Getting Into the Galleries and Related Issues

Living the Artist’s Life: Updated & Revised
by Paul Dorrell

Excerpt from Chapter 8

Getting Into the Galleries
All right, let’s assume you’re ready to approach a gallery.  You’ve exhibited in juried shows, restaurants, and artists’ coalitions, you’ve found your audience and are confident of your work.  With these things behind you, you’re ready to begin the process of approaching the galleries.  I’ll coach you a bit so that you do this right, do it well, and stand a better chance of acceptance.

As we begin, please bear in mind that as an artist you are self-employed, and thus in some ways an entrepreneur.  If you handle the business details of your career professionally, you’ll stand a greater chance of flourishing.  If you handle them amateurishly, you’ll stand a greater chance of failing.  I wish I could tell you that to create great art alone is enough, but unfortunately it is not.  Dali, Giacometti and Frankenthaler handled the business aspects of their careers very well, or had others do it for them.  Had they flubbed the business aspects, they probably would have never gained much notice until after death—an all-too-common occurrence that I find needless.

So, with a well filled-out resume in hand, let’s proceed.

Rejection / Perseverance
Before we go on to the galleries, you should know that your work may be rejected several times initially, and that finding the right gallery will not necessarily be easy.  Therefore allow me to share some of my experience about rejection: learn to anticipate it then determine to persevere beyond it, no matter what.

Perseverance is the quality that enables you to handle rejection after rejection, then more rejection, then further rejection, then maybe a few more years of rejection, and still snap back.  I’m not saying that those rejections shouldn’t depress or anger you, or make you want to abandon the whole bloody business.  On occasion they will.  On occasion they’ll flat out piss you off.  But you’ll have to persevere nonetheless—that is if you want to succeed.

You’re the one creating the work.  You’re the one who has to believe in yourself.  You’re the one who has to know whether your work is any good. If you do know this, and are certain of your destiny, then no amount of rejection should matter.  Sure, you may punch a few holes in a few walls before it’s all over, but after the dust has settled and you’ve mended your knuckles, go back out and make the approach again, and again and again, and again, until you achieve your goals.

Please don’t give in to despair. Listen to your inner voice, the one that has assured you about your place in the world since the day you began to create. Voices like that rarely lie—which isn’t to say that we don’t on occasion misinterpret them.  Listen to the reassurance it gives you. When you’re at your loneliest and most depressed you may find that voice a comfort, especially after it proves to have been right about your talent all along.

As you listen, and as you prepare to send your work out once more, try to employ resiliency, combined with stubbornness, mellowed with humor, strengthened with discipline, bound with humility.  And hell, enjoy yourself.  You’re alive, you’re free to create, your work is maturing.  If you learn to take the rejections well, you’ll gain strength from them.  In time, this can develop one formidable artist.  Decide that it will, and that the day is coming when the galleries will be happy to work with you.  People respond well to confidence—which of course should not be confused with arrogance.

Choosing the Right Gallery
I advise that you start with galleries located in a major city or resort near you.  Visit them and browse.  Don’t mention you’re an artist.  Don’t mention anything. Just walk around and get a feel for the place. Is the gallery well laid out and well lighted, or is it dim, dusty and reeking of disorganization? Does it exude contentment and confidence or despair and ineptitude?  Most importantly, are the director and staff snobs or are they considerate and helpful?  If the former, I advise caution.

Snobbishness, like many negative traits, is rooted in insecurity. If the staff is this way with you, chances are they’re this way with clients, which will only lead to lost sales. I have to admit though, some snobs do make excellent art dealers, they’re just a pain in the ass to work with.  In the end it’s a personal call.  If you feel you can work with these folks, go ahead—just watch your step as you do.  Snobbery, by my experience, is often an indicator of a lack of integrity, not to mention a lack of enlightenment.

Once you find a group of galleries that impress you, you’ll need to assess if they’re a fit for your work.  You can do this by taking in the inventory.  If they only carry landscapes, it’s doubtful they’ll be a good fit for abstraction.  Ditto the reverse.  But some galleries, like mine, carry both abstracted and representational art. These businesses are open to a wide variety of work, and can have a broad range of clientele. If your work is a stretch for a particular space, no worries.  It could stretch them in a good direction, provided they’re passionate about it.  So, stir their passions.

After you decide which galleries you’re interested in, drop by and make an appointment to see the director—portfolio or laptop in hand.  Why this way?  Because requesting an appointment in person works better than making a call or sending an email, since it’s harder for someone to refuse you if you’re standing in front of them.  The reason you ask for an appointment is because that shows respect for the director’s time.
I rarely view an artist’s work without an appointment, or without that artist going through the submission process.  Once they do, and assuming the work is a fit, I’m happy to sit down with them.  What my staff and I cannot do is review the portfolio of every artist who walks in hoping for this—and many do, simply because they were never taught how to properly approach galleries.  If we did make this a practice, we couldn’t effectively run our business, promote our artists, or have time with our families.  You’ll find that most galleries operate the same way, and have no choice but to.

Even so, the reason you want a portfolio or laptop at hand is because the staff member might be willing to take a look.  You want to be ready for this opportunity should it arise, with a couple of originals waiting in your car.  But I wouldn’t count on things unfolding this way.  Instead, just inquire what the submission process is.  Most galleries accept submissions via email, where they’ll ask you to forward a link to your website, or to send them several images.  For this reason, it’s essential that you have a comprehensive website before approaching the galleries, as that will make you seem established.

