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The Gallery Gamble

Would you believe me if I told you I hate art galleries? Probably not, because I work with them. So I'm telling you a secret - I actually do hate galleries. Not all of them though, and not for the reasons you might think. So let's get into it.

artist Tyra Johnson with sculpture
Me, with my work in artist run gallery 500x in February 2022.

I know you're already confused. How can I hate something I benefit from? Let me make an easy comparison. You can hate the job that pays you and keep showing up for work. Just like death and taxes, bills are guaranteed. Since the "art world" is cloaked in intentional mystery and obscurity, I'm going to breakdown the following:

  1. The two most common gallery models

  2. Why galleries are still a thing

  3. Options for artists

  4. What you can do as a collector

  5. Where I stand on gallery relationships


1. Gallery Business Models

You've got two standard gallery models:

  • Non-commercial (aka Not For Profit)

  • Commercial (aka For Profit)

Non-commercial galleries are not primarily concerned with revenue generation. They are typically funded by city governments in combination with charitable contributions. Not for profit galleries focus on providing artists an opportunity to display a body of work without profit as a factor in artist selection. While these galleries receive a commission of 10-30% when artwork sells to support operations, they are not dependent upon it to keep the doors open. Non-commercial galleries are an amazing opportunity for artists with interactive work or sculpture installation to share their art with the public. Since these styles of work are often expensive to produce and not as easy to sell, you won't see them as often in commercial galleries.

They sound like the good guys right? Well, like everything in life, it's not that simple. Remember how I just mentioned "expensive to produce"? ART IS EXPENSIVE TO PRODUCE. Full stop. All styles of art cost something to create and don't appear out of thin air. That financial burden falls almost entirely on artists. So here's the grey area. If an artist is going to spend months of their time and money to create enough work to fill an entire gallery, they want it to sell. If the gallery's main focus is not sales, we have a problem.

*commercial galleries have entered the chat*

Commercial galleries are primarily focused on sales. I know that's a controversial statement to make; but, I also know it to be 100% accurate. If commercial galleries don't sell work, they don't stay in business. Despite what any gallerist has to say about artwork, they are only going to work with artists they believe will sell. So, back to the business model. An artist can work with a commercial gallery in two ways: for a single exhibition or under a gallery representation contract.

In a single exhibition, the artist creates a body of work that goes on display for a defined period of time. When artwork sells, the gallery retains a 50% commission. At the end of the exhibition, the artist takes the unsold pieces and goes on their merry way. Artist payouts tend to happen in net 30 day or net 60 day terms. Meaning 1-2 months after each sale occurs. Some galleries will extend this to the entire exhibition and pay artist for all sold work 1-2 months after the exhibition closes. Sounding less than ideal? Well, just wait.

Under gallery representation, the same commission and payment terms apply. Full representation contracts also stipulate that ALL work the artist sells while being represented by the gallery, must sell through the gallery - for that 50% commission. Partial representation contracts may specify that work sold in a specific geographical region or to specific collectors must go through the gallery.

The grey area here is, because commercial galleries are focused on sales, artists might actually make money. MIGHT. I'll play devil's advocate for a second by telling you what every artist is thinking: That commission is high and that contract feels restrictive if not downright predatory....but if the art sells...50% of a big pie is better than 100% of nothing right? AND I don't have to worry about the business side? Hmmm...

Damned if we do, damned if we don't right? There's no guarantee of sales, and if a contract restricts an artist from other opportunities without providing consistent sales, what is the artist supposed to do then? If you're asking why artists need galleries at all, you're catching on. Stick with me for a little bit longer. I promise you'll gain some insight!

Is art in a gallery more valuable than art outside of a gallery? (anonymous voting)

  • Yes

  • No

2. Why Galleries Are Still A Thing

The contemporary art market is effectively rooted in capitalism (profit). To be clear the "art market" does not constitute art as a whole. The contemporary market is concerned with artwork that has documented history and/or significant monetary value. But who decides what art is worth? And how does art "discovered" at the ends of the earth become worth a million dollars when it was just buried in an unknown tomb 3 weeks ago? These are questions that deserve their own articles but I'll do my best to summarize.

"Galleries are a critical cog in the machine of the contemporary art market. So by association, they catch some of my disdain."

Pricing in the art market is incredibly nuanced but it really comes down to two things: what someone says art is worth and what someone is willing to pay. Art galleries are one of a few institutions that assign value to contemporary artwork as far as the market is concerned. This year I was told by one gallerist "well, we have buyers and they buy what we tell them to because they trust us". Another verbatim comment, "why would you sell that piece for $1,700 that should be priced at no less than $4,000." But why? Because they say so? Or is it because they know they can sell it for $4000 to a collector that doesn't know any better and they make more when that piece sells for a higher price?

