The Art Gallery is Dead . . . Long Live the Art Gallery

Over the last several weeks, I’ve had several of you send me links to articles that decry the end of the gallery system. It seems like these articles come around every few years. Though each of the articles came at the question from different angles, the points can be summarized as:

  • Art galleries are dead because now artists can access buyers directly on the internet
  • Art galleries are dead because they are too greedy and dishonest and aren’t treating artists well
  • Bricks and mortar art galleries are dead because the online sales of art are increasing.

To some extent, I realize that all of these points are true, at least to a degree. One has only to survey the gallery market to see that many galleries that were thriving ten to fifteen years are no longer around. The poor economy from 2008-2011 certainly played a larger role in this, but it’s also clear that more and more art sales are shifting to the internet. It’s always hard to get any kind of well-documented industry figures, but I’ve seen Xanadu’s online sales grow significantly over the last ten years to a point where online sales make up about 15% of total revenue.

So is the demise of the traditional gallery model in the tea leaves? Looking at what’s happened in the music and publishing industry might lead one to believe so. It seems logical that the sale of artistic creations, whether it’s music, books or artwork, can be done more efficiently and cost-effectively online than in the bricks and mortar world. While many in the art industry (both artists and galleries) would argue that art is different, that you have to see it in person and touch it before you can make such a high value purchase, many art buyers disagree. I’m finding my clientele more and more willing to buy artwork sight-unseen. As we all become more and more comfortable with the internet as a medium for commerce, we’re willing to make higher value purchases.

If those purchases are backed by respected and trusted venues (like Amazon and well-established galleries) it seems possible, and even likely, that the trend will continue.  Keep in mind, too, that if the current generation of art buyers, typically well-established in their careers and finances and aged between 40-70, can adapt to buy high-ticket items online, the next generation of buyers, who are digital natives, will have no problem buying art online (if they buy at all, which is another story altogether).

What does this mean for art galleries?

First, I believe that the gallery market is going to contract in the coming decade. The contraction began with the economic recession. Many smaller, and some well-established galleries, closed their doors for good. The bad economy forced many of these galleries to close, but even before the recession began, many galleries were struggling in the new digital environment. I’ve watched galleries on Main Street in Scottsdale (where my gallery is located) fade away. The profit margins of the gallery business are already razor-thin and the added pressure of competing with online retailers will push many galleries out of the market.

Second, I believe that galleries need to come up with aggressive online strategies. I don’t believe that anyone has developed the perfect model for selling art online yet.  However, it’s not going to work to have a static website with a few images of artwork and artist’s bios thrown up for visitors to review.  Deep and media rich websites are going to be expected, and  e-commerce will be mandatory.

computer with artThird, galleries are going to have to place a lot more emphasis on the art-buying experience than the process. In some ways, buying art is more like the performing arts than traditional retail. Art buyers often visit galleries while they are travelling and are looking for a cultural experience as much as a retail one. Shows and studio visits have always been important, but they are going to become even more so.

Fourth, galleries are going have to become media experts. We’ve had success offering multimedia experiences to buyers – video interviews with artists, for example, and we will be doing ever more to create a richer experience for people who visit the gallery. Not all of that experience can be duplicated online, but a lot of it can. The tools to produce rich media content have become less expensive and more accessible. My staff and I have learned how to use DreamWeaver, Photoshop, Premiere Pro, and InDesign to some degree of proficiency, and we’re leveraging social media (including YouTube) to an ever increasing degree. There’s a learning curve, and the benefits have been slow to materialize, but I’m convinced the investment in the tools and education will pay big dividends over time.

Finally, I believe it wise for galleries to think of their relationship with artists in a different light. As artists gain more independence by using online tools and more savvy marketing techniques, galleries are going to have to think of artists as full partners in the business. While it should have been this way all along, many galleries have treated their artists (especially emerging and early-career artists) as minor partners or second-class citizens in the marketing of the artist’s work. Moving forward, artists are going to see galleries as only one of many marketing venues for their work. Galleries are going to have to earn their artist’s business.

What does it mean for artists?

Artists are at an interesting crossroad with the changes in the industry. There are seemingly more opportunities for exposure than ever. An artist can create a website in a few minutes and have  a virtual gallery that has the potential to reach collectors around the world. The challenge, however, is that every other artist also has this same ability, and there’s a tremendous amount of artistic noise online. It’s very hard for the individual to get exposure and generate sales online.

