Out of the closet


Dear Artist,

A subscriber who wishes to remain anonymous wrote, “Recently, I put four of my paintings into a new gallery that takes anything and everything. Two months later, my artwork was put in a closet. If I want to stay there, my only option is to rent a wall for about $155 a month. Contract signed, month-to-month, this way my artwork will remain hanging no matter how many artists they bring in. What good is having art in a gallery if it’s put in a closet?”


“Bird on Money”
acrylic, crayon on canvas 1981
by self-taught American juggernaut
Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)

Thanks, Anonymous. Renting wall space is a great way for a gallery to make money without having to sell art. With anything and everything accepted, diminishing standards hurt everyone. Still, some view these “vanity galleries” as a sign of democratic times — leaving it for the public to decide what’s hot. Others smell the exploitation of artists willing to pay for wall space, sometimes at any cost. If it’s a wall you’re after, you have choices: websites, art fairs, on social media, in community groups, with consultants, designers, even at the auction houses. If you’re going to pay rent, why not shop around? Here are a few ideas:

Build a professional website and keep it up-to-date.
Enter an art fair or community exhibition that’ll get your work in front of potential collectors.
Pay attention to what the artist-run spaces are doing.
Donate to a selected charity event or join a public art campaign.
Take a trip and take your paints.
Use the best materials.
Invest in a workshop, given by a working pro.
Grant yourself the time and space to get better and better — you may soon find you’re out of the closet.


oil on canvas
by Frida Kahlo (1907-1954)
(also self-taught)



PS: “Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever.” (Napoleon Bonaparte)

Esoterica: The commercial gallery model, while in flux, aspires to do business as a choosey curator of quality, consistent work presented and supported by professional art dealers actively working to build your following. If successful, most earn a hefty commission unrivalled by any other economic commodity. In return, the best galleries cultivate society’s future treasures and shape the meaningful collections of tomorrow. The best dealers are enthusiastic purveyors of the cultural gifts unfolding in their lifetimes — bolstering passion and performing duties that leave artists free to create.


“Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!)”
oil on canvas 1891
by Henri Rousseau (1844-1910)

Though his work has sold at the local artist’s league and the vanity gallery, our anonymous subscriber reports it difficult to find desirable representation and believes it may have something to do with being self-taught and lacking awards. “What’s an artist to do with no formal education in the field?” he asks. “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted,” said Albert Einstein. As lifers, we’re obliged to look not at our credentials but at our paintings, and inquire into their infinite improvability. How to make them uniquely ours and impossible to pass up? “The details are details. They make the product. The connections, the connections, the connections. It will in the end be these details that give the product its life,” said Charles Eames. “Good merchandise, even hidden, soon finds buyers.” (Plautus)

Henri Rousseau’s painting, Tiger in a Tropical Storm was rejected by jurers at the Academie de peinture et de sculpture, so he entered it at the Salon de Independants under a different name — Surprised!



  1. Sara’s Letter is very good, as always.
    I want only to reinforce what she wrote in saying that there are/were many other self taught painters. Balthus and Rousseau are two who I have always admired. Balthus grew up among artists which, of course, helped. His parents were painters and Rilke was a close friend of his mother who helped young Balthus a lot. And Balthus studied great paintings on his own, making copies of details of Piero della Francesca and Masaccio, and the like. Self directed schooling of the highest quality, in other words.

    In terms of exhibiting one’s work, yes, submit to regional exhibitions and see if you can have a few works hanging in good quality cafes and restaurants and such places. In the beginning anything helps. I would say, unless money isn’t an issue, submit to any juried shows your work might fit in with that don’t have a fee to submit and you can drive your paintings to the place and pick them up at the end of the exhibition. And try to avoid paying to exhibit in general. And also know that the quality of your work is what is most important for you. In other words, don’t be too anxious to be seen. Wait until you have work you and your artist friends think is very strong before you spend a lot of time and energy searching for ways to exhibit.

