A few emails have arrived lately from artists asking about the sudden appearance of vanity galleries in their areas. Vanity galleries levy a fee to each of their artists or for each piece exhibited. As most of these galleries work on a lower-than-standard commission rate, artists can be in a dilemma as to whether this arrangement might work out better in the long run. While art sales may be slower these days, a regular inflow from artists’ pockets can begin to cover gallery overheads.
The situation is compounded by the current overabundance of eager-to-exhibit artists and, believe it or not, the overabundance of artists with willing cash.
Some of these vanity galleries have a complex list of charges for each service rendered — start-up fees, web presence, catalogues, unit hanging charges, etc. At first look it’s a rip-off; on second look it could be a significant model for the future.
On the positive side, the system puts downward pressure on commissions. Traditionally, it’s been the high commission (generally 50 percent) that puts a strain on art investment values. Comparative investments like real estate come in at 4 to 7 percent, while common stocks can be had for less than 2 percent commissions. The investment-minded collector of living artists has to wait a considerable time for some art to decently appreciate. The art of dead artists is another matter — if you happen to be dead, your work can change hands for as little as 10 percent. Nice thought.
On the negative side, vanity galleries tend to bypass the impecunious up-and-comers who may really have something to offer. Further, the very idea of mining artists rather than buyers is a miserable one, particularly for artists. Most artists of my acquaintance give these guys the brush-off; a few have accepted paying up front as part of the new reality.
Proper commercial galleries represent artists they are keen on, not those who will pay them to hang their stuff. While we all know there is not necessarily a correlation between quality and saleability, the hard cold fact is that artists are always entering the market with substandard art that also just happens to be difficult to sell. Vanity galleries will see these folks as their natural prey.
PS: “There is nothing so agonizing to the fine skin of vanity as the application of a rough truth.” (Edward G. Bulwer-Lytton)
Esoterica: These days, artists are doing all kinds of creative things to thrive. The “home show” is making a comeback. This is where an artist secures a friend’s upscale home and makes it look like an art gallery for a day’s bonanza. A nice touch is when a favorite charity is included in the party. With direct sales, the artist is better able to facilitate future trades and price increases to a growing number of favoured collector friends. This still leaves something on the table for the 10 percent boys who will spring into action after the artist has gone to the big studio in the sky.
Share the Risk
by Paula Christen, Winthrop, WA, USA
As an artist, I want to feel that the gallery that represents me enjoys my work and feels strongly enough about my paintings that it is willing to share in the risk. Having a cushion of cash each month may have the gallery breathing easier, but maybe too easy. Let’s suggest that the galleries pay the artists a monthly fee and adjust their commission. Thanks for your insight!
Profit or Greed
by Tamsin Stead, Phuket, Thailand
And so the negation/dumbing down continues unabated in the name of profit aka greed. Not that there’s anything wrong with profit, but there’s a lot wrong with greed, which is the only motivation for these so-called galleries. Just take a look at some of the ‘guaranteed’ hangings of art paid to be hung and you will see how depressing it all is. At least the images used to have a certain interesting graphic quality. Now it’s mostly awful. Just think if the only art in any medium were that which was paid to be shown or published by the artist! What a horrible vacuum that would have left our aesthetic sensibilities.
Pay to show
by Paul Kane, Bloomington, IN, USA
Increasingly, I like the idea of paying to show. I don’t like relying on someone else’s judgment and motivation, unless I happen to make that special connection. I don’t plan on waiting for that. But if I’m going to pay to play, I want to run my own show, at my own gallery (it can be in a temporary space), and/or participate in a co-op gallery.
(RG note) Thanks, Paul. The rise of vanity galleries is part of a greater phenomenon that is overtaking all media. Creative people are working more independently and doing what is necessary to promote themselves. The music industry, for example, is no longer in the grips of a few big labels that control our listening habits. Indie bands now rule and build their own following independent of the big guys. The best example is the rise of self-publishing — writers and authors now realize that with the Internet they can promote and sell their self-financed books effectively and inexpensively. To say nothing of publishing online, modern printing equipment makes books incredibly inexpensive to produce, thus leaving more margin for the creator and less for the shiny suit boys in the corner offices. In the art business, with the Internet now providing 30 to 40 percent of the sales from many brick-and-mortar galleries, armchair collectors are savvy to images and names they feel they want and actively scan the Internet in search of them. While I don’t work with any galleries that charge me to hang, I’m currently aware of considerable sales to collectors who do not know the dealer (often in another city) nor do they care about the deal the artist and dealer may have cut.
