The post-Agora artist


Dear Artist,

Some time ago, I wrote to you about Canadian artist Claire Sower, who’d recently signed with Agora Gallery in New York. For those unfamiliar, Agora is known for soliciting artists online — if you have a website, you may have received one of their emails. For a substantial fee, artists are given an 18-month contract for representation, a promotion package and, if accepted, the opportunity to exhibit at Agora’s polished, two-level gallery in New York. Though initially wary of a business model that profits from artist registration rather than sales, after some encouragement from a supportive gallerist friend, Claire decided to go for it. You can read my first letter about Claire, Should I or shouldn’t I?, here.


“I could have danced all night”
acrylic painting by Claire Sower

A year and a half on, Claire has an update. It seems our collective, hesitant nose-crinkling may have been a tad premature — perhaps a lingering carry-over from a long-expired pedagogy on curatorship and what it means to show. While most of us still aspire to a system where merit is rewarded with a gallery’s commitment to invest in our work, waiting for this kind of approval can be a long, disempowering grind. Meanwhile, other tools, such as social media, advertising, community work, expos, co-ops and even “paying to show” can help us gain insight, experience, confidence and momentum. Like archers aiming at a target, our quivers can be filled with many approaches.


“A New Romance”
acrylic painting by Claire Sower

Claire says her show in New York has sparked curiosity among prospective galleries and her hustle and commitment have elevated her work in the eyes of collectors.  “I haven’t encountered a single negative response regarding the gallery,” she says. “People congratulate me, ask me how the show went and did I sell — which I did.”

Since then, Claire’s boosted confidence has inspired her to begin teaching. She’s now also a guest artist at a major gallery in her home city and her international experience has helped her seal an American licensing deal. In the past year, Claire has also received commissions from Burt’s Bees and Wiley Press. “It gets people’s attention,” she says. “Now they’re listening and taking me seriously.”


acrylic painting by Claire Sower



PS: “These days I don’t hesitate to submit to shows and galleries abroad, I am comfortable with the process and know what’s involved logistically. And I can say I’ve exhibited outside the city I live in.” (Claire Sower)

“Because of a great love, one is courageous.” (Lao Tzu)

Esoterica: When it came time to renew her contract with Agora, Claire decided not to, instead focusing on finding a gallery closer to home. “I’d done what I set out to do, which was to establish a record of my being there, showing and selling with a reputable gallery, and they are a reputable gallery. Their business model is different from that of the standard gallery, but you are paying to be represented one way or the other — up front with the Agora or by paying a commission on sales with another gallery,” says Claire. “I want to take what I’ve learned and work on applying that to galleries with a view to getting a solo show.”


Download the new audio book, The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“I am not up there by chance. I am there by choice. And I know the wire. And I know my limits. And I am a madman of details.” (Philippe Petit)



  1. I just completed my most recent local installation at Spark Gallery in Denver. While it was a 3-person show in a co-op- each artist had their own space- and my space was/is a rental room. Of course- you have to line up with the 2 member artists to get access to the room- so you can’t just walk in off the street and hang up your art. I got fb and instagram posts on and also a group with 25,000 members worldwide. I got local recognition on plus the gallery email. This- after spending years submitting work to and getting in juried exhibits all over the country- while having work go to Ukraine for Fibremen 4 in 2015. I’ve had work travel to Europe on at least 3 different occasions. And guess what? It was a January/February show- and I have yet to realize a sale from it. Because it’s fiber. Because I’m a male. Because the art market sucks. Because we’re in the most horrific political climate any of us have ever seen. Because- because- because. So don’t ask me why- because I don’t know. But in April my rent jumps more than $200 a month and I can’t afford it now. This is what it looks like when you don’t paint pretty landscapes- still-lifes- portraits- or pictures of your pet. Or you don’t have a privileged lifestyle with an actual patron- or spouse with a day-job. So my next step? Suicide. Nice knowing you all.

