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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.

What is a gallery?

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In its basic form, a fine art gallery is a store that sells art objects. Galleries do so in a myriad of ways, differing in the specifics of which artists, discourses and aesthetics they associate themselves with – as well as the mostly-invisible, highly personal  network of people attached to them. Independently of their intention and reality, most galleries have an image that conveys distance, avantgarde and elitism: galleries might be stores, but few people enter them, buy there, or understand what they’re actually doing. To laypeople, galleries share aspects of churches: offering silence, adoration and mystery, as well as unknown rituals and unspoken rules. Like churches, they allege to be open to everyone, but in actuality are so only for those agreeing with their ideology; in the case of galleries, the ideology is art.

Galleries are gatekeepers to art, similar to museums. Yet where museums focus on researching, archiving and exhibiting, galleries focus on exhibiting and selling: the overlap is there, but not too big. The gatekeeping and showcasing aspects are also fulfilled by art documentaries or books, which are decidedly more accessible – but don’t offer people the experience of sharing a physical space with art objects. For experiencing physical objects, this difference can be existential.

Beginning artists often idealize galleries as a major (or even only) hope to get their work physically experienced by the world. The ideal gallery would not only be a premium gatekeeper, but also take care of all business operations, leaving the ideal artist to purely focus on their artmaking processes – without having to worry about non-artmaking tasks like pricing, networking, marketing, diversification, etc. Reality is more complex and challenging, but also offers more opportunities for the artist’s personal growth. Gallery-artist relationships come in immense diversity, with only a few overall, recurring aspects; some galleries don’t even aim to generate sales, but exist as pet projects created for often incomprehensible, but nevertheless real purposes. Galleries rarely take over their artist’s business operations – and neither should they.

The Infinity of Galleries

Galleries are businesses run by, collaborating with, and selling to individuals; on the surface, they are about showing and selling art works – yet first and foremost, they are platforms for human interactions. As such they are subject to the many facets and layers of interpersonal possibilities: trust, friendship, joy; misunderstandings, guilt, betrayal; power through collaboration, failure of communication, etc. A gallery can be seen as a multiplicity, an open, ever-changing network defined by the various individuals connected to it – an ecosystem consisting of owners, employees, curators and fellow artists; collectors, art critics and magazine or art fair staff. Many of the nodes and connections in this network aren’t visible (and are often intended to stay obscure), but cumulatively define the galleries’ market access, and their standing in the art world. The better you understand them, the more realistically will you be able to judge a gallery.

Galleries come in endless variety – the word itself doesn’t explain whether a project is for-profit, has a physical space, collaborates internationally, attends art fairs, or whether it is even actually capable of (or interested in) generating sales. The art world offers all sorts of galleries, including those that do not collaborate with living artists, instead aiming to sell works by deceased artists. These distinctions are relevant because it means that artists cannot simply look for “a gallery” when looking for “a gallery” – instead, they need to find one that matches their business expectations and realities. Judging galleries is its own challenge, which becomes easier the better an artist understands their own (and the galleries’) realities and fantasies.

When discussing galleries in the context of emerging artists, it’s sensible to discuss them as businesses that collaborate with artists. The collaboration specifics can differ tremendously between galleries, but already even between artists of the same gallery – artists might want (and get) significantly different things from their gallery, with some being able to negotiate way better or worse than others. Ideally, a gallery-artist relationship is the result of an ongoing dialog, where expectations and synergies are developed respectfully and transparently: exhibition frequency, communication modes, economic transparency, cost absorption, frequency of planning meetings, the degree of strategic planning, etc. This infinity of potential topics is why an artist’s curiosity and care about economic aspects matter so much when collaborating with a gallery: without it, how could an artist get the best deal possible?

The Dream

Potent galleries with strong international networks of gatekeepers can showcase artists to a global audience; they can influence art writers and art fair curators to shine a light on them to a degree impossible for galleries with less influence. The art world isn’t meritocratic, but network-based: an artist’s options are not solely the consequence of their oeuvre, but strongly depend on and differ with the galleries they are associated with. While artists (with or without galleries) can manage to showcase their work abroad, such an “international exhibition” itself doesn’t denote economic success. Successfully connecting an artist with the world outside the gallery’s original geography is what the art market is all about: to reach (and generate) a large audience willing to invest into an artist’s work. This sort of market demand multiplies an artist’s economic value, and is most artist’s fantasy. It’s rarely a reality, with galleries often simply not having the network, curiosity or longevity to push an artist beyond their existing collectors and gatekeepers. Economic success is rare; if it does happen, it comes with real consequences: the requirement to produce, a dependency on the galleries’ network, etc. – not every artist will want this.

