How to Approach a Gallery for Representation

At FinerWorks we have full-time on staff two people who are also actively involved in the art gallery business at night and on weekends. Zane Thomas is a successful screen printer and founder of both Black Moon Prints and Black Moon Gallery, based in San Antonio. Melissa Hernandez shuttles between Austin and San Antonio and works for multiple galleries such as Art on 5th in Austin and Tatum Originals in San Antonio. She also represents various independent artists as a dealer. At the same time, she is in the process of developing a new gallery in San Antonio’s Blue Star Art Complex. I had a chance to spend some time with both discussing what is the best way for an artist to find gallery representation. I thought it would be best to get some tips direct from them since they have had the fun and displeasure or having to both accept and reject artists and their work. Based on our discussion, this is what we came up with that we think will help and artist understand and better go through the process of finding representation.

Zane Thomas
Zane Thomas

Zane Thomas is a successful screen printer and founder of both Black Moon Prints and Black Moon Gallery, based in San Antonio.

Melissa Hernandez
Melissa Hernandez

Melissa Hernandez shuttles between Austin and San Antonio and works for multiple galleries such as Art on 5th in Austin and Tatum Originals in San Antonio.

First, what is a Gallery?

A gallery is more than just walls, floor and artwork. It is a business and behaves like one. Generally, they are not there to benefit the art community. They are there to benefit their owner foremost. It is the owner (or owners) which had a dream to open a gallery and make it a successful source of income. To make this work one of the primary duties is to service their buyers/clients with their work and/or the artwork of the artists they represent. The artwork is the product that helps them provide this means to an end.

Just as people come in all sorts of personalities and prejudices, be prepared for the gallery to express these traits as well. Every gallery has their own feel and personality. Some may seem warm and inviting. Others have that vibe of looking down their nose at you. This atmosphere is generated by the owners and staff that manage the gallery.

Don’t let any personality traits get in the way or discourage you from perusing representation by a gallery.

Scout Out a Gallery that Suites Your Work

Start off by scouting out your galleries beforehand. You want to find a gallery that is compatible with both you and the work you create.

Don’t just go into any gallery you find. As an example, if you create portraits of famous people and go into a gallery that tends to showcase still life paintings, you are not likely to get your work shown there. Locate galleries that include similar subject matter, styles or themes.

As part of the process in choosing a gallery, visit any upcoming shows they might have to get an idea as to how they represent and promote their artists.

It is okay to introduce yourself to the gallery manager or owner but don’t try to monopolize their attention. A gallery shows where you are not featured is not the right time to promote yourself. Keep your introductions and brief and reference to your own work vague.

Research / Inquire First How to Submit Artwork for Review

Before you submit your work for review, make sure you understand how to do so. Just show up with your car full of original paintings you want a gallery to carry may not go over very well.

One big mistake artists also make is to start trying to showcase their artwork via their phone. The gallery owner or manager does NOT want to look at photos of your artwork stored on a phone. It can hurt your chances in more ways then being a general turnoff. You want to “wow” people with your work and a small image people must squint at may make an incredible work look just the opposite.

Many galleries will provide some information what their protocol is for submissions. Follow those instructions a specified. Don’t call or go in person to inquire until you are sure they don’t have this on their website. It can be very annoying to a gallery owner to have posted the instructions online and a potential artist not do their homework to read up what they posted. Doing it the way they want is going to be important and less presumptuous.

Keep all emails brief and to the point

Long emails with lots of questions are a good way to irk your potential gallery.

Unless the gallery has a canned response, they are likely not going to answer any lengthy emails. If their response is in the form of “go do this link” on their website, do so and read what they posted very carefully.

Don’t be surprised if you get an incomplete email response that does not address all your questions or no response at all. As much as possible, reserve questions that require a detailed answer until after your work is accepted. If the gallery is vague in their instructions, keep your questions direct and to the point.

Accept Criticism from a Gallery Owner

The gallery owner is a business person that is looking for ways to meet their client’s demands. Be prepared for blunt statements regarding you work and what they are looking for or what you work might lack. Understand this is a business relationship that you are trying to establish. Criticism is not meant as a personal attack but the gallery owner might be short on time and need to be direct so they can move on to their next task at hand.

Have at Least 15 pieces to Choose From

Too few pieces will likely warrant a rejection. While 15 pieces of work to choose from may seem like a lot, it will help the gallery gauge a commonality and consistency in the artists and their work. Portfolios that don’t have this many works might make some galleries think the artist is still trying to discover themselves and have not matured as an artist. It’s harder for the gallery to sell more of your work to a client if your work spans different styles or subject matter. Too few pieces to choose from might limit an gallery’s ability to sell your work.

In many cases when you show your work you will be presenting a printed portfolio with photographs. Include size information with your portfolio on each work. By having the size expressed with each piece the gallery will be able to ascertain if they have the space which will be needed.

Understand How Pricing Works

This also have a general pricing concept for your work. This goes back to scouting out the gallery and seeing what other pieces in the specific gallery are selling at and what your peers artwork is being valued at.

Don’t make the mistake of seeing similar sizes and styles of work in the gallery and telling the gallery owner that is what you will take for the sale. Gallery splits can vary. 60/40 in the gallery’s favor or 50/50 is common. In a 60/40 split, if a gallery is selling a similar painting from another artist at your level for $5000, get $2000. In a 50/50 deal you would get $2500.

It’s Okay to Request an Explanation on Rejections

Weather it is rejecting specific paintings or representation all together, it is going to be inevitable at some point. Don’t be thin skinned about it. Simply and respectfully ask why or what you could have done differently. It may not be you or your work but not be what the gallery needs at the time. Don’t fret if the answer is terse or unsatisfactory. Move on.

If there appears there is future potential with the gallery, give it some time before re-applying. Even consider showing a different collection of work if you can.

Inquire about Open Call / Group Shows

This is a good way to get your foot into door. Frequently galleries participate in showings which they will have sent out a open calls for artists. These are less limited or restrictive in their submission requirements. Sometimes, multiple galleries participate and allow artists to also compete to be viewed by higher end galleries. It is a good opportunity to network with the gallery representatives and ultimately can lead to representation.

Add Galleries to Your Postcard Lists

Include other galleries in your mailing list for any upcoming shows you have or will be participating in. Someone representing the gallery may or may not show but it helps you create a brand that might turn you into just an off the street artist to a named artist. The gallery might not know you, but they might recall your name subconsciously.

Be Persistent & Patient

The process of getting represented by a gallery may appear to be a daunting task but overtime it won’t seem as difficult. You will learn more what works for you and what does not. Always evaluate how you improve your chances for selection and don’t give up. Be willing to go out of your comfort zone and work hard. Eventually your hard work will pay off.

Both Zane Thomas and Melissa Hernandez contributed to this post.

Zane Thomas shows us some of the process off making screen prints.

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