    • For J. Bruce Wilcox, Dear Bruce, Do not Despair. We as artists somehow figure out how to create. It is not about showing and selling our art. It is about creating it and the wonderful feeling of creation. The rest is chopping wood and carrying water. Work at creating your beautiful life just the way you want it. All the Best.

    • It’s a tough job, marketing your art! You need to find a niche for what you do. I was contacted by Agora Gallery a couple of years ago and was flattered until I realized Agora’s business plan means the artist pays! I do watercolor landscapes of local California foothills scenes. No one in New York will open their wallet for a lovely painting of a place they have no connection to. I know that. I am manager of a local co-op gallery. I hang my paintings for locals and tourists to see. Sometimes I sell a painting. Sometimes I get a commission to paint someone’s favorite place. I enter some competitions and get regional exposure. If I win a blue ribbon, I get wonderful coverage in the media. I teach what I know to others. It’s a wonderful retirement life! It barely pays the bills, but I never expect to be rich and famous. I leave that to the dreamers. Meanwhile I’m an artist and I love it!

    • I hear your discontent, Bruce. But there are lots of us out here. I love to paint and wish I could do it full time, but I have to support my husband and also pay the rent all by myself. I AM the spouse with the day job! So I have 3 jobs.
      Most of my friends are retired (I’m 69), and it is hard not to feel depressed when they talk about their cruises, travel, homes in Florida, etc, etc. I’m lucky to be healthy and able to work. But I don’t see retirement in my life span. The point here is that I must spend most of my time earning real money and can only fill “time off” with painting. Work, work, work. That’s life.

      • Deborah;
        As one once said: “If you retire, you expire”. And Matisse said, “Work cures everything”. And how many people are out there that would love to work and can’t.
        I think you are an amazing woman, with what you are and have to do. “Kudos” to you.

    • Hey Bruce,
      I can relate. I gave up my day job in 1985 to be a full time artist. it wasn’t long before the bank manager took me aside and explained how a mortgage works. Instead of suicide consider prostitution. No, not that kind. The kind where you paint that cute pet portrait to pay the rent. I have recently been surveying the pet portrait market in the UK and they are booked out until 2018 with a 10×10 is going for £250. One every two months will pay the rental space. I can hear your skin crawling from here even the great artists have done worse. Some of the works we consider the greatest today are portraits. Check out George Stubbs.

    • Please don’t kill yourself! It ruins your karma… try to figure something else out… can you find a part time job? Barter with your landlord? You have options!!!
      Suicide won’t be the answer… please talk with someone!!
      ~A caring fellow artist

    • Bruce,I think tears and depression and thoughts of ending it all are part and parcel of art. What ever you decide to do (see below) deep making the art that is yours. the art you feel in your soul and your whole being . When you do that you may have to work you fingers to extinction to sell it but the possibilities are there. Stay true to yourself, hold you head high keep going.
      i feel your pain daily.

    • J. Bruce- It sounds like you have done what we all want to do and poured 100% of yourself and your effort into your work. It’s risky. You are a bold and courageous artist. I hope you have someone you can give a call to remind you that people want you around. Your art, I’m sure is nice too, but want YOU. If suicide is your next move, please wait to make that choice on another day. you don’t have to decide today. Take a step back. Call someone you know or used to know and say hi. Sending my love- I’d hug you if I was there, bold artist! kathy

    • I am just speculating here but I would guess most of us don’t have a ‘privileged’ lifestyle. Unless you can say privilege means we can somehow keep body and soul together and still manage to paint. Yeah, that is privileged. I had a spouse with the day job – for 15 years I had a day job – but then I got cancer and my spouse provided another privelege: a chance to survive – which I so far I am, for 9 years now. My spouse just passed away from cancer as well. No, I am not a rich widow. I am wracking my brains trying to sort things out. I am not young – and definitely expenses and the crappy economy isnt helpful to any of us. There are probably more artists “out there” than any other time in human history. Most schools dont teach drawing, art appreciation or art history any more, as back in MY day. (Heck – no one teaches civics, either), so the pool of likely ‘investors’ isnt great. It’s another ‘do the math’ conundrum. But that does not stop one from doing art: pets, fleas, cars, trees – whatever someone paints. You don’t have to like OPA (Other People’s Art) – but
      stay true to what YOU do. And if it comes down to it, find a part time job to cope with rent and food in between. You worked all these years and NOW want to give it all up? I don’t know whether I want to hug you or hit you upside the head, Bruce. And I hardly knew ye beyond your frequent commente here. You write too well – you have a good brain. THINK,my friend! (Hope you don’t resent my calling you friend).