What do I do at art events – specifically at gallery or art fair openings?

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The fine arts industry offers all sorts of event types: gallery brunches, artist talks and preview dinners; work screenings, press conferences and afterparties; finissages, closed collector events etc. Exhibition openings and art fairs are the industries’ flagship events, and can feel intimidating because of their open social architecture. Whether they happen at galleries, art fairs, non-profits, museums or elsewhere, they don’t specify or demand a specific way of interaction. Primarily, openings exist for the public to be able to experience an artist’s manifested vision, their universe. Yet openings are just as much about the hosting institution, which the public gets to see in its newest form, its latest incarnation – which can be especially true in the case of curated group shows: who gets exhibited by which curator, and what does it imply about the current state of the venue?

Art events are social gatherings, and thus inherently feature randomly shifting opportunities.

While art events are usually based on the idea of experiencing art, they always also include social interactions at their core. This highlights the reality of the art world, which combines the idealism of artistic expression, with the realities of curiosity, networking and the art market. Newbies will quickly realize how rare it is for visitors to actually care about the exhibited work. People can be superficial, unfriendly or rude, which can overwhelm inexperienced or sensitive younglings. Might it be healthier to disregard openings altogether? After all, the studio offers a focused comfort zone with the possibility to pursue art making: where studios seem to incorporate pure idealism, art events can at worst feel to simply incorporate the bad breath of alcohol and capitalism. 

Both statements are based in clichés though: essentially, both domains offer their own challenges. To progress, you need to both work and network, in order to steadily establish both your oeuvre and your visibility. Depending on your character and fears, your inexperience and insecurities can cloud your judgement: if you don’t know anyone in a scene, it will be unclear what to do, and how to ever belong. But as always, there’s value in expanding into the unknown.

Understand openings as free networking events that you can ride like waves, and experiment to find your place within them.

Understand openings as free networking events that you can ride like waves, and experiment to find your place within them: witness and note which people actually consider the exhibited art, who knows whom, and how crowds will form groups of attitude and mutual consent. See openings as opportunities to learn about your industry (about its various interaction modes, languages and key players), and appropriate them to become another part of your networking strategy. See them as what they are: events where people get to meet each other, unique because of their open social architecture that allows people to arrive randomly, unexpectedly, and without commitment. Use them to get to know your peers, who might turn out to become business acquaintances, artist collaborators, friends or lovers – and to ultimately find your flow of moving from one opening to the next: randomly, unexpectedly, and with the commitment you see fit. See them as opportunities to transcend your comfort zone and your knowledge of art, and to expand your social circle.

To reduce the threshold of attending to art events, consider forming a group of like-minded peers. This lets you schedule the event upfront, and will result in everyone being more motivated to attend. It also reduces the risk of being unaware of important events, since your peer group creates a heightened awareness of them. You can meet in someone’s studio or for a drink, then head to the event together, and end the evening discussing your experiences.

Here are various things to do at art openings (or other art events):

  • Experience the artworks, and expand your knowledge about them: With art right in front of you, of course you’ll want to see whether there’s anything to learn from the exhibited pieces. What do you feel? What do you experience? Has the work been done sloppily or is it well-crafted? Is the artist known or emerging? Do you know how the gallery got to collaborate with them? What are your thoughts about the specific way the works have been installed? What would you have done differently, and why? An event’s exhibited artworks represent the core connection to your own artistic practice, independently of whether you understand or enjoy it.

  • Study the handouts: Every exhibition will have handouts with prices, the artist’s CV and a text about the show. Read these to expand your knowledge about both art and gallery: what do you think about it? Is it written clearly and concisely? Are there new words or phrases you can remember and incorporate for your artist statement? Does the text use ideas that you can adapt? Do you know the person who wrote the text? If you enjoy the text, remember who wrote it – you might one day ask them to write about your own work.

  • Scout and Connect: Try to scout the attendants to understand who they are, what role they have, and whether they might be interesting to you. This can include fellow artists, collectors, critics, the gallery team (owner, gallery director, staff), the general public, etc. Try to understand who attracts you for their sensitivity or verbal finesse, who’s there only to get seen, who’s needy and pushy. Scouting isn’t about getting to know the right person, but to understand each person’s relevance to the art world, and to discover your potential mutual relevance. By increasing your knowledge about the scene’s players, you’ll also increase awareness of how you might eventually fit in.
    Art events always also attract stereotypes: rich collectors, arrogant art students, know-it-all art critics and curators; but what about the others, the individuals that don’t fulfill a cliché? Find them, and see what happens once you connect.

