Business of Art for Artists: Part 1

Over the next few months, I’m going to veer a little off the beaten path and discuss how artists can approach galleries, curators, and other art industry professionals, as well as some of the options available for exhibition and representation.

For an artist just starting out, the business of art can be difficult to navigate. Whether you are self-taught or an art school graduate, you’re probably aware by now of a serious lack of available hands-on, practical business training for artists.

Business as usual at the International Contemporary Art Fair, Madrid, February 2014
Business as usual at the International Contemporary Art Fair, Madrid, February 2014 | Image by Outsiderzone

The truth is, the path to becoming an exhibiting artist is often paved with excruciatingly painful moments, because nobody teaches you any of this stuff (especially not in art school), and galleries are often very guarded when it comes to educating newbies on the best ways to approach them.

In the spirit of helping my fellow artists navigate the tricky inroads of the art biz, and avoiding an early trip to the asylum for other art industry pros who are on the receiving end of an ever-growing amount of inquiries, here’s a primer on how to approach galleries, how to start exhibiting, and if you’re the enterprising kind, how to go it alone.

Reality VS wishful thinking

First and foremost, it’s important to understand that art is a business. Whether you like this statement or not, it doesn’t change the fact that the art world has always been elitist and exclusionary, and that the unit of measure of an artist’s success is the price tag. Despite our loftiest intentions and at a time when even Wal-Mart has an art museum, we have to come to terms with the fact that, now more than ever, art is a commodity.

CB1 Gallery after hours, Downtown Los Angeles
“You can rail against the structure and keep getting the door slammed in your face, or you can come to terms with it and start making some headway.”

This often puts artists at odds with the very system they’re trying to be a part of. I’m not a fan of sweeping generalizations, but I’m about to make a few: Artists do tend to see the world differently and place value in things that aren’t purely materialistic. In contrast, serious art collectors (and speculators) usually belong to a very privileged segment of society, and tend to accumulate art for reasons that are (largely) ego-driven and materialistic. Even if wealthy collectors are motivated by a pure love of art, spending large sums of money on “art-objects” puts them in a uniquely privileged position to influence the direction of the market, which means their tastes (and pocketbooks) are calling the shots, and that’s exactly what the gallery and art fairs systems are built to enable.

While the rise of social media has given us new tools to build community, gain exposure and make inroads into the art world, it’s also true that the more things change… the more they stay the same, especially at the upper echelons.

Two sides of one coin

The art world is a structure, and as much as I hate using this “right brain, left brain” analogy, in order to stand, the structure requires that two very disparate components work in unison: the unbridled creativity and talent of an artist, and the uber-organized managerial skills of a business and marketing professional. Even self-representing artists will tell you that in order to be successful, they must split their activities 50/50 between these two components.

Just like any professional segment of society, the art world has built-in protections and rules of conduct. Unless you’re making art just for yourself (or plan to give it away for free), you don’t have too many options: You can rail against the structure and keep getting the door slammed in your face; you can come to terms with it and start making some headway; or you can avoid it altogether and deal with buyers and collectors directly.

What artists are up against

One of the biggest hurdles artists are facing is that they can’t seem to get their work viewed by anyone who “matters”, traditionally speaking, gallery owners, curators, art dealers, and the like. In today’s tech landscape, this may not matter as much because artists can reach buyers directly, but if your goal is exhibition and representation (which collectors still get excited about), educating yourself about the gallery system is an important piece of the puzzle.

One of my close artist friends, a bit of a romantic and a lover of art history, once talked about the good old days of Picasso and Gertrude Stein  how artists used to have a special relationship with wealthy patrons and influential intellectuals, mavericks in their own right, who believed in these artists and supported their careers. It wasn’t about money, it wasn’t about fame or commodity, it was about ideas, about truth, and being at the forefront of change.

In Picasso’s day, being an artist was a rare thing, and perhaps, kind of a curse, too. The history of art is fraught with accounts of ruined lives spent in poverty and despair. Artists were a minority on the fringe of society; it certainly wasn’t a lifestyle to aspire to, at least for the average person. Artists became artists because they were driven to it  by fate, by madness, by inspiration, or some kind of divine revelation, because there was no other way for them to be, and no other language to express what was screaming to come out — but by choice? Hardly. Artists who thrive and achieve rock star status before kicking the bucket are a pretty recent phenomenon, and so is the desire to become one when we grow up.

Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Gertrude Stein, 1906, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Gertrude Stein, 1906, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

While the born, tormented or soulful artist still exists today, there’s been a major sea change in the way art is perceived. In fact, art has become so accessible and easy to pursue that everyone and their mother is an artist.

This may sound like a negative comment on my part; it’s not. Personally, I believe that if you call yourself an artist, then you are one; everyone has the right to explore art and see where it takes them. But this does result in a lot more noise in the art world, with many more people knocking at the system’s door, flooding it, even crashing it at times. For gallerists and other art professionals, this means a good chunk of the week is now spent trying to manage the ever-expanding flow of unsolicited inquiries for portfolio reviews and exhibition opportunities. At best, a large portion of these inquiries are lazy or unprofessional; at worst, some can be downright ignorant, rude, even nasty at times.

What this means for those seeking new talent, including those of us committed to promoting emerging artists, is that it’s increasingly difficult to see the forest for the trees. As a result, the “gatekeepers” become more protective of their time, weary of inquiries, and tend to look for new talent from within — through artists they already represent, connections in the industry, and people they know and trust.

Don’t be that guy

A curator and a gallery owner are sitting at the front desk, engaged in a discussion. In walks a young man with a painting under his arm. Without waiting for a break in the conversation he says, “Hey, I’m wondering if I can just, like… put this in here?” The owner asks the young man if he has an appointment, and he says no — he just came in to show his work. The owner replies that she’s in a meeting and can’t look at artwork right now. She hands the young man a business card and tells him to check the gallery’s website for artwork submission guidelines. In response, he holds up his painting and goes, “So… you’re saying this sucks?” The owner stands there with her mouth open, frozen in the awkwardness. The young man adds that he’s here now, and would like feedback on his work. The owner composes herself, repeats what she just finished saying and, understandably irritated, shows him the door. Finally he goes, grumbling.

Think this story is made up? No. In fact, I sat through slightly different variants of this cringe-worthy scenario no less than three times in the last month. One artist left glitter all over the gallery floor, another marched up to our Director and accused us of incompetence because we didn’t drop everything we were doing to give her the information she wanted, namely, where ALL the other galleries are, AND how to get in touch with them. I’ll bet a good chunk of money that many gallery owners, directors, or curators have had similar experiences on a regular basis in recent years.


“The first thing a curator or a gallerist will notice about
you isn’t your art; it’s your professionalism.”


The reason we don’t walk into a company’s headquarters unannounced with an example of a project under our arm and demand to be seen by the CEO is because we don’t live in an 80s movie… and because we know there’s a burly security guard at the end of that scene. For some reason because it’s art, people assume that the whole industry is kind of like an artist: loosey-goosey, maybe a bit of a hippie, open-minded, easygoing… but remember that 50/50 thing?

The first thing a curator or a gallerist will notice about you isn’t your art; it’s your professionalism. Sad perhaps, but nobody wants to work with an artist who can’t be bothered with even the most rudimentary of manners, or is too lazy to look online to find out what a gallery specializes in, or if they’re even accepting new artists. If you approach a gallery like an amateur, you won’t be taken seriously.

Something’s afoot in very recent culture that allows, even enables, people to display a disproportionate sense of entitlement, without actually having anything to show for it. The 20-year-old at Starbucks is rude to customers because he feels that by now, he should be running the conglomerate. The runner working for a film marketing company is having a hissy-fit because he’s not a full-blown producer within six months of starting the job. The amateur artist makes two paintings in an afternoon, walks into a gallery to announce that he’s ready to grace their walls with his work, and leaves in a huff because they didn’t recognize his genius.

This over-confident yet self-destructive behavior is on the rise, and speaking from personal experience, has directly contributed to galleries being more guarded, less open to responding to inquiries, and less willing to issue open calls and consider newcomers.