    • Bruce, I feel you. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told by dog portrait artists to paint flowers or landscapes. if I want to make a living off my art. I literally tried. No inspiration. I’m stuck being and doing ME. You stay YOU. We are all important in ways we don’t even know. I live in the shadow of Scottsdale, Arizona where you are supposed to understand how expensive it is for those poor gallery owners to stay open as an excuse for charging 60% or more for commissions. I rent a small studio at a non- profit art organization that has a lovely gallery. All I have to do other than pay rent is 40 hours a year donated time at anything they need done. If I didn’t have that I’d be making zero. Post a link to your work. I’d love to see it.

    • Bruce, I hear your pain in your message. It sounds so very tough to succeed in fiber arts as a male artist. And yes, the art market sure seems to suck! My heart goes out to you.

      Blessing by John O’Donahue
      On the day when
      the weight deadens
      on your shoulders
      and you stumble,
      may the clay dance
      to balance you.
      And when your eyes
      freeze behind
      the grey window
      and the ghost of loss
      gets in to you,
      may a flock of colours,
      indigo, red, green,
      and azure blue
      come to awaken in you
      a meadow of delight.

      When the canvas frays
      in the currach of thought
      and a stain of ocean
      blackens beneath you,
      may there come across the waters
      a path of yellow moonlight
      to bring you safely home.

      May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
      may the clarity of light be yours,
      may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
      may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
      And so may a slow
      wind work these words
      of love around you,
      an invisible cloak
      to mind your life.

    • Diane Voyentzie on

      J.Bruce, I don’t know how old you are., and I am so sad for your last line. Please don’t do something that is so drastic., or even write it. I understand your disappointment, believe me, Ive been there also. Keep struggling with what you are working on. Try to make more local connections with designers. They are often able to place your work. Take some art classes that are not fiber related, maybe even ceramic classes, or sewing classes, or painting classes. These ideas could spark an idea that you could use in your fiber pieces. Look at native American blankets, look at African cloth, look at architecture, travel and find enjoyment in making your art, and in looking at others’ art, and in meeting other artists. We all have our angst, about our art, about making a difference, about finding what we are supposed to do. Maybe your fiber art is a stepping stone to another type of art., Money is not the answer. You will find your way, and everything will work out., maybe not how you envisioned it now., but the way it will be it will be. God Bless You. D

    • Bruce, you are reliving my life. All of those whys are possible. No matter, rejection hurts. I work in wood and galleries here will not even look at wood. No suicide, it is uncouth. Keep plugging. My studio is $250 a month and I keep it paid and travel a bit. If you paint, I assume you do, Dark grey is a lovely background.

    • Dear Bruce, Please don’t kill yourself. So hard to keep going some days, but that way out is so hard on everyone around you and can’t be easy on your own soul in the long run. I still wish I had been able to help my friend many years ago….a male fiber artist….but he hung himself after taking a bottle of pills. So much talent and such a dear man. I can still feel the pain. Please don’t.

    • I have for the first time in years picked up a brush and “dared” to start some canvases. I have considered suicide at times, then was reminded that suicide of the soul is worse than just dying physically.
      Which suicide are you thinking of, even metaphorically?
      Amazing how stepping out of our comfort zones to see where we would like to really be, can be insightful.
      Go sit on a street corner and paint, do what you do, and all of a sudden its either a horrid idea, place to be or it is an amazing chance to review what you do have and re-become inspired.
      Many people have a real job so they can paint, where is your heart.
      I wish you joy and love, because I cannot change your perspectives, no matter my belief systems, but you can.
      You sound pretty wiley, so go and have fun at it.
      Show us all, most of all yourself, your truths.
      Let us know if you choose, sending a hug if you want one.