  • Converse (“network”): Try to understand who’s interesting to you, and start a conversation with them – knowing that as a newbie, you’ll ​be invisible to most others for a while. That’s OK, since you don’t want anything from anyone: you’re not looking for an exhibition, a review, a solo show: you’re just here to understand and get to know others: to network. You can do that by talking about anything that’s interesting to both of you: the exhibited art and artist(s), the gallery; personal projects and challenges, etc. Be authentic and enjoy the other person’s presence. If you feel that they don’t enjoy yours, simply move on.

    Stay sensitive of others stealing your focus and time: some people will push themselves between you and the event (sometimes even physically), and won’t stop monologizing about themselves. For whatever reason, they use you – they might be intoxicated, narcissistic, or just plain weird. Remember that you’re under no obligation to stick with them, and will sometimes have to excuse yourself in order to pursue your actual mission of getting to know and actually engage with people.

    In case of interesting discussions, consider asking for contact information. This enables you to stay in touch via mail, or by simply forwarding your most recent newsletter. This gives the recipient the chance to see your work, and to subscribe to your newsletter.

  • Aim for the kill: If you want to approach someone who doesn’t know you, take a step back and calmly judge the situation: would you bother them by introducing yourself (they might be in an important conversation, could be intoxicated or simply busy)? Is there someone who could introduce you easily? Approach them sensitively and smartly, considering these circumstances: tell them who you are and that you appreciate their work, and whether they’d have a spare minute. Be humble and authentic, and stay open to the possibility of them not having time or energy for you – if this happens, ask them whether you could mail your request. Ask for their business card, and hand them yours.

  • Stay: This last point might be quintessential: don’t leave. Art events are social gatherings, and thus inherently feature randomly shifting opportunities. Instead of leaving once you experienced the exhibited art, stay and see what happens. This usually creates stronger opportunities that heading back home, and establishes yourself (to yourself) as someone who cares about both artworks and networking. You’ll notice new people arriving over time, and further opportunities with them. If the gallery is embedded in a local gallery network, consider visiting their neighbors as well.

How do I establish organic engagement with a gallery, specifically when looking for representation?

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Some artists find representation without having searched for it: a gallery approaches them on their own. Maybe they saw someone’s work at the art school’s open days, or a professor or mutual acquaintance mentioned the work. Either way: this is rare. If you haven’t been approached by a gallery, but want to establish contact, you need to work on expanding your network. This will help you to create organic engagement opportunities.

Consider the following strategies:

  • Understand the gallery’s network, and embed yourself within it: Understand which artists and gatekeepers the gallery is surrounded by, and see whether you can gradually increase contact with them. This is easiest done at gallery events (openings, artist talks, curated tours, art fairs, etc), where you can listen in, observe and judge. Attending these public events creates the chance to get invited to the more private circles that often happen alongside: an opening dinner, or drinks in the gallery’s back room. These occasions are not meant for you to push your work; rather, they should serve as a platform to understand the gallery’s environment, and to organically establish connections. The more intimate the setting you get into, the less the situation will be about you. Understand that everyone usually has an agenda to push: the gallerist might want to generate sales or network with guests; the staff might be busy attending to collectors; fellow artists might see a curator they’d want to talk to. That’s why you want to be both natural and sensitive whenever you get invited to an “inner circle” event: you don’t want to come across as pushy or needy.

  • Understand your supporters and their potential to gain gallery awareness: We all know people with connections; your existing network might include artists, collectors, professors and assistants, family and friends, etc. If you’re lucky, one of these has a direct connection to the gallery you’re interested in (or to a gallery you don’t yet know of). Maybe one of them is interested in highlighting your work? While directly asking someone for such a favor puts them on the spot, sometimes supporters think of this on their own. This drastically changes the dynamic to your potential advantage: it’s nearly impossible for an artist to approach a gallery, yet a third party can often manage this without resulting in weirdness. Understand that while some supporters won’t be interested in helping you, others might do it in pushy, detrimental ways. Ideally, the third party checks back with you, to understand how to adequately highlight your work to a gallery – which henceforth knows about you. This doesn’t guarantee their professional interest, but helps to connect a step further: you’d now be more visible than before. This is true even if they forget about you, since the next time someone drops your name, they are more likely to remember it.