If you do an email submission, try to make sure it goes to the staff member who reviews submissions, and not to the general email address—where it may well wind up in the trash.  Keep the cover letter brief, mentioning the major points of your career in the first paragraph, with relevant links where appropriate.  Also be sure to address the gallery or staff member in your salutation; never use a generic salutation.
If you mail hard copy, which I feel makes the greatest impression even in this digital age, again keep the cover letter brief.  You also want it on quality letterhead with a business card enclosed.  All these things can be laid out so they reflect your work and individuality.  In fact I advise that you make them look unique yet professional.  Why?  You’re making the impression that you handle your career well, no matter how broke you might be. These little steps will assure the gallery that you’ll carry your end of the business agreement.  Naturally you must include a disc of your work.  Make sure your web address is printed on all relevant materials, since you want the staff going to your website and getting blown away by how cool it looks.  To ensure this happens, you can always send an email with a link to your site a few days after submitting.

Call the gallery a week after you submitted, whichever form you submitted in.  The first gallery rejects you?  Try a second, third, and fourth if necessary.  No matter how many rejections you get, you must persist.  If you’ve got the talent and have paid the dues, you’ll find the right gallery—but only if you persist.

When finally you get an appointment to meet with the director, take a moment to enjoy that fact, since it’s probably been a long journey.  Dress in a way that suits you—whether in a t-shirt and jeans or business attire—as long as you give the impression that you’re successful.  If that success is primarily expressed in the mastery of your medium, fine.  Take five-to-ten of your best pieces.  Make sure your presentation is neat, organized and professional—with quality frames on your paintings if frames are needed, or refined bases on your sculpture if bases are needed.

In my gallery, when an artist walks in the door for an appointment, I expect her to be prepared.  Sure I’m primarily looking at the work, but I’m also looking at the artist, gauging whether she’ll be responsible in her obligations as well as a pleasure to work with.  If I see real possibility in the work, we’ll help organize her career. But if she strikes me as unreliable and undisciplined, I’ll politely decline.  I just don’t have time to personally manage my artists, no matter how talented they might be.  Most dealers don’t. I do make some exceptions in the case of artists where I feel I’m supposed to help guide them, whether we make any money off their work or not.  Otherwise, if I want to have a life away from the gallery at all, I have no choice but to avoid this.

Equally important is the manner in which the dealer treats you.  Does she show you respect?  Is she considerate?  Is she polite?  She may be busy, she may be in debt up to her arse, but you deserve respect for the years of sacrifice you’ve paid out.  Bear that in mind; it’s something to be proud of, since the achievement isn’t common.

Of course you should also return the respect.  Most directors are very busy, operating on a thin profit margin, if they’re making a profit at all.  It’s difficult, vexing work to run a gallery and often thankless.  Just be glad you don’t have to do it.  If a gallery takes you on, they have to convince the public that you’re worth investing in.  This can take months or years.  And while they invest their time and resources in you, initially losing money in the effort, they still have to meet payroll each month, pay their debts, taxes, artists, utilities, rent, office expenses, unexpected expenses, and hopefully take home a little dough. This is no mean feat.  That’s why when you meet the director, it’s important that you be aware of the reality she grapples with every day.

So when that first meeting occurs, respect should be shown on both sides.  Later, if you work together, that will have to be married to earned trust.  You both will need to achieve this if you’re to have a good working relationship.  As you’re talking with the director, keep this in mind.  This two-way street will be one of the most important you’ll travel in your career.  It involves all the give-and-take of any successful relationship, and begins with mutual consideration.

I know, because I’ve blown this on occasion, not always showing the consideration that I should have.  Such is human nature when you’re irritated or flat pissed off.  Naturally if an apology was due, I made one.  Other times the artists were at fault.  But overall in this kind of situation, we both normally made mistakes that damaged the relationship. If it was repairable, we repaired it.  If not, we separated and moved on.  Whichever course was taken, I’ve always tried to walk that line in a constructive and honorable way.

In the same vein, many actors have had lifelong relationships with their agents, as have writers and musicians, and those relationships brought forth history-making careers.  Just as many, though, have had terrible relationships, marked by screaming matches, fistfights, lawsuits, and the constant changing of agents.  A gallery is an agent of sorts.  Try to get off on the right foot—unless drama is your bent.  And hey if it is, that’s ok.  The art world’s always been full of conflict, which does make for some pretty good stories.  I personally just don’t like conducting business that way.

Business
As I’ve already mentioned, a gallery is a business and must function as one if it is to succeed.  DreamWorks is a business, as are Random House and Columbia Records.  No film studio, publisher, or record company can prosper if it doesn’t operate on sound business principals; nor can its artists.  The same applies to galleries.  Not only do the galleries have to understand aesthetics, but they also must run in the black, undertaking the necessary discipline to ensure this happens.  If they don’t, they’ll go under, and possibly take with them any monies that might be owed to you.

I’ve known of galleries from Vancouver to Miami where the owners put on a great front, operated lavish spaces, drove expensive cars, wore chic clothes, had packed openings, and constantly maintained a pretense of wealth.  Unfortunately there were few red dots at the openings and no fall-back plan. In each instance those galleries went under, owing their artists anywhere from $100,000 to $250,000 as they sank beneath the waves. This is not the kind of “business” you want to be represented by, where everything is just a façade.

Far safer to be carried by a gallery that is soundly established, pays on time, and doesn’t confuse success with shallow notions of riches and notoriety.  If this means they drive used cars and wear clothes from Macy’s, fine.  They probably know more about business than the pretenders ever will.

Coming To an Agreement / Gallery Percentages
This should be a straightforward arrangement, wherein the director agrees to take your work, you consign perhaps six pieces to her, and she prints out and signs a consignment sheet for you.  My consignment sheets generally read as follows…