Vanity galleries get lazy
by Elsa Bluethner, Sunshine Hills, BC, Canada
A first time gallery owner decided to charge a monthly fee to participating artists. She promoted an artist every month with a prime location in the gallery and some advertizing. I pulled out soon after she put this program into place. More than half the time I went to the gallery, the doors were closed. There was no note indicating she would be back in 10 minutes and no certainty that the hours posted on the door were ever honoured. She was more motivated and excited to get things sold and moving before she was charging this fee and would go so far as organize exhibition events out of the gallery as well.
Helping artists get a leg up
by Sharon Cory, Winnipeg, MB, Canada
This is definitely a model for the future, much like vanity presses have become commonplace for authors who have difficulties publishing their work through the normal channels, or simply want more control over the final product. Far from the galleries looking for naive prey to feast upon, it’s often the artists who push their way onto the walls in their desperation to have their work displayed. I charge a nominal amount ($25 a month) and take a low commission (10%) at my gallery. I’ve never approached anyone but am inundated with requests from artists to display here. At the beginning I couldn’t say no to anyone but I toughened up as piles of mediocrity began to build up in the corners. I have no qualms about telling someone that they need some instruction, that the price is too high, that the work needs to be framed properly. Some people are grateful for the crit sessions, others less so. I recognize this need for public display as a driving force in some people, as strong as the need for food or sex, and am happy to do my part in helping artists get a leg up.
by Suzanne Northcott, Fort Langley, BC, Canada
Here is another model for showing work independently. Two artists, Betty Spackman and myself, got together four years ago to found an artists’ collective called The Fort Gallery. The mandate of the co-operative venture reads: “The Fort Gallery is a community-based, nonprofit, artist collective that encourages and supports individual development and exploration in contemporary art.” Artists pay a monthly fee which pays the rent and the manager and receive a three week solo space and participation in two or three group shows in the course of the year. Commission on sales is 30% but the emphasis is not on sales but rather on artistic freedom and support. Each artist has an opening and then, at the close of the show, the members gather to hear about the work and offer critique. The quality and the variety of the work, currently ranging from painting to sculpture, photography and installation, is exceptional and there is a very strong sense of community.
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The human dilemma
by Amanda Jackson, Lincoln, UK
At first glance the vanity gallery would seem a no-no, a backwards-facing business model where the imperative to sell is lessened and the long term nature of the artist gallery relationship undermined. Nevertheless I am assured that brand manufacturers now pay for shelf space in UK supermarkets and incorporate this cost into the price per unit and we cannot deny the effective online shop front and market / auction space rental model. Our dilemma is actually a human one. Marketers may tell us in abstract terms about our granular market: hundreds of thousands of artists and individual collectors, all with our own idiosyncrasies and low production/purchase rates — we’re hardly Heinz.
The collector who visits a beautiful gallery with well informed staff who actually love the art on offer is buying this experience along with their “investment” (the painting they are buying because they will love to live with it and receive a greater reward from that than the bank interest they forgo). Personally I feel it is enough to provide a gallery with sale or return stock — I am bearing some of the risk in their business already by doing this. Paying to hang is a crazy gamble, a distant voice reminds me “the house always wins.”
Respect for a job well done
by Jeffrey Hessing, Nice, France
I have always been against vanity galleries for several reasons. First of all, the money is flowing in the wrong direction. The gallery is profiting from the artist rather than making money from collectors to support the artist. The gallery also has less or no motivation to sell, having already made money from the artist or at least having covered their costs. That puts the responsibility on the artist to bring people in and sell, which is the job of the gallery. If you are the one who is bringing in people and doing the selling, why not bring them to your studio? If your work is good, find a gallery that appreciates it. The sincere enthusiasm of a third party is invaluable in selling your work. If you can’t find one, keep working and keep looking. In my experience the more a gallery invests in me through shipping, invitations, publicity, catalogues, champagne, the more will be sold. Also, the more money other people make from my work, the more I make. Finally, in defense of galleries who take 50%, about 20 to 30% of that goes into their overhead, rent, utilities, staff… so their profit margin is often only around 20%. I have tremendous respect for the gallery people who do a good job. Bless them.
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In Praise of Vanity
by Brett Busang, Washington, DC, USA
I would write a sequel and call it “In Praise of Vanity.” While you ably dissected the vanity situation for artists who are not terminally delusional, there is an almost inexhaustible supply of artist wannabes who have to go somewhere because, for them, exhibiting is far more rewarding than noodling around in a studio.
