Artists, Commercial Galleries & the International Art Market

The contents of this text reflect the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official views or policy of all commercial galleries.

This text seeks to be an introduction to how commercial galleries work, how they differ from museums or other public spaces, how they exist in the wider international art market and their relationships with artists.

Who is Behind Commercial Galleries?
Most commercial galleries are the brainchild of one or two people, and are founded for the most part by people who are interested in contemporary art or have a background in the visual arts from college or university. Most galleries are ‘businesses of passion’ and are run by somebody who is very passionate about the arts and who is often driven by specific personal agendas. Even though dependent on sales to survive, galleries tread a fine line between an existence that is also defined by critical context, based on who they show and why. The reputation of a gallery is based on the success and content of its exhibition programme and gallerists are hugely conscious of the responses to each show, both critically and financially.

Commercial Galleries V’s Public Spaces or Museums
Unlike public spaces or museums, commercial galleries ‘represent artists’ and these relationships form ongoing financial and creative working arrangements. These relationships vary in detail but broadly follow an established pattern with expectations and commitments from both sides that are well defined.

Public spaces and museums might hold solo and group exhibitions like commercial galleries, but generally they do not have ongoing relationships with artists in the same way. They do not (for the most part) sell art, but receive public grants that allow them to hold exhibitions.

Commercial galleries do not receive public money  – they rely on sales to keep trading. Public spaces do not attend art fairs, which form a significant part of how a commercial gallery trades.

Being Represented by a Commercial Gallery
Representation by a commercial gallery is based on the principle that the artist makes the work for exhibition and the gallery sells the work. Commission taken as standard is 50-50% – i.e. 50 per cent of the sale to the artist and 50 per cent to the gallery. However, relationships are by circumstance much more complex.

Using their 50% commission, galleries pay for the gallery space, the gallery staff, the private view, the invitations and the promotion of the exhibition to the press. Artists make and fabricate the work and cover their own studio costs, as well as material costs.

As a rule of thumb, artists should never pay a hire fee to a gallery, and any suggestion that they should is simply wrong.

If an artist wishes to have a serious on-going working relationship with a gallery, then the 50% split of sales rule should always be used. Whatever the circumstances with discounts offered to collectors by the gallery, or any other reason, the artist should never receive less than 50% of the final sale price after tax and VAT has been accounted for. Discounts and tax are usually taken off the top of a sale before the 50/50 percent division is applied.

If the artist is seriously showing with a gallery then ALL sales should be made through the gallery and no sales made where the gallery does not share in its commission. This applies even for sales to friends, sales from the artist studio or to sales to collectors who approach the artist directly. This underlines how closely artist and galleries work together.

If a gallery has contributed any money to making costs and / or framing as is sometimes the case, then the gallery might ask for these costs to be deducted before commissions are calculated.

If the artist has special costs they would like to claim back ‘off the top’ such as printing costs with photography or materials costs, these must be declared before the sales are made so that gallerists have a clear idea of how the commission and costs might work.

Expectations of the Gallery
Galleries will have expectations about what makes up or constitutes a show. They will also have opinions about what they might be able to sell. It is important to remember that gallerists have close relationships with their collectors and walk-in visitors to galleries rarely buy work. Gallerists will know what the overriding theme of a collection might be, and what work might appeal to buyers.

As cynical as it may sound, the market shows us that painting, and by this I mean unique painted works on canvas, tends to be the most widely collected form of art, followed by drawing and works on paper, sculpture, then photography and editioned prints (except in rare cases) and then video and other forms of installation work.

It is worth noting that galleries are businesses and what kind of art you make, might affect your chances of achieving commercial representation. I think its worth looking at as many gallery websites as you can and listing:

How many painters are represented?
How many are women?
How much video / media work in shown?
How old are the gallery artists?

….and so on, so that you can get a real picture of the kind of artists that are usually represented by the majority of commercial galleries.

This exercise might not tell you what you want to know, but it is very important to be realistic and armed with as much information as possible before you approach any potential gallery.

Exhibitions and Art Fairs
The main aim of most good galleries is to hold serious solo (monograph) or group exhibitions (themed or subject-led) between seven and nine times per year. Galleries often have tight turn around periods for installation between shows and the average show lasts from between five to seven weeks.

Exhibitions are usually launched with a private view and oftentimes other events such as late openings or talks are held during the run of the exhibition.

Art fairs operate on a totally different footing. Galleries must apply to take part in art fairs by submitting a proposal. It is stipulated that all applying galleries must have an exhibition programme. Not all galleries get selected for the fairs they would like to attend.

It is generally better for galleries not to show too much work at art fairs and to keep their booth presentations as minimal as possible. This helps fairs appear as close to exhibitions a possible, though in essence they are not.

It is worth remembering that art fairs, especially international ones are very expensive for galleries to attend. Galleries are obliged to pay for their booths at fairs, as well as all shipping costs. If the fair is in a foreign country, then shipping and accommodation can be very expensive indeed.

Galleries will not show each artist that they represent at every fair they attend – they will be selective.

