Exhibiting with Galleries
It is little wonder that visual artists are unsure of what the relationship between themselves and a gallery should be, when there seems to be a concerted effort in the art world to create a hierarchy of galleries, of both private and public spaces, for the promotion of a small number of artists. In this system artists sometimes find themselves not only trying to navigate their way through a complex network of galleries, but also having to second guess the motivation of the individuals running them. With curators of public spaces programming as if they are running private foundations and directors of commercial galleries taking a perverse pleasure in their aloofness, approaching galleries can be an intimidating prospect.
This may seem a cynical introduction and whilst I accept that not all curators are self serving egotists and not all commercial spaces are unapproachable, unfortunately this is sometimes the reality. So, my problem, and yours, if you are a struggling artist trying to get your work noticed, is the seeming lack of opportunities and spaces which exist to meet your expectations as your practice develops.
This reality does make it more difficult to get your work noticed, but it does not make it impossible, and whist the trappings of success may often seem to come more easily to those artists who display more ambition than talent, I am convinced that in the end good work wins out, it just takes longer!
However, deciding to become an artist means accepting you are part of the art world and accepting that no artist operates outside it. Whether claiming to be mainstream, alternative, accepted or marginalised; artists, galleries, curators and critics are dependent on each other.
Approaching a Gallery
If you are to become a successful, or fulfilled, artist you must take control of your own career. It is not enough to hope that curators will discover your work and seek you out. To a large extent you will have to create your own opportunities, but you can only achieve this by truly understanding what your own ambitions for your practice are. Therefore, I suggest before you go any further it is important that you ask yourself the following questions. An honest appraisal of your aspirations will inform the path you take.
- What kind of work do you do?
- In what art context do you see your work operating? Can you identify a historical and contemporary context for your work?
- Why do you want to exhibit?
-To get feedback
-To communicate with an audience
-To make sales
-To develop new ideas
-To develop work which needs a particular kind of space
-To further your career
- What are your long-term aims and ambitions?-To gain national or international recognition
-To develop a fulfilling and enjoyable career
- Are you ready to exhibit?-do you have a coherent body of work?
-do you feel confident about your work and your ideas and are you able to articulate them clearly?
It is important that you understand that your working relationship with galleries evolves along with the development of your work itself, it is a lifelong activity and your exhibiting profile will mature as your work does. It is important therefore to have a clear strategy for the promotion of your work and to identify galleries which are compatible with the development of your practice.
The transition from art college to exhibiting or returning to one’s practice after a break can be daunting, and should be done in an environment which is supportive. This is why many artists’ first experience of exhibiting is often as part of a studio group or through an artist-run space.
Increasingly artists wishing to have more control over exhibiting opportunities are setting up and running galleries themselves. It goes without saying that artist-run spaces are generally more supportive of artists and their work. These spaces are often better able to accommodate a diverse range of artist’s practices, particularly those which do not sit easily within a conventional gallery setting, such as time-based or performance art.
Having an active involvement with an artist-run space means you can benefit from the opportunity to exhibit in annual members shows as well as artists exchange exhibitions with similar venues internationally. Some of the disadvantages of artist-run spaces can arise when the intense workload of trying to simultaneously fulfil the role of artist and administrator, often without financial remuneration, can take its toll on the organisation. Whilst these galleries and studios are subsidised, they are often managed on a voluntary basis with very limited resources. As a result, it can be difficult for them to develop a consistent programme which meets the expectations of the exhibiting artist. This environment has however provided artists with valuable exhibition, as well as curatorial experience, which have informed their working relationships with other galleries and fostered significant artist networks internationally.
Examples of studios & artist-run spaces:
Pallas Studios, Dublin
Fire Station Studios, Dublin
Flaxart Studios, Belfast
Catalyst Arts, Belfast
Cork Artists Collective, Cork
Backwater Artists Group, Cork
Transmission Gallery, Glasgow
Collective Gallery, Edinburgh
The Embassy, Edinburgh
Cubitt Gallery & Studios London
Studio Voltaire, London
Castlefield Gallery Manchester
Subsidised / Public Galleries
As you gain more experience of exhibiting you should begin to direct proposals to more established galleries within the public sector. Subsidised or publicly funded galleries are those which draw financial support from central or local government, arts councils, and regional arts boards for example.
All galleries operating at this level will require artists to have a very clear idea about the context in which their work is made and to demonstrate a long-term commitment to their practice.
It is at this point in your career that you should expect a more meaningful and supportive relationship with the gallery and curator. An opportunity to exhibit with a prominent public space should involve their personal and financial investment in the development of your work. The relationship with the curator may evolve over a period of time and should result in a genuine discourse about the work, building a relationship of mutual trust and make the daunting process of presenting your work in a public space easier.
Whilst their personal commitment to the successful exhibition of your work is paramount, there is also a financial obligation, which one should expect from a publicly funded gallery. Depending on the organisation’s available funding, you should receive an artist fee, financial support towards the production and transport of your work and importantly, the production of a catalogue. However, you should not assume that every publicly funded gallery can offer you all of the above. In the early stages of your career the opportunity to work with an established curator and to have your work seen in a high profile space, may be of more benefit to your profile long-term than financial benefits at that time.
Irrespective of what you can expect a gallery to deliver, it is possible to safeguard a positive exhibiting experience and offset a negative one by clarifying all aspects of the arrangement up front. Insist on a contract or written agreement on what is the responsibility of the gallery and what your responsibilities are. For example, will the work be insured in transit? If you are asked to give a gallery talk, will you be paid a fee? If your work sells during the show what is the galleries’ commission?