Well yes. Because they say so. They went to art school, they own the gallery, they have the buyers, so what they say goes. They'll price an artist in line with how other galleries will price them so there's consistency in the market. If you're a talented artist trying to support yourself, you "need" someone to assign value to your work to get a foot in the door. Once that value is assigned, you never really go back. Now there is a set of collectors who came in at a certain price point, and to offer equivalent work at a lower price means they made a bad investment. Additionally, collectors who acquired work prior to gallery relationships have now seen their investment in an artist grow as well. This is why you hear you should buy from artists BEFORE their work lands in a gallery.

In order for larger institutions like museums or public art commissions to work with artists, they want to see market assigned value. THIS is why galleries exist and why artists continue to work with them. To progress and be eligible for "the dream", someone has to cosign. Someone needs to tell the market this artist is a safe investment. For most artists, that someone is a gallery.

If it's sounding all doom and gloom as if artists have no way around this, that's not the case. (but welcome to life as an artist, isn't it fun so far?)

3. Options For Artists

Luckily for artists, the market is changing. Galleries are beginning to abandon their exclusive contracts and in many cases take less than a 50% commission. There are also plenty of commercial galleries taking 50% that do an amazing job of handling the exhausting business management to free up time for artists to create. There are just as many that will host a solo exhibition for an artist and not sell a single piece of art!

sculture artist Tyra Johnson with wall sculpture
Latino Cultural Center, a non-commercial gallery in Dallas, TX. April, 2022

The best way around galleries right now is for artists to run their own art business. This may include galleries and agents that take a small commission, but it can remove complete dependence upon a single gallery. This isn't a simple option. Running a business is running a business. Websites, inventory, logistics, marketing, accounting, hiring for the skills you don't have or don't have time to develop. It's more time and more work; but, ultimately more control. A mix of commercial and non-commercial galleries, agents, online platforms, public art, brand partnerships, designer relationships, the list goes on. We live in a time where it's possible to sell directly to collectors and build proof of value without a traditional art background. Once you have that proof, you can negotiate contracts. And those commercial galleries don't look like the bad guys when some of those terms change. It's not for the faint of heart — but it CAN work.

4. What You Can Do As A Collector

Most importantly, we've all got to get out of the social conditioning that art outside of a gallery isn't valuable. Based on everything I've shared thus far, some artist just choose to not work with galleries. It's not because the work isn't valuable or insightful, it's because it isn't the right business decision for the artist. It hurts my soul to speak with people who immediately ask me "Where is your work right now? In any galleries or shows?" before even asking to see my work. If I say I'm not working with any galleries right now, the conversation ends there. But if I say, "I'm not currently working with galleries because I just finished a busy spring showing in New York and Chicago, plus I'm headed to France for a residency soon", eyes light up and it's "Oh wow that's amazing! Show me your work!". That drastic change, all because I just demonstrated in one sentence that the market sees value in my work.

All that said, there's easy ways to shift the dynamic. Buy directly from artists. Buy from non-commercial galleries. Hop on the email list for both and you'll always know what's going on. Visit local art fairs. If you're buying from a commercial gallery, ask questions about how they work with artists! Gallery contracts often stipulate artists are not allowed to share with collectors what the commission structure looks like (intentionally cloaked in mystery remember). Any time you can, actually talk to the artist. See what motivates them and what else they're working on. Enjoy art for the sake of enjoying art while you're looking to buy. That's the whole point. To interact with art and let it move you in one way or another. Lastly, buy what you love. Yes, art is an investment. But ultimately, most individual collectors do not control the market. If you connect with an artist and love a piece, just buy it regardless of where it's sold.

5. Where I Stand On Gallery Relationships

If you're still here, I appreciate you. Hopefully I've been able to share a bit more about the risk and rewards of working with galleries. If you know me, you've heard me say this: play the game until you don't need to anymore. For the stage I'm at in my art career, gallery relationships can be beneficial. I'm very specific about galleries I'll work with and contracts I'm willing to sign. Sculpture introduces another dynamic in evaluating galleries from a logistics and sales perspective. That's the crucial point. It's an evaluation. Galleries don't make money without artists, but artists can make money without galleries. It may not be as much and it may not happen as quickly and that's a trade off only an individual artist can decide for themselves.

When I say I hate galleries, I really mean I hate the art market. I love art. And it's sad that in order to make a living artists have to engage with the profit obsessed market. Galleries are a critical cog in the machine of the contemporary art market. So by association, they catch some of my disdain.

Artists are allowed to say no to galleries the same way galleries say no to artists. We've just grown so accustomed to thinking a gallery is the best way to sell art that we forget other options exist. To artists reading this: do your research, ask questions, negotiate, but most importantly — trust your gut.

Would you like more art world commentary and explanations? (anonymous voting)

  • Yes! This was an interesting perspective.

  • There's other content I'd like to see. I'll send you a note.

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