How to Approach an Art Gallery with Your Paintings

Before You Ask for Representation, Learn the Ins and Outs of Galleries

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Elvert Barnes/Flickr

You’ve reached the stage in your development as an artist where you have a body of work, are thinking seriously about selling your paintings, and see the next step as showing in an art gallery. Where do you begin if you want to be represented in an art gallery? 

First of all, it's important to know what's involved when working with a gallery and how to approach them with your work. It takes a little encouragement, but once you understand the process and get up the nerve, you'll have no problems.

How Do Galleries Work With Artists?

Before you approach a gallery, it's important to understand how they work. Of course, every art gallery is going to be a little different and many have their own policies in place, but they all work in the same general way.

Commission or Outright Sale? There are two ways that you can sell work through a gallery. The art can either be sold on a commission basis or the gallery can choose to buy the artwork up front. The majority of gallery-artist agreements work on commission.

Commission sales mean that your artwork is displayed in the gallery for a certain period of time. Neither you nor the gallery makes any money until the artwork sells. At this point, the two parties split the sale according to the commission split agreed upon in the gallery contract.

The Average Commission? Typically, art galleries ask for between 30 and 40 percent of a sale. Some may be higher and some lower, it just depends on the individual gallery and the local art market.

Artists can have a hard time grasping the fact that galleries do need to make money as well. It can be painful to see 40 percent of a sale for your work go to someone else, but you have to remember that they have expenses too. Galleries need to pay the utilities, rent, and employee expenses along with taxes and marketing to get your work seen.

They are marketing for you and if they do a good job at it, both of you benefit.

Who Determines the Price? Again, every gallery is different, but in general, gallery owners work with artists to reach a retail price that both of you are comfortable with. You can often tell them what you would like to receive after commission and they will have opinions of what the work is worth on the art market.

This can be one of the most uncomfortable conversations to have. Pricing is rarely an artist's strong suit and it can be a touchy subject. Yet, you also have to realize that most gallery owners know the reality of the local art market thanks to years of experience. 

As an artist, you should remain aware that some people will want to take advantage of you. Remain vigilant, don't agree to anything if you're uncomfortable without seeking outside advice first, and watch out for shifty gallery owners. There are great gallery owners and not-so-great gallery owners. Your job is to weed out the bad ones.

Will My Work Sell? There is never a guarantee that your artwork will sell in a gallery, plain and simple. A lot of it depends on the customers the gallery attracts, the amount of marketing they do, and (it's reality, sorry) how much people like your work and want to take it home.

Some artists sell very well in gallery situations. They have taken the time to choose the best galleries for their particular style of work, priced their work appropriately, and offer a final presentation (e.g. framing) that customers love. Other artists do not do so well in the gallery environment and may find that the personal interaction of art fairs is a better market for their work.

How Much Work? Some galleries have restrictions on artists they contract with and require a certain number of new pieces over a certain period of time. Other galleries are more relaxed and will base the amount of work they want on space available or some other factors.

It is best to have a nice selection of artwork available when you approach a gallery. This allows the owner to choose the best pieces for their customer base and gives you more sales opportunities.

One or two pieces - unless they're significantly sized - is not likely to cut it.

How Do I Approach a Gallery?

When you are ready to approach a gallery, there are a few ways that you can go about it. You may not be comfortable with asking for representation, but don't be shy. Gallery owners are always seeking new artists and work to display. The worse they can say is 'no' and, as the old adage goes, you will not know until you ask.

There are two common ways to approach a gallery: either go in cold and in person, with some photos of your paintings or phone beforehand to set up an appointment.

Another option would be to send an email asking to set up an appointment. Attach a few small photos of your work or include a link to your website (though this relies on your email being enticing enough for the person to click through to your website).

Many artists find that the 'old-fashioned' way of showing up at the gallery is the best method. This allows you to get to know the gallery and its owner or manager and it gives you a chance to charm them with yourself and your work.

If you have original, creative, and well-executed artwork to show them, it's very likely that they will take the time to look.

  • Do not show up on weekends or evenings. Instead, choose a time that is less busy for the business like a weekday afternoon.
  • Do not take original pieces of work. It may be nice to have one or two small pieces in the car, but it looks bad if you walk through the door with a canvas. Instead, bring a printed portfolio or a few copies of your work.
  • Look the 'part' of an artist. Appearances and first impressions make a big difference in the art world and you're actually selling yourself as much as your art. Dress nice but be your wacky artist self at the same time.
  • It may be best to call and ask for an appointment with bigger galleries. The decision maker may not always be around and it's sometimes best to not assume that they have the time to talk to a prospective artist.

It's also not a bad idea to scout the gallery before asking for representation.

This is as simple as walking in and checking out the work on display. Better yet, attend an artist reception and mingle with the crowd and owner. This will give you a good feel for the gallery's clientele and if the work they sell is in line with the work your do. A landscape painting will not work in a gallery that focuses on abstract work.

What You Should Know About Gallery Contracts

Galleries make agreements with artists to protect both parties and to ensure that every knows what's expected of them. Some big galleries have very formal contracts and smaller gift shop-like galleries may be more casual. Either way, it's important that you understand everything in the agreement before signing it.

Here are some of the questions you should have answers to:

  • How long is the work expected to be on display?
  • When do you have to pick up the art?
  • Will your art be displayed 'permanently' or in a temporary exhibit?
  • Who is liable for damages while the artwork is on display?
  • What is the gallery's commission?
  • How long will it take for you to get paid after a sale?
  • What happens to ​any unsold artwork?
  • Will the gallery offer sales? If so, do you split the discount?
  • While showing at the gallery, can you display work for sale at other galleries or is your contract exclusive?
  • What happens if a customer wants to commission an original piece from you?
  • How will the gallery market you?
  • What is expected of you for marketing?
  • Do you receive a regular inventory report? (Never leave the gallery without a list of work you left and the retail/post-commission prices.)

If the contract seems too complicated, have someone you trust or your lawyer look over it before signing. Be sure to read everything carefully as some of the fine print can make a world of difference in your gallery experience.

Keep Track of Your Art

What happens if the gallery goes out of business? How will you know and what will happen to your artwork? The art gallery business is a very fickle thing and even the most established galleries can close up at any time.

Sadly, sometimes they will simply leave your work for someone else to deal with. It's a shady practice but it does happen. It's very important for every artist to know where their artwork is and to keep in contact with the gallery just in case.

What’s a State Seller’s Certificate?

A State Seller’s Certificate or a retail permit may be required in some states in the U.S. and it will vary from state to state.

Depending on the requirements of the state you live in, you may need one if a gallery buys a piece outright from you. The State Seller’s Certificate allows you to sell to the buyer as a buyer for retail use (essentially a wholesaler of original product) and they then don’t have to pay tax. Ask your local Chamber of Commerce for help.