December 2, 2022

Big Boost

Expert Arts Technicians

Ask A Gallery Owner | Is a Recovery Possible After Getting Off to a Poor Start with a Gallery Owner?

8 min read

Much of what I write on the blog and in my books is aimed to help artists better work with galleries. There probably could, and should, be as much written to help galleries work with artists. There is a fair amount of mistrust of galleries among artists because some gallery owners and staff are poor at communicating.

I recently received an email from an artist who is struggling with a gallery relationship. Names, locations, and identifying details have been modified to protect the innocent . . .

There are 6 artists involved in [a] show (3 sculptors/3 painters) at a local gallery – which has been open for a year. I was pretty impressed with the gallery owner at first with her ideas going in. I brought in one of the sculptors as she had asked for my help. She told the sculptors to bring 7 pieces for the opening/month and she would set it all up. She did NOT want any of the artists to help, which this is the first thing I found odd. I never witnessed the other sculptors dropping off their work as I was the first to deliver for the show.

I arrive at 5:55 pm for the opening starting at 6. My 4 [sculptures] are on a tall glass shelf with the top one showing over 7 ft. high. and a [sculpture] on the bottom shelf which was on the floor, and the two others in the window. They are small works (8-10″). They specifically created this shelf the previous night (and after seeing the setup) realizing they made it because there was nowhere else to put my work after the amount of work they had from the other sculptors. I asked to remove the window pieces and placed them on the remaining shelves. My large [sculpture] (21″ tall) was in the back in a cubicle on a low table with young children running around it all night. Needless to say I was quite upset. I asked her about it and she said ‘what you want to fight with me now!?” Not the reaction I was hoping for. I sold nothing and the other two artists each sold 4 pieces. The night was lovely except for this as over 25 of my fans showed up and purchased [other artist’s] work, in which one broke due to no bubble wrap.

After writing down my thoughts I went to visit her yesterday. She was very busy with a workshop that was just ending so I asked her if I should come back. “No No, have a glass of warm wine…” I wait about 10 minutes and then follow her to the back. I started off with all positives. I expressed my surprise when walking in to see how much work the other artists had and told her I thought we were all supposed to bring 7 pieces and have equal exposure. She [said] “no, I put out what I want and I don’t work with artists on display”, and [if I wasn’t happy] to go find a gallery that does. I almost walked out, took a deep breath and expressed that I have been in a gallery for 13 years and she always works with me on where my work goes. I also said I’m trying to help her as this is a young gallery and if artists and gallery owners don’t work together or respect each other and their work – then why work together. She was insulted and quite rude to me.

Here are my questions to you:
1) Should Gallery owners work with the artist re: setup (if they are in town or willing to be present)
2) What do most gallery owners do re: setting up the artist’s work and how much communication goes on between artist and gallery owner?
3) What can an artist do to create better relationships with gallery owners?
4) Should an artist continue (one month) with a gallery with this experience?
5) Shouldn’t a Gallery owner train the staff (even if it’s family) on how to wrap up each artist’s work?

This is certainly a challenging, complex, and, I’m sure, frustrating experience. In an ideal world, an opening would be a cause for excitement and celebration and would generate sales for everyone involved.

From my reading of the events, it seems that much of the frustration in this case comes from expectations not being met. I would suggest that both parties have some part in the deterioration of the relationship. The gallery seems to be at fault for making a number of blunders and communicating poorly, and the artist may have set some unrealistic expectations about how the gallery would behave.

So let me begin by saying that if you, as an artist, are looking for a definitive answer on how galleries should behave, or some set of guidelines that they should follow, you are looking for disappointment. The art gallery industry is a disjointed, completely unordered group of privately run businesses. There simply is no “standard operating procedure” to speak of among galleries. There are some norms in the business, such as commission percentages and expectations of exclusivity, but these norms are governed by nothing more than custom.

Every gallery owner is going to have her own idea about how her particular gallery is going to work. Practices evolve over time. It’s important to be flexible, and to try to approach each relationship on its own terms. What one gallery does, or how they act, will having nothing to do with how other galleries might approach the same circumstances.

