As artists we are taught early on to seek out a commercial gallery if we want to sell our work. But...no one really explains how to do this and what to watch out for if we do somehow find our way into one. I have to admit I kind of fell into a local gallery that ended up selling my work somewhat successfully for a handful of years. I handed a business card with a picture of my work on it to the right person at the right time and there I was - suddenly asked to have a two person show and then asked to bring more work in for them to carry full time. While I feel very fortunate for this I also came into a gallery relationship without knowing what to expect. A little knowledge goes a long way...
With so many galleries out there it might at times feel very overwhelming. How do you find one that will be the right fit for your work? First of all, in this post I'm talking about commercial galleries but there are many other types out there. Also I'm not tackling the high-end elite commercial galleries here - I'm sticking to those more accessible ones! With that said, I may not be the best person to talk to about finding a gallery via traditional routes either (like all of my disclaimers?!), but I do know that from my research and experience talking to other people about your work and being active in the arts scene is a proven way to get your name out there. Galleries often times rely on recommendations so if you are talking to other artists (who also may be in galleries) or with other individuals connected to the arts you are increasing your odds of connecting to a space that will be grateful to take you on.
Once you do connect with the right place start to develop a plan for negotiating a business relationship. Regardless of whether or not you get along with those individuals running the gallery, understand that they are there to make money. Selling your work is their job. This is both good and bad. Good in the sense that they will go out of their way to market your work, connect with clients / collectors, and deal with all of the business aspects of the sale so that you don't have to. On the other hand, they may try to make you alter your work to fit the clients needs, drop your prices to cater to repeat clients, rush you when they see a sale on the horizon, and other not so desirable things. You as the artist have to find a balance - make the relationship go both ways - make it work for you. They need you just as much as you need them so think in terms of equal partnership and what you need to nurture your own business.
Galleries have many ways of negotiating agreements with artists. I happened to have a verbal agreement that I could show / sell works at other galleries only if they were a good distance away. Other local galleries were off limits. I was however able to sell printed editions via my art consultant to local businesses. Some galleries have written contracts asking for exclusive rights to all of your work while others may operate on consignment ( loaning a specific number of works). There are other types of agreements too I'm sure. Just be sure to clearly spell out the agreement before any work exchanges hands so that everyone is clear on the arrangement. My suggestion would be to negotiate payment and exclusivity terms up front so you know what to expect.
Often times artists will be able to exhibit work in solo or small group exhibitions within the gallery to highlight their work. If you are in a reputable gallery then the gallery will have a lot of foot traffic for these openings - giving you a wonderful network of art minded individuals at your disposal. Your work will be viewed by plenty with the hopes that sales will abound. If the gallery does not provide a decent opening for your work - then rethink the relationship. Those opening are key to sales and show that the gallery is holding up their end of the deal. If the opening is well attended and your work still does not sell then one way or another you are not showing to the right audience and perhaps should rethink your venue instead of rethinking your work. Stay true to yourself - if you believe in what you are making then do what is best for you.
A last bit of info that I'm just now working on myself - don't put all your eggs in one basket. I was lulled into one gallery when sales were good - once they slowed down I was lucky enough to have other sources of income. However, having multiple galleries would be beneficial because you are widening your audience and potential sales but then you also have more power as an artist and can easily pull back from those galleries that are not working for you. Remember you are authentic when you make the work - you should also be true to yourself when you are doing business as well.
I am in the process of branching out and trying to find larger venues further from home. Along with building my network organically I also plan on submitting my work to several artist registries. I am currently listed on a Cleveland area artist directory and have my name in the Ohio Arts Council due to membership. Just having my name and portfolio available through these two sites has brought me opportunities this year. So my next step is to try to get onto some that are a juried / more competitive.
Good luck to all those artist out there currently in a love /hate relationship with a gallery, those in swimmingly good relationships, and those currently seeking to find one at all.The Stay motivated - Be persistent - Stay active - and I'm sure your work will land right where it needs to be!