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Sylvia White’s 5 Surefire Ways To Annoy A Gallery.

February 2, 2011

To many artists, being an artist isn’t “real” unless you have a gallery to exhibit your work. Although there are several other options available to artists in terms of showing and selling their work, it seems, for some, there is just no substitute for getting gallery representation. To this end, many artists are willing to bend over backwards, do insane things, make ridiculous claims, and, in short, embarrass themselves. The truth of matter is, not all artists are ready for galleries, nor are galleries, necessarily, the best choice for many artists. Especially in these hard economic times, the last thing on most gallerists minds, is acquiring new artists. Much of my time is spent helping artists develop a realistic set a goals, and then a game plan to achieve those goals. Nevertheless, there is always that rogue artist, wanting to strike out on their own, thinking this time it will be different. They muster up the courage to start approaching galleries before they are ready, and without regard to common sense gallery protocol. If you recognize yourself as that rogue, or you know another artist that is, please forward this article to them.

  1. Being confident about the quality of your work is a good thing. It identifies the fact that you have reached a certain stylistic maturity and understand the complexity of where your work fits into the contemporary art world. However, telling the gallery director (or anyone for that matter) how great your work is, is not a good thing. Confidence is something that grows with experience and doesn’t need the constant reassurances from the outside world. Quality is not something that is “told” but rather discovered, and changes with each individual and their primary experience with the work. Let your viewers have their own experience with your work. Be confident enough about the quality of your work to allow people NOT to like it. And, never, never, never dictate what that response should be. There is no “right” way to look at or interpret art.
  2. Don’t show the gallery director every piece of art you’ve made since your high school graduation. Galleries are most interested in looking at your most current body of work and seeing if it holds together as a series. Showing fewer pieces that represent a cohesive body of recent work, is much better than showing a ton of older work. If a gallery ASKS to see the development of your work, or is interested specifically in older work, you can have that available on your website. (Yes, you must have a website!) Remember, most people can only absorb so much visual information at a time without getting hydrophobic (can’t absorb anymore). You need to be sensitive to the fact that you look at your work every day, and although it might not be tiring or stressful for you to look at 40 pieces of art, a normal person can’t absorb that much visual information. Limit presentations of your work, either by snail mail, email or in person, to 10 pieces at the most.
  3. Learn the most efficient way to send your materials. If you are mailing, don’t send it insured or registered mail, this requires a signature and/or a trip to the post office. Don’t send a ton of materials, or exhibition announcements in which you are one of many artists, reviews with your name mentioned once (and probably underlined in red), or miscellaneous stuff that you think is impressive. It’s not, less is more. Don’t expect your materials will be returned, unless you include a stamped, self addressed envelope (and, maybe, not even then…) Never, never, never, send originals or nag the gallery for the return of your materials. Remember, it’s actually a GOOD thing if they want to keep you on file. If you are emailing, write a coherent cover note and send a link to your website. If you must send images attached be sure that they are appropriately sized digital files. Keep in mind that many email addresses do not accept more than 5MB of attachments to an email and that many people do not feel comfortable opening attachments to an email.
  4. Respect the gallery director’s time. Galleries are in business to sell artwork. Do not try to show them your work when they are at an art fair that has cost thousands of dollars to attend. Do not try to show them your work at the opening reception of another artist. Do not come into the gallery without an appointment, carrying your portfolio, and expect the gallery director to look at it. Do not pretend to be interested in another one of the gallery artists (or in buying something), then ask them to look at your work. Do not be insulted, if during your meeting, the gallery director leaves to greet a visitor in the gallery, or take an important phone call.
  5. Fixate on your goal, not your fantasy. If you are lucky enough to get “face” time with a gallery, focus on what it is you can realistically accomplish. Most artists go into these meetings thinking they will come out with the offer of an exhibition, or a gallery that loves their work and wants to represent them, or maybe even a sale. False on all counts. I’m not saying it never happens, I’m just saying your odds are better if you buy a Lotto ticket. In reality, you have a two prong goal when showing your work to a gallery. One scenario could be, you could get them to recommend other galleries that may like your work and/or be more appropriate for you, than they are. Alternatively, and the most preferable outcome, would be the gallery would agree to take a few pieces on consignment, on trial. Keeping your eye on the ball is the only chance you have at hitting your target.

Click here to visit Sylvia White’s website.


21 Comments leave one →
  1. September 1, 2011 6:14 PM

    Great advice. I was about to break some of the “rules”. I am a physician/artist coming out of the darkroom after being sequestered for 4 years. It is time to show my work but i have a family and a full time job. I need help with marketing. Do you have any specific advice for me?

    • The Slingluff Gallery permalink*
      September 2, 2011 7:56 AM

      The main part is to get out there in front of the public. Start out “slow” try to find group shows you can be a part of, or charity auctions…get your name out there with your work. That is the best marketing any artist can have. Just don’t over-saturate your area with your work.

