Sunday, January 31, 2016

Art Galleries

Wheat Grass - Tehachapi, California
An aluminum print of this photograph hung in two different art galleries.
Should my photographs be in an art gallery? How do I get my photographs into a gallery? What kind of money can I expect to make in an art gallery?

I get asked questions like these fairly often. Perhaps it might be helpful to share my experiences with this. Maybe something I learned will be helpful to you.

Back when I was in college nearly two decades ago some of my black-and-white prints hung in the college's art exhibit. It was common for students to be invited to display their work for a month in the ever-changing exhibit, and, like many others, my work made it there briefly. This was my first gallery experience.

When I moved to Tehachapi, California in 2011 I immediately went to the best art gallery in town, Crossroads Gallery, and asked what it would take to get in. They asked to see some examples of my work and, after showing them some images, they invited me to be a guest exhibitor. This meant that I could display a small number of images in the gallery for 30 days. 

I was a guest artist for two months, and then I was invited to be a permanent member of the gallery. I had half-of-a-wall that I could do as I wished with (sort of, everything had to be approved by the manager first). I had several photographs on display, including a large aluminum print of Wheat Grass (at the top).

Unfortunately, I didn't know that the gallery was struggling financially. Six months after being invited to be a permanent member, the gallery shut its doors for good. I had to pick up my photographs and bring them home.

A different gallery, started by one of the owners of Crossroads Gallery, opened up across the street. I was invited to display two photographs. I happily accepted the invitation, but soon realized that it wasn't a good match for me. This new gallery was an arts and craft store with a gallery as an afterthought in an unfinished back room. Two months later I removed my images.

After that I put a number of photographs into a consignment store where other artists were selling things. This experiment lasted two months because it just wasn't profitable. 
African Daisy - Anaheim, California
A canvas print of this image hung in one gallery, and more recently on my daughter's bedroom wall.
What did I learn from these experiences?

Location, location, location. A great gallery in a poor location isn't going to do well, and those within the gallery will not do well. The gallery needs to be in a place people flock to for art and it needs to be highly visible. Tehachapi just isn't known enough for art. 

There are three types of galleries, I think. One is highly successful and is difficult to get in. One is just getting by and is easier to get in. And one isn't really in the art gallery business--they are using art as a ploy to get customers in so that they can sell them other things--and anyone can get in.

You want to be in the gallery that's successful and difficult to get into. In order to do that you have to know the right people and be darn good. If you haven't already established a name for yourself you are going to have a difficult time getting an invitation.

If you can't get into the successful gallery, then, if you want, try one that's just getting by. This isn't ideal because you are not likely to sell much, but perhaps you can begin to make a name for yourself and create a positive reputation. 

I would avoid the third gallery type at all costs. It's not worth it. They just want to use you, and you're not likely going to get much out of it (if anything at all).

Obviously the point of having your work in a gallery is to make money. You want to sell photographs. Galleries will charge fees. Each gallery will be different with what and how they charge. There might be monthly dues. There will most certainly be a commission. The more successful the gallery the more they will charge to sell your images.

It also costs money to create the photographs. There are printing costs, the cost of your time and effort, the cost of your gear, and all sorts of things you wouldn't even think about. You have to price your photographs high enough that you'll make a profit.

The problem is that your work has to be good enough to justify the high price tag. Is someone going to pay $300 for a photograph that's just alright? Not likely. But you might be able to sell an exceptional photograph for $5,000. How good are your photographs?

That was my problem more than anything. My photographs weren't all that great. I thought they were good at the time, but, looking back, they were not exceptional. I'm a significantly better photographer now, but maybe still not good enough to be successful in a gallery.

In the end I spent more money than I made, so I was in the red. I lost money in the gallery business, which is not an uncommon experience. But I learned a lot so it wasn't a complete waste. If the opportunity presents itself again in the future, I'm much better prepared.

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