Understanding the gallery

Visitors to Miart international exhibition of modern and contemporary art, March 2014, Milan | Image by Tinx

Some view the art industry as a giant predatory wheel built to exploit artists and profit from their original ideas. That very well may be, but in all fairness, this also describes capitalism as a whole. Unless a gallery serves a purely not-for-profit or academic purpose, it will essentially function like a commercial business.

Galleries and art organizations vary widely, from small, personable, community-based hubs, to large, corporate, evil, exploitative enterprises. Even public art museums, while still largely perceived as shiny, sparkly guardians of our collective culture, have to answer to overlords that require all visitors to exit through the gift shop.

A little-known fact is that many gallery owners, curators and art dealers started out as artists themselves; some studied fine art, some art history, or the business of art. Some learned the old-fashioned way, by working under a mentor and climbing from within. Regardless of their background or specialty, the common thread is usually a genuine love of art, a desire to share it or educate the public about it, and yes in some cases, to buy, sell, or collect it. Many are storytellers or visual editors, selecting art and artists in relation to the audiences and purposes they serve.

Juried exhibition at DAC Gallery, a nonprofit art space in Downtown Los Angeles.
“Nonprofit art spaces are formed to promote a particular agenda and select artists accordingly.”

There are major differences between commercial and nonprofit galleries. While a nonprofit space doesn’t necessarily focus on whether the art is sellable, every organization has an agenda, and every exhibition has a goal. A commercial gallery might specialize in a particular genre, but the main objective is of course to sell art.

I often think that commercial gallery owners must have some kind of gambling addiction. Opening a gallery is a risky and costly business. If you know anyone renting a large storefront in a prime area of N.Y.C. or L.A., you can probably imagine the ungodly amounts spent on rent alone. Then you have to staff it with a receptionist, an installer or two, a gallery manager, and depending on the scale of things, an archivist to manage that collection, and any number of upper-management employees, not to mention other costs like insurance, art storage, utilities, security, publicity and marketing, event planning, etc. Even if a gallery is a tiny mom and pop operation, it’s not exactly the type of business that can flourish on a shoestring budget.

When a commercial gallery gives an artist a month-long solo exhibition, they have to be certain of a few things: How prolific is this artist? Do they have staying power? Can the gallery actually find buyers and collectors for the work, and will it increase in value? Will the artist attract, hold and grow an audience over the years? If the answer to these questions is yes, both artist and gallerist stand to benefit greatly from the partnership.

Commercial galleries look for career artists with a consistent body of work.
Commercial galleries look for career artists with a consistent body of work. | Image by Tinx

If the answer is uncertain, they might pass on the artist altogether, or offer a temporary, conditional or non-binding arrangement to test the waters. A gallerist may personally like an artist’s work, but question the availability of a market for it. Even though most galleries take a 50% commission of works sold, there are no guarantees that the work will sell, and this isn’t always dependent on the gallery’s mad skills; the market varies, and buyers are fickle. If sales are tepid, this can have pretty disastrous consequences on the bottom line. Commercial galleries look for career artists with a consistent body of work, exhibition history, a proven record of sales and collectors, and/or some kind of story to build upon in terms of PR. Although fine art degrees aren’t always required, they are helpful if only to demonstrate an artist’s ability to think critically and see things through.

For nonprofit galleries, it’s a slightly different story. Nonprofit art spaces are formed to promote a particular agenda and select artists accordingly; some exist to further the study of photography or digital art, some serve as a launchpad for experimental works in film or video, others focus on promoting emerging talent. The point is, while they can be slightly more inclusive, nonprofits still have specific criteria to meet, and still look for a professional attitude.

If you’re new to this and getting ready to approach a gallery, it might be helpful to try to see things from their perspective. Remember that they are flooded with requests from hundreds of other artists like you, so there has to be something tangible for a gallery to count on, and it has to be relevant to their particular audience. You may be extremely talented, but always ask yourself: Is my work a good fit for this gallery or organization? Am I on par with the other artists they represent? How do they benefit from taking me on?

Next month, I will discuss the common sense approach for artists, which includes practical steps to getting gallery-ready, as well as professional tips to developing more harmonious relationships with the pros who can support your career.

Read “Business of Art for Artists: Part 2”



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Images by Nat George unless otherwise mentioned. 
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