Yesterday, Elizabeth Lasley of Asheville, NC, wrote, “I’m amazed that commercial galleries treat their customers as if they’re in a museum. They say “hi” and not much more. They don’t need to act like used car salespeople, but offering information, payment plans and try-out opportunities might help. I think a gallery should be beautiful and exciting and have a welcoming staff and maybe free coffee and tea. What do you think?”
Thanks, Elizabeth. Just as there are amateur artists, there are amateur galleries. They can be spotted by their poor marketing, poor sales, bad bookkeeping, borderline art and unreliable payment to artists. Pro artists need pro galleries.
That being said, professional galleries may have quite different styles and degrees of aggressiveness. The comfort zone of the dealer plays a part, as do the expectations of clientele. Further, some galleries insist on making it a pretty serious business — others make it look like a lot of fun.
Worldwide, gallery manners are dictated by local norms, commercial boundaries and human proxemics — that is, the space people give one another in various cultures. In Honolulu I entered a gallery where three attractive women approached right away and asked wonderful openers like “Have you ever been in an art gallery before?”
“It’s a first for me,” I said, and I was soon in the closing room sipping an above-average Bordeaux.
In London, England, a striped-suited, square-glassed gentleman gave an audible sneer and quickly turned his attention to something important. To his credit he didn’t make frivolous conversation, giving me an opportunity to look around.
In Tokyo, a young gallerista stood so close I was impressed by her cherry-blossom perfume and the moist shine of her golden teeth.
A Canadian dealer, no longer with us, was noted for glowering from his great mahogany desk, then quickly rising and engaging intimidated visitors with “If you don’t buy that painting, you’re stupid.” Funnily, he was right, practically everything he offered was carefully vetted through the filter of his considerable taste, and has since gone through the roof.
The main job of galleries is to show the work, share the magic, and run a proper business. Other than that, galleries need to be just as creative and intuitive as the artists they serve. Apart from making deliveries, the best way to serve them is to let them be. And be prepared to move on when you determine they aren’t pros.
PS: “You already have a fair number and you keep them cleverly hidden, since they’re never on display, which in my opinion is a mistake. What’s the point of painting pictures if the public never gets to see them?” (Claude Monet to his dealer Paul Durand-Ruel)
Esoterica: Once, in a spirit of helpful concern, I blurted out to one of my dealers, “There are no chairs in this place — nowhere for people to sit.” “Oh,” said the dealer, “We tried chairs. People just come in and sit on them and never leave. With no chairs people keep on moving in front of the paintings and eventually express themselves with their wallets.”
This gallery gives free hugs
by Paula Manning-Lewis, Albuquerque, NM, USA
I totally agree with Elizabeth! Snobby gallery owners in Santa Fe, NM were part of the catalyst for opening my own gallery here in Albuquerque, NM. Being an artist myself, I try to be as creative as possible in the gallery when greeting people. EVERYONE, and I mean everyone who walks into Chroma Studios Gallery is greeted warmly. At our most recent opening, “Peace and Love,” we had all the artists including myself and my husband wear “Free Hugs” stickers. Whenever anyone walked in, they were told that tonight was free hug night in honor of the Peace and Love show. It was a huge hit! I had several people email me later to tell me it was the highlight of their week! We don’t want people to feel uncomfortable in our gallery, we want them to enjoy their experience and come back again and again. Not to mention telling all their friends about us! My goal is to be known as the “friendly gallery.” (Chroma Studios Gallery, Albuquerque, NM, USA)
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No coffee or tea at this one
by Sharon Wolff, Colorado Springs, CO, USA
Elizabeth’s comment, “I think a gallery should be beautiful and exciting and have a welcoming staff and maybe free coffee and tea. What do you think?” This is most amusing to me, especially the “free coffee and tea.” For the past five years, I have offered and served free wine, food, candy, water, note cards, bent over backwards and more, and did it ever result in a sale? Of course not. Buyers do buy from those they like working with, where there is a connection, but they have no interest in free coffee or tea. Maybe Elizabeth just hasn’t shopped in the better galleries in her home state or country yet. Send her to Colorado, we will show her how we treat our guests — no coffee or tea, sorry. (Hunter-Wolff Gallery, Ltd., Colorado Springs, CO, USA)
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Gallery succeeded in putting them off
by Louise Francke, NC, USA
We searched for a certain gallery while visiting Orlando. Once there, we had to figure out how to get in! The doors were locked during specified viewing hours and the lights were off. No notice of being closed was evident but there was a man in a suit watching us park and get out but obviously people driving a Honda Element in casual clothes aren’t going to buy so he evasively left by a side door and proceeded to go to lunch. Let me just say — if you judge by people’s clothes or the cars they drive — you are underestimating the gallery-goer. We buy art but I will never return to that gallery!