Well-established artists have been able to siphon off gallery sales by selling directly to collectors online. This has certainly benefited those artists but has been another nail in the coffin of galleries who are promoting the artists but getting cut out of the sales. It also leaves a big question mark for those artists – what are they going to do if their galleries disappear and they no longer have a source for new collectors?

The contraction of the gallery market has even more impact on emerging and mid-career artists. It’s significant to note that in the reports I’ve read, Amazon and other online art retailer’s efforts are to be focused on well-established artists and galleries, not early-career artists. Until someone comes up with a better system (I’m working on it!) galleries remain the most reliable way for artists to gain broad exposure and sales. With fewer galleries and less gallery space out there, the path to gallery recognition and sales is going to become ever narrower. As the gallery market becomes more competitive it’s going to become more important for artists to bring their A-game to bear on their gallery relationship building efforts.

Artists are also going to have to take more of their sales efforts into their own hands. Establishing a track record of sales at shows and through direct and online sales will not only help an artist make a living, it will also help them prove to galleries that they are worth the investment of precious display space and marketing dollars.

Some artists will find that they enjoy the marketing so much and are so effective at it that they will decide not even to approach galleries at all. Instead they will run their own virtual and even, in some cases, their own bricks-and-mortar galleries.

Most artists, however, don’t want to spend their time marketing and selling their work – they want to be in the studio. Many don’t have an interest in that side of the business, or don’t feel capable of doing it all while at the same time continuing to produce the artwork. For them, gallery representation is still the ultimate goal, and the best model for maximizing their profitability.

The Reports of my Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

So are art galleries going to disappear completely? As I said, I’ve recently read blog posts and articles suggesting that this is the case, and that their demise is imminent. I suspect that this assertion is somewhat premature and that, in fact, galleries aren’t going to disappear as an institution, but rather are simply going to go through a major transformation.

There are great opportunities ahead for both galleries and artists. Our industry is being disrupted by massive technological changes, but in the end, those changes are going to be broadly positive for artists and collectors. They will also be good, I believe,  for galleries that can adapt and for those who find new ways to get the artwork out to collectors (the virtual art dealers). That said, there’s also going to be some real pain while we find our way forward and not everyone is going to survive the changes.

As a gallery owner, I personally am looking forward to this brave new art world, and I hope you are too!

 

What do you Think?

Do you think galleries will still play an important part in the art market? Has the internet made it possible for you to make more of your own sales and freed you from having to work with galleries? What do you think the future holds for artists and galleries? Leave your predictions, thoughts and feelings below in the comments!

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.

20 Comments

  1. Jason, Thank you for your insights and sound advice to artists. As an established artist with seven galleries representing me on the East Coast of the U.S., I can attest to the fact that as the market changes, the galleries must also adapt. Of the seven galleries that I have, only four have embraced the reality that online and direct email sales will have to supplement their “in store” visits. Those galleries’ sales reflect their much appreciated efforts on my behalf. The gallery business is one of relationships, with both the collector and the artist. The galleries that reach out to past buyers when I bring in new work, and have an active facebook and Instagram accounts, are the ones who have continued to procure sales, even throughout the pandemic shut down. As a full time artist, I rely on their efforts to keep me behind the easel, where I need to be to create. If I am contacted by a buyer, I direct their inquiries to my gallery in their area, as I look at our relationship as a partnership with honesty and integrity.
    I appreciate and look forward to your informative and spot-on articles!
    Sincerely,
    Mary Erickson

  2. This has been a common theme since galleries and agents came into existence in the 1600s. It just changes its voice as culture and the technology of communications change. Galleries and agents will always exist because they make economic sense in a class structured society. They work because they can presumably offer differentiation of value and quality. Think about even the lowly toaster , they do not all sell at the same price even though they perform the same function. The art business is no different. The internet is not the be all and end all of marketing, it produces nothing and like all such mass ventures goes ever forward toward its own destruction as prices bottom out and profit is removed from the system.
    Galleries are marketers and presenters of objects created by artists who mostly are horrible at marketing, presentation and product development. the 2 will always exist just as there will always be an economic system which they both serve and take advantage of. no different now than in the 17th century.