Art fairs also have a hierarchy, the best fairs internationally are considered to be Armory (New York) in March, TEFAF Maastricht (The Netherlands) in March, Basel (Switzerland) in June, Frieze (London) in October and Miami Basle (Miami) in December.

Artists and Art Fairs
In my view, art fairs are unpleasant places for artists as they often function as a great leveller of ideas. As a kind of Zeitgeist, they show internationally what artists are making and all at once. At fairs it is possible to make many more comparisons between international artists’ work than in other circumstances.

Collectors, critics and curators like fairs a great deal as they can see a lot of work in a short period of time. There is also a large social element to fairs where collectors can meet each other as well as meet the gallerists and museums who they support. Because of this fairs have become very important to gallerists and many if not the largest percentage of their sales are made at fairs.

It is worth going to fairs to look and gauge the market if you are an artist, however the worst thing you can do is approach a gallery at a fair. Galleries attend fairs only to see three kinds of people: collectors, critics and curators. They are not there to see artists and will look on approaches from artists in this setting as an intrusion. It is worth remembering that they have spent a large sum of money to be present at the fair and are only there to work on the things they have in their booths.

Galleries and Artists
Galleries tend to represent about 16 – 18 artists at any one time. They do this so that each artist can have a solo show approximately every two to two and a half years

Further to this, good galleries will have international connections and will arrange for artists to have exhibitions with third parties in other towns and countries. In this instance the commission structure can be different.

My gallery FRED operates the following commission structure:

Solo show at FRED
Artist: 50% FRED: 50%
Solo show at other commercial gallery outside London
Artist: 50% FRED: 10% Other: 40%
Group show at other commercial gallery anywhere in the world
Artist: 50% FRED: 20% Other: 30%

As you can see the artists commission does not change from 50%, and the host gallery gets 40% for a solo show as this is a large commitment and 30% for a group show as this is a lesser commission.

It is worth pointing out the artists I represent do not have solo shows with other galleries in London unless they are non-commercial galleries such as museums or public spaces. This is because I operate as first or ‘home’ gallery to many artists and their representation has exclusivity to my gallery in the UK.

If a gallery is the home gallery for an artist they will receive 10% wherever the artist makes sales on commission and they will control all images and archive for the artist as well as consign works to third party galleries anywhere in the world.

How Do Galleries Find Artists?
Galleries find artists through a number of ways, which I will list below:

1. Through other artists. Most galleries listen intently to what their existing artists think as they are building a mutually supportive stable of artists.

2. Degree shows. Many dealers and gallerists will visit annual degree shows and MA shows, with a focus on particular colleges and institutions.

3. Particular selected shows. In the UK the most visited of these exhibitions are in no particular order: The New Contemporaries, EAST, Oriel Mostyn Open, The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and so on.

4. Group exhibitions. Younger galleries often curate group shows by young artists. More established galleries often watch these shows to see who is up and coming. It is easier to become included in a group show rather then getting a solo show.

5. Through the press. Getting reviews or your works mentioned in any kind and every kind of magazine is a huge help as the art world reads copiously.

Approaching Galleries
Understanding the so-called pecking order in the art world is VERY important when considering approaching a gallery.

For example, if you are a recent graduate, who has never had a show, it is very unlikely that a gallery that only represents artists who have shown internationally for over a decade will be interested in your work.

Also, if you only paint kittens, and you find a gallery that already has a kitten painter, you might also find that they feel they have that ground covered.

Galleries have careers too and are all at different stages. Find out where the gallery you like is in the pecking order before you approach them.

The most important point is to find out as much as possible about the gallery and the person you are approaching before you approach them.

In my view sending unsolicited material to commercial galleries does not work. I also feel its VERY unwise to send anything to a gallery that you have not visited on a number of occasions. Gallerists can tell if you are aware of their programme and its good to have a strong working knowledge of what galleries show.

Attending openings is VERY important and cannot be underestimated. The art world is a large and varied place, and showing up and showing your face is important.

However if you are going to attend gallery openings a few words of caution. Do not arrive at some body else opening and talk about your own work. Never ask to show you slides unless you have an appointment and never at a private view. Its better by far to talk about the show you are looking at, and express an opinion about that!

The short answer of how to approach a gallery is to get to know them as best you can, and think very carefully about if your work would fit the gallery you like best. For example, young artists stand better chances at younger galleries, and its better to approach younger curators and writers to look at your work when you have just left college. Attending private views is a must, simply contact galleries by email and ask to be put on their email invitation list.

Applying to open submission exhibitions such as those listed above is also important as gallerists will see these and actually see your work if you are successful in getting in.

By Fred Mann – Since leaving Brighton University where he studied sculpture, Fred Mann has been involved with Milch, the non-profit making London based arts space, 1993 – 2000, run a commercial gallery partnership, Rhodes + Mann from 2002 to 2005 and more recently Fred London Limited, where he represents the careers of 15 artists. He has attended many international and national art fairs, published many monographs and taught and lectured nationally and internationally.

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