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Does it Make Sense To Show Your Art in Commercial (Consignment) Galleries?

by Jason Horejs on October 8, 2013 · 28 comments

Over the last several weeks, I’ve discussed the ins and outs of showing your artwork in “vanity” galleries and co-op galleries. I would like to round out the discussion by considering whether it’s advisable for an artist to show his/her work in a traditional, consignment gallery. I won’t pretend to be objective about this model, since this is the model my gallery operates under, but I hope the comments will help keep the conversation balanced.

When most artists express a desire to gain gallery exposure, it is probably a traditional gallery that they are imagining. In a consignment gallery, the artist signs a contract to display work with the gallery, and then delivers artwork to the gallery for display and sale. The artist retains ownership of the artwork while it is on display until it is sold, at which time the gallery remits payment for the artwork, minus the gallery commission.

Unlike the other gallery models discussed previously, there is typically no up-front fee to show art with the gallery. The gallery assumes most of the risk of artwork not selling, but in return for assuming that risk, they typically take a 40-50% (and sometimes even higher) commission on the sale of artwork. This structure offers a real incentive for the gallery to actively promote and sell artwork. If the gallery doesn’t sell art, they don’t have revenue – it’s as simple as that.

It would be a mistake to say that all consignment galleries are created equal. There are many different types of consignment galleries. Some of these galleries grew out of frame shops that started displaying art for sale along with their frames. Some are created by art patrons who have a love for the visual arts and a desire to share art they love with their community (and they often also have deep pockets to help fund the gallery). There are small galleries that border on being more of a gift shop than a true gallery. There are also galleries that have been around for over a hundred years and are selling millions of dollars worth of art to collectors from around the world.

Xanadu GalleryWe should probably have conversations about each of these types of galleries, and perhaps we can in the comments and in future posts. For today’s discussion, I’m going to focus on galleries that are like mine, as I suspect these galleries make up a good portion of the traditional gallery market.

My wife and I established Xanadu Gallery in 2001, and we’ve focused on selling early- to mid-career, living artists. Average prices of art in the gallery range from $300 – $10,000 (although we do have several sculptures that range from $45,000-$95,000), and most of our sales are in the $1500-$7500 range.

I represent artists who range in experience from being very new to the art market (less than 5 years) to very well-established artists (30+ years in the market).  My gallery space is about 2300 square feet.

In other words, by the specs, I have a pretty average gallery. There are many galleries across the country, and, indeed, around the world that are very similar to ours. I like to think that Xanadu is doing some interesting things to more proactively market to collectors, and that we are innovating on the internet and in the ways that we engage with artists. For the purpose of this discussion, however, I’m going to ignore what we are doing outside the norm, and focus on what we do in terms of representing artists and selling their work in our bricks-and-mortar gallery.

As in my previous posts on fee-for-representation galleries and co-op galleries, I’d like to lay out some of the advantages and disadvantage of working with a traditional gallery.

Advantages

  • Because a traditional gallery is reliant on sales for income, long-standing, traditional galleries tend to have higher sales volumes than fee-for-representation or co-op galleries. It’s hard to back this claim up with data, but from the reports I hear from artists who have  shown in “vanity”, co-op, and/or traditional galleries, traditional galleries sell more work. I recently heard the sales figures for a major co-op gallery. This is a gallery with a large space and a number of great artists represented. The gallery’s total sales over the course of three years were less than one year of our art sales. I hope that doesn’t sound like bragging, because I don’t intend it to be. I simply want to illustrate that as a commercial gallery that has to sell to survive, we have to generate a high level of sales to stay in business.
  • Related to the first point, prices of artwork in traditional galleries tend to be higher than in other galleries.
  • Unlike co-op or fee-for-representation galleries, there is a much smaller up-front cost for an artist to show in a traditional gallery. Because of this, the initial financial risk for an artist showing  in a traditional gallery tends to be lower.
  • Traditional galleries tend to have better-trained, more proactive sales staff. Follow-up with clients tends to be better.
  • Many artists feel a sense of prestige by showing in traditional galleries. If a gallery was willing to take on your work, they must feel confident that your work will sell. In some ways, it can feel like an independent validation of your art.

