Rental Galleries: When Is It Worth It?

Screen Shot 2014-04-07 at 8.27.33 PMArtists often ask me whether or not it is worth it to rent a gallery to put up their own work. In general, I discourage the idea, unless artists have looked realistically at their goals and expectations. In many cases, renting a gallery space can be a very effective way to market yourself to other galleries and generate income from your collector base.

Before I begin the discussion about rental galleries, I need to go over the common practices of conventional galleries. Although there will always be exceptions, most galleries that are willing to represent you, assume the responsibility for advertising, exhibition announcements and postage, the installation and opening reception. They do this in exchange for 50% of the sales price of your work…hoping that eventually this investment in you and your work will pay off. The assumption is they are interested in having a long-term (exclusive) relationship with you and willing to wait for a return on their investment. This is one reason why honesty and loyalty in the gallery-artist relationship is so important. As an artist, you need to view this 50% as their fee for services rendered. Assuming you sell $10,000 worth of work, you would have paid your gallery $5000 for your show.

Because of the state of the art market, it is not uncommon for some smaller galleries to ask the artist to assist with some of the expenses. This can range from just paying for the announcements, to paying a rental fee for the exhibition. As a general rule of thumb, the greater the cost to you for the show, the less that gallery is interested in having a long-term exclusive relationship. Similarly, negotiations for gallery rental and exhibition expenses should be deducted from the commission paid on sales. For example, if you are paying all costs associated with the show, the gallery should only take a very small, if any, commission on sales-maybe 10%; if the gallery is just asking for your help in some areas, 20-40% of any sales generated may be appropriate.

Co-ops and artist run galleries are different. They usually charge members a monthly fee for the privilege of having some wall space. Generally, they have a set commission that ranges from 20-40%. They can offer you use of their mailing list, a professional space to show your work and a chance at some public exposure. But, like vanity galleries, the exposure you get from these shows is only as good as you make it. The gallery generally has no vested interest in selling or promoting your work to other galleries, critics or collectors. To pay big bucks for one of these shows, and then just sit back and wait for something to happen is like buying a lottery ticket…. actually, you’d probably have a better chance of winning the lottery, than having something spectacular come from this kind of show. On the other hand, if you are prepared to do the groundwork and the necessary follow up for this kind of exhibition, it can be a very effective part of your marketing strategy. Renting a gallery space can expose your work, in a professional context, to a potential dealer that you have been courting. It may also be a good idea to rent gallery space if you have a large and/or reliable collector base that knows and likes your work. Renting a gallery usually means you do not have to share the commission with anyone!

But, most artists begin with unrealistic expectations when it comes to renting a gallery space. Just because a gallery is in a well-trafficked location, doesn’t mean that someone important will come to see your show, give it a review, or buy your work. Private commercial galleries have to work hard to establish relationships with collectors and critics…that is what you are paying them for. Rental galleries generally have not established these relationships, so it is up to you, the artist, to get people to your show. To effectively utilize the opportunity of a rental gallery you have to be prepared to do the following or hire someone else to do it:

  • Have your own mailing list of interested collectors, critics and target galleries to receive announcements.
  • Pay for advertising in the local gallery guide; include a color image of your work.
  • Have someone available regular gallery hours, at least Wednesday-Saturday, 12-5.
  • Send out a press release at least 3-4 weeks before the opening.
  • Set up appointments for important people on your list to meet you at the gallery to discuss your work.
  • Have promotional materials available for visitors to take, including a website address that they can access later.
  • Leave a guest book, for visitors to sign with name, address and email.
  • After the show comes down, maintain regular contact with interested visitors, add them to your mailing list, and make any follow up phone calls, as necessary.

Remember, renting gallery space is usually an expensive endeavor. Paying a gallery a lot of money to hang your work is a waste unless you have a clear set of goals established…otherwise, the experience becomes just an exercise to massage your ego, or a very expensive way to have a party for your friends. Do not go into it unless you are willing to do the work to make it a successful part of your career development strategy.