along with it. That gallery is still in business, although she seems to still have the very same work hanging as she had last year.

  22. Hi Jason,
    I am glad you brought up the issue of galleries and the changes the internet is bringing to the gallery world. I have run a gallery for 34 years now in upstate NY near Chautauqua Institution (www.portagehillgallery.com). I have obviously been in business both pre and post internet sales by artists. Here is my experience: Some visitors to the gallery are very intent on just using a gallery to “find” artists and they want to contact them directly. If this happens the gallery is left swinging for all the work they are doing. This an lose/lose proposition because it is much more likely the piece will actually be sold if it is sold at the gallery before the client walks out of the door. The client might have intentions of contacting the artist directly when they walk out the door, but then life happens and they turn their attention elsewhere and never contact the artist. I only know of three times when someone has cut out my gallery- when that occurred I had two of the artists, both of whom I have represented for many years, send us a check for a commission out of the clear blue. This made me feel really positive towards those particular artists and if given the chance I would encourage the purchase of their work whenever possible. So artists can remove this problem by asking where a client has seen their work and if they are told a gallery, they can go ahead and send the commission to the gallery. I am also a showing artist and if I ever get asked about one of my pieces being shown in another gallery, I send the person back to the gallery for purchase. A positive symbiotic respectful relationship should exist between the artist and the gallerist. You both have the same goal- selling art to collectors and you both work hard to do it.

  23. It is important to note the difference between a vanity gallery, an artist run space, and in Australia we have some spaces that are run for a rental fee by local government. Thirdly there are not for profit spaces run by arts associations. last year I showed my work in a space run by a printmakers association called the Firestation Print Studio in Melbourne Australia. They did some marketing, have a mailing list, but it helps to be proactive as they don’t have the drive and business knowledge of a commercial gallery owner. That is they don’t live or die by their sales, so if it doesn’t sell they are not concerned. I did ok then brought the work back to Perth, my home town and had a studio sale from my house selling more than I did at the exhibition, but I think it was the kudos from the exhibition that drove the later studio sales.

  24. For sales, my experience with a co-op gallery has been wonderful. Four friends sharing rent and expenses, and no commission. The draw back was that we had no advertising and some members were not as reliable or lacked the sales skills to sell other artist works.

    My experience with vanity galleries (artist pay for space and work a few times a month) has been horrible. Most of the artists do not want to work at the gallery, lack any knowledge of the other artists and their work, are not reliable, art work is stagnate and cluttered from floor to ceiling and the presentation is generally bad. Owners of the gallery will accept anyone, do not advertise except social media and could care less if anyone sells anything.

  25. In Denver there are several co-op galleries. They have receptions and then they do not
    get many buyers. The prices are budget friendly. The artists gallery sit after their
    show opens waiting for people to come in. Most of them do not churn the waters by sending out reminders for people to come in during the run of the show. I am not a big fan of vanity or co-op galleries. It can be a wast of money and time. I do business oiut of my home studio by appointment. So far so good.

  26. Lee Pierce,

    Thanks, Jason, for discussing the topic “Should Artists Show at Vanity Galleries”.

    I like the idea which Jan Anders Nelson suggested — that if a collector makes contact with you outside the gallery then tactfully guide them to the gallery to close the deal.

  27. I think it is wise for both galleries and artists to keep options open. We all need to be looking at different options and exploring different opportunities. However all decisions need to thought through and based on informed information/knowledge. I am not keen on the idea of ‘Vanity Galleries’ at all. They have no appeal for me but this does not mean I won’t consider that option if need be [all be it most unlikely].
    My view is that to become successful [in quality, reputation and sales] the artist must work, and work hard. The artist has to also work hard on gaining gallery representation. It is a two way business. Quality artists need quality galleries. As an artist I feel it is important to continually produce quality work that continues to develop and evolve over time and experience. To do your best, you also need a quality gallery(s) doing the same; working hard, developing a quality service to artists and collectors and on making themselves the best that can be and working as hard and as expertly as possible. Quality service and success goes both ways.
    In short what Jan Anders Nelson and lee Pierce have already said above is exactly the response I feel is most appropriate.

  28. My opinion is that a traditional gallery model is still the best for an artist who wishes to establish a career. A traditional gallery that actively pursues sales will have built up an extensive mailing list, a (usually) good relationship with collectors, will know which advertising has proven effective for them, and-due to their visibility and reputation-will usually be the “go to” destination when someone thinks of buying art. Plus the traditional gallery, such as Xanadu, will continually be striving to stay competitive in the art market and nurturing its existing talent while developing new talent.

