How to Get Your Work Displayed in Galleries

Let’s be clear. This article is a no nonsense guide for artists on how to approach galleries. The ultimate aim is to give you a step by step guide so you come across in a professional way and galleries will have confidence to sell your work. It will not tell you what kind of artist to be or what you should be creating.

For art gallery owners, much of their time is spent answering e-mails and speaking to artists who come in with that hopeful expression. I know a few gallery directors and it is clear is that the vast majority of artists don’t know what galleries are looking for or how they operate. What surprises me the most is that many of these artists have completed a fine art course and still don’t know the first thing about approaching a gallery.

HOW DOES A GALLERY WORK?

Sale or return?

Most galleries will show your work on a sale or return basis. You deliver the work, the gallery shows it, and on the sale of the piece, the gallery takes a commission and sends you the remainder. If the work doesn’t sell after an agreed period, it is returned to you. Simple.

Commission

Commissions range from 20% up to 60%. Internet sites will offer the lowest but they have the lowest overheads and also the least chance of selling your work. One artist asked me what am I doing for my X %. You need to understand that galleries are taking a huge risk taking on an artist. Owners put a huge amount of money and time to building the gallery and if nothing sells, that’s it, no more business. As an artist you may have put some materials and time in but be very clear, the risk is on the galleries shoulders.

THE APPROACH

Do your homework.

You need to see which galleries would be most suited to showing your work. There is no point approaching a graffiti studio if you paint traditional landscapes. Go to the gallery and just have a browse, look on their website and read the extra material on the gallery to find out what kind of market it is going for BEFORE you do anything else. Don’t mention to the gallery on your scout that you are an artist because you won’t be at all prepared.

Put together your portfolio

All a gallery wants to see are some of your images. The number of artists that come in and say they are an artist but don’t have anything to show me is astonishing. An artist without any art eh? Perhaps even worse is showing me on your mobile phone. Do you think a professional artist would show something so valuable on their mobile phone?

Select your Images

Select 4 or 5 images, which best represent your style and are the most commercial (sellable). Ask several people for their impartial opinion of which images you should submit. There will nearly always be a consensus on your best work that may differ from what you would have chosen.

Prepare your images

Make sure the images are of good quality and not too big or too small (200k to 1.5mb is fine). Make sure you take digital images of your work in bright indirect sunlight. Crop them so that you have the art and nothing else. If your work has texture that isn’t coming across or is difficult to convey in a straight ahead shot then do a close up from a different angle.

Website

If you have a website, that is a bonus if it is clear and easy to navigate. Web hosters such as Mr Site offer very reasonably priced ways of getting a simple but stylish site that will show your work off to its best.

Don’t e-mail the link if there are images you would rather the gallery owner rather not see. Also don’t make excuses for it not being up to scratch. Either get it up to scratch or don’t send the link.

The e-mail/Letter

Personally I prefer being sent images by e-mail but sending prints in the post is a very effective (if more expensive) way of grabbing the attention of the gallery owner.

Please don’t bring your work into the gallery unless asked. It has happened before and it is very awkward for myself and the artist when I know within 2 seconds whether it is suitable for the gallery or not.

Draft the e-mail/letter in a clear, succinct and professional way. I will only read a long e-mail if the images are any good but I really don’t want a life story.

Introduce yourself – A couple of sentences about your background.

State your intentions – This should be standard for anyone approaching a gallery. “I Frederick Blogs am looking for gallery representation and would like you to take a look at some of my work.”

Your work – The medium and anything that may be interesting or a selling point.

Career – List of prior/present exhibitions. Is your work for sale anywhere else, don’t mention it if it isn’t and don’t worry or make excuses or apologize about not having sold any work before.

Attach Images – 4-5 and keep total size below 5mb.

Add website link – only if it portrays the images you believe are commercial in a professional way.

Lay the seeds

This may be stating the obvious but the more galleries you approach the greater your chance of being accepted.

Make sure you write or type out a list of all the suitable galleries and methodically work through them.

Personalise the approach to each gallery and make find out who you need to address the email or letter to.

Don’t be discouraged by rejections. Ask for and take on board constructive criticism and keep going.

The Right Art Gallery – How to Find One

Finding a new gallery for your art can be a daunting task for many artists and not all artists have that natural-sales-ability. But, the number one Cardinal Rule for any type of sales is sell yourself! So how does one do that?

First of all, honestly ask yourself a few important questions:

