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What are gallery representations, and why would I want them?

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A gallery representation is the name for the closest collaboration between a gallery and an artist. This collaboration will feature economic and emotional aspects, and, like all human interactions, will change over time. Galleries can represent multiple artists, and artists can be represented by multiple galleries.

Most artists want to be represented by a gallery for economic, networking and branding purposes: a gallery might take care of business aspects (client acquisition, networking, sales, etc), enabling the artist to focus more intensely on artmaking.  A gallery will be interested in highlighting its represented artists to its audience and network, facilitating contact to otherwise potentially inaccessible gatekeepers – and thus furthering their artists’ career way beyond implementing exhibitions and generating sales. Independently of exhibitions and sales, an artist might benefit already by simply being associated with a gallery: the art world’s abundance of artists stands in such contrast to the scarcity of galleries, that the status of being represented will by some be understood as a seal of quality.

Collaborating without Representation

Representation is not required for any of the above things to happen though – a gallery does not need to represent artists to collaborate with them. Solo or group shows, and even book publications or art fair participations can be realized just as well without it – and to some artists and galleries, this will be the better, more pragmatic approach: it focuses on the now, instead of on the long-term. It can be seen as a strong sign to collaborate based on real actions, instead of projecting hopes into the unknown future. Some galleries will work closer, more professionally and more successfully with their unrepresented artists, than others who proudly name represented artists on their website; whether a gallery uses representations can also be seen as a marketing decision: it makes a gallery sound more desirable, independently of whether it lives up to these desires.

There can be good reasons for a gallery to shun from representations, eg. if it understands its limited ability to consistently and sustainably push an artist’s career. The difference between representing and non-representing galleries doesn’t per se come in quality, but rather in the implicit expectations about what is potentially going to happen in the future. Having up-front discussions with a representing gallery doesn’t require them to deliver on their promises: some artists would have benefited greatly from more open collaborations.

Discussing the Deal

Gallery representations are so much an industry-standard that they can sound like a fixed, pre-defined package. In actuality, being represented by a gallery doesn’t define the collaboration in any way – it signals that a deal has been struck, but doesn’t explain that deal. The specifics of a collaboration therefore need to be negotiated: which countries are covered by the representation, what commission percentage the gallery expects in case of sales (does this apply only to sales generated by the gallery, or also to those generated by the artist?), how often a solo exhibition will happen, how many (and potentially: which) art fairs a gallery will attend with you, how many artworks they will show there and what sort of price range or format these works are expected to be in, whether the artist can sell digital prints of their work, etc. Exhibition frequency, communication modes, economic transparency, cost absorption, frequency and scope of strategic planning meetings are just the tip of this iceberg.

Discussing Values

In addition to discussing potential collaboration topics, it’s important to understand each other’s values: with whom is each party considering making business? What about their grit or courage, their opinions and attitudes about mental health, emotional and economic support – and any other topics showing their approach to business and life? The degree to which each of your values match will define the collaboration in powerful ways, to each other’s benefit or detriment.

Where a pure discussion of values can be hollow, blending it with actual business-questions will help form a solid mutual understanding: is a gallery aiming for the highest number of sales, or to reach the “best”, most premium collectors for a piece (accepting that some artworks will remain unsold even though allegedly “low-status” collectors would want to buy)? Does a gallery want to associate themselves only with artists that focus entirely on their artmaking, or does it appreciate (or shun) artists that have numerous passions besides their artmaking?

Contracts and their Limits

The business aspects of these discussions are ideally put into writing, and form the basis of the collaboration agreement, to be signed by both parties. In reality, the art world often discusses contracts for emerging artists as confining, and its non-existence as beneficial to a more dynamic way of collaborating: this is cynical and most often to the artist’s detriment; rare is the gallery that sticks to the discussed deal after it has been unable to generate enough sales within the first couple years of collaborating. Most galleries will simply silently lower the artist’s solo exhibition frequency and art fair participation.

The existence of a written collaboration agreement can be seen as similar to signing a prenup: it’s impossible to derive the relationship quality from it, but obviously defines certain rational standards and expectations. Nevertheless, many aspects of a collaboration cannot realistically be put into a contract: each other’s attitude and proactivity, general professionalism and competences; the degree of emotional and mental support, how often and under which spirit to meet and strategize, which parts of a network will be opened up and offered to the artist: the atmosphere and goodwill between people are always subject to change over time, and will ultimately be governed more by reality than by contracts or promises. This is why your ever-growing intuition, empathy and life experience will often not just lead to better deals, but will also help you to distance yourself from those business relations that wouldn’t match your ideals and realities. A sound goal is for both parties to understand who they’re dealing with before they start to collaborate, and thus before problems could emerge. Problems are still bound to appear in any relationship, but hopefully of the kind that do not show total value mismatches.

Business Growth for Artists

As with any deal, understanding and discussing representation specifics is very different to the artist’s ordinary studio challenges. Already because of this, artists are usually at a disadvantage when trying to find proper arguments to support their demands, and to treat this as the personal growth challenge that it usually is. This is made harder by scarcity of galleries, resulting in a representation offer to sound like a gift from the gods. Don’t treat it that way: instead interrogate, discuss it with your peers, understand your demands – and formulate them in a way respectful to your potential business partner – and yourself.

Since gallery representations are rare to emerging artists, they are often talked about as end goals. This isn’t true though – they should rather be seen as another (albeit potentially extremely potent) strategy towards heightened visibility and market reach – with the art world offering enough options for unrepresented artists. As with everything, each artist has their preferences: some will favor the open, unbound life apart from representations, where they are their lives’ sole business masters (and mostly get to keep all of a sales’ money); others will want and benefit from someone with more experience and a preexisting sales network.

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.