As a young artist in the New York art world, I asked many questions and got few answers from other artists and art administrators about access to the art world. I assumed it was impossible to get into unless you were “picked” by a curator or had a windfall of opportunity. This chapter will discuss phrases like what it means to be “discovered” and/or “chosen” by a gallery, as well as the notion of the “starving artist,” the “struggling artist,” and other catchwords and phrases that make success in the art world seem difficult or impossible.
Gallery Types and Tiers
I hear so many questions about how to get into galleries from artists: “What do they want to see?”; “How do they choose artists?”; “Do they want to see one body of work, or more?”; “How many images do they want to see?”; and the list goes on.
Galleries are a mystery to most artists, and there is definitely not a clear book of rules. However, if you look at the questions above, there is one flaw in how they are being asked. Artists tend to group all galleries together into a common or at least very similar institution. Thus the word “they” in all of those questions doesn’t really apply, because galleries have very little in common with each other as well as no standards of practice. Some galleries want contracts with artists, others refuse to sign contracts, some galleries want to see a consistent body of work, while others do not. In short, the word “they” does not apply to these questions because there is no “they”—all galleries are run according to different business models.
Top Tier Galleries
Consider the top tier galleries like Gagosian and Zwirner in New York City. Those two galleries as well as others like them (selling work for over $100,000) are not looking for artists at all, in the traditional sense. They do not review work. The way they find artists is by looking at other galleries that have hot artists and then stealing them! They are not in the business of taking any risk. It is the highest level of the art world, and they are like traders in fine antiquities; they know exactly what they want and pursue it. Every other level of the art world is accessible. Having said that, it is possible though not probable to be in one of those galleries under special circumstances. Perhaps you know one of these gallerists, or have a connection to them through a collector. It may be like trying to meet the Pope, but if you can get a meeting with someone like that, it is possible that you could make a proposal that is powerful enough to gain their interest. One possible proposal is that you want to stage a one-day event that you feel will garner tremendous press. Even though the gallery will probably not sell work on that day, if you convince them that it could generate a lot of attention, then it is indeed possibly valuable to the gallerist. That may be a long shot, but it is one way to achieve the impossible. If that succeeds, then you are getting the attention of that gallerist and a door may open.
Let’s look at galleries that are not top tier, where more possibilities lie. As I said earlier, there are no standards among galleries for the most part, because there is not a protocol that they need to abide by, unlike museums and nonprofits. I’m sure you have seen it yourself in the wide variety of galleries out there. There is the frame shop-gallery, that makes framing its main business but sells art on the side. Those galleries do not have traditional shows, the work just changes every so often on the walls. The frame-shop gallery is usually not pushing the sale of art, they are selling frames. Could you show in a gallery like this? Yes, probably. They do not want to see a body of work, or a philosophy, or a great idea for an event, they want to see art that can sell in their price range.
You can walk in to one of those places and simply ask who the owner is, or who is in charge of selling the art. Then you can ask if they would like to look at your art for selling in their shop. It is very straight forward, there is nothing you need to do but be confident and show your work—ideally work on paper or small canvases.
Then there are galleries that sell everything from vintage posters to signed prints by Warhol and contemporary art as well, all jammed together on a wall. These galleries can be aggressive in their sales techniques, to the point of being tacky, but it works for them. This is probably not the kind of place you want to be in, unless you see art on the walls that is similar to yours. Like the framing shop, these owners are hard ball business people most likely, and if they like what you have, and they think they can sell it, then they will. No need to be shy here, just walk in and say that you have art you are interested in selling and you want to talk to the person that handles that.
You can show originals if they are small enough to carry, or images on an iPad or phone. Like all galleries, even the most commercial never buy art directly from you; they usually take it on consignment and take anywhere from a 10–50% commission. There are dozens of variations on this type of gallery, which is essentially a straight-forward store that also sells art.
There is no shame in selling art in these places, though it will not be a stepping stone to biennials and larger galleries in most cases.