  3. I wonder how your thoughts relate to the medium of photography. Comparatively speaking, there are so few art galleries that show photographic art, and fewer still that specialize in that medium. So photographic artists are (essentially) left to market at shows, co-op galleries, and online. I know there is a collector market out there, people who love photographic art even more than paintings/illustrations (like Elton John). I was a member of a local co-op in my hometown for over 6 years, and my photographic art created more revenue to the gallery than paintings, sculptures, jewelry art, illustrations, fabric art, and other media among 40 different artists consistently over that time. But what you said about ‘noise’ in the broader online market is doubly true for photography. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts related to photographic art, even though Xanadu doesn’t have a lot of exposure currently.

  4. The gallery system will always exist. Who the players will be within that system, and how they conduct business will always evolve. A professional gallery earns every penny it makes, and the profit margin for any mid-tier or blue chip gallery is not anywhere near the misconception of “greed” as some artists envision. Social media has made it possible for anyone to place their work out there for the public to see. Unfortunately anyone who can pick up a pencil or brush these days seems to proclaim themselves “an artist”. Consequently the internet is riddled with a mass of low quality work, which at times is simply masquerading as art. Reputable galleries serve as a protective consumer agent which can advise the public on which work is truly worth the asking price, and the possibility of its value in the future. Galleries are also much better positioned ( in most cases) to advance an artist’s career, than the artist themselves. Galleries have access to buyers and museums, which are generally not receptive to dealing with the artist directly.
    Artists generally do not like marketing their work, as it involves a great deal of time, energy and in some instances money, which could all be put towards creating art. A good gallery employs experienced salespeople who know how to interact with the public, and form relationships which cannot be established through social media. The days however of an artist simply dropping their work off to a gallery, and putting all the marketing work in their hands are over. It has become a joint venture where the gallery and the artist are both working together. The more that the two energies are involved, there is always a greater chance of success. I have seen this time and again.

    1. I agree with you 100%. I am an artist with a small amount of art in a small local gallery. The gallery and artist relationship is key. I had a solo exhibit in my small town gallery in August. I worked really hard for three months prior to the exhibit doing facebook lives, invitations in the mail, etc. At the end of reception the gallery owner admitted to me that she did “ZERO” advertising for my event because she didn’t believe that anyone would show up amid the COVID crisis (this was in August). I am very disappointed in her. All the sales from the exhibit came from my “personal” invitations, but the gallery continued to take their full commision as usual. The gallery also told me that my exhibit sales were the first gallery sales they seen this year! I feel very taken advantage of.

  5. I would be happy to see you expand online marketing with your gallery’s distinctive marketing and sales ability, and its established client list. Then, maybe, you would take me on as an artist!

  6. Just as nothing can replace experiencing performance art in person, there is no substitute for standing in front of visual artwork and taking it all in completely. Consider walking up to a Jackson Pollock to gaze versus seeing the same painting on a computer screen. I hope the gallery never dies!

  7. Whoah, this is a terrific piece by you, Jason! Recommendations and endorsements by other persons (whose artworks themselves or endorsement of successful art/artists which prove correct) than the artist have been effective since time memorial, it seems to me. These type of people lead the opinions of the “art collector” or “art appreciation public” when it comes to high quality (i.e.) fine art. Galleries—for the most part— are definitely those types of people, especially galleries with owners such as yourselves at Xanadu. I find it a “plus” that MORE artworks of varying quality are available and thus being appreciated by the public at large. Art is so very vital to the culture, and indeed raises the degree of life in the society. I hope the gallery’s like the museums stay around a long time, and am cheering for and stand by ready to help them flourish and prosper—for the sake of our artists of fine art, and for the society at large. PS J Riley Stewart thank you for your questions, and I too am most interested in this topic being covered!

