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.

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 artists’ 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.

6 Comments

  1. I agree with your viewpoint. Galleries will need to change to be more online oriented (but not necessarily exclusively). I like your model and the way you’ve been doing it. (Even though I’m not yet in a place to jump into it.) From an artist viewpoint the Internet is a wonderful, wide-open market. Alas, it’s COMPLETELY wide-open and hard to get any traction. Teamwork should help all of us.

  2. I to believe that both artists and galleries will have to adapt to the world of technology. During the pandemic shutdown this devastated many well established professional artists sold their work primarily through galleries. A lot of them showing their work solely through internet venues just to survive. But the galleries adapted too. They promoted the chosen art through Facebook and videos of the shows that were still conducted in the gallery but not open to the public .I was involved in two galleries that used this method and to me that meant more exposure for my art and they were doing all of the computer work, even though I’ve taken classes to learn the software you mentioned years ago. It is going to be increasingly more important for an artist to have a professional website and not just on Facebook or Instagram. I have a professional website but I need to get new work done before I can update it. It has proven to be a good investment. karenrobben.com

  3. I believe you are on the right track. Working together is key and learning all we can about technology will help everyone as the business of art survives this transitioning time. I do believe that galleries play an integral role and are typically seen as the crème de la crème when it comes to art exhibitions.

    Here in the Niagara Region of Canada, we’re seeing more and more small galleries, art clubs, artist co-operatives, wineries, restaurants, etc. grasp the concept of creating more opportunities for customers to enjoy art venues as a bonus to coming into an establishment. Gallery owners and artists are working together more than ever to create more tourist type destinations. That has generated more sales and more exposure for many new and established artists along with the businesses that are hosting. So far, it’s been kind of exciting, even with the hiccups that have surfaced as part of the learning curve.

  4. As a gallery that started online, had a brick and mortar gallery (unfortunately not well located) for 10 years, and now have been mostly online but with occasional events at my large artist studio, we still believe that the physical gallery is still one part of the best equation (that includes online efforts). We will probably have one again if and when our specialization resumes popularity. Not only does it signal legitimacy and expertise, but it is also the way to develop new art appreciators. Customers gained in the past stick around for a while but eventually get to the walls-full stage and/or deacquisitioning possessions stage. Younger generations are not necessarily of the mindset to seek out art unless they have it presented to them as important/desirable, for example in an art-centric setting such as Scottsdale or Santa Fe or Carmel. And even in publicized regular gallery “art walks” in their local cities. I suspect that if the work galleries do in person stopped, there would be far less purchasing from online exposure. The idea of owning art might continue to fade.

  5. There’s always going to be a need for seeing art in the flesh. All too often you see online, promotional photos which have been edited to look better than the original. (Ever looked at the bigmac you buy versus the photo on the box?). There are a lot of true comments made and with each financial struggle society goes through we end up seeing companies hit the wall. The survivors are the ones who are well placed with good customers, artists locations and ability to adapt to the economic situation s around them. The internet is one of their tools in their toolbox to turn to.
    As an artist myself I like being out at shows and thrive on the face to face sales but lockdowns made me do things differently. I created designs that would post easier, teamed up with breweries and created artwork for them and let their marketing do my work for me. I also created a website to help galleries meet high quality artists/makers. The site shows artists’ work and gallery owners can make contact. Initially it was only for gallery owners to view but realised it should be open to all. 350 artists signed up with other helpful features eg call out for artists, events, money off stand fees, free tickets for gallery owners etc.
    The remarkable feature of the site is that it’s free. There’s enough to worry about as an artist so this was my way of “giving back”.
    Let’s look at things a little differently and bring art to more people, no matter which method gets our work out there. Matthew. http://www.meet-thy-maker.co.uk

  6. I see a similar dilemma – going the other way – where shows by the larger art associations – OPA, AIS, etc., are constrained by the size of the exhibit space offered by the galleries that host their shows, but not constrained by the ease of online application – and so perhaps only 150 of the 1,400 entries can be accepted into a show. A couple of head-scratchers (how did THAT get in?) but otherwise stratospheric quality and prices in those accepted – but how do they provide a benefit for their less stratospheric members? In many cases, they are having to hold additional online shows so that more of their membership can have a better chance to be in one. Yes, this world is changing, too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.