  29. Sheldon Goldman
    I am a full time practicing artist, based in a northern suburb of Toronto, Canada(Maple, Ontario). In this part of Canada there has been a rise of a plethora of self-esteem galleries. Most of these galleries charge a hang fee(largest cost to the artist) as well as varying degrees of commissions, usually much less than 50%. Some of these galleries only charge a hang fee based on time and space restrictions.
    Being a non-practicing real estate agent as well, I attribute the rise of these galleries in and around Toronto to the artificially high cost of real estate in this part of the world. By the way I do believe we are in a real estate bubble in Toronto and Vancouver.
    As far as these self esteem galleries go, this results in inferior art being displayed in at least 50% of the galleries in Toronto and area, in my opinion. The reason for this is that these gallery owners are in reality, only interested in obtaining a fee charged to the artist in order to keep their businesses afloat. In order to “feed the beast” they are continually having to find new people/artists who are willing to pay a fee in order to display their art.
    Having rambled on about this, I also have a favourite saying- “there is far too much art produced these days and not enough walls to hang all of it on”. So I guess in this part of Canada, the self esteem gallery is here to stay. My best advice for artists in the end, is to ask or find out from any gallery owner/curator(sometimes you can get an idea from the website) whether they be the traditional or the self esteem gallery is, what the stats are for their various artists in terms of sales. I would obviously be more interested in being represented by a gallery that has more sales of the genre of art that I produce. If this information is unattainable, I would avoid the gallery.

  30. We recently had a vanity gallery open and quickly close near here. They called on me when they first opened, to show my work, but I had no interest in throwing money after their endeavor. Their problems, as I see it, were
    1. No real selective process on the quality of the work being shown (an artist would have no idea what quality of work would hang next to theirs)
    2. Relying on walk in traffic and pretty laid back about selling to those who wandered in
    3. Lack of other selling techniques – prospective buyers to call, internet marketing, event selling
    4. Their presentation of the work was to cram as much into the space as possible
    5. The gallery owner was an artist who was most interested in selling her own work

    My question is: why would a vanity gallery have any impetus to sell when they have a stable of artists paying the rent+? This sort of situation ties up work that would have more beneficial opportunity in a traditional gallery that sells for commission or handling your own sales online.

    1. That’s the biggest problem, most of these vanity galleries are owned by an artist. Usually an artist that is struggling to get into galleries, so they open their own gallery and plan on other artists to pay the rent.

  31. A really interesting topic and sign of the times, like you say. Personally I rarely pay to exhibition but always advise other artists to consider various kinds of options. Sometimes paying can work, or a straight out for-hire gallery can work. Depends on the artist’s own marketing I think.
    Personally I’ve made my own decision on how to react to this trend and it’s counter-intuitive. I’ve just opened my own gallery (micro gallery at 8 square meters!) to exhibit mine and other artists’ work both in exhibitions and at art fairs. My goal is to actually pay artists at least a small stipend to take part in exhibitions (not art fairs, unfortunately – as I’m sure you understand the huge costs of those) and then take commission on sales. As an artist I’ve obviously experienced a lot of different gallery arrangements that led me to decide what kind of gallery I wanted to be. And I want to enable artists even if that just means a bit of payment to help pay shipping costs or printing. It’s not a judgement at all on other options, and I myself still work with “traditional” galleries too.
    It’s a brave new world out there and I don’t think anyone is quite sure yet in what direction we’re going.

  32. A very recent visit to a well-known gallery district led me to talking to the owners of a small gallery on the main strip of this district. They were very aggressive in trying to get me to buy a necklace I admired, but it was not in my budget. While I was looking, my fiancé showed them some of my own work (not my idea) and they asked me to please follow up, and send more work and information. They talked to me for at least half an hour about my art and how they got started with their gallery, etc. There were some things that made me uncomfortable – the aggressiveness, the haphazard appearance of the gallery – but I certainly don’t expect everyone to do things exactly as I would, so I sent them my work and biography upon returning home.
    They followed up immediately, saying they thought my work was beautiful, and they’d love to offer me a “visiting artist” contract, but not representation, which would show my work for 3 months.
    I had never heard of that, so I asked them what was the next step. When I got the contract attached to the followup email, my jaw hit the floor. Not only did they want an outrageous fee, but it was on top of a full, 50% commission, and for only 3 paintings.
    Now, the thing that made me the angriest was that in all the time we were speaking in person, and in the followup correspondence, they never even mentioned they were a fee-based gallery. But, I was also insulted, because by sending that contract, they are saying, “We don’t think your artwork will sell, so you have to pay us to maybe attempt it.”
    I very respectfully declined their offer and thanked them for their time. I did not get a response. It taught me a LOT about trusting my instincts and first impressions, but it’s also very frustrating.
    I also don’t understand how this is acceptable to any artist. Uber drivers don’t pay Uber to have their car be a part of the fleet. They pay a commission on the drives they get.