  • Connect to the gallery’s represented artists: While anyone in your network can be helpful in generating gallery awareness, a gallery’s represented artists can often be a natural point of contact (this can be especially true if your network doesn’t feature anyone else who might be able to help you). Can you connect to some of them? If you don’t know any of a gallery’s represented artist yet, consider visiting the gallery’s public events to gradually try to change that.
    Once you naturally jell with someone, the mutual interest for each other might result in worthwhile discussions about each other’s work, the state of the art world, etc. Drinks might follow. Studio visits. These kinds of first steps could lead to mutual support (when installing shows, moving studios, needing advice, etc) or even friendship; they could lead to collaborations on specific works or exhibitions, which sometimes can generate the galleries’ awareness of you. Understand that your efforts will usually only be as efficient as they are authentic: faking interest in artists (to get their galleries’ attention) will rarely work out, and has the real risk of you coming across as egoistic and unlikable. As with all networking efforts, it’s best to do them in a way that inherently feels good to everyone who’s involved; this way, the process rewards itself.
    Don’t ask represented artists to highlight your work to their gallery. They might feel their trust betrayed, might see you as competition, or might simply not feel comfortable proposing a business deal to their gallery (read the comments at the end of this chapter for details).

  • Expand your general network: Instead of directly aiming for a gallery’s attention, expand your general network to include various layers of gatekeepers: local artists, curators, art writers, non-profit venues, etc. This long-term strategy strengthens your position in the local art scene, and makes it more likely for you to get to know someone of the gallery in question. The art world is fluid: people leave their jobs to work at other places (institutions, other galleries, non-profits, etc), and in other functions: an assistant from three years ago could be tomorrow’s gallery director or head curator of an institution you’d like to collaborate.

  • Consider non-local galleries and networks: Instead of looking for local galleries only, consider which non-local artists you know. Are they connected to galleries, non-profit art spaces, or do they curate on their own? Visiting them might expand your network in entirely unexpected ways, with the additional benefit of you getting to know another art scene. Maybe your contact can tell you about galleries that might be of interest to you? Find out about efficient scheduling: a week with many openings or an art fair can lead to dozens of organic networking opportunities.
    Instead of connecting to non-local artists in your network, you can also research the represented artists of specific non-local galleries. Consider reaching out to them: maybe there’s time for a meeting or studio visit to discuss their work? In case of actual curiosity on your behalf, this can be a potent way to expand your network, and potentially, over the years, even get the gallery’s attention. While finding a gallery might be your driving force, refrain from solely judging your efforts by the outcome (to have found a gallery representation); instead, focus on the process: to have gotten in touch with fellow artists and their work. You can never know what this will bring to you in the upcoming years.

  • Spot disinterest: Understand that you can’t force interest in you or your work. While in your mind your work might be a perfect fit, this doesn’t say anything about the realities and interests of the gallery in question. As with dating, it takes two to tango. When you notice conversations or situations to be imbalanced (gallery staff interrupting you, not listening or being attentive, etc.), then accept this disinterest. You can try to see whether over the months, someone else in the gallery shows more curiosity, or whether a specific person simply was in a bad mood; but understand that mutual likeability is random, and often can’t be influenced. Don’t let this frustrate you, but accept such implicit rejections, and continue your search elsewhere.

Refrain from asking others to highlight your work to galleries. Even though you might envision this to be easy for them, you simply cannot know, which usually makes it inappropriate: It puts the burden on someone else, and asks for quite a commitment to your work: even if the person you ask truly likes your work, they might not feel comfortable highlighting it to others – especially to potential business collaborators. Asking others to push your work is usually not organic, but forceful: a demand that puts someone on the spot, requiring them to either comply or shy away – both resulting in a weird power imbalance. Trying to be your own brand ambassador is more respectful and sensitive, and has the advantage of personal growth and control about how external parties are approached. Instead of asking someone to highlight your work, wait and see whether they might offer this on their own. Don’t expect it though: it’s unlikely to happen.

How do I find gallery representation?

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Artists don’t require gallery collaborations or representations – they can establish successful, perfectly satisfied lives on their own. Nevertheless, most artists dream of the possibilities that emerge from gallery collaborations; they signify art world appreciation, and prestige by association. In this way, galleries symbolize hope: for increased visibility and sales, for an expanded network of gatekeepers, and for being able to more fully focus one’s artistic practice. How then to find a gallery, when they differ so drastically from one another, and are generally understood to be so highly unapproachable?

