Of all the ways to sell art one of the most desirable and prestigious is of course through reputable art gallery representation.

Today we are going to throw away the ‘how to get in an art gallery’ text book. That tired old send-your-portfolio-in-a-stamped-self-addressed-envelope-never-to-be-opened approach is for sissies and kinda-wanna-gonna-be types of artists. You are a mover and a shaker, an art star in the making. You are not going to stand for that. You are going to take some direct action, today, right now, if not sooner!

Okay, we’ll get to the good bit soon, but first a little reflection on the state of play….

The Artist Gallery Relationship

Ah, artists and galleries… The never ending symbiotic relationship of the Art world. It reminds me a little of those little fish that hang around the mouths of sharks, hoping for a few morsels. Sometimes the Gallery is the shark, swimming along snapping up all the prime meat, or occasionally the Artist, who rises to become the top predator, with Galleries hanging around in the corners of their jaws, picking off the prime morsels. As an Artist of course that’s what you want to be, a big fish being chased by lots of little fish who are just willing to clean your teeth to get a bit of what you are having. Okay, we’re probably taking the analogy too far, but you get my drift. Galleries and Artists need each other, and the power dynamic shifts according to how successful the artist or gallery is.

Okay, lets get the bad news out of the way first…

and then we can concentrate on the good stuff.

The trouble is, before you can become top predator in a sea of little artist fish, you have to get a Gallery to ‘need’ you. Mostly they don’t need you. In fact as an Artist trying to hawk your wares to Galleries (or ‘emerging artist’ as they like to label you) you are potentially a distraction, an annoyance, someone to be shoo-ed away. Yes, I know your art is brilliant, and if only they look and see and talk to you the Gallery Directors will suddenly realise the megastar they have before them, but until that time you have to figure out how you are even going to get a ‘foot in the door’.

“Oh no! Not another @#$%# artist!”

Do you know that most good Art Galleries are approached on a daily basis by Artists wanting to be represented? It must be quite tiresome for them, with all that time spent on the phone talking to eager artists, avoiding the phone so they don’t have to talk to eager artists, opening packages from artists, sending packages back to artists with little notes that say ‘thanks but no thanks’. Worse still are those artists who walk in the door, portfolio in hand and expect to have their work looked at, and advice given. As a Gallery Director it must be enough to make you want to run off and hide the store room. “Oh no, not again!”, they must wail internally, “not another bl**dy portfolio to look at…I have to do the accounts today!”

So how do you even stand a chance of getting a Gallery Director to look at your work, given that he or she has probably had it up to the proverbials with emerging artists who should really go back to the cocoons where they came from.

Here’s the good news…

It is perfectly possible to walk through the doors of a Gallery, without an appointment and walk out of the Gallery as a ‘represented artist’.

“Huh?” I hear you say. “Buuut you just said….”. Yes, I know what I just said, but, notwithstanding it is perfectly possible to do, and I know because my wife and I have done it. Twice. So it can’t have been a fluke ;)

In order for this to happen there’s a few things that you need to have, and a few things you have to do…

(oh and before we do dive into this I would like to heartily apologise for the title of this post. The actual trying bit happens before you walk in the door of the gallery. If you came to this approach actually expecting ‘the slackers approach to selling your art in a gallery for a truckload of cash without trying’ then I have mislead you.)

1. Make Good saleable art

Galleries like to sell easily saleable things, just like any shop. Most commercial Galleries aren’t really interested in your ground breaking leaf sculpture made out of real leaves, or the conceptual cereal packet art you made this morning in a moment of creative epiphany. No, they want mostly good saleable, well made paintings and drawings on canvases and in frames. Saleable means different things in different Galleries, and varies according to the needs, tastes and whims of the gallery customer who frequent that particular establishment.

2. Be well presented

Many artists (myself included) like to look like artists. We want our dress and demeanor to scream to the world ‘Look at me, I am creative,different, and therefore interesting, deep, with something to say about the world through art’. Of course, to a Gallery Director that sets off the ‘wannabe-represented’ alarm. At best, if you approach a gallery wearing those ‘oh-so-colourful-and-practical-inflatable-artists-pantaloons’ you will receive a courteous smile, feigned interest and a cheery ‘have a nice day’ as you exit the gallery, without the representation you desire, pantaloons deflated.

Gallery Directors really only like to talk to collectors, because they have the money, or to already successful artists because they help them make money. If your sense of style falls into either of those department, you might be able to slip under the radar temporarily. In short, your confident and monied swagger as you sashay into through the Gallery Door will be like a cloaking device for a your true representation seeking intentions.

3. Let the Gallery Director come to you

This is how the cunning trap is laid. By way of an illustration, here is how my wife and I snagged representation at a lovely little art gallery that we’d had our eye on for a while. Actually up till now I’ve been billing this whole thing as some kind of grand jedi-mind trick scheme for bending a Gallery Director to our will, but really, at the time it was just plain old business, and maybe this common sense approach can work for you.