  33. Other then showing my work in a group show and entering a competition I am new to the business. I paid to be in competition, so I do believe in paying to participate. I read your
    blog, and find the information very helpful in reassessing my future in art. There is a lot to think about and consider. Thank you for your time and insight.

  34. Thanks Jason for bringing up the subject and thanks to the artists for the stories shared, we’ve certainly paved our road in the art business world, I can see that. Personally, I’ve had several different experiences:
    1. An artist I’m acquainted with opened a tiny gallery and invited me to exhibit at the very begining, so the fee was reasonable and the comission was 30%. I shared the expenses with an artist friend to live the experience. I sold 40% of my works. Bottom line, it was good for me but all buyers were my usual collectors, the gallery contributed with none. Did not repeat the experience. Connie and Brian above are absolutely right and said it bluntly: these new gallery owners are often artists who expect other artists to pay the rent! When you realize this, my advice is to run and laugh hahaha. The mentioned gallery closed after a year, eventhough many artists helped with the rent during that period and also competed with the owner in their attempts to sell. She kept the online gallery though, charging a fee for a number of works plus a 40% comission! I’m not taking part on that either since amazingly, her works are the lowest priced, wise girl, uh? Competition again “judge and party”.
    2. I was approached last year by a London based gallery, rental space. £500 a week —not a year like in NY— for a 3mts wall and no comission on sales. They were honest enough to answer my questions when I payed a visit to them, saying most of the sales weren’t made in the gallery. Why on earth am I going to exhibit there then? Poor location too, so not even the window would do. Advice: keep your eyes and ears wide open.
    3. I belong to two different co-op groups. It’s not worth it regarding to selling your artwork, unless they exist physically. These don’t, so it turns out to be more on the social side. And there are too many petty disagreements!
    4. My experience as a Saatchi Art artist is excellent, in spite of the overwhelming number of works displayed. They are absolutely professional and don’t charge for exhibiting your pieces.
    5. I’ve participated in curated art shows as well. When you pay med-high fees, you’re paying for hanging, may be to add to your CV. More possibilities exist that your work is appreciated and valued when the fee is very low and so is the number of participants. This last model is not the usual one, sadly.
    6. I’m not willingly paying any fees to exhibit in a gallery, but I’m more than ready to pay a 50% comission if the gallery is well located, beautifully run and my paintings considered and valued by the owner, my work respected and treated accordingly.
    Bottom line, we all struggle one way or another in the art world! Hard work, patience, joy and immense love for what we do are a must. Good luck XXX

  35. Hi All,
    I am the former owner of a well located art gallery that closed 20 years ago. Today’s art market and marketing is obviously very different than it was. The difference between an artist marketing their own work and having a really good gallery marketing your work, is the concentration on marketing that the gallery can do that you as an artist cannot do as well–and still have time to do quality work. Many if not most artists think that the most important thing is to have your work in a gallery hanging on the wall. The gallery does not just hang artwork on the gallery wall. They actively promote the work, the artist and the gallery. That is important because the gallery develops a group of collectors who come to the gallery because they know they will find really good art there. They trust the gallery owner to find the really good art. In fact, the gallery owner has pre-selected what is good art (at least in the eyes of the gallery owner). When we pay a commission, we are actually paying for the gallery owner’s expertise in marketing art and the ability to remain open long enough (overhead) to have pre-selected clients who buy art. They have developed a market for our art, and have assisted their gallery-artists to make available a “product” that is sellable to the pre-molded customers they have developed. We can do this for ourselves, too, but I suggest that even in today’s art world, we should be both marketing our own work and striving for placing our work in the best gallery(ies) we can find. It is well worth it to have a good art dealer (agent) promoting our work. When sales are made from work displayed or promoted by the gallery, the gallery has earned their fair share. Your own efforts at promotion will further ensure that the combination of gallery sales and your own sales will help you earn a living from your work. I know that more and more artists are selling their own work directly (and should), but there will always be a place for a really good gallery. The pay-to-play gallery (vanity) does not really do anything to build a customer base, or promote the “gallery” artists. The vanity gallery is really just renting space!

