To own a piece of work done by an Artist
is to possess one of their facets, one of the windows of their life.
1 – Introduction
The first thing I did in 1994 after deciding to sell my photographs was to look for a gallery that was willing to carry my work. In the town I lived in at the time, Houghton-Hancock in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the choice was simple because there was only one gallery. Furthermore, the Tosh Gallery, as it was named, had just opened and was looking for artists. When I walked in with my work I showed it to Tom Ex, the owner, and the person responsible for the first half of the gallery name, the second half being that of his wife at the time, Sharon, on a piece of lumber that was strewn across the gallery between the desk and a display stand. Tom liked what he saw, needed the inventory, and just like that, I started selling my work in his gallery.
I am far from being alone in this approach. Most artists who start selling their work first look for a gallery to carry their work. It seems to be the way to go, even though it is far from being a panacea. For one I gave control of my destiny to a struggling gallery owner who, after a few months, proved to be lacking in fundamental business skills. Now that I reflect about that time in my career, I have to admit it was an odd decision. At the time I was a Ph.D. graduate student in the Humanities department at MTU (Michigan Technological University) taking a full study load, completing my final Ph.D. exams while teaching a full-time photography course, managing the MTU darkroom, teaching a technical writing course and teaching an English 101 course. Overworked, underpaid and unsatisfied while looking at a future which consisted of an income that would never allow me to repay the debt I incurred, I had decided to sell my work to take control of my destiny instead of falling prey to the sorry-looking career path that academia offered me. Yet, the first thing I did was put my career in the hands of Tom Ex who swift fully proceeded to determine what price I should charge for my work, what type of work I should sell, and in what size and presentation. Go figure. Apparently, there is nothing easier to do than repeating the same mistakes again and again if you are not careful.
In 1996 I left Michigan and moved to the Navajo Reservation in Arizona to pursue my career. When I left Tom Ex kept a large amount of work that I had consigned with him. We stayed in touch over mail, email and phone until he closed his gallery a couple years later. Unfortunately, he never returned my work.
Fortunately, galleries are not just places where artists can sell their work. They are also places where anyone can both see and buy art. While all three aspects are the subject of this essay, the last two are those I want to focus on. There is no doubt that the decision to sell one’s art carries significant challenges but describing these issues and offering solutions is best left for an essay focused on the business and the marketing of art.
2 – About Galleries
Unlike museums whose purpose is to display art, the purpose of an art gallery is to sell art. In other words, a gallery is a business whose goal is to make sales and generate a profit. As a photographer galleries offer the opportunity to sell your work. As an art collector, galleries offer the opportunity to see the artwork in person and purchase it.
Some galleries are artist-owned and in that case, may show only artwork created by the gallery owner. Other galleries are owned by a proprietor who selects artists based on their commercial and artistic potential. Artists represented by these galleries have to sign a contract stipulating the price and the conditions according to which their work is to be sold.
Unless they show the work of the gallery owner, galleries operate on consignment. This means the artists give the gallery work to display and get paid only if their work sells, usually 30 days net meaning 30 days after the sale is completed. Galleries take a percentage of the selling price as payment. This percentage varies but is usually more or less 50% of the selling price.
3 – Art Shows
During my stay on the Navajo Reservation, I started selling my work at the El Tovar Hotel, the prime location on the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. The El Tovar show was an art show however it was a peculiar one. First, it was located within a world-famous National Park. Second, only two artists were allowed to sell their work at the same time. Third, we benefited from a highly motivated ‘captive’ audience. Motivated because for most people a trip to the Grand Canyon is a once in a lifetime experience. This means most visitors want to bring home a souvenir from the Park and what better souvenir can you get than a photograph of the Grand Canyon purchased from an artist selling at the El Tovar Hotel. Captive because park visitors walk in front of the El Tovar at least once during their visit and hotel guests do so multiple times. We saw most visitors and hotel guests several times during their stay, usually in the morning and again in the evening, when they started their day and later when they returned from their excursions.