Disadvantages

  • Traditional galleries charge higher commissions than other galleries.
  • There is no guarantee a traditional gallery will sell your artwork. Higher over-all volume is no guarantee for any individual artist that their work will sell.
  • Because the traditional gallery assumes more upfront risk, this business model tends to be more volatile. Galleries go out of business at an alarming rate, especially when the economy is bad. Unfortunately, we’ve all heard stories of galleries being slow to pay for sales, or going out of business without having paid for sold artwork. So, while upfront risk may be less, long-term risk might actually be greater with a traditional gallery.
  • It can be difficult for an artist to break into the commercial gallery market. Because traditional galleries take on more risk, they tend be pretty conservative in what they will show. Traditional galleries have to have a high degree of confidence that an artist’s work will sell before they will devote valuable display space. For an artist new to the art market, co-op or “vanity” galleries can offer space because it’s less of a risk for the gallery since the artist is paying up front for representation or membership.
  • As the art market becomes more competitive (with online sales encroaching on gallery sales) the number of traditional galleries is decreasing.

In my other posts on galleries, many of you commented that “success depends on how well the gallery is run.” This applies to fee-for-representation galleries, to co-op galleries, and to traditional commercial galleries. A well-run “vanity” gallery will probably sell more of your work than a poorly-run traditional gallery. So, once again, before you begin working with a traditional gallery that wants to carry your work, it makes sense to research the gallery and perform some due diligence. Talk to other artists who are showing in the gallery and find out if they have had a good experience, and if their relationship with the gallery has been beneficial to them.

If you decide you want to pursue relationships with traditional galleries,  I would humbly suggest a reading of my book, “Starving” to Successful. I wrote the book to help artists prepare themselves to successfully approach galleries, and I give a tried and true technique for making your approach to galleries.

Different Strokes for Different Folks

We have now discussed “vanity” galleries, co-op galleries, and traditional galleries. The comments to these posts have been awesome. The experiences you’ve shared will help other artists decide where to show their art, so thank you! Of course, as an artist is deciding where to show their work, the three types of galleries we’ve discussed aren’t the only options. Many artists these days are foregoing gallery representation altogether and going the route of self-representation. We will discuss the ups and downs of self-representation next week.

What do You Think?

Is it worthwhile showing in traditional galleries? Have you had primarily positive or negative experiences working with galleries? What did I leave out of the advantages and disadvantages list? Please share your thoughts and advice about working with traditional galleries in the comments below. If you have something negative to say about a gallery, please don’t use the name of the gallery.

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About 

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of reddotblog.com, and founder of ARTsala. Jason has helped thousands of artists prepare themselves to more effectively market their work, build relationships with galleries and collectors, and turn their artistic passion into a viable business.

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{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

Mark Witzling October 9, 2013 at 11:56 am

Jason, this is an excellent post. Thanks for taking the time to share these thoughts about the different gallery formats while striving to stay objective. It is appreciated. I am curious about the techniques that traditional galleries use to develop relationships with collectors. Clearly there are those collectors who simply walk-in, but the core customer base of a successful traditional gallery would come from direct relationships and conenctions with collectors. Other than asking other represented artists about their experience, are there any suggestions about how an artist can assess the strength of those relationships at a gallery they are approaching? In the end, the artist is preparing to give up inventory for a period a time in the hope and expectation that the gallery will leverage those relationships.

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Jason Horejs October 10, 2013 at 12:37 pm

Good question Mark – and it can be hard to discover how good the gallery is at building relationships. Longevity of the gallery might be one indicator, though it’s no guarantee. As I mentioned in the post, some galleries are backed by wealthy patrons who can afford to keep the gallery going during slow periods, so longevity isn’t an absolute guarantee of good follow up. Otherwise, talking to other artists who are showing there is the only viable way in my experience.

I would love to hear if anyone else has ideas or experience in this regard.

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Kyle Wood October 9, 2013 at 2:28 pm

Jason, Thanks for sharing your insight on the different types of gallery formats. I have shown my work in different venues (through local art organizations, frame shops, etc) over the past thirteen years. About ten years ago, I took an opportunity to start showing my artwork in a local, well established commercial / consignment gallery and frame shop in Dallas, Texas. To this day, the experience has been remarkable. Out of all the venues, I have had far greater success here than any other venue combined.

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Jason Horejs October 10, 2013 at 12:40 pm

It’s always great to find the perfect fit. Not always easy to find the right gallery, but if you find a gallery like the one you mention Kyle, it makes all the work of finding a good gallery worthwhile. Even if it takes months of constant work, a good relationship can lead to years and years of good sales. Thanks Kyle!