    A commercial art gallery will take 50% of the sale in commissions. But they promote their artists. And most of us who have exhibited in galleries for years sell at prices much higher than we could have gotten if we didn’t have a gallery. And with a good gallery your reputation is going to grow while you stay in your studio painting.

    The best galleries are very hard to get into. They tend to say they aren’t looking for artists, and they get hundreds asking every year. Competition is tough. But perseverance is good. Paint for yourself. Become the best painter you can be. Get to know the gallery scene where you live and through magazines and internet also those in the more important cities.

    It is very common for an artist to have to work at something that pays in order to survive. We have been waiters or kitchen crew workers, carpenters, grounds keepers, teachers, taxi drivers,…. all kinds of things. So we do what we can. Paint, learn, show where you can. Eventually it gets a little easier.Without art school or university degrees teaching jobs aren’t possible, but teaching is about the bet salaried work an artist can get because it’s in the area the artist knows something about and it has the fewest hours, etc.

  2. Dealing with commercial galleries can be a pain. Keeping track of what happens concerning your own art takes time…time and work for which you may be paying the gallery to perform. Galleries away from your home-base are especially tough. Knowing what happens out there can be a mystery. This negativism I bring you comes from six decades of dealing with galleries. Most “fun” of all is a gallery in a large city away from home that has done well for you for several years and then literally out-of-the-blue you get notice of bankruptcy…and they still have several unsold paintings of yours. Depending on the law, what happens next can be spooky.

  3. susan canavarro on

    This is a good article, but it did, as one comment suggests, leave out several options for showing one’s art. I’ve shown my paintings in small coffee houses and have had good luck selling. The best thing about that kind of place is that usually people return frequently, sometimes daily, and they have a good long opportunity to look at your work each time. It may also be a place they would take their friends and visitors. So don’t discount the coffee house or other small places where people gather.
    Also, in the past people have gotten together to rent empty buildings on a temporary basis, for a month or so. They have a reception, and share in the gallery sitting and maintenance for the month. Empty shop spaces are ubiquitous these days and you might find a landlord that would be eager to have some funds from his or her building rather than let it sit empty and have no funds fro it.

    • Good advice for Anonymous.
      A good website host is Fine Art Studio on Line (FASO) which offers the opportunity to write blogs, newsletters, competitions and is easy to build yourself. The first 2 months are free if you know of someone who recommends the host to you.
      FASO sites offers multiple background colours and formats which can be changed in 2 minutes.
      Another option for exposure is free online gallery sites, social media, and competitions.
      Key words in blogs and description of art are important too.
      Offer a demonstration to a group or be an artist is residence for a day in your local community centre or small gallery.
      An extensive contact list with regular art news works.
      Wishing you success,

  4. A good alternative to “vanity” galleries are co-op galleries, if there is one in your area. I was a member of Artists Workshop Gallery in Hot Springs, Arkansas, for many years, and it was a very good experience. The membership committee juried in new members, so there was some quality control. And the fixed costs were kept low by reasonable monthly dues (not $150!!!) and having members work in the gallery one or two days per month. There is also a commission on sales, but it is not 50% – it is much lower. Additional benefits are YOU get to decide which of your artwork is displayed, and you can meet collectors face-to-face and establish a personal relationship with them. Artists Workshop Gallery recently celebrated their 25th anniversary of continuous operation. Look for a good co-op gallery in your area.

    Internet sales are great, too, but there is a LOT of work involved in making this approach successful – much more than putting up a good website. Like any business, you need to advertise, and get people to “visit” your online gallery.