We were returning from a business meeting with a corporate client who wanted to commission us for a series of prints and an original painting for head office. Anyway, we were naturally well dressed for that meeting, well prepared with all our promo materials (still in the car at this stage), and because the meeting was successful we had the requisite swagger as we walked through the gallery doors.

With a fleeting and polite ‘hello’ to the Gallery Director, we walked into the exhibition space itself, and commenced our admiration of the art hanging on the gallery walls. After a little while of course the Gallery Director came to us, to engage us in conversation, and possibly sell us some art. At no time did we give any impression that we would dearly love to be represented by this gallery, however, we did at that point reveal that we were artists, and dropped a keyword or two like ‘business meeting’, ‘commission’ and ‘insert-name-of-mega-corporation-here’, but continued walking round the Gallery space in a nonchalant, totally-not-seeking-representation manner.

This combo of casual-name-dropping and air-of-non-representation was obviously irresistable. Interest had definately been piqued and the Gallery Director asked “What kind of art work do you do?”. This is the where our mini art folios came into play.

Mini art folios are great. You see, because a filofax type personal organiser is a pretty non-threatening and professionial looking thing. These days of course Ipads and smartphones are all the rage, and you could have all your artworks on there, but there’s nothing quite like feeling of flipping through real pages (though I must admit, the Ipad on which I am typing this has a retina display which is a joy to behold and I may be swayed to using that in the future. A smartphone would be a no no though as they feel a bit impersonal and is hard to see the art wen squinting at a tiny screen).

Anyway, back to the story…

The Gallery Director was interested and asked if he could see some of our actual real art, and of course we were happy to oblige as we already had some spectacular examples sitting in the back of our car. Still we gave no impression that we were quite keen to have our art in his gallery.

We paraded the artworks in, then he made some grunts of approval and said ‘I think I could sell this, have you got any more?’. ‘of course’ we said, ‘how many do you need?’.

Still we kept our cool, even though our hearts were full to overflowing at the thought of being represented by a gallery which we thought of at the time as being one of the best on the coast. That day we agreed to supply 6 artworks, and after some of them sold we went on to have a couple of exhibitions there too.

So why did our approach work? How could we break the golden rule of never walking into a gallery seeking representation, and walk out of the gallery as a represented artist?

1. We were professional

We walked into that gallery as if we did not want anything from the Gallery Director at all.

2. We were already successful

Or at least it seemed that way to the Gallery director. We were able to talk with confidence about our experience as artists.

3. We let the Gallery Director come to us

We did not just bowl up to the directors desk and whack out our portfolios and start blathering. He had to ask us if he could see our work.

4. We had good saleable art…

and our art was a good fit with the kinds of art he was already selling in his gallery.

5. We had art available for sale immediately

We did not have to create new works to suit the gallery. This may seem obvious, but its easy to show people just a few nice artworks. Its harder to back it up with a stock of art of the same quality which the gallery director can immediately sell.

So there you have it. It is possible to break all the rules of how to approach a gallery and still come out with gallery representation. Its just a matter of flying under the radar by consigning those inflatable artists pantaloons to the back of the wardrobe until such time as you are so famous that people will excuse your eccentric fashion sense.

And now over to you…

So, that’s our story, but what do you think? Have you got any guerilla tactics for getting your foot in the gallery door? What are your successes? Miserable failures? Do you have eccentric fashion sense? Have you experienced any pantaloon inflating or deflating moments?

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Stuart Wider is the co-founder of Leading Online Art Tuition Site DrawPj.com, born again skateboarder and Artist.
  1. Holly says:

    Great post! your advice was excellent, I think it has given me good ideas on how to approach a gallery. I have recently sent of a couple of emails to galleries, but like you mentioned they will probably never be read. So I think I am going to do what you said and visit in person.
    I am only 17 and have been Painting for just over a year but I feel I already am ready to sell work. I have won an award and have my own business.
    I paint portraits and the figure. Please have a look at my work on my Facebook page.
    Thank you
    Holly

  2. Stuart says:

    Good for you.
    Great move to put a picture of yourself receiving a giant cheque on your page. Pretty good painter for 17. You must be proud of yourself if you are already in business doing portraits. Well done. Its always good to hear from peeps with some get up and go :) Keep learning, keep developing and don’t stop until you go from ‘pretty good’ to ‘absolutely awesome’! Go on then, don’t just sit around on websites and facebook all day.. you have awesomeness to create!

  3. Heart Rabacal says:

    Hello! I just discovered your site today and I love the articles. They’re very informative. My husband has been drawing/painting for years, but it’s only very recently that we’ve decided to be more serious about it and aim to sell paintings online and in art galleries in the near future. But we just have no idea how to get into art galleries, as their websites don’t say anything about it. Thanks to your articles, you have stopped me from making a wrong and unprofessional choice of approaching galleries. It would have been a disaster. At least now, I’ve learned how to prepare ourselves better before going there. :-) Thanks once again! :-)

    • Stuart says:

      Thanks for your kind comments. Its just a matter of having the right artwork for a particular gallery (ie stuff they can easily sell to their particular kind of customer) and the right approach.

