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How do galleries operate?

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Laypeople see galleries as spaces that sell art. This is a limited view, since galleries don’t need to have a physical showroom or address, and aren’t limited to generating sales. There are many ways to discuss them, already because there is such a diversity in the venues/projects using this title. The most general way to describe them is as projects that highlight and aim to sell art – quite often (but not always) as profit-oriented companies. Their specific choices in doing these tasks differ wildly, and essentially define a gallery – and its standing in the art world. If your art is an expression of yourself, the gallery’s style, their mode of operation, certainly is an expression of the gallery owner and/or director.

Galleries usually collaborate with specific artists in order to promote their work – which ideally results in an artist’s heightened visibility, stronger brand and increased price level. Helping artists out like that isn’t ordinarily why a gallery does their business, but a strategy that the gallery chooses to improve their own economic situation. While some galleries make it very obvious that their space is meant to sell artworks, others aim for high aesthetic standards – resulting in the diversity in artist representations, work selections and installation setups between galleries. These differences matter a lot, because they both define a gallery’s position in the art world, as well as showcasing their intent; they are public, visible signs available for everyone to “read” and understand a gallery. If you’re unhappy about how a gallery represents itself (their name, space, location, website, choice of artists – their choice of style), it’s likely that you won’t be happy to collaborate and associate yourself with them.

Gallery Diversity

Galleries differ in how they present work, support production costs, how they think about and relate to art, how they communicate and collaborate with artists, in their ability to discuss art (with you or clients), in their ability to network, and in their business relations – how well they know which art critics, curators, museum directors, fellow galleries and other gatekeepers. All of these parameters (and more) ultimately result in the galleries’ standing – which is why emerging galleries can quickly become as important as established ones. A gallery doesn’t need a long history to be part of the contemporary discourse: it needs attention and care, business savviness and a strong means to generate revenue in order to get there. While ivory-tower-artists exist (focusing only on themselves, ignoring the world outside), the same is true for gallerists: individuals that pursue their path while ignoring industry standards and peer advice. While these might be excited about reinventing the wheel, they often don’t have enough inside knowledge and experience to actually change anything. They don’t listen, and aren’t listened to by their colleagues. After a short time, success usually turns out not to be on their side. They either change or close their business, frustrated about their ideas not being appreciated. These individuals can be harmful to emerging artists, since their lack of care for industry standards tends to results in unkept promises, missing works, insurances, contracts or invoices. Their sensitivity is about their own needs more than about understanding the system, and their emotional investment of the wrong kind: collaborate at your own peril.

Gallery Realities

Many galleries can’t sustain their business solely from selling the work they exhibit. This isn’t necessarily a problem – similar to artists, galleries usually​ have alternative, often intransparent ways of making ends meet: investors, family money, or by dealing with expensive artworks of artists they don’t represent (maybe deceased, most always well-known and established). These funding differences strongly influence a galleries’ capacity to kickstart careers, and are why galleries in high-price territories are at an advantage: they have deeper pockets to fund productions, to participate at the world’s top art fairs, and thus to highlight artists to an international audience of gatekeepers. Yet although an artist’s standing is strongly defined by their representation, being represented by a gallery doesn’t guarantee success. It nevertheless influences an artist’s public perception and aura, and opens doors that mostly remain unseen to unrepresented artists – or those represented by galleries with lesser networks. Although art itself is an open-quality system, the art market is not: it’s a platform that trades art objects as commodities, with some traders having tremendously more power and money than others. While it’s possible to reach “the top” even without collaborating with “the right” galleries, it’s extremely unlikely. The art market isn’t a self-fulfilling prophecy though: the financial background of a gallery influences their daily operations, but it can’t guarantee success.

Galleries most always take fifty percent of any piece they sell, and sometimes more. Depending on the representation agreement, they will also get that commission for any piece you sell. This means that the first time you start a representation collaboration, will henceforth decrease how much you earn with each sale – which is why you have to see this as an investment: a gallery might be able to generate sales continuously, and might be able to highlight you and your work in ways that multiply your visibility to collections, museums, and gatekeepers. It can strengthen your brand by publishing catalogs, promoting you (and your work) to become visible to further galleries and bring you to art fairs, etc. But then again, it might not: to understand the terms of your investment, you need to get a deep insight into how galleries work, and how they differ; simply reading a collaboration agreement might not be sufficient. You need to get more experienced.

It’s essential to understand that while galleries manage artists, they are not an artist’s manager. They get high commissions in case of sales, but aren’t paid by the artist the way an actual manager would be: an artist’s manager would follow the artist’s directions. Galleries don’t work that way: they collaborate with artists in order to maximize each other’s benefits, but are their own bosses. The difference can seem small at times, but is always relevant and noticeable. Independently of promises and pleasantries, most any collaboration with galleries is subject to one basic, untranscendable fact: there are endlessly more artists than galleries. A gallery can not make an artist collaborate with them, yet has the incredibly stronger position for the gallery scarcity that faces artist abundance. As a result, collaborating with galleries is most always also a power play.

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