    • My Dear Bruce,
      Those of us artist that are “died in the wool artist”, MUST DO OUR ART. We have no choice. This has been our story since the beginning of time. Yes, depression is sometimes part of our growth. I would encourage you to talk with a counselor BUT DON’T quit. You create because you were born to it. If it is in your blood the first reason we create is for ourselves. Finally I have found painting a truthful self-portrait helps get me back on track. Believe me, there have been many. I can see it now, a human form in textile. What fun.

  2. The fact is, the old rules just don’t apply anymore. Artists are now entrepreneurs and can use inexpensive and free social media marketing techniques to get their work out in front of the right people. It all depends on your goal. If you want to make a living from your art sales, then you need to sell what there is a market for it. You have to find your niche. Waiting for “permission” from “the establishment” to say you are worthy is a waste of time and throwing money out the window. We as artists need to represent our work, stand up for it, and be it’s biggest champion before anyone else will take it seriously. The retail world is a numbers game. Get your art where lots of people are going to see it, are interested in it, and will buy it. There are so many ways to do that now. No matter how you slice it, you are going to spend money getting it in front of people…a gallery takes 50%, a retail environment will likely want wholesale (50%), you can pay for exhibition space yourself, or sell online (many online marketplaces take 30%)…I personally sell from my own website and drive my marketing there. I’m also expanding into the retail marketplace because I think it’s less intimidating for the average consumer than a gallery. (more foot traffic in a retail store/online shop) I don’t think there is any one way to sell your work, and while people frown on galleries like Agora, I say you are spending money on advertising anyway. Consider showing at Agora as a marketing expense AND a chance to make sales. The art market has been disrupted and we need to think outside the box. All my own views, of course!!!!

    • I forgot to mention that there are art fair booth fees, space rental fees, membership fees to different things….etc. One ad in a magazine can be over a thousand bucks or more! You have to take the money you do have and put it where it will get your work seen by the most people in your target audience. Paying to show your art at a place like Agora, again, can be considered more of a marketing/advertising expense or “rental” fee.

    • If you can sell art you can sell anything. Selling art is difficult, believe me I know. I have sold art of semi-famous artists for tens of thousands of dollars to speculators who have then stored it away in closets. Art that I would not have paid 2 cents for.

      If you need money to survive, find a sales job. Sell something that interests you enough that you can become as passionate about it as you do about your art. Pick something to sell that people want. Soon, The money will come. Lots of money, if you put your heart in soul into it, the same way you did your art. There is a demand in sales for people who are creative. The creative challenges of selling can be very absorbing and intriguing. Corporations will pay whatever it takes to keep you producing sales for them.

      Invest your surplus money carefully with the objective of achieving financial independence as quickly as possible. This is easier than you might think.

      With independence, go back to your art and create what ever you want to create. If people want your art, fine. If they don’t that is fine too because you will always get pleasure out of the pure joy of creating it. You will cease to really care what others think about your art.

      There is a whole intriguing world out there to explore. There are all kinds of mountains to climb. You will become a far better artist by trying and doing things you never dreamed you would ever do,

  3. Sherry Pollack walker on

    I have been approached and accepted by Agora Gallery. They complimented my work, it was great for my ego. I have also seen the gallery in NY when I’ve gone to other galleries. I would not do this. It might have boosted Claire’s confidence which is unfortunate she had to pay $$$$$ so much to do so. The gallery is a business model to profit themselves, they have an enormous fee! Their artists are people around the world who think, “wow, I’m in a NY gallery”, not really.

    • I found this interesting. I’ve thought about trying it with them but haven’t. It is pricy for what you get. I lot of the artists they show seem to be from across the pond. Frankly a lot of the work doesn’t appeal to me. Nice way to say it. I don’t think I’d like to hang with some of it. I think most people know it’s a pay to play gallery.