I have never felt entitled as an artist. When I started selling at the El Tovar I was not the first to do so and the previous artists resented my presence, perceiving me as a threat when in fact I had no idea what I was doing. Kerry Vernon Johnson, one of the ‘established’ artists, made that perfectly clear when he told me ‘you are the lowest guy on the totem pole and we greased the pole.’ I did not let that bother me. That was OK with me because I had nothing to lose and no better place to go. Either I succeeded in selling my work here or I would not be able to succeed anywhere. This was the best show on earth as far as I could tell. Five million visitors a year, all of them walking at least once in front of the El Tovar because it was only 60 feet from the canyon’s rim, guaranteed a solid buying audience. Plus, unlike traditional art shows which usually features hundreds of artists, there was only one other artist to compete with.
Instead of trying to climb a greased pole, an impossible feat, I metaphorically put on my spiked shoes and bypassed the hurdle I was presented with. I will save the details for another essay, for the time being, let me just say that within two years I was on top of that totem pole while the other artists, unwilling to do what I did, were trying to catch up by dealing with the grease they had smeared themselves.
In 2003 the Grand Canyon show ended and I moved from the Navajo Reservation, where I had lived for 7 years after returning from Michigan to Phoenix, Arizona. During my first year living in Phoenix, I sold my work at art shows in the Phoenix area. I also tried to work with another gallery. Unfortunately, this second gallery attempt was met with the same sorry end I had experienced with Tosh. The gallery closed, did not notice me, and kept my work. However, this time I called the owners, met with them and was able to recover my work which they had ‘stored’ in their garage without any protection.
4 – About Art Shows
An art show can be considered an ‘alternate gallery’ of sorts. While not technically true, this is how most artists approach art shows. Art shows offer an attractive display and selling option to artists who are not able or willing to operate a brick and mortar gallery. For the buyer, the experience of visiting an art show is very similar to the experience of visiting a row of galleries located in the same street. The main difference being that the art is displayed outdoors under tents instead of indoors between four walls.
The cost of artwork at art shows is often lower than in a brick and mortar gallery. This is due to several factors. First, while doing art shows carries a cost this cost is much lower than the cost associated with operating a gallery. Second, art shows are traditionally the location where artists who start their career sell their work. For this reason, their prices tend to be more affordable.
The lower cost of artwork and the presence of a vast number of up-and-coming artists make art shows a popular buying venue for collectors. Of course, purchasing the work of an artist without an established career, track record or name recognition, carries some risks. The value of their work can go up or down and there is no way to know which way it will go. However, here as in many art purchases, the rule is to first buy something that you like and put investment considerations second.
5 – Home Galleries
Needless to say, my negative experiences did not further my desire to work with galleries. Granted, not all galleries are like that. There are better ones. I obviously did not find the best and most serious galleries. However, I decided to not pursue the search. Giving 50% of my income (the average consignment percentage) to a gallery is also not something I enjoy. I much prefer to keep 100% even if this entails more work, time and expenses. For these reasons in 2008, I decided to open a home gallery. By the time I did so I had enough of a reputation, following and name recognition to generate regular visits to my gallery. Clearly, this is not something I could have done when I started. I would have had no one knock on the door back then!
6 – About Home Galleries
A home gallery is simply a gallery which is located in the artist’s home. I have a home gallery in my house. It is located in a designated room which is used solely for this purpose. This room is located at the entrance of my house so that visitors do not have to walk through the entire house to access the gallery. This arrangement makes access quick and easy and protects my privacy.
For the artist, a home gallery is sometimes the perfect tradeoff between a commercial gallery and an art show. Because it is located in the artist’s home the costs of operating a home gallery are partially assumed by the cost of homeownership. You also do not have to be there from nine to five, Tuesday through Sunday, or whatever operating hours a specific gallery follows. In my situation gallery visits are by appointment only, with appointments being made a week or longer ahead of time. This allows me to have control over my schedule and to open the gallery only when a customer is visiting.
For the art collector, a home gallery offers the opportunity to meet the artist not only in person but also one on one. Because you have to make a personal appointment you are guaranteed that you will be the only customer present in the studio. Home gallery prices are expectably lower because there is no percentage going to a gallery owner, therefore, the artist retains 100% of the selling price. Furthermore, operating costs are minimized because there are no extra expenses beyond regular home expenses. The only investment required is furnishing the gallery and buying display stands. However, because most artists have done art shows before opening a home gallery, the displays they use are often those previously used at art shows. The furniture necessary for a home gallery is minimal. While I bought furniture specifically for the gallery, artists often use furniture they have on hand, either by moving it out of storage or by using extra furniture located in other rooms of the house.