Vanity galleries are the perfect solution for such people — who generally have more available cash than the rest of us. They don’t care for, or conveniently forget, the opprobrium of a paid situation and are able to spin it off to their friends as an invaluable opportunity, or some such thing. In my world, such people would be forced to paint houses or tend bar. But in a less-than-perfect cosmos, vanity galleries serve a socially redeeming purpose because they siphon such people off. I’m certainly not touting “legitimate” galleries as the be-all and end-all of solutions, but they’re presumably around to serve the needs of slightly more serious people. That they generally are not is a topic for another day.
by Anthe Capitan-Valais, Flourtown, PA, USA
I have been recently approached and I am not sure, as some of the fees involved seem to make it along the lines of a vanity gallery. The artist is asked to pay a portion towards the website, quarterly catalogs, marketing, and rents. The website is a one-time-only fee for as long as you are connected with the Gallery of $29 an image post up to 10 images and no fees for changing images. There is a $60 fee for submission of work each month that your work is in the gallery and a catalog fee on a quarterly basis of around $129 for each publishing. There is only a 30% commission charged on sales in gallery and 40% commission on web charges. I asked the gallery director if it was a vanity gallery and he questioned my asking him. He said his understanding was that a vanity gallery didn’t bother to sell the work and that their gallery actively works with corporations and clients to sell the work. They do not insure the work either. I really do not want, nor can I afford to be in a vanity gallery. However I need to sell to keep on painting and I know that several of my local galleries have been closing due to economic times. I thought maybe that is why this gallery is forced to ask the artist to help shoulder the burden. It does have a full time sales gallery director along with interns who help market and push sales.
Artists pay to exhibit
by Sidney Chambers, East Sussex, UK
I took part in a vanity exhibition in Leipzig at the end of last year and it was, on paper, very successful. But it was guaranteed to make a loss for me as I travelled over to Leipzig for four days for the private view and knew I would not recoup this expenditure even if I sold all my three works.
I regarded it as networking on a big scale and an entry into Europe, on this level it was successful. The press was there and a major local art critic came to the show. In Germany these shows occur throughout the year, and they get television coverage.
It is so easy on spend money on promotion and not get much for it, but if one is careful with their choices of what galleries they choose, this can work. It is not so different from the Biennale system which also charges entry fees whether one’s work is accepted or not. The National Portrait Gallery in London had a photography show and charged 10 pounds per entry, maximum ten entries. They had thousands of entries submitted and ultimately exhibited just 64 prints in the exhibition. I entered 10 prints and felt cheated when I failed to get in.
I did win a medal of excellence in Germany which was as a result of votes from the public at the exhibition, for this alone it was worth it.
Artist opens gallery
by Val Romanow, Winnipeg, MB, Canada
I read your recent letter with great interest. I don’t believe that I am a “vanity gallery.” I invested some of my hard-earned savings and opened a small art gallery in September of 2007 with the view to offer art by several established and emerging artists. My commission was 25%. I am an artist and illustrator myself, and realize the blood, sweat and tears that go into producing art and was thrilled to offer a venue to showcase the work of my artists. I spent nearly $50,000 in gallery set-up, advertising through arts magazines, art shows, security, insurance etc. Needless to say, it simply was too expensive to market the art the old-fashioned way and I closed the gallery within a year. I have now opened an online gallery which is located at Ruby Lane, an antique, fine art and collectible online Mall.
What I learned through this process is this:
— Advertising through traditional Art Magazines is very expensive and produced no return and very little recognition for my artists or the gallery.
— I would have had to charge a commission of 70 to 80% to even come close to covering my costs.
— The cost and ease of doing business on the Net far outweighs any advantage to having a storefront unless you are in a high traffic tourist spot.
— I have been shocked at how inexpensive it is to advertise through RubyLane both on the Net and in hardcopy design magazines.
— The exposure for our artists is so much wider and will go a long way in getting them established.
The deal I have with my artists is the same as in a storefront. Everything is sold on consignment with my take at 25%. They are not charged for my overhead because my overhead is manageable. I take great care in presenting their art online as professionally as possible. With the money that I save on overhead, I hope to have several shows locally at nice venues around the city to further showcase their art. I love doing what I am doing and I believe the world needs art and artists. I realize that I won’t become rich, but I am having a great time.
We are in such a profound period of change in communications and it is changing the way we do business and look at the world.