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The value of the chair
by Win Dinn, Creston, BC, Canada
I’m a neophyte gallery owner — coming up to the two year mark. I have one visitor’s chair (both comfortable and beautiful, naturally) in the gallery. It’s most often used by the ‘other half’ who has less interest in looking, and works very well, accordingly. It’s also handy for those seniors who love to appreciate the work, but without the legs to allow them to stand for long periods of time. Although we don’t offer tea and cookies, my regulars know that some kind of treat will be available for most special occasions, and that our space is a treat for the soul at any time.
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Gallery owner determines gallery style
by Ted Lederer (Elliott Louis Gallery), Vancouver, BC, Canada
As in most businesses, the art gallery business is driven from the top down. That is to say when you walk into a gallery and the staff are snooty and imperious, guess what the owner is like? If you walk in and people are treated warmly and hospitably, it is absolutely because of the owner. Friendly owners don’t hire and /or tolerate snooty behavior from those that work in the gallery. Snooty staff are at that gallery for a reason, the owner wants them there. Staff are a reflection of management / ownership. So, when an artist chooses a gallery, think about how you interact with the owner and how he and/or his/her staff interacts with those that come into the gallery. It’s one of the least mysterious questions in a mysterious business. (Elliott Louis Gallery, Vancouver, BC, Canada)
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Different approaches in galleries
by Kay Cox, Seabrook, TX, USA
An experienced gallery owner and staff can read a client’s bent and know whether they want more information or to be left alone. It comes with much experience in going to other galleries and in operating one. I belong to a co-op which is a different sort of venue but has the same challenge. Some artists are so very shy and hide behind the desk. Others can dog the visitor and scare them. Perhaps some training here in how to greet visitors would help but some will always do it better than others. I have found that a simple greeting along with an offer to help if they have questions is usually adequate. If the visitor appears to be interested in a particular painting, I offer a little background on the artist or the subject.
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Nurturing a gallery relationship
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
Galleries are ‘artists’ at their trade which is getting a person to buy a painting. Some are very good at it, some not so good, some not good at all. Some galleries have a better location, which helps them be better at what they do. Some galleries make up for a not-so-good location, by providing excellent service and by having an excellent work ethic. Some galleries do a better job of picking their art and artists and by knowing who their buyers are. Running a gallery really is an art form in itself. Each gallery will create the style that fits their customer base and the personality of the gallery director. The artist’s job is to assist their gallery if they are asked and to bring in their best work. Most of the time, the gallery doesn’t need their artists hovering around or making a pest of themselves. It’s a bit of an art form for artists dealing with the galleries that represent them. It’s a relationship, just like a marriage or a friendship. Relationships take work and maintenance! Sometimes a divorce is necessary and we should make it as amicable and respectful as possible. Sometimes artists gripe way too much. Look at Monet. He was not easy to work with. He initially rejected his dealer’s idea of marketing his paintings to America. He griped constantly but his dealers helped make him rich and famous. He needed them and they needed him. That’s how it works.