The selection of artists to exhibit in this type of gallery generally comes through the direct invitation of the curator. However, most subsidised galleries will also receive proposals from artists either on an ongoing basis or at specified times during the year.
It is important that you make your work known to curators, as early in your career as possible. A good curator will have knowledge of you as an artist, and the development of your work long before they may be in the position to offer you a show. It is vital to keep them updated about the progress of your work. Add them to your mailing list to let them know when you have shows coming up and don’t be afraid to make appointments to show curators recent work. However, be sensible about how often you make contact before it can be misinterpreted as stalking! Be aware that these galleries are inundated with applications on a daily basis so it should go without saying that if there is a delay in them replying to your application, responding with frustration will not serve you well.
Examples of Subsidised /Public Galleries:
The Golden Thread Gallery, Belfast
Ormeau Baths Gallery, Belfast
Project Arts Centre, Dublin
Temple Bar Gallery, Dublin
Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin
Crawford Gallery, Cork
Triskel Arts Centre, Cork
Limerick City Art Gallery, Limerick
Sligo Art Gallery, Sligo
Model Art and Niland Gallery, Sligo
While a good public gallery or individual curator can create a close working relationship with an artist during the course of their exhibition, subsidised galleries by the very nature of their public function cannot develop ongoing relationships with particular artists, unlike those which exist with a commercial gallery.
As your career develops, and you gain critical acclaim for your work, you can or should expect interest from commercial galleries. There is no doubt that representation by a creditable commercial gallery marks an important point in any artist’s career, but it may not suit all artists. It is important that you do not become seduced by the interest of a commercial gallery, and that before you enter into any arrangement you are sure that it is best for you at that point in your practice. There are obvious benefits to commercial representation, but there are also disadvantages, which should be carefully considered.
As the primary aim of a commercial gallery is to sell art, these principles affect not only what they show and how they select artists but also what commission they charge. Most commercial galleries are now taking percentages of 50% or more on the sale of artwork. What you get in exchange for this percentage will vary depending on the gallery.
When a gallery decides to represent you on an exclusive basis, you should expect at least one solo exhibition every two to three years, depending on your productivity. In addition, the gallery should place your work in gallery group shows in the alternate years, as well as taking your work to important international art fairs. Whilst having your work shown at international fairs is extremely important in terms of your marketability you should not confuse this with international profile rising. Art fairs are essentially about selling not about presenting coherent bodies of work.
Your career development depends, in part, on being included in important collections, including museums. Cultivating relationships with other dealers, museum curators and critics is just as important as selling the art to collectors. It is the ultimate sign of support if your gallery is willing to embrace the responsibility of stimulating interest in your work outside of their area of exclusivity.
If picked up by an important commercial gallery the advantages are clear; sales of work, prestige and a regular showcase for your work, ads in international art publications and reviews as well as the opportunity to show in major international art fairs. The disadvantages can include problems when changes occur in your work – If your early work sold well but your latest work is not as commercially successful; the gallery may only be interested in keeping you on if the work continues to be profitable for them.
Most commercial galleries will not accept unsolicited applications. Thus, relationships between artists and commercial spaces evolve slowly, as commercial galleries will often take time to weigh up your commercial viability. This should not prevent you from making yourself known to gallery owners. Go to their openings and be seen but remember what I said about stalking – this applies to all galleries, not just public spaces!
Some commercial galleries initiate ‘Summer Shows’ in order to introduce clients to new artists. This can often lead to being represented by the gallery.
Examples of Commercial Galleries:
The exhibiting opportunities offered by the types of galleries outlined above will depend on where you are in relation to the development of your work and your ability to bring your work to the attention of influential curators, gallery owners and directors. If you are a recent graduate, it is most likely that your first exhibiting experience will come as a result of relationships developed with your contemporaries at college. These collaborations are very important in gaining experience and confidence. Showing with a group of your contemporaries takes a lot of the stress out of making your work public for the first time. In addition to creating these opportunities for yourself, it is advisable to make connections with artist-run spaces in your area.
Many artist run spaces will also have a membership programme, which is a good way of keeping in touch with exhibition opportunities at home and abroad, such as open submission exhibitions, which provide an important platform for emerging artists. Examples of Irish and UK based open exhibitions, which offer emerging artists profile raising opportunities include, ev+a, Limerick, East International, Futures, RHA, Dublin, and the Crawford Open, Crawford Art Gallery, Cork. These shows often have selection panels made up of international artists, curators and critics, who you need to make aware of your work at an early stage.
This type of exposure will inevitably lead to invitations from curators to exhibit in spaces that are more prominent either in a group or solo capacity. It is important to remember that while all artists would ideally like the glory of a solo show, it is often more beneficial in the early stages of your career to be included in a coherent and pertinent group exhibition selected by a respected/trendy curator.
It should go without saying that before approaching any gallery you should be confident that your documentation and supporting material is going to represent your practice in a clear and easily accessible way. Do not assume that the gallerist is going to take the time to wade through hours of video footage or even go to the trouble of popping slides into a carousel. Your documentation should provide enough information to excite the interest of the curator, which if you are successful will result in a meeting or studio visit providing you with the opportunity to expand on your practice and ultimately lead to your work being exhibited.
By Hugh Mulholland
Hugh Mulholland is Director of The Third Space in Belfast. Before this, he was Director of the Ormeau Baths Gallery from 1997-2006. Mulholland also works as a freelance curator, and was curator of Northern Ireland’s presentation at the Venice Biennale in 2005, a position he will hold again in 2007. He is also visual arts curator for the Kilkenny Arts Festival 2007.