Small to Mid-size Fine Art Galleries
The galleries that are in the middle of this range are probably the ones you are looking for. These are the galleries with white walls, a largely empty space with a small desk in the corner for a receptionist, and art on the walls that does not have prices hanging from it, but instead, there is a price sheet at the desk.
These types of galleries also have a range in quality and ambition. They may all look similar and be in gallery districts or even in rural areas, but have different management policies. Again the idea of what “they” want doesn’t apply here because they are all run by different people who are making up the rules of their own business. So some of them will offer a contract while others will not, and some will be friendly and open to submissions while others will not be. The advantage to the “white box” gallery described here is that their primary business is selling art. There are no frames or posters or boutique items, they are simply selling art. That is something you generally want in a gallery. Of course, nonprofit galleries and museums are another story and generally do not sell work at all, as that is not their mission, but we talked about that in the previous chapter and will discuss it more later in the book.
If this is the type of gallery you want to pursue, then one thing to keep in mind is that it is ideal to have several galleries like this as opposed to one. Most galleries will sell some work some of the time. That means when you have a show with them your work may sell but probably not on a steady basis after your show. And even if the gallery represents you, that does not mean that they will sell your work on a regular basis, so if you have different galleries in different areas of one state or geographical area, you have a better chance at making a consistent income. Also, if one gallery closes, you are not out in the cold, and do not need to start looking for a gallery again. Most artists that are selling work on a regular basis are managing their work at several galleries.
The method for approaching galleries is something on which you will hear different opinions, which makes sense since there is nothing regulated or common in how they run their business. I have worked with many artists over the years and have seen many of them begin doing business with one or more galleries from start to finish. This is the method I would suggest.
Method for Approaching Galleries
Approaching a gallery with your work is now done with new technology and simple words. I would like to preface this by saying that when you approach a gallery, you are not concerned with whether or not they “like” your work. That is not the issue, and if you are bringing work to a gallery, you already know that it is good work. To ask a gallery if the work is good in some form or another is to prejudice how they will perceive you no matter what your work looks like. The reason is that when you ask a form of the question, “What do you think of my work?” it is similar to saying, how do I look? That question is so fraught with subjective assessment and awkward overtones that it would be hard to get a clear answer.
Rather than ever saying something like that, keep in mind you are trying to sell your work to the gallery, so they in turn can sell your work. Can you imagine a salesperson of any kind saying, “Do you think this is a good product?” Or being on a first date and saying, “Do you like me?” That would usually be awkward and would put the person in a difficult position. Instead, the attitude and approach you want to have is that you are looking to sell your work. You want to know if they are interested in selling it. This is the simple and straightforward way of doing just that.
The Question to Ask
You can walk into a gallery (the white box kind) and say to the person at the desk these exact words, “Do you look at the work of new artists?” In almost all cases, believe it or not, they will say “yes.” However, if their answer is no, then you can just say “thank you” and look around the gallery and leave. There is no harm in a “no” as it does not have anything to do with your work, it simply means they are not looking. The more popular response to the simple question, “Do you look at the work of new artists?” is “Yes.” I will give a case history in a moment, but let me explain the process in detail.
Asking at the Front Desk of a Gallery
If after asking that question above, the person at the desk says “Yes” then your response should be, “Who would I send work to?” Usually they will give you a name and an email. If they give you a name only or an email only, ask for the other so you have both. The final question to ask if it has not already been answered is, “How do they like to see work, JPEGs or a website?” The reason to ask this is that most galleries do not want a website, they want to see a few images attached to an email. The probable reason for this is that they can tell in just a few seconds of looking at three of your images if they can sell the work or not, and would then ask for more information if interested. If you follow this script repeatedly, I guarantee you will have many people saying yes, and then your next step is to email them and follow up.
There are a few other things that might happen in that first conversation when asking if they look at work or not. One is that you might be asking this question to the owner or director even though they look like they could be anyone sitting at that front desk. As is often the case, if the gallery is empty, that person might ask you what kind of work you do. You can then say what is that you do, and begin a conversation, then ask if they would like to see a sample of it? If they say yes, there are two preferred ways of showing work in this situation. One is a tablet like an iPad, the other is a decent size smartphone. Be prepared for this possibility.
The way to prepare is not to go onto your website and begin showing work because that can be problematic if there isn’t a good connection at that moment. I would suggest making a folder on your phone or tablet with six to ten images of work you think is your best. That way you can easily bring up the work and quickly look at images. By quickly I mean that they will take no time to load and appear, but take your time looking through them. As the first one comes up, say what the size and medium is and, if you can, describe the image itself or what your ideas were behind the work and wait for a response. The idea is to just show a few images and have a conversation and you will be able to tell right away if there is interest. You may be asked what the prices are and be ready to name a price. If you don’t name a price it is the sign of an amateur, so be sure to name a price even if you haven’t sold many in the past. And if there is indeed interest, get his or her card and say you will follow up.
The very important thing to remember about that last piece of advice is not to show work to someone who does not ask to see it. You could experiment and break this rule, but unless you are asked to show work I would suggest you do not offer. What you can normally expect is that when you ask if they look at the work of new artists, they will probably say yes, then ask how to send work and to whom, and get a card or write down the name and email of that person.