Working with Galleries (or Not)

Learning Tasks

  1. Continue the never ending job of photographing your work and organizing your digital images.    
  2. Continue to focus on making art. It should be a part of your daily life.    
  3. Learn about the different types of galleries and which ones may or may not be right for you.  
  4. Add or revise something on your website. 

I called these learning “tasks” this week, since really the learning objective is always the same: learn that professional practices are habits of mind and behavior that stack up over time to create your career.  

“The guardians of high culture will try to convince you that the arts belong only to a chosen few, but they are wrong and they are also annoying.’  
—  Elizabeth Gilbert,  Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear

Think what you will about Eat, Pray, Love,  or Elizabeth Gilbert, but if fear and negativity is in any way part of your mental creative landscape, she knows how to talk to that part of your brain. I highly recommend  Big Magic.  


1. Traditional Galleries

Working Your Way Through the Traditional Gallery System

2. Thinking Practically

From the author of “The Art Money Talk” 

3. Art Smarts – How Do I Get My Art In A Gallery?

A very inclusive look at what a “gallery” is. 

4. Maybe You Don’t Need a Gallery!

The other end of the spectrum.  

Working with Galleries

“As a tip to any artist, be prepared. Have a body of work. Show something that you’ve been working on for the last five years—showing something that you’ve been working on for the last three months isn’t going to get you gallery representation. Gallerists and art dealers and galley owners are looking for a comprehensive, cohesive body of work….As an art dealer, I can tell you that I reject thousands of artists a year that don’t have a solid portfolio. They make a couple of nice pieces and they think that they should have a gallery represent them. It just doesn’t work that way.” Jeff Jaffe, founder and owner of  Pop International  Galleries  in New York City

Here are a few things about the traditional gallery system that I’ve learned over the years. Your mileage with these things may vary.

  1. Galleries take somewhere between 40-60% of whatever your work sells for. Did it cost you $100 to make a piece? Would someone pay $200 for it? If the gallery split is 50% that means you only make $100. If you spend $100 on supplies, that’s 0% profit. Do the math before you establish your prices, but don’t price yourself out of reach.
  2. Gallery owners will typically have good suggestions for how to price your work in their gallery. It’s in their best interest to price your work at a price that will  sell.  Pay attention to the advice and don’t be insulted if it’s low. If you’re an emerging artist, your work won’t fetch high prices right out of the gate.
  3. The gallery system is a “gatekeeper” mechanism. But it’s a system. Different galleries have different ways to assess whether art is “good” or not, and it’s often based on things like what’s “in” at the moment, local economic factors, the kind of education and tastes possessed by the owner, and what local competitors are selling and at what prices. Don’t let a gallery’s opinion of your work impact you more than it should.
  4. Don’t rely on galleries to do the work of promotion for you. Very few of them actively promote the careers of their artists anymore. They may give you a page on their website and send post cards out of your work before a show, and some galleries are good at “telling your story” as an artist. But that’s about it. You’ll still need your own website, other sales venues, and constant reflection and evaluation of your materials (artist statement, resume, documentation of your work, etc.).
  5. Fairbanks, Alaska is an example of a very small market. There are few galleries and competition for buyers is tight. The buyers that exist don’t have very deep pockets. If you want to make a living off your art, you have to think about additional options.
  6. Stay away from galleries that charge a fee of any sort to artists. If a gallery asks you to sign a contract, think carefully about whether the terms are best for  you.  
  7. Do your research. Your work will fit into certain galleries and not others. Some galleries aren’t interested in working with emerging artists. Do your homework before you approach a gallery owner about carrying your work or representing you.



Should I try to find an agent?

From a personal standpoint, and to be very honest, I don’t know. I’ve never sought or worked with an artist’s agent. I don’t think many of them actually exist. The profit margin for selling an aritst’s work through galleries is pretty small, so an additional layer of operative would only reduce your profits. Artists’ work that sell for millions is being resold through auction houses and the artist rarely, if ever, sees a return on those sales. If you’re interested in illustration, illustrator agents  do exist, and you should certainly do your research there.  


Publishing Your Art

Other than galleries and selling work online, there are numerous other ways to get your work out there. I’ve published numerous peices as book covers and journal covers, been a featured artist in literary journals, had my work used as part of a scene in a Miramax film, and featured as the annual artwork for KUAC fund raising efforts. These type of publishing opportunities will be different for everyone, but more and more ways of getting your work into the public eye emerge every day. Take advantage of them to build your resume.  

Some online wholesale art publishing companies (like iCanvas) will license your work and “publish” it based on an agreed split (often 90%-10% with 90% going to the publisher) spelled out in a contract. Be VERY cautious with this process. If you’d like to see one of the contracts that I’ve signed in the past, let me know and I’ll share it with you privately. 


Further Reading on Working with Galleries



Seven Days in the Art World by Sarah Thornton. This is an excellent read and provides real insight into the dark underbelly of the art world. 

The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art by Donald N. Thompson. Further disillusionment on high priced art. 

How to Start and Run a Commercial Art Gallery by Edward Winkleman. Read this to understand what gallery owners might be thinking about when you approach them. 

Local Markets vs. Big City Galleries

Don’t imagine that you’ll get into a famous New York gallery right off the bat and make $10,000 for a single piece of work. This is a myth that many people buy into early in their art making. That’s not to be said that you can’t make lots of money from art. You can. But there are dues to be paid in the early years. You may have to sell work for the cost of making it with very little profit in the early years. Until you make a name for yourself, buyers won’t see your work as “worth” much. Don’t internalize this! Keep going. Eventually people will recognize you as a hard working artist who will be making art for a long time. 

So, how will you get your name out there? First, consider the very large difference between local galleries, gift shops, and farmers markets vs. large, high dollar, exclusive galleries in big cities. Each have very different audiences, different business models and profit margins, and most importantly, different types of artists they will consider. Local markets are a great way to get your name out there and build a resume as a new artist, which can lead to larger galleries in large markets being willing to consider you as one of their potential artists. 


A few things you should be prepping for and working on.  


Are you making art? You should be! And you should be sharing all of it on Instagram!  


Don’t forget that you should be in your Airtable once a week or so to make updates.  


Cafe and Submissions

Please make sure you’re checking Call for Entries on a regular basis! Take every opportunity you can.  


You should revise, modify, or add to at least one of your pages this week. If you’ve had a website for a while, you should think about updating it so that it looks as contemporary and current as possible. Make sure your work us divided thematically or by series and that the medium and year of creation is clear as well as the title.  

Talk to People

Approach a gallery owner, museum attendant, or business owner and find out if and how you might be able to exhibit your work, either soon or down the road.