  8. I had to search and search for a good gallery and after running through about 5 bad ones I landed on a gem. He was able to sell my artwork consistently for about 6 or 7 years but sadly he died of a long battle with cancer. He sold art up until the end. I tried one more gallery since he passed and it was awful. So I pulled my artwork all back to my studio and have no desire to search for a new gallery. They are like unicorns now and if you find one they are full up with more artist than they can handle. So they won’t even look at your work. Too many “artists” not enough galleries. I have had increasing success on social media and in person studio visits to the point that I don’t need to double my price for commission any more and the sales come more easily. I never understood the 50% commission logic the gallery should charge a flat rate based on size for their commissions. The effort and expense for selling a $500 painting is about the same as selling a$5000 painting of the same size. My good gallery guy would take any discounts over the 10% I would allow out of his commission and he still netted a big chunk of money I the sale. All in all I think the galleries are going away and the growing number of good and bad artist will end up smothering each other for attention. I will sell out of my studio

  9. My experience in advertising for 35 years taught me that any business that did not understand the importance of brand building or “name recognition”, or the essential value of a sales plan, or refused to understand the fundamental necessity of a solid marketing plan or did not know the difference between marketing and advertising, who can not even describe their own product or service, is a business to avoid working with. Statistics say that 9 out of 10 businesses like this die within two years. They typically insist that they can perform all of these highly skilled functions on their own. Within 2 years people with this attitude will drown in a sea of arrogance. This is why a successful advertising agency will avoid any association with this kind of business. A successful business of any size will recognize the need for help, I wonder why artist don’t see that? A lot of my artist friends have the opinion that art sales are a capitalist construct and unworthy of consideration and also believe that the quality of their work will be recognized by the world and that the world will beat a path to their door if they just wait.

  10. Similar predictions were made about physical books in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Books are not extinct, although the industry has had to change and adapt. It seems to me that Jason is saying the same thing about galleries: creative adaptation is essential to survive, as is true in any retail business. I certainly don’t know what will happen in the next 30-50 years, but I feel for now, galleries provide a very important “hands-on” kind of experience for the buyer, for which I am very grateful. It’s an invigorating, and often frustrating challenge, but I believe a lot of good is coming out of the changes happening in our world. Yes, it’s difficult. I don’t know of any job that’s not deadly boring which doesn’t have its challenges. Thank you for this article, Jason.

  11. I’ve been an amateur artist since my early teens. I even majored in art and art history for 2 1/3 years in college. Now, I’m semi-retired and considering the option of becoming a professional artist. I view this discussion similar to the financial services industry, which I have been involved with for app. 30-years. Traditionally banks are struggling to redefine their business and acknowledge that digital transformation is a must. The choices are to become a fintech company, partner with a fintech company and outsource the function of digital transformation or purchase a fintech as a subsidiary. I view the gallery/artist’s dilemma similarly. It appears to me that gallery representation is basically outsourcing the business side (sales, marketing, etc.) while the artist retains his core expertise–creation of art. As others have pointed out, it is very difficult to wear all hats in a world of increasing specialization. Jason, you mentioned several Adobe apps (Photoshop, Premier, InDesign, etc.). Each of these applications and the technologies which comprise them are rapidly changing. Most professionals specialize in one or maybe two. As a consequence, there is no right answer but choices. For example, perhaps a successful artist wishes to own his own gallery, but that requires staff, an HR person or manager, and people who understand sales, marketing, etc. Of course, he will also be responsible for payroll, property lease, etc. Direct online selling requires expertise in many areas of technology and business. Cutting out the middle man sounds wonderful, but online presence and marketing present many challenges. One thing is certain, we are in the middle of the fourth industrial revolution, and many things are changing dramatically. Business transformation is a must!

    Thanks for an excellent article!

    Regards,
    Dan

  12. Very thoughtful and honest post Jason. I believe galleries will exist in the coming years. Who knows how they will change. Now that artists need to market their own work and perhaps sell in several venues to make a living, it is more complicated for the artist. Especially the emerging artist who moves from self sales to gallery sales.

  13. While I have learned to sell online, and even with COVID I’m having my best year ever, I believe bricks and mortar galleries are still important and not going away for the reasons you enumerated in point 3- Third, galleries … “place a lot more emphasis on the art-buying experience than the process. In some ways, buying art is more like the performing arts than traditional retail. Art buyers often visit galleries while they are travelling and are looking for a cultural experience as much as a retail one…” For a busy artist, online sales steal an enormous amount of time from creative production. I think galleries are worth the 50% commission artists pay, because it frees up so much of the artist’s time to let the galleries market their work. That said, I also agree with your final point– that artists need to be “full partners in the business. While it should have been this way all along, many galleries have treated their artists (especially emerging and early-career artists) as minor partners or second-class citizens in the marketing of the artist’s work. Moving forward, artists are going to see galleries as only one of many marketing venues for their work. Galleries are going to have to earn their artist’s business.” Thanks for this validating article. I am on the right track with my marketing plan and will continue to pursue this path.