The basic strategy to find a gallery requires knowledge about your work, and about the gallery’s focus:

  • Have a presentable body of work: You need to have a concise body of work in order to be interesting to a gallery. This doesn’t mean that you should show your work or portfolio when visiting the gallery; rather, consider it as the general prerequisite for gallery collaborations. Note that establishing gallery relations does not require you to already have a full body of work: solid relations are usually built on the feelings, energies and unique compatibilities between  humans – not the judgements of art. You can start building relations to galleries today, and it will likely help you down the road, when you feel more confident about your work.

  • Understand your work, and be able to discuss it: Pursuing your art practice throughout the years usually results in you having a good understanding of its characteristics. This should help you in discussing your work in various depths: what’s the one-sentence-description that you feel comfortable with, but doesn’t feel like a sales pitch. What is your work about, what art historical or contemporary references are relevant for you and your work. This knowledge can be your basis for conversations surrounding the gallery courting phase; while you’re unlikely to have such conversations right away, understanding your work and being able to discuss it with ease will send the right signals to gallery directors once they are curious about you. Understand that a deep knowledge of your work doesn’t mean that you should push it into conversations; but being well-prepared allows you to drop information when the conversation’s flow leads to it.

  • Understand the gallery in question: You need both a general understanding of galleries, and a specific understanding of the gallery in question. How do galleries work, and how does this specific gallery compare to that? What fairs does the gallery attend, what sort of artists are represented there (emerging, established, deceased); is there a specific semantic or media focus (performance, photography, figuration, abstraction etc), what price level do they operate in, what sort of clientele do they attract, how well-presented are the shows there, etc. Understanding a gallery lets you put your work in context: would it be a good fit? If so, it makes sense to try to establish a deeper connection with the gallery staff.

    To better understand a gallery, visit them with the sole intention to check out their space and current exhibition – not to initiate contact. This relieves you of the pressure to act (and be judged), resulting in an atmosphere where it’s you that can judge (the exhibition, the display, the works, etc) – where you’re in some sort of power. Whenever you visit a gallery, consider their expectations upon seeing a stranger entering their business: in the best of cases, you might be a new customer. Wanting to highlight or discuss your work can quickly make you a nuisance, with energies immediately being imbalanced. If you instead repeatedly visit them over a year, to see their shows outside of the openings, they’re bound to notice your curiosity.

The basic strategy to approach a gallery depends on whether you’re already represented or not:

  • If you’re already represented: Contact your gallery and ask them about the gallery you’d like to get in touch. Is there an existing connection that lets the gallery reach out with ease? Do both galleries attend similar art fairs or other industry events? Does someone of your galleries’ closer network know someone at the aspired gallery? Find out whether an organic way of contacting the new gallery is feasible – eg. through a mutual curatorial project, a joint booth at an art fair, etc.

  • If you’re not yet represented: Establish organic ways of connecting to the gallery staff – by visiting their openings, artist talks, project openings etc. Instead of expecting quick results, you need to understand these steps as part of a courting phase that can easily take more than a year. While frustratingly slow to some, this phase lets you understand, compare and judge the galleries in question. You will get to see the differences in emotionality and professionalism, and get to know their closer surroundings; attending gallery events also enables you to connect to artists and gatekeepers, which in itself can be rewarding; they might tell you about the gallery, or even become collaborators or friends.

    Your goal is to raise awareness of you and your work, ideally without being pushy. Resist the urge to contact the gallery directly (by sending an email, or visiting it in their office hours, to hand over a portfolio to the gallery director or staff). While doing so might sound pragmatic, it also shows your desperation, and lack of knowledge about etiquette and implicit industry standards. Courting is a dance that can rarely be skipped. Once a gallery is curious, it will find ways to see your work: the challenge is to spark their curiosity.

Understand that no matter how close you get, no matter how strong your urge to collaborate, galleries might have no interest: they might have enough artists already, might be downsizing, might not like your work, might not like you, might not see its economic feasibility for their current context, might see your work as too similar to another one of their artist’s work, or too distant from what they do. If you experience disinterest in basic conversations (no curiosity whatsoever), then it will likely be smart to accept this as rejection. You can still stay in touch and visit their shows, since this will strengthen your network: it’s good to know people. But don’t sulk: as in unrealized love relationships, you have to look further. If your dream about a collaboration simply isn’t per se founded in the reality of mutual business interests, there’s little you can do. Always remember: there are many other galleries out there to explore and connect to – but the ratio of artists to galleries is extremely uneven: it’s impossible for every artist to be represented.