      • Wow, this conversation convinces me to start rippling my own pond here in the Southwest. I am actually getting noticed and selling art by focusing on exposure, helping other artists, and renting in an upscale community. Tried a co-op. It’s not for me. Tried a pricey downtown rental until the building went into foreclosure. Felt so depressed at the end of last year, I was ready to stop making art. The weather is terrible, yet optimism is blooming like spring flowers. I am painting again, and not waiting for the art fairy. Work is its own reward.

  4. Wow – this is like a followup for me! Thank you!

    Ten years ago , or so…..Agora offered the opportunity to me, but
    1. I was in traction from the accident and feared I might not be able to follow through with my part of things, and declined sticking to local sales and shows.
    2. One of my things was en route to the White House and I stayed on my “sky hook” looking , watching, speaking, singing and listening acutely to every molecule involved in that one, and could not take additional new projects that year.

    But now…… I may find Agora, and see if they still want me. I am fine and getting fat – need new work.
    Thank you very much, as always SaraGenn!


  5. For what it’s worth, I really like your work, very creative. All the other things I might say have been said by the previous “repliers”, please take their good advice to heart.

  6. I’ve been offered this from Agora probably every other year. I’m sure you are right, anyone with a website gets contacted. I’m really happy to hear this platform worked for some. I’ve never had the money to do it but would never have done it if I had the money. Extremely pricey for anyone’s budget.

    The first request years ago sent me investigating it and I received all negative responses so perhaps they are doing better at what they do.

  7. A ridiculous amount of money to pay out to be represented… And they still take commission like any other gallery. You get bitten at both ends. I think they’re taking the P*** out of people desperate to leap up the ladder. Long term it will undermine the status of “having shown”.

  8. I love hearing stories of artists finding their wings. It always looks easy from the outside, but we forget the epic climbing (and sacrifices) required that often goes unseen by the rest of us. Speaking for myself, I haven’t yet made any epic effort to sale my work. At the end of the day I remind myself that I create because I must….whether anyone will like what I create or not. Sales often seem more of a miracle than an obvious progression, but that’s often because Art is so personal. I often remind myself of the story of Van Gogh (supposedly – not sure if it’s true) that he only sold one painting in his life. Even if he sold five it’s still mind blowing that he received so little positive feed back in his life…and yet he kept painting beautiful paintings no one would appreciate until many years after his death. I think as artists the best we can do is aspire to find joy in creating and if we manage to find a few people who share our joy even better.

    To Bruce, or people in the same boat, I would say if your sex is a problem use your initials (men who write romances do this – if your name stops people then don’t give people a reason to discount you)…if you work in textiles maybe think about creating some wearable art and selling it on Etsy (where you could also share your other textile works). In this day and age if we don’t have any close friends who are rich or owners of famous galleries (I sadly don’t) and we want to sell we need to think outside the box. We also need to remember Van Gough. Not selling doesn’t mean you’re not creating beautiful work worth millions. Keep making your art!

  9. I’ve always known I’ve had a good deal being represented by Studios on the Park in Paso Robles, CA but after reading these comments I realize what a great deal it is. I pay a flat rent and keep 100% of what I sell. And for the rent Studios takes care of the advertising, upkeep, and utilities. I’m not getting rich making wood block prints but I am making enough to buy new toys and old books.

  10. Ridiculous indeed. This sparked my curiosity so i checked the gallery’s web site.
    Putting aside the caliber of art and the obvious flauntingof “prestigious ” location and lack of detailed information about pricing and length of term you are buying, I quickly did the rough math.
    You pay them $50 to look at 5 to 10 digital images. If they don’t want them they keep your $50. If they do like them then presumably they give you the specific information about cost and term of representation. If you don’t like it they keep your $50. (if they contacted you because of your web site then why do they need $50 to look at it again?)

