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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.

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