With that in mind, let me respond to the specific questions the artist raised in the email:

1) Should Gallery owners work with the artist re: setup (if they are in town or willing to be present)?

This is completely up to the gallery and the artist in question. Some galleries will welcome the input, but others have very strong opinions about the display of artwork. These galleries won’t value or appreciate input from the artist. Gallery layout is squarely within the domain of the gallery owner, and only when invited will artists have a chance to give input.

Speaking from personal experience, in most cases it’s not practical for a gallery to take input from their artists as far as the layout of the gallery and the display of the artwork. This is especially true if multiple artists are involved.

One can imagine that, in this particular case, the gallery owner would be dealing with a zero sum game. Each artist would want the gallery owner to give him/her the best space available. For each artist happy with placement, another would have been unhappy.

2) What do most gallery owners do re: setting up the artist’s work and how much communication goes on between artist and gallery owner?

Most well-established galleries that I have experience with expect the artist to either ship the work to the gallery or drop it off and then leave the display setup in the hands of the gallery owner and staff.

If the gallery asks for input it would usually be in the form of wanting to know the artist’s vision in terms of which pieces should be grouped together. It would only rarely be about which artwork belongs on which wall, pedestal, or shelf.

The exception would be in co-op galleries, where the artist is responsible for their own display.

3) What can an artist do to create better relationships with gallery owners?

Communication would be key in this regard. If you have questions about how the gallery is going to be set up, ask. Once you get an answer, I would encourage you to accept the answer at face value and to remain positive. Remember, if you don’t have the best placement this time around, you can hope for better placement next time. And if, ultimately, you don’t feel you’re getting the exhibition your work deserves, you can terminate the relationship with the gallery. (More on that in a moment.)

4) Should an artist continue (one month) with a gallery with this experience?

So far, I seem to be laying a lot of the “blame” on the artist. In this case, however, the gallery owner seems to be doing a poor, undiplomatic job of communicating. I suspect that this might be because the gallery owner is fairly new to the business. She could certainly have been more careful in her responses and could have better explained the reasoning behind her decisions to help the artist understand her thinking.

I would argue that it makes sense to continue displaying the work through the remainder of the exhibit, but it’s hard to imagine a successful way to get back on the same page after so much tension. Take it as a learning experience and move on to the next opportunity – unless the gallery manages to generate a bunch of sales for you during the course of the exhibit. Sales change everything!

5) Shouldn’t a Gallery owner train the staff (even if it’s family) on how to wrap up each artist’s work?

Absolutely. An artist has every right to expect that the artwork will be handled carefully and protected while in the gallery’s possession. In this case, you might tell the gallery that, because of the delicate nature of your artwork, it needs to be handled carefully. You could explain how best to handle and package the artwork.


Some artists will say that it’s challenging situations like the one described above that make them not want to work with galleries. I believe thinking that way is harmful to an artist’s long-term prospects for building a successful art business. Instead, I would encourage an artist to think of every relationship and potential relationship with galleries in terms of cost vs. benefit.

Ultimately, this all comes down to asking yourself if the relationship with any given gallery is worth the cost.

The benefits of working with a gallery could include increased exposure, prestige, and, most importantly, sales.

The costs of working with a gallery come in having your inventory tied up (and therefore unavailable to other galleries or to your direct sales efforts), dealing with the stress and inconvenience of dealing with gallery owners and staff, and the risks of artwork being damaged.

So, in this particular case, to the question of whether it’s worth showing with the gallery, I would do the math. Is showing with the gallery preventing you from making efforts to show your work elsewhere? Is the potential for sales worth the frustration of working with the gallery owner when it’s clear that your outlook and personality isn’t a fit with hers? These kinds of questions can only be answered on a case by case basis.

This business is all about relationships, and if the personal relationship isn’t working (it doesn’t really matter who’s at fault), it’s highly doubtful that the business relationship will work in the long run.

What would you suggest this artist do?

Have you had similar experiences? How did you resolve the issues? What advice would you give to this artist? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

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