Artists often ask me what they should look for when looking for a gallery to represent them. As an art rep and daughter of a gallery represented artist (the late painter and illustrator Robert G. Stevens) I recommend that you obtain answers to the following questions before you attempt to approach a gallery about representation:
1. HOW LONG HAS THE GALLERY BEEN IN BUSINESS?
As we all know, even in the best of economic times many small businesses including art galleries struggle to find their footing. My advice is to try to find a gallery that has been in business at least four years. In fact, on the Small Business Administration (SBA) website, I discovered that… "Two-thirds of new employer establishments survive at least two years, 44 percent survive at least four years, and 31 percent survive at least seven years, according to a recent study. These results were constant for different industries. … Of special interest, the research found that businesses that survive four years have a better chance of surviving long-term. After the fourth year, the rate of firm closings declines considerably.”
You don’t want to be accepted to a gallery only to find that it is going to close the next month so first and foremost, you want to find a gallery that has a long term track record.
2. DOES THE GALLERY HAVE A GOOD LOCATION?
Do they have good foot traffic and adequate parking? If not, how do they bring in new business? You want to get a feel for their clientele and how they handle people coming and going into their physical location.
3. WHAT IS THE DIRECTOR'S BACKGROUND?
Do the directors have an art background or a marketing background? (Ideally they should have both.) Keep in mind, per the SBA website: “…the major factors in a firm’s surviveability include an ample supply of capital, being large enough to have employees, the owner’s education level, and the owner’s reason for starting the firm.”
I would add to the list above that the gallery owner needs to have a passion for the art they are selling. If they are not passionate about the art, then you don’t want to be in their gallery.
4. DOES THE GALLERY CROSS-PROMOTE?
Are they part of a gallery group or a regularly scheduled art walk or other event? In other words, do they make an effort to grow their business with each event they do? This is essential to their long term success, and to your assurance that your artwork will be seen.
5. ARE YOU ABLE TO OBTAIN A REFERRAL FOR THE GALLERY/DIRECTOR?
Speak to other represented gallery artists about the gallery’s operations and the people running it. Are they honest? Do they have written contracts and consignment agreements with their artists, and do they pay them on time? What percentage do they take? Even a seasoned gallery artist like my late father had a very bad experience with a prestigious gallery in Taos, New Mexico. Over the four years he was in the gallery, the director increasingly paid the artists very late, sometimes as much as six months after a sale! When the gallery closed suddenly with three of his paintings still in their possession, my father found out about it from a newspaper article. We have never been able to retrieve his lovely paintings from the gallery director who had stolen them.
6. WHAT KIND OF MARKETING DOES THE GALLERY DO?
Does the gallery advertise in major art magazines, produce postcard mailings, work the internet and have a great website? Does the director write articles, speak in public or publish catalogues? Do they attend the major art fairs? You need to know how the gallery plans to expose your work to collectors.
7. HOW ARE YOU TREATED WHEN YOU GO TO THE GALLERY?
One of the best stories I’ve heard on this “due diligence” subject was from a sculptor. One Saturday she put on an expensive outfit, armed with her wish list, and spent the day visiting ten galleries in Santa Monica. She decided in advance that she would not mention that she was an artist looking for representation.
At two of the ten galleries she visited the doors were closed. There was no information on the door about their hours or how they could be reached. (She crossed them off her list.) At three of the galleries she was greeted adequately by friendly people who knew absolutely nothing about the art on display, nor about any of the artists who created the work. (She crossed these galleries off her list as well.)
She was ignored completely at four of the galleries she visited. The people working in the galleries didn’t even say hello to her and spent their time talking on the phone or working on the computer. They never even looked at her! (She didn’t like this at all and crossed them off her list, too.)
At the tenth gallery she visited, however, she was greeted by a young man who was knowledgeable about the art. He seemed interested in her and her reactions to the work. He told her engaging stories about the artists and gave her additional information about the media the artists used to create the work. He invited her to their upcoming reception, and asked her for her contact information to add to their mailing list. She decided that, of the ten galleries on her original list, only this last gallery was worthy of her attention.
Remember that in your search for a gallery, one size does not fit all. Each gallery is unique in its location, how it is run, and the style of art the director will accept. Like the shrewd artist mentioned in the story above, before approaching a gallery you need to do some research to determine which gallery will be the best fit for you and your work.
Margaret Danielak is the owner of Danielak Fine Art and the author of "A Gallery without Walls: Selling Art in Alternative Venues" (ArtNetwork Press) which was a featured selection of North Light Book Club.