      Post your work on, but with a pro account I think it’s $25 a year, and post to groups on flickr. People are very active on there. I’d say that’s a good start

  2. August 27, 2011 11:19 PM

    Great article, so informative, Thank You, Emy

  3. August 18, 2011 6:22 PM

    Good to know. I wish there were a course on this type of information. From an artist’s standpoint, it can be awfully intimidating approaching galleries in the beginning. It’s helpful to know where to set expectations- on both sides of the coin.

  4. August 12, 2011 7:16 AM

    As an applied artist I have looked at life from both sides. Totally understand the galleries viewpoint having done design shows – but just hope they are tactful when dealing with sensitive artists who are laying out their ‘babies’ for potential rejection. Try stopping an artist working. My husband and son are obsessive compulsive about their work. Ego? I think it is just that they ARE their work. Too busy doing it to get out and sell it.That’s why galleries still need to beat the streets and not take all comers.

  5. August 11, 2011 11:36 AM

    Thank you for your wise advice Sylvia! It is all the same here in Switzerland!

  6. August 11, 2011 11:35 AM

    Thank you Sylvia for your wise advice! all the same here in Switzerland!

  7. August 10, 2011 8:00 AM

    I am a gallery owner (director) and I am 100% agree with all the points above.
    Specially about the artist introducing themselves in the middle of opening reception and trying to show me their work.

    • The Slingluff Gallery permalink*
      August 10, 2011 10:39 AM

      Mahrokh – It’s just common sense, but there are a lot of artists that don’t understand that. Hopefully more and more will read this!

  8. March 15, 2011 12:34 PM

    Excellent article Sylvia. Self-confidence is not the same thing as self-importance. Even when I am scouting around for potential gallery representation, I always enter a gallery with a genuine interest in what’s on the walls and take note of the staff’s interest in me (given I could be a potential buyer). I am amazed at the number of times I have been totally ignored (or worse, looked at with disdain) given commercial galleries need sales to survive. I hope my experience is an indication of badly trained staff, not potentially costly arrogance on the part of gallery owners. Fortunately, my enjoyable interactions with friendly, helpful and well-informed staff / proprietors have been much more memorable.

  9. March 7, 2011 11:51 AM

    Enjoyed reading your article! I think all artists need an ego to survive but there is that fine line that you don’t want to cross.

  10. March 7, 2011 11:26 AM

    great points Sylvia – wish I had known some of them before I ploughed into the commercial art field 20 years ago – would be interesting to do an alternative take on this also – from the Artist’s perspective – in dealing with galleries – the unprofessional / dodgy galleries to avoid, how to deal with rude gallery directors, safe gaurding your art and rights to it, following up on sales etc. etc ! there’s a book or two in it!

  11. March 7, 2011 11:20 AM

    Great advice Sylvia – wish I had known these points before i ploughed into my art career 20 years ago – part of it all is the gaining of experience and learning from your mistakes, it would be interesting to do an alternate take on this – the galleries to avoid – the unprofessional treatment of artists etc. I could write a book on it!

  12. March 5, 2011 10:13 AM

    I must admit as an artist I have made a few of these mistakes. I have been a professional artist for 15 years. It doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time and energy and patience and the ability to be told your work isn’t good enough or not right for the gallery. I finally came to believe that if the viewer thinks the work is great or they think the work flat out sucks, it’s a compliment. The piece has made an emotional change in the viewer. I suggest to newer artist to get a grasp on this way of thinking to prevent them from being discouraged. We have all been passed over for juried shows only to sell the piece later. There is an artist on every corner and from what I have seen most people have at the very least 4 walls in their home, minus a window and that’s 3 walls for artwork. There is room for one of your pieces, don’t feel competition from other artist, become part of the community. Before I could sell my work overseas I needed to take over my community…one wall at a time. I hope this helps someone, because the world needs art and creativity….

  13. February 18, 2011 4:17 PM

    Very informative !

  14. February 10, 2011 6:31 PM

    Thank you Sylvia for a great article on how to approach a gallery. Planning to share this article with my students next. Looking forward to more insightful blogs by you.

  15. February 4, 2011 8:52 PM

    Thanks for the reminder on what not to do when approaching galleries. These really are common sense items, but sometimes in the excitement to show work, artists forget these common courteouscies.

    • February 21, 2011 3:09 PM

      So true Jean. These 5 golden nuggets can be applied to many aspects of life and many situations. There are lots of quotables here but I especially like, “Be confident enough about the quality of your work to allow people NOT to like it.”
      Very wise words. Thanks Sylvia.

  16. February 4, 2011 5:44 PM

    Thank you, Sylvia. Your wonderful insights offer invaluable nuance.


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