7 – Artist studios
An artist studio is neither a gallery, an art show or a home gallery. While it can be described as a sort of home gallery it is actually quite different. An artist studio is usually first a working area that is used to display art at specific times of the year. Regardless, an artist studio can still be a selling environment. For example, many communities in the US feature ‘artist tours’ at specific times of the year, usually when the weather is pleasant. During those times artists open the doors of their studios to visitors and offer their work for sale to interested patrons.
Maynard Dixon passed away in 1955, therefore, this is a historical studio, not currently being used. However, visiting it still provides an insight into the artist’s life and work. Dixon’s home and studio are owned and maintained by the Thunderbird Foundation Gallery which is located next to the property and where you can purchase a variety of artwork by Maynard Dixon and by contemporary artists.
8 – Market research
Galleries offer more than a location to see and buy art. They also offer the opportunity to do market research. As a collector visiting a gallery allows you to see the prices they ask for specific work. You can also compare the prices for artists of similar caliber and see how these prices vary from one gallery to another. Usually, price fluctuation is most noticeable when you go from one geographical area to another. A gallery in a well to do location will charge significantly more than a gallery in a modest location and this for artists of comparable leverage, reputation and name recognition.
As an artist visiting a gallery, looking at their prices, audience and marketing approach can help you study the art market in a specific area. This is not to say that you want to model your business approach to theirs. First, the market they cater to may not be the same as yours. Second, the gallery business is tough and not all galleries do well. In fact, over 50% of new galleries go out of business within a year of opening their doors. Knowing how well a gallery is doing is challenging because what you see is only the top of the iceberg. What goes on behind the scenes, i.e. their sales, is not known to you. However, if you return to the same gallery several times within the same year you will get a feel for what is happening. In any case, you may be able to get an idea of what to do, or not do, as the case might be.
9 – Conclusion
Visiting Galleries offer added benefits besides seeing and buying art. You may want to sell your work, you may want to look at artwork or you may want to purchase art. Galleries offer the opportunity to do all three.
For a collector, these benefits include learning about art, discovering what type of art they like and dislike, seeing what the current prices are, where the market is headed, what is in demand or not, and of course purchase art.
For an artist or photographer interested in selling his or her work this includes learning how art and photographs are sold, making contact with people in the business of fine art sales and potentially finding a gallery interested in carrying your work.
Visiting a gallery does not imply that you have to make a purchase. Businesses that sell luxury items, meaning products that are a want rather than a need, which includes art, know that customers rarely make a purchase on their first visit. If you do not want to buy all you just need to say is that you are not looking at making a purchase at this time. When I am asked what I am looking for by a salesperson and I do not want to be helped, I like to say that ‘I am curious about what this store (a gallery in this instance) carries’. So far I have never received a counter-objection when I state this as my purpose.
10 – To be continued
This is the third essay in this series of four essays about collecting art. In the next essay, the fourth and last in this series, I will write about the process or building an art collection.
11 – Workshops with Alain and Natalie Briot
If you enjoyed this essay you will enjoy attending a workshop with us. I lead workshops with my wife Natalie to the most photogenic locations in the US Southwest. Our workshops focus on the artistic aspects of photography. While we do teach technique, we do so for the purpose of creating artistic photographs. Our goal is to help you create photographs that you will be proud of and that will be unique to you. The locations we photograph include Navajoland, Antelope Canyon, Monument Valley, Zion, the Grand Canyon and many others. Our workshops listing is available at this here:
12 – About Alain and Natalie Briot
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Natalie and I create fine art photographs, I teach workshops with Natalie and offer Mastery Tutorials on composition, image conversion, optimization, printing, business and marketing. I am the author of Mastering Landscape Photography, Mastering Photographic Composition, Creativity and Personal Style, Marketing Fine Art Photography and How Photographs are Sold. All 4 books are available in eBook format on our website here. Free samplers are available so you can see the quality of these books for yourself.