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Jen Livia October 11, 2013 at 4:26 pm

Hi Kyle,
Being both an artists and a gallery owner I have struggled with finding those collectors for the artists I represent and have put my trust in other galleries in different cities for my own work as well. There are a couple things that you can look to when seeking a gallery beyond just their core collectors, at our gallery we do have a large core base, but also have new buyers all of the time and I think one of the reasons is we are very active in the community. It seems from my experience that if galleries are interacting in a variety of ways with their community people really want to support those businesses that give back. Jason’s emails are a great example of that. If you ask around in your community I am sure you will come up with those galleries that really have that community factor that drives business and sales.

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Stephen Hall October 9, 2013 at 3:45 pm

As an artist I would prefer showing in a consignment gallery. However, the current reality is that there are many more artists than galleries. Also, those galleries that are surviving the economic meltdown are not looking to take on new, unproven artists without a following. So-called “vanity” galleries are filling a need — providing exposure to potential collectors for artists willing to pay a fee for the temporary use of their bricks and mortar. Self-representation, using a “vanity” gallery with the combination of website and social media marketing, is a viable plan for the emerging artist to get a foot in the door, or the mid-career artist to increase her profits.

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Jason Horejs October 10, 2013 at 12:45 pm

This is what more and more artists are finding. However, I will say that I’ve talked to artists who have found representation over the last several years because sales had slowed down. The galleries were finding that what they were doing wasn’t working and were interested in trying something new, and thought the price points of these emerging artists were attractive.

Of course, that’s anecdotal, and I know that it’s really not easy. I don’t want to minimize the effort required to find a good gallery, but I would hate for an artist to give up before giving it a try!

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Frank Wilson October 9, 2013 at 4:42 pm

Great Discussion! Well balanced and right on the mark! I have exhibited in many dozens of traditional galleries, several cooperatives but not in any vanity galleries. I treasure the lasting relationships that I have built with many of my traditional galleries some of which have represented my work continuously since 1989. Many other gallery owners that I had great relationships with over the years have closed their doors due to health problems, the death of a spouse, or diminishing sales due to a poor economy. Over my 43 year career as a full time professional artist, most of my income has been through sales of my work in traditional galleries on both coasts and in Europe.

I once went into a traditional gallery that represented me to find a new sales person on the floor. I went over to my work and she approached me and began to tell me all about myself! She amazed me with her knowledge about me and my work, my techniques and style. When I introduced myself as the artist she was very embarrassed but I told her that EVERY single person in art sales should be as knowledgeable about the galleries artists as herself. I later commended her to the owner of the gallery. Art collectors do not get that type of service from the Internet!

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Jason Horejs October 10, 2013 at 12:49 pm

Thanks for the input Frank. Your career is exactly what so many artists aspire to and work toward.

Great story with the salesperson. I would be proud to have her as an employee. I wish that my artists could be flies on the wall to overhear us talking about them to collectors. I bet in many cases we know more about the artist than she knows about herself!

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Frank Wilson October 11, 2013 at 4:27 pm

Strange things can and do happen concerning getting into “traditional galleries” during a recession when there is so much competition. About two weeks ago I was connected to a well established and spacious traditional gallery that wants to represent only my large realism works that retail upwards in the vicinity of $10,000.00 +. Did I apply to that gallery? No. How did I get in? My daughter in law was viewing art in the gallery and asked the director what their submission guild lines were. He asked “Are you an artist?” She replied; “No my father in law is.” He asked for my name and then typed it in Google and had my website in seconds. After a 90 second look at my website he said: “Call him and tell him I want his large paintings in my gallery as soon as possible” She called me gave me the name of the owner/director and his phone number. A few days later, after contracts were signed, he had $47,000.00 of my work on display. I have to admit that, with most galleries that have represented me, I usually have had to jump through a series of flaming hoops to be accepted. This was incredibly the fastest and smoothest acceptance to a gallery in my 43 year career. I’m sharing this to illustrate that you just never know what can happen or will happen in the art world!

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Francis Sileo October 9, 2013 at 4:58 pm

Good post Jason.

If anyone is interested in learning more about how our “modern” art galleries (commercial) came about, I recommend reading the following book about the late Leo Castelli.

Leo and His Circle: The Life of Leo Castelli

http://www.amazon.com/Leo-His-Circle-Life-Castelli/dp/1400044278

I was fortunate enough to meet him in Soho, during the 1980′s when I worked for Tony Shafrazi.

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Jason Horejs October 10, 2013 at 12:59 pm

Thanks for the suggestion Francis – I just ordered the book!