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Unpleasant experience in gallery
by John Ferrie, Vancouver, BC, Canada
I was with a gallery once and went in to see my work. The gallery owner wasn’t there, but the assistant was. I had dealt with this woman over the phone for many months but had never met her. While I spent the better part of twenty minutes in the gallery without so much as a nod, let alone a greeting. I finally asked if she carried the work of John Ferrie. Without a word, she shook her head no. I was puzzled as I had been with this gallery for six months and I knew they had a good dozen pieces of my work. I asked again for my bright colourful paintings. She was getting aggressive with me and finally asked me to leave. Just then the gallery owner walked in and said “Hello there John Ferrie!” The woman went white as a ghost. I asked for my work and took it home with me that day. I was in tears.
I know of many artists who have had to sue galleries to get paid. Sadly, this is a regular thing with galleries. People don’t seem to know that the paintings are there on consignment. The artist often has to pay a membership fee for a less than commercial space. And those artist run gallery spaces rarely get a big buyer.
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Another disappearing artist
by Karen VanDam Michmerhuizen, Holland, MI, USA
Currently my work is carried by five galleries. Three are in my home state of Michigan and I keep contact with them. Two are within easy driving distance for delivering work and personal contact. The third is a four hour drive, but I still get there twice a year. Also, in spite of Michigan’s economy I was pleased with ’09 sales.
The other two are sister galleries in Florida and Rhode Island. In the past four years I have sold three total from them. I haven’t been back to the Florida gallery nor have I ever been to RI. This past weekend my daughter stopped into the RI gallery. When she could not find my work (six pieces sent last summer) she asked the two saleswomen. While both were friendly and my daughter liked the layout, neither knew my name nor could they find my work. My daughter also mentioned that there were several pieces stacked up against walls in places. My gut feeling is that I should ask for my paintings and get out. Can anyone help me with this decision?
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The warning bell for galleries
I currently have four galleries representing me. I also have a premium link on this site and my own dedicated website. Gallery-client-artist relationships are changing. Clients are much more willing these days to go directly to the artists. The Internet has sounded a warning bell for galleries. It’s not that clients are trying to get a better deal, though some are, it’s that they have come to realize that the enormous markups taken by galleries are unsustainable. Stock brokers and realtors would not continue to survive if markups were so out of range. While I have always been in favor of the gallery system, I am paying more attention to the direct inquiries that are coming from the four corners of the world. It is not just galleries that have built me, but my own hard work, personal integrity and attention to quality.
Difficulties dealing with galleries
by Carol Hama, Edmonton, AB, Canada
Most galleries are professional, but some fly-by-night types try to scam me. Everything from non-payment, closing their galleries and absconding with my stuff to even demanding my entire patron list complete with their e-mail addresses, street addresses and phone numbers. I felt like they wanted to “mortgage my entire art career” and strip me of my resource (patron list) and my money by the time I walked out of that office! They wanted 50% commission (which means I actually get less than them because I not only have to pay for the framing and expensive art supplies), I also have to pay for the reception costs, mailing, printing. Some galleries wouldn’t hang my stuff unless I had it framed by them (for which I would get a measly 10% discount off their greatly inflated prices).
As struggling galleries pass on their expenses to us artists (increasing commission, sharing opening reception costs, sharing their rent, etc) so, too, are more of us seeking ways of avoiding all these expenses and more of us are resorting to marketing our own stuff at trade shows, gallery walks, art-in-the-parks, privately and from our own studios and do away with the galleries. This is a pity because this trend is forcing many professional galleries to close their doors.
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acrylic painting by Brian LaSaga
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Elizabeth Lasley of Asheville, NC, USA, who wrote, “The gallery I’m with now — 310 ART — is fantastic. The gallery owner, Fleta Monaghan, is an amazing, supportive and talented artist herself. She wears many hats — artist, teacher, gallery owner. She does this with a smile and greets visitors to her gallery with a sincere welcome. She’s eager to explain the art, promote the artists, but at the same time she is sensitive to letting people explore the works of art on their own.”
And also Scott Kahn of Old Lyme, CT, USA, who wrote, “The art business is a rarified business, and appeals to an audience capable of spending money on a luxury. Too often the atmosphere in a gallery borders on snobbishness.”
Enjoy the past comments below for How galleries succeed…