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The drift into mediocrity
by Walt Meldrich, Kirkland, WA, USA
In the vanity galleries some sincere and committed artists are being exploited to support the hobby of a few who can afford to pay to have their work shown and want to belong to a small club. The good ones that make the mistake of joining eventually leave, even if they afford to stay. On the other hand, I know of one co-op gallery that has a reputation for excellence (Carmel, CA), but as much as the idealist in me wants to believe that it can be replicated everywhere, I suspect this is perhaps the rare exception. The drift into mediocrity is a self-selecting process. It turns out that “vanity” galleries are not and won’t ever be the answer because there is no compelling reason (like profitability) to either set very high artistic standards, and/or to learn how to run a gallery as a business as long as there is the “overabundance” of people who are willing to pay to show their art whatever their level of accomplishment. Another part of the problem is that I (along with many others I’m sure) thought that once I achieved a certain level of accomplishment there should be some shortcut to getting my art shown, especially after being rejected by a few conventional galleries and being turned off by the 50% commissions. I really think that 50% commissions is outrageous, but that may be what it actually takes for galleries to stay in business these days.
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Everyone pays a fee
by Joyce Fournier, Toronto, ON, Canada
As an international artist and galley owner in Toronto, I think there is most definitely a place for the Vanity Gallery. Perhaps there should be some better explanation of the term vanity gallery. The term has a negative connotation and is not always a negative way of doing business. While some of these galleries do charge artists exorbitant fees to exhibit work that is of questionable quality, many such galleries would be best referred to as Exhibition Galleries, where artists who have work that is of a high calibre are invited to display their work within a specific theme. The Exhibition Gallery offers a great option to independent artists who are tired of waiting for their submissions to be accepted by traditional commercial galleries and would prefer to spend more time creating. Exhibition galleries also meet the needs of independent artists who may not enjoy doing the ART EXPO’s at convention centres due to limited funds, excessive workload, etc. Suggesting that Vanity Galleries carry work of lesser quality is not necessarily always the case. All art deserves to be seen, and exhibition galleries allow artists, who can go unnoticed indefinitely, an opportunity to thrive and feel good about their abilities, as well as feel part of a group of artists. In fact many such galleries operate in a similar fashion to co-operatives only that the artists do not need to share in any of the work and the work is usually of a much higher quality as there exists a curator or director who has the artistic experience to run the process.
As an Artist and also and individual with a degree in business and 20 years of specialty sales experience, I cannot emphasize enough to my artists the importance of taking control of their art career. Exhibition galleries, those who are run by reputable, talented, and caring staff, can make all the difference in the artistic development of their artists, from offering sound advice on marketing, to website creation and improvement to business planning for the future, to offering the artists a professional location from where they may make sales (a big improvement to their basement). These services are not always offered by traditional galleries who take 40% to 50% commission on art sales. Exhibition Galleries are simply offering a service to their artists. A good Exhibition Gallery can assist artists to move forward in their career as well as offer the opportunity for traditional commercial (retail) galleries to view these artists’ work.
With globalization, many artists are taking their art careers into their own hands and no longer feel the need to get into traditional galleries as the submission process is time-consuming and in many cases quite demoralizing to the artist. Hence, the emergence of the Exhibition Gallery (Vanity Gallery). I strongly disagree that Vanity Galleries prey on willing artists with money. While this may be true of some, most such galleries would go out of business if they did not have appropriate standards with regard to the quality and integrity of the work they show.
I do not agree with your last paragraph suggesting that Proper Galleries represent artists they are keen on. They represent artists who have work they think they can sell. That is basic business sense. There are many wonderfully talented artists who may wait a lifetime for a Proper Gallery to represent them. These artists become bitter, demoralized, and find it difficult to start to exhibit, let alone sell, their work. A Vanity Gallery, or Exhibition Gallery, offers these artists a service and works with them to move forward in their art career — really no different than paying a fee to attend university to obtain a credential for one’s resume and future success.
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acrylic and gouache painting
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 Edwin Pointer who wrote, “As the economy tumbles, so the vanity galleries will tumble. Very few emerging artists will be able to afford a vanity gallery unless there is some guarantee of sales.”
And also Claudio Ghirardo of Mississauga, ON, Canada, who wrote, “Vanity galleries don’t tend to ‘push’ your work as the costs are covered, while ‘regular’ galleries, who focus on commission, will ‘push’ your work as a way to keep the income coming and most of them tend to believe in the artists’ work and will do more to find buyers and sell.”
And also Joy Halsted of Gloucester, MA, USA who wrote, “I entered a juried contest in a gallery in New York. I got in, but when I learned from some older and wiser professional artists that it was the ‘kiss of death’ as it was a ‘vanity gallery,’ I got out. They were angry and rather surprised that I didn’t want the ‘glory’ of having my work shown in New York, no matter what the cost. Plenty! Collectors know the responsible, reputable galleries.”
And also Lynda Pogue of Toronto, ON, Canada, who wrote, “I’ve never had more exposure or better press (and some excellent sales) with any other gallery than one who has the monetary confidence of being able to focus on publicizing the artist rather than focusing on raising funds for the rent, heat, water, payment of salaries.”
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