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Lori Woodward October 9, 2013 at 6:12 pm

Jason, good post!
I have been selling on my own, but I’m experiencing a low price ceiling.. $600 and under. My work doesn’t seem to sell for anywhere near the prices I got when I worked with commercial/consignment galleries, so I’m considering pursuing that route again.

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Jason Horejs October 10, 2013 at 12:50 pm

Really interesting point Lori – and this price ceiling is a real factor for many self-representing artists. I’ll talk about it in next week’s post.

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Lori Woodward October 11, 2013 at 8:05 pm

Thanks Jason. Will look forward to your thoughts.

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Jane Wilcoxson October 9, 2013 at 8:01 pm

I’m starting to transition away from the art fair circuit and into traditional galleries. I’ve applied to one gallery and got accepted so far, but I have decided to do more research and get a GREAT website set up before I applied to more (I’d recommend SquareSpace).. Doing your homework first is highly recommended. Look at the price points to check to see if your work is in the ball park to what is being sold. If the gallery is selling a lot of low priced items then they are living off purchases made on a whim by tourists. This might be a good place to sell prints but not originals. In my area co-op ventures tend to be run by hobby artists that have a great retirement packages and the quality of their work is inconsistent, so I stay away from that.
Also, do read Jason’s book Starving to Successful, I’ve found it to be very helpful.
Sincerely, Jane Wilcoxson
http://www.JaneWilcoxson.com

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Jane Wilcoxson October 9, 2013 at 8:10 pm

I have an artist friend who places her work on the walls of a very expensive restaurant and sells really well. She does have a strong local following and as she is no longer in any galleries her prices are very affordable. She is the only artist that exhibits at the venue, so she is free to set up her continuous show how ever she likes. I guess you have to find what works for you, every part of the country has its own unique circumstances and opportunities.
Sincerely, Jane Wilcoxson
http://www.JaneWilcoxson.com

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Miertje Skidmore October 9, 2013 at 9:29 pm

Jason,I love reading your comprehensive posts.I am represented by commercial galleries in Australia and also in London , Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.One major advantage not mentioned yet is the fact when the client is not sure,the art is taken to their home by trained professional staff, where several paintings are shown in the space and immediately the clients can see what works for them,which on many occasions turns to multiple purchases.Those that are not in the same area,are asked to email a photo of the space,and then have the gallery superimpose the art into the space.BRILLIANT,try getting that service without a commercial gallery,I am always very happy to pay the gallery commission and even whilst I’m asleep a gallery somewhere across the waters is working hard to sell my work!!

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Mark Ward October 10, 2013 at 4:28 am

Jason, again great topic and discussion. Since I have received your emails and read your articles, you have enlightened me to a number attributes of being an artist. I would say that the gallery that I exhibit my work is a little of a traditional gallery and a vanity gallery. Something that I haven’t seen with each of these galleries is what type of compensation they request to use their brick and mortar. Granted the consignment gallery, if they are still open, hang your art until sold then the high commission. Traditional gallery, if you are accepted, what type of contract you sign? And with the Vanity gallery a monthly fee to hang and a small commission for the sale.
As I mentioned, the Vanity gallery that I exhibit my art work will promote the gallery with all kinds of guerrilla marketing tactics and media exposure to get the crowds in on the Final Friday Gallery Crawls.
I guess the Vanity Gallery with the monthly fee that all artist pay for hanging, it benefits them as well as the gallery to stay open and show their work. I know this a monthly expense to the artist but, they do all the marketing and sales to collectors and someone who is just looking for that right something for their home. I have had them deal with the customer and take the painting to the customer’s home to see if it would fit with their décor. And make the sale.
By all the artist paying that monthly fee each one is taking the chance of a sale for the additional investment which is really no different than the cost of you doing it all on your own.

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Marny Lawton October 10, 2013 at 5:44 am

Jason,
This has been a terrific series as evidenced from the response rate! Thank you for the effort you’ve put into the topics, discussions and moderated replies. Related to this topic, this past weekend I participated in an event the New Haven CT Open Studios program called “Speed Networking” (based on speed dating!). Twenty experts (gallery owners from New York, Providence, Boston, Connecticut, Maine; editors from art magazines; curators of museums; art writers/critics; art faculty) were brought together with twenty artists. The artists were given 5 minutes to give their typical pitch to galleries/collectors/buyers. The experts were given 2 minutes to respond. In reality the experts assumed more of the time if an artist’s presentation was well prepared. Some were better than others, but it was intense and both sides were exhausted by the end of the two hours. The end results were invaluable. Unlike approaching any type of gallery busy with all kinds of day-to-day work, these experts were brought together to focus on just these artists. They were not only honest and direct but focused in their responses. The process has given me confirmation of a variety of aspects of my current work (both positive and negative), and ideas and motivation for future direction. The traditional gallery is still in my sights, but with a greater understanding of my work than just my own view! I would recommend this highly as a great idea for other groups in the Open Studio movement around the country. If you know of a group interested in organizing one of these you can contact ArtSpace in New Haven, Connecticut. I believe this is their second year presenting Speed Networking.