  14. I found this to be an interesting and informative discussion with lots of issues that will not be resolved soon. Because of the current pandemic, many businesses and industries are changing and will change even more. We are not going back to “normal” anytime soon and when we do it will not be the same normal. That said, I am a woodcarver. I do not believe that three-dimensional art sells on two-dimensional computer screens. Even the software that shows a 360-degree rotational view does not suffice. I find that at art shows, which will not be the same for a long time, people like to pick up a piece, turn it around, heft it and make a decision on whether to own it based upon what they experience. No computer or software can (yet) make up for this physical and tactile experience. Even with my small, simple carvings, people tend to choose the heavier ones. The weight of my carvings cannot be presented through the screen. Most of the art galleries in my home town focus on two-dimensional art. A few Include ceramics. Woodcarving is an orphan. But I will never forget that of all the art media and art materials, only wood was once alive.

  15. Great content Jason.

    It has been especially nice to read all the comments. I really like reading about the Art world from both sides “Artist & Gallery owner”.Really helps to see others points of view.

  16. I found the article very informative. I just opened up my online gallery in a world of chaos. I knew that it would be a very hard road, but I am in for the long haul. I love art in it’s many forms and are determined to share as many talented artists to art enthusiasts as possible. Tactile art is growing not receeding. Especially, in this climate change era. Artists from all over the world are creating art that incorporates a journey. Media software can convey the emotional prompts, but not the scale and power of the piece.

    Galleries are here to stay, but will conform more to the individual artists artistic presence. As mentioned, artists have to start participating in their own business success. The least being a credible website. The artists creation will not work on its own. Plus, without a website, no online advertising platform, worth signing onto, will let you advertise your work. Leave that to a good online gallery, or digital marketer.

  17. Mr. Ken Church and Mr. Ray Wiggs Gallery both seem to have a handle on meeting the consumer.
    And Mr. Horejs is, of course, walking his talk by making the artist to customer and collector connection a viable, dynamic marketing plan.
    Marketing is not just advertising. It is a strategy that seeks to understand and meet consumer needs and wants. Theoretically a gallery will advertise art within a marketing plan. Obviously many galleries don’t, and hope that the artist will do that (advertise) for them. Like throwing a party but only inviting the caterers. Then expecting the caterers to invite all the guests.

    The American Marketing Association says:
    “In basic terms, marketing is the process of identifying customer needs and determining how best to meet those needs. In contrast, advertising is the exercise of promoting a company (artist) and its products or services through paid channels. In other words, advertising is a component of marketing.”

    For me galleries have been a disappointment. Maybe Jason’s gallery business is different. Certainly the decision to represent an artist (client) is a business choice. But a successful gallery needs a strategy to proactively offer and promote artistic services beyond just advertising an artist or piece of art.

    Maybe Jason could elaborate a little more on what services a gallery should be offering to artists and customers. The vanity pay as you show galleries do not seem to market. Real artist representation ain’t cheap, the commission dollars paying both the gallery and artist.
    In our current land of covid the outdoor art market has become a very successful venue. The venue promoters do the marketing, the artists do advertising. When my booth is buzzing I know everybody is on board and doing their part.

    Here is what I don’t understand about galleries: Why is it that artists have to bust their bottoms to find gallery representation just so the artist can “Pay” the gallery to sell the art?
    If it is a business decision to host an artist, and sell good art, why don’t galleries actively seek out marketable artists ?
    With so many galleries floundering, why should good artists appeal to and market to galleries when the return does not justify the effort ?

    It seems to me that being a “Walk In” artist at a gallery is a waste of time. I hope my own efforts at marketing and advertising continue to pay off as well as it has in recent years. I don’t have to pay commissions, be by saddled with restrictive gallery contracts, wonder if I’m being screwed by cooked books or worry that the gallery is doing nothing to develop customers.
    If my work is as saleable as it has been, galleries should be asking if I will let them represent me.
    Or does this mean that I should take it as a bad job and my art is crap?

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