Am I ready for a gallery?
Is my art salable?
Is my art technically good?
Have I developed a recognizable style?
Do I have a cohesive body of work ready to display?
Have I had success selling my work in art/craft shows, out of your studio and other non-gallery venues?
Do I have the time to fulfill the supply & demand of a gallery?
Do I have a website that showcases my art and information? (This is not a must, but highly suggested)
Do I have a portfolio, bio, resume & artist statement?
If the answers are yes, great – you might be ready to take the next step toward finding the right gallery. If the answer is no, then do not put yourself in a vulnerable position. Approaching a gallery before you are ready is kind of like putting a gangly teenager in modeling school. It won’t help your self-esteem and it most likely will bruise your ego. Be patient and hone your craft until the ugly duckling turns into a swan.Okay. So you are ready for a gallery. Now it is important to do-your-homework and think about where your artwork belongs in the art market. This is easy to do and you can start from home:
Flip through art magazines and look at gallery ads and the artists they represent.
Checkout gallery websites and see if your work would be a good fit for them.
Talk to fellow artists and have them suggest galleries to you.
If you paint traditional floral still life paintings don’t bother approaching a gallery that specializes in contemporary abstract art.
On the other hand, all galleries are looking for that fresh artist to add to their “artists’ stable” but – within its own genre.
The next step is to venture out and visit some local galleries in your area or take a road trip to some galleries of your targeted art market. But, observe the gallery through the eyes of a collector, not as an artist.
Watch and see how the staff greats and treats you.
Are they courteous and professional?
Walk through the gallery and scan the art, look how it is hung and check the lighting.
Ask for a price sheet if available.
Be sure and get references on the gallery from other artists.
Try and visualize your art hanging in the gallery and see how it compares in quality to their other artists.
Searching for the right gallery is a process of elimination.
The more galleries you visit and research, the more informed you will be about making the right choice. Now you have a short list of galleries that are a good match and you are ready to approach a gallery. But, remember that a successful gallery with a good reputation gets inundated with dozens of artists’ submissions each week. I keep in close contact with the galleries that represent me across the country. They all have stellar reputations and therefore they are flooded with artists’ inquiries each week. So how do you make yourself stand out from the crowd?
Check your target gallery website and see if they do have guidelines, follow them (or be a rebel and do it your own way, but you might get shut down). If there are no guidelines then you can try some of the suggestions below:

But, first a bit more about Specific Gallery Requirements:

Some galleries, especially within the high end fine art market have specific submission requirements and policies. Usually artists must submit work for review. This generally means a professional portfolio of at least 10 slides, photos or transparencies or a CD depicting recent works. Always send a self-addressed, stamped envelope or risk never seeing your material again.

The Portfolio Submission:

If you chose to send a portfolio directly to your chosen gallery, be sure and follow the guidelines mentioned above. Most artists today still simply send in a marketing package that includes a professional portfolio which often times get stacked up in a pile and overlooked. Do not try and get too cleaver with the presentation. Keep your portfolio tailored, professional and filled with your best work. It is a good idea to follow up two weeks later with a phone call.

The Cold Call:

This is where you pick up the phone and call the chosen gallery and pitch yourself. Practice and have a notepad with your thoughts outlined so you do not ramble. At this point, be ready to sell yourself because there is no artwork to hide behind over the telephone. Here are a few hints to help you make that call…

Check the gallery hours and exhibition schedule. If there is an event scheduled, make your call at least a week before or a week after the after the event. You minimize the risk of interrupting a busy and stressed out director.
It is best to make phone calls either in the morning or at the end of the day. This is when busy directors most generally are at their desks. And…make calls during the middle of week.
Ask to speak with the Director. If he/she is not available ask when he/she will be available and do not leave a message. (You might not get a return call) So, you call back later.
Keep the conversation short, friendly and to the point.
Introduce yourself, explain that you are interested in their gallery, and briefly tell them a little bit about you and your art and why you are a match for them.
Follow up the conversation with an email linking to your website or attach a few jpeg images of your work – do this within a day so they do not forget you. Mention in your email that if you do not hear back from them, you will check back – give them one to two weeks.
Or ask the gallery if they would prefer a portfolio, slides or a website to review
The Walk In:
Get ready to sell yourself. This is a more aggressive approach that can or cannot work – it all depends on how attuned you feel with the director or owner. There are no set rules so be ready to go-with-the-flow. Here are some ideas to help you take that step in the door:

Just like the ‘cold call’ check the gallery schedule and make sure you are not interrupting a major event or busy time.
Hopefully you have done your homework and familiarized yourself with the gallery.
Look your best.
Ask to speak with the owner or director Be informed and demonstrate that you understand the gallery program.
Let them know why your work is a good match.
Do not walk in with paintings tucked under your arm – this looks desperate. Leave a business card with your website information or a portfolio for their review.
Don’t overwhelm them with too much information, leave them wanting more.
Walk in with a good attitude.
Be courteous.
Now let us say they really like you and things have gone well…they might ask to have you send them a few paintings for their approval – or they might ask to see some work in person. At this point (this has worked for many of my artist friends, especially when they are on a road trip) have few small framed samples of your best work out in the car.
The Look-see:

Invite your targeted gallery to visit a current showing of your work. Many artists show their art is art/craft shows, restaurants, banks, interior design firms, frames shops and their own studios. If you are lucky enough to live in a community that has a possible gallery for you this approach might work. I suggest you send a printed invitation with an image of your art to the director followed up with a phone call.

The Referral:

This is the best way of approaching a gallery. It has worked wonders for me in the past. If you network with other artists, you most likely have friends with good connections. And yes, just like in Hollywood – it’s who you know. Ask your artist friend to recommend you to their gallery. Make sure to have your friend send them to your website or give them a portfolio of your art. This will peak the gallery’s interest in you. Within a week it is up to you to follow through. Give them a call and remind the gallery that they were recommended to you by your mutual artist friend. From there, hopefully you can build a working relationship.

The Gallery Request:

“If the mountain can’t go to Mohammad, let the mountain come to Mohammad.” What do I mean by that familiar, old statement? This is when the gallery approaches you! Yes, this does happen and has for me many times. But before you say, ‘yes,’ make sure to check the gallery’s references and business record. If they measure up and look like a good fit, this can be the best of all worlds. The gallery picked you. That means they are excited to show your work in their gallery — and this can mean more sales.

The above suggestions are advice that I have compiled from my years as an artist and talking with galleries and fellow artists. We all have battle scars and war stories to tell, but I hope these ideas help keep your pain to a minimum. But, remember — “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” and “Don’t be discouraged. It’s often the last key in the bunch that opens the lock.”