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Phyllis Terrell October 10, 2013 at 7:25 am

Jason, can I just say that in all my years working hard as an artist (45) you are the most inspiring and encouraging person I know of. Thank you for taking the time to post all of these incredible facts. You have your own beautiful gallery showcasing beautiful artwork but yet you take out time to encourage all the rest of us. I just want to thank you! This is from an artist that has tried each of the gallery types mentioned, traveled from one end of the state to the other with artwork in a van, art fairs from Florida to Rhode Island, exhibitions in two amazing galleries in New York, and the Art Buyers Caravan in Atlanta. We can all learn something new each day, and I want to thank you.

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Susan Mellyu October 10, 2013 at 9:30 am

Greetings. I live in LA where the art market is very competitive with so many talented emerging artists needing a venue to exhibit/sell. I appreciate this discussion and delineation of gallery types – very informative. However, it seems to me that consignment galleries often determine representation on referrals, indirect connections or rumor about potential money-making artists. I cannot tell you how often I have been cautioned NOT to walk in a gallery as ask that they actually view my art work for consideration. The implications are very discouraging. Yes I attend openings, schmooz, and discuss my work. But in reality, I am left to wonder (and wait) for that magic moment when some kind person mentions my name or comments on my work at the right moment to the right decision-making person and then to wonder if they really think my art is significant or just profitable.

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Julie Bernstein Engelmann October 11, 2013 at 10:52 pm

Susan, if doors are somewhat closed in LA, then try elsewhere. Galleries within a certain area seem to pick up each others’ ways. You might get an entirely different reception if you’re willing to drive to different areas and cities.

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Susan Melly October 10, 2013 at 9:31 am

whoops, mispelled my own name in previous comment.

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Kim Jones October 10, 2013 at 11:17 am

Jason,
I think the pros and cons list you laid out for traditional galleries was well thought out. I really like how you expanded this into a series of blogs about many types of galleries. It has been very informative. It is true that with less galleries out there, and more artists trying to get into galleries, it can be hard to find representation for ones’ work. Even galleries that really like your work might not be selling enough to add another artist, which means artists’ are having to look at alternative marketing ideas. I am looking forward to the next blog on self-representation. As an artist of more mature age I have been really reticent to go that route. I think a lot of us who remember land lines and writing letters (attempts at humor) , could use some insights on the pros and cons of on-line marketing. While I certainly know baby-boomer generation artists who are comfortable on-line, there are a lot like me who aren’t convinced it’s the best way to sell your work. I’m sure most of that distrust comes from not growing up with this technology from a young age. It’s almost like a foreign language in a way. I think even hardliners like me who don’t even facebook yet are having to accept that marketing ones’ artwork is going to include some self representation on-line. The pros and cons of that blog should be interesting. Thanks, Kim

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Cindy S October 14, 2013 at 7:10 am

This is the type of gallery arrangement I like. The motivation is there for the gallery to really market the work and sell it. They have motivation to know whether they could sell the work, and to whom. This is the type of gallery that IMO is still the most respected by buyers, artists, and other gallery owners. It’s a good thing to be able to list commission based galleries on your resume, shows you have passed someone’s muster and are not just paying to get in.

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Steve Dixon December 18, 2013 at 8:36 pm

Jason, One of the downsides to selling in a consignment gallery is that sometimes a gallery will solicit high end work which they do not really have a market for in order to lend credibility to their lower priced work. The sales of the mid to low end work are the bread and butter for the gallery, and if they do sell a higher priced piece this is the “dessert”. I would encourage anyone who is considering consigning their work to any gallery to visit the showroom and see for themselves what the mix of work is, and whether their work will be representative of the general price range of work in the showroom, or whether they will merely be the trimmings on the tree. It can be very discouraging to a high quality artist to place his or her best work in a venue which does not have a clientele to puchase the work.

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