  5. good letter Sara . my take on closets is , I have one at home . I stay away from galleries with too many artists , or galleries where you are in with similar styled artists that may be more established . the gallery world is evolving as is the art world . wall space costs them money ,and they need a return on the use of it . hard work , skill , and luck all play into gallery representation . I have been turned down by more galleries than I can count . believe in what you do ,and work hard at it . I have gotten into galleries through shows I have entered . I never did like the rental game . each walks their own path . my website is only to let people know what I do . I don’t think I have sold more than a couple of works thru it . I believe in building a strong trusting relationship with galleries and let them sell your work while you concentrate on producing . I always say to myself , that my next painting will be my beat , keep that carrot just out of reach

  6. As a gallery owner for over twenty years, I can say that awards and education can be important to a select few buyers, but it boils down to the piece of art. Art that has passion and feels fresh sells. I’m committed to my artists and truly want them to be successful and be able to afford their studio and pay their bills.
    I do take 50% but having a gallery is like having another house, utilities, website upkeep, advertising, insurance, credit card surcharges, accounting, labor costs, building maintenance….it goes on and on. I figure that with all of that said I may make 25% of the sales as my income.
    There are artists every week – writing, calling or coming into the gallery with paintings in tow wanting to have representation. Instead of a negative response I usually just say that I am not taking any new artists in at this time. I feel is not ethical to represent more art than I can show at least a sample of, on my walls at all time. Asking the artists to pay for wall space would be a disaster! I only represent art that I can stand behind and feel good about selling.

    • A good answer from what sounds like a really serious gallery owner. I have no problem paying 50% if the gallery really works on selling for the artists involved. Special shows and competitions can often help. Lots of work for the gallery staff, but that makes 50% worth it.

  7. This is a postscript to my comment above.
    Again, Sara writes beautifully, but the format of her Twice Weekly Letter, now called Painter’s Keys, limits how much she can write in one Letter. So the comments sent in by readers can expand on what she writes. It might take a book or to to address questions in something like a complete way.

    I was thinking it might be good advice for Anonymous, whose email generated this discussion, to be named instead of remaining anonymous. And to have the Robert & Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letter website list your own website. If your work isn’t ready for exposure among friends, as we can consider the large pool of subscribers to this site, then I would suppose it isn’t ready to be exhibited, and you should hold off and keep working. This Robert & Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letter website is one place your work can be seen. Think of it as a good beginning. It seems that when any of us who has given Robert or Sara our websites writes a comment, like this one under the posting, our name is in red and clicking on that red name opens our own website. Instantly making your website potentially seen internationally. (that is available to all who click on it). That’s something worth considering.
    I haven’t been taking time to read all the Letters and have read almost none of the comments beneath them in recent years because painting and now writing an autobiography/memoir takes most of my time. Also working on the house and studio and gardening, etc. But I think this is a good forum for discussions of interest to most painters, and perhaps more so for anonymous, or beginning artists.
    So that is a little encouragement to would-be anonymous contributors.

  8. Surely this was mentioned in the contract ? Artist have very strong feelings about their art, so it certainly should have been pointed out. It’s like having someone babysit your children and you find they were put in the closet the whole time. :)

  9. Great discussion.
    The Impressionist hired their own space to show their works. Was this ‘vanity’? (A terrible term.)
    The New York school did similar. And then bought each other’s work to make the show look successful.
    Great marketing.

    • Fewer people visit galleries. The art scene is changing. Some artists who could find gallery representation prefer to sell from their own website. Others see art fairs, though their booths may be so expensive as to be a gamble, as the only sure way of reaching many collectors. How can the untested artist compete successfully against multimillion dollar investment paintings? Let’s encourage exhibition spaces that are not marketplaces! Let’s encourage national agencies to be set up to freely distribute closet paintings.

  10. I’ve rented space. I’ve belonged to a co-op. Very bad for me as I my expectations (of the group) were too high. I’ve entered and been juried into shows at the local- national and international level. I’ve hung in museums. I’ve had work travel the country in a group show for 2- 3- and 5 years. I’ve hung in libraries- coffee shops- and had work on the street in store fronts. I’ve had work travel to France on 2 occasions and eastern Europe just last year. I’ve won awards. I’ve been published in multiple catalogs.