  4. Fred Asbury says:

    I get it. Been there, done that.
    Next step, still wondering what “good, desirable” art is. I have been working in 4 mediums (one more than the others) digital art, painting, drawing, and fine art photography and have over 700 works in my portfolio. I show my work to individuals for the purpose of getting feedback on what interests the public. I work in abstract and usually get a blank stare back with the question, “What is it?”. My primary work, digital fine art, is highly technical and it is very difficult to produce good results as I am very exacting and demanding. My question is; How do I get my work in front of people who are art-wise enough to “get it!”?

  5. Ruanna Shadd says:

    Your artical was interesting, fun to read, an good information. It is a pleasure to have someone give advice without a charge (good thing you are an artist as you would certainly be a starving lawyer).
    I have been drawing/painting since I was 5, I am now 56.
    I have painted many the portrait (not my favorite) just to have income. I have sold, however, several paintings, drawings, doodles. I have never had the fortunate opportunity to hang/show my work.
    One I move to often.
    Two I am usually to remote.
    Three I don’t always have access to my works, and often wind up giving much of my art away, sad sometimes for I put alot of labor/time into my art.
    So I am reduced to internet activity.
    I wonder if you know of a reputable site to list art.
    There are so many sites listed is would take weeks to scan them all and then perhaps still be disapointed in the outcome.
    If you would care to view some of my works; I have a few examples listed on artbreak.com under my artist name Ruanna S. Sadd a’Dann’l.
    I had a web page that had much of my painting listed there, most of which wete sold, but I had to deleate it last year. Now I have only a few posted.

  6. Stuart Wider says:

    Most commercial galleries want work that is easy to understand and immediately salable, unless their name has Saatchi in it.

    You probably need to be looking for spaces where experimental, conceptual, abstract art is shown to get your foot in the door… find out if there is already ‘a scene’ for the kind of thing you do.

    Publicly funded galleries also sometimes allow applications for new and interesting kinds of works from new artists… there are often long lead times on showing in those places though even if you do get approved.

    Have you got a local arts officer in your area who knows about the opportunities for showing in your part of the world?

    Also take a look at what the famous artists in your field of endeavor did to get where they are.

  7. Harmony says:

    Thanks so much for the article. I have been a mixed media artist for years, but I recently decided to follow my true passion and go into ceramics. I sell useable, everyday pottery, but I want to start pushing my ceramic art into the world more. I don’t see much ceramic art in galleries that aren’t just for ceramics and I think that is a crying shame. I so often see group exhibits with themes that would fit my work perfectly, but they almost never have sculptural pieces. Would it be appropriate to approach galleries that have a similar aesthetic to my own, but don’t necessarily have sculptures? I don’t only want to show my work in ceramic specific galleries. Do you think I have a shot at the “real galleries”? In other words, is not fitting in a frame the kiss of death? Thanks!

    • Stuart Wider says:

      Harmony,
      At the end of the day galleries stock only what they can sell to their audience. So you’ve got to find a gallery that has an audience compatible with your work.

      If you are making serious statement art or stunningly beautifully crafted pieces with your ceramics then you might have a shot in serious galleries, but if your pieces are more craft oriented then specialist craft galleries might be the way forward.

      I often see good quality galleries in tourist areas have a selection of sculptural or ceramic pieces along with their on-the-wall artworks. That might be the way to go.

  8. Arula says:

    Thank you so much for this article! I just have one question: approximately how many works of art do you need to have to get into a fairly respected gallery? Right now I have 11 drawings. I’m a sophomore in high school, and I already have a drawing in a local group exhibition. I’m by far the youngest artist in the exhibit, and I’m confident enough to try to get into other galleries, but how many more should I draw before I start looking?

  9. Melissa Chalada says:

    Thank you for writing this article. It was a pleasure to read, and very informative! I like the idea of presenting my art in an art gallery, although I probably only have around 10 gallery-worthy paintings as most of my work are commissions that ultimately are given away. My specialty is realistic watercolour and coloured pencils painting, of horses, fantasy, or fantasy horses. I don’t know if this makes my artwork less salable? Should I be branching out and doing more native wildlife sort of scenes for the sake of being able to present my work in a gallery? [I am an animal artist; horses just happen to be my favourite]. I would dearly appreciate if you look at some of my artwork and let me know what you think!
    http://in-the-distance.deviantart.com/gallery/

    • Stuart Wider says:

      If horses are your favourite then do horses. There are a world of horsey people out there who like paintings of their horses and other peoples horses. Maybe try and link up with racing horse owners. When their horse wins of course they will want the moment immortalized, and of course they will want to show off that moment in history to their friends who will then also want a painting when their horse finally gets across the line.

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