  36. Thanks for a very well considered and balanced article. I have been approached by Brick Lane gallery to display some of my photography and was initially very flattered and excited for the opportunity. Since doing some research my excitement has waned somewhat since I know the same flattering email was sent out to many other artists also. This does tend to take the shine off it. That said it is a good gallery and they are willing to show my work (what that is worth I do not yet know) and I am now torn as to whether I should take the gamble with a rather hefty “rental” fee. This article helps clear up a few things.

  37. Vanity vs Jury fee. You pay a jury fee 20 times $600.00, your work is deemed unsuitable for whatever reason, no-one sees it. You pay $600.00 to a vanity gallery, it’s on display, some may view it, even purchase it. In my opinion it seems to be a do you want your art to be viewed or, approved by an “expert”. Having expert approval may help sell your art or lead to an exhibition or may not.

  38. Hi
    I exhibited on ArtExpo Milan2016, they are taking 1600euro for a single billboard.Checking on the website ArtExpo Milan, which is the ONLY on-line reference, there are just a few pictures of the events , and one video of the exhibition, there s no link to any articles who cites the event, there’s actually nothing stating that the events really took place from 2015-2016.I was personnally there , and it was poor publicity.
    Above all,they stold my paintings. I had to call a Consulate of my country to get my paintings back, and I still don’t know what is going on with that.
    They are trheatened me with a lawsuit if this all come out to public.I was clueless about Vanity galleries so fare, please put the ArtExpo Milan on your website.They are calling them selves ArtExpo world 2017 now.Organisated by Alan D’Orlando and Mellisa Colagnello― Artmeet, Gartam gallery.
    Thank you very much.
    Best regards.

  39. I’m a painter and a decorator exhibiting for years in various countries….There is a very good reason to DO NOT go to a vanity gallery: and it’s easy to understand: A vanity gallery will ask you to pay in advance anyway….So by the time your work reach the gallery they have already cash your money and they don’t give a damn if you’re going to sell or not….In addition you’ll have to pay for your artworks transportation, for your trip and for board during the exhibition….I know a painter who exhibited in a famous vanity gallery in New York…He lives in Italy…The exhibition costed him more than 10 000 dollar including all the expenses…and he didn’t sell anything…..If a gallery is REALLY interested in your work, they will accept to exhibit your work taking a percentage on the sells…which should not be to hight (depends on the work they will do to organize your exhibition)…..As a rule of thumb: do not get involved in any business if the deal is that you are the only one who’s supposed to anticipate money…. 🙂

  40. One of the galleries I am exhibiting in (I am a landscape photographer) has gone to a “pay your commission up front” model. We artists pay a set fee a month which the gallery owner uses to pay rent, bill, etc. When I sell, up to a certain amount, I receive the entire amount paid, until the prepaid commission is reached and the commission kicks in again. Still not a vanity gallery, because the owner is not adding new artists, and he doesn’t hang whatever people wander in with. I hear more galleries are going to this model, because it provides a stable amount of income for the gallery, and doesn’t take money from the artists, unless they don’t sell anything that month. What do you think of this?

  41. Thanks for sharing! Very helpful.

    When I started out as a full-time artist, one of the first shows I did was with a Vanity Gallery. I paid 750pounds for a month and didn’t sell anything or hear any feedback. I considered it a way to promote myself online, gaining credibility, which was the only reason I displayed my work there. I don’t think I would do it again. I’m only willing to pay for art fairs, because you can actually talk to the potential buyers yourself which gives you more control.

    Take care

  42. Hello,
    thank you for your interesting blog post. Sorry for my English.

    I’m an artist from Belarus living and working in Germany since 2015-2016. In Belarus are different rules in the art scene. When I moved to Germany and made my first steps in the art scene three years ago, I was shocked about the importance of marketing part in the art. The art scene in Belarus is very conservative. Only finishing Art School and Art Academy (8 years) and being then included into the Art Society – you have chance to be represented by a few galleries in the capital Minsk. There are only traditional galleries. No “vanity” galleries. The talented young artists perfectly know academic basics and can paint everything, but they don’t know nothing about self-promotion through social media and don’t know nothing about what happens in the art world. So when I moved to Germany and created my website and social media channels I got my first invitations by “vanity” galleries from New York, London and Germany as well. At that time, I didn’t know this definition “vanity”, but I was shocked about the fee: 500-3000$! As I understood correctly, they didn’t want to represent my art, they just wanted to have my money. I’m not sure, if such “vanity” dealers have serious collector lists, they just rent a room and make business. Or? So I decided not to participate.

    Helen Shulkin

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