    Then you pay to frame your paintings (they advise you on this) say $100each , crate, insure and ship your work to them. I took a guess on weight on the Fed Ex site for 30 small paintings totalling 60 lbs. add another $1000 Then you pay the gallery fee starting at about $7000 Canadian.. So far your marketing bill is up to roughly $11,000. but that’s not all. The gallery also takes 30% of each sale. so add 30% and divide by the 30 paintings. Every single painting must sell for just under $500 before you get all the way up to $0… almost…. (not included are taxes, terrifs, material cost of production, any unsold paintings and your time, as well as angst and preparation of artist’s statment, resume and letter of introduction).
    Oh yah, and if you sell for $1500 but only sell 10 of them you have to pay to ship the rest home again.
    This all assumes a perfect world where everything goes according to plan. and schedule, and everyone is transparently honest and nothing goes missing.
    I could find no statistics on the ratio of sales to shows.
    What I don’t understand is why. If you are good enough to be able to afford this then you are good enough to afford not to do this. But if you are unsure of your talent why would you gamble so much on it
    … but maybe I’m looking at it all wrong. After all, I don’t understand shoe fetishes either.

  11. Dear Bruce.

    Don’t DO that! I take people seriously when they say that. I am concerned for you. My mother actually did it.

    You paint because you love it, right? If you love it someone will eventually love it too. If you need money get a job that does not take away your creative time and space. I worked and also was a mother to two girls. Now people are loving my work. I hope you do not have to wait so long, however. I worked at painting portraits for a long time. I do not know what you paint but just do your best and keep on trusting yourself to do what you love. It is not the end of the world if people do not love you work as long as you do. Ans also, love yourself. DCVeeder

  12. Ok then. After reading this last posting I will post mine.

    Read chose yourself by James Altucher because he has failed and succeeded many times. Google him and read the things he writes. Sometimes he comes across a bit flaky but he is not. Read Books by Texas artist Jack White, read his articles. He is the real deal on how to sell your art. I don’t do social media but will offer my help in the form of discussion on marketing and such. The economy is floundering and I sold nothing last year and only 2 the year before. Before the market collapsed my sales were very good. What is happening in the art market is caused by things outside our sphere of influence. We just have no say in the matter. The things we need to remember is that the poor people have no money. Stupid? Yeah I know but it is true. Market to the people who DO have money. Also look up Brainard Cary on the net and subscribe to his emails. Good stuff. He also is the real deal. He is a good thinker and has answers to a lot of our questions. Sometimes he offers a free 30 minute, I think, phone conference. He is As I said the real deal. Please post here and let us know how you are doing and
    As to suicide, please don’t. My second wife had some serious issues and five years ago she stuck a gun in her mouth and ended it. I buried her the day before her fifty-first birthday. You can not imagine the issues, the pain, the self assumed guilt that arose with her family and with me. It has been five years now and I still have one last issue to deal with. I rarely painted during those years and am just now really coming back to life. A friend ask me to teach classes in her studio and that simple act has really restored me. I am going to end by saying if I can help please let me know. I do not know if this message will post here, is private or whatever. If you need to talk ask in this forum and I will get in touch.

  13. Hi Bruce and everyone, I, too, have felt so dejected and frustrated with not selling my art. (I do watercolors, textile & bead art.). It feels like a continuous rejection and I have considered suicide at times. I have realized when I get this way that I have to change my view of things. And since it is sometimes so hard to change my inner view, I find a forest or a sea shore or a garden where I can sit in the sunshine and let it melt the icicles that have frozen around my low self esteem. I let myself feel the wideness of the world around me and remember that who I really am is so much more than my small self. Then I do some more art. Keep going, Bruce. You can do this.

  14. Joanne;
    Thank you for taking the time to tell us about Agora. This is one of the biggest “Art Scams” of the century in my humble opinion. Yeah, an honest world, my foot, as Brahms in the 18hundreds once said:
    ” In this world, full of deceit and falsehood, may God help you, and protect the flowering of your soul.”

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