    But I’ve never done an art fair as my larger work does not hang well in a 10 X 10 booth and I have no car and no partner helping. The one other thing I’ve never had is actual gallery representation that’s ever done anything for me. I had one gallery owner sell 1 piece once. I’ve been installing exhibits for myself- and 2 and 3 person shows- and group shows (some with me and some without me) for 30+ years- and that came on the heels of international recognition as a visual merchandiser. And guess what? Only once did I sell 4 pieces out of one show. In most shows I’ve not sold anything. Even national juried shows failed to sell my work. It’s not a painting- it’s fiber.

    And I’ve never been in a closet- and that unwillingness to hide my true self- my whole self- has apparently cost me dearly. I’m the only person who has ever been able to sell my work- to people I’ve gotten to know personally. Don’t ask me why. I don’t know.

    The only advice to give anonymous is to start somewhere- and try everything. BUT! If you’re going to rent that wall- do it smart. Don’t rent it every month. Rent it 4 times a year- and create actual shows that just hang on your wall- and promote them as unique exhibits- but with time in-between- and then work to create a unique visual each time you do it. It will be far more interesting than just paying for it and hoping for the best.

  11. Rental walls: Hang your work very sparingly………..with plenty of space from the neighboring paintings if it is possible.
    The church I attend has a marvelous gallery space….thank goodness…….we can have openings including wine.
    Good luck.

  12. Very good comments everyone. This newsletter opened quite a discussion. My comment – stay away from vanity galleries, cafes and restaurants. The reason is – someone has to be there to actually sell. Vanity gallery is not going to do that, they already got their money and what do they care. Even upscale cafes and restaurants will not be selling and in addition, people that come there, come for a different reason – to eat. Most likely, they don’t even know that the artwork is there for sale. They are not interested to even find out. I do believe that gallery representation is good, when the relationship works on mutual basis. Art in the park and juried shows are also good, because people that come, have an interest in art and that’s why they are there. Salesmanship is so very important! I have not done an extensive online selling but it is something that I will apply myself to do from this point on. Even retail stores prefer if you shop online. I just came back from Art Monaco 2015 as a participant. It is a very reputable art fair. Again, I was there to talk to the potential clients and sell or build relationships, and got 2 leads for representation in NY as well. At the same time there was an opportunity for the artists to share information, an invaluable resource. The bottom line is that in Europe there is a lot more appreciation for art, much larger population per square km and many more galleries. Some very successful artists have few people on their stuff. At least one who assists in the studio, as an apprentice and the other who does only social media the whole day. Times are changing and we have to change with it. It is harder and harder to have unique artwork and that’s important too. I am very excited to put to a good use all the information I collected.
    Best of luck,

  13. Your letters are wonderful Sara and provide food for thought as did your late father’s.

    I have always dreamed of being an artist and being capable of producing what is in my heart and in my mind. I made choices in my life which made it impossible for me to pursue my dream until I retired twenty years ago. I had a good run at achieving this goal but again, life interrupted my journey. I see so many wonderful artworks around me and know that if I were to try to compete with them, I would not achieve my goal, which is to become the best that I can be in the time that I have left. I love to hang my work in public places, which I why I enjoyed years of residency at The Old School House in Qualicum Beach as well as hanging in various FCA shows. The feed back I have received over the years has enouraged me to move further. I have found gallery owners very rude for the most part – they take one look and say “Figurative paintings don’t sell, so I won’t take them in my gallery” or sometimes just their condescending look” makes you want to crawl into the carpet pile. To me being fulfilled is more important and hanging in a gallery today does not sound like the greatest experience as there are some artists who have lost their paintings in the commercial aspects of doing (or not) business with the owners during these difficult financial times. My experience with art has mainly been the involvement with wonderfully creative people who lift me up through their works and who are always willing to share their ideas and values and who bring me closer to fulfilling my lifetime dream. You and your late father are definitely among this group.

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