|CAN ARTISTS SUCCEED WITHOUT GALLERIES? A SURVEY
First off, let me just say this.
Human nature has not changed. Human nature does not change. One thing is very clear; people support things that benefit them and they criticize things that don’t.
So keep in mind that I’m fully aware that when posing the question, “Can Artists Survive Without Galleries?” I knew that the responses would more than likely be steeped in the personal experiences and prejudices of those addressing the question.
I decided to send out this survey because of the huge response to my essay, “Galleries Are Not Your Saviour.” I got more online traffic and reaction to that single essay than anything I’ve ever written. I’m not sure why - because that wasn’t the first time I’ve addressed that topic and I don’t think I said anything particularly new. But clearly, it hit the zeitgeist and struck a nerve.
And so, after expressing my own observations, I felt it was important to hear from those directly affected: artists, galleries and art administrators. As a result, I sent out the survey.
The responses to my survey questions often reveal as much about the respondents as they do the issue at hand. And with that, let me say here that only ONE art dealer or gallery owner responded to Question No. 3 which is meant specifically for them.
Look … art dealers are busy people. These days, they’re not only busy promoting art, they’re working hard at trying to remain afloat. Who has time to justify their existence while they’re fighting for their very lives?
And therein lies the issue. You know, a lot of people think the press asks “trick questions” because they’re trying to be “cute” or because they’re playing “Gotcha” with their interview subjects. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
By posing these questions, I’m simply trying to get to the truth of the issues and hearts of the matters. Hopefully, the truth will set us all free and we’ll uncover some kernel of wisdom that will benefit everyone in this picture. The problem with our world today is that we insist on seeing things from the “winners and losers” perspective. Why does someone always have to lose so someone else can win?
That need not be the case. But I digress.
So, without further ado and before bidding you adieu, here are the questions that I posed, followed by the answers of some very talented artists and art world people whom I love for responding. I am inspired by your insight and creativity.
1. Can artists succeed without gallery representation? In this case, "success" means artists are selling their work on their own and making a decent living doing it - probably with a day job doing something else too. I consider that being successful as an artist. CAN artists succeed as artists without a gallery?
“Absolutely. I've been a professional artist now for 23 years and have built my own brand without the help of any gallery representation. I have created a quality product and I spend an equal amount of time promoting it to new and previous collectors. The more you continue to produce quality work that stretches your abilities as an artist the more you will continue to attract new collectors for your work. Best of all, when you create your own value by creating a great product, you get 100% of the profit from your hard work and promotion. You are the sum of the work you put into your career. You won't sell anything by listening to the naysayers around you. Believe it is possible, be confident and carry yourself as a professional. I've already exceeded the expectations of everyone around me because I refused to believe it wasn't possible. I love what I do and I reap all of the benefits of my hard work.” – Eric Armusik
“YES! While I have not yet experienced a successful relationship with a gallery, I sell my work regularly through a variety of programming strategies. I fit that, “decent living probably with a day job” description. I'm happy with the balance that my life has - I teach on a consulting basis, so my “day” job is not a 40-hour-a-week slog. Right now, I am experiencing a drought of sales, but I have a lot of teaching. The bills will be paid. I know this drought of art sales will produce something else - it will encourage me to think in a different way about marketing my work while I continue to pursue sales through a busy schedule of programming that keeps my work going out to a variety of venues. The upside of the market is that it is in flux. What didn't work several years ago might work now, and what worked several years ago doesn't necessarily work now.” – Karen Fitzgerald
“I believe it is much harder to succeed without gallery representation. When I am talking about gallery representation, I am talking about a real, business planned partnership. Today, most of the galleries are not committed to this way anymore. They barely, if not at all, do communication work and this can be even worse with galleries that offer the space for rent. I have this secret inner pride to say I never had to rent a space. Artists use a lot the social media (Facebook, Instagram, etc.) to communicate, but they are not taking you easily to real collectors. The curators are becoming stronger as they are searching new talents where the galleries are not, and if they have an established name, they can get an unknown artist to be part of publications or institutional group shows. And there we talk institutional art... they get their new-generational artists from established galleries or directly from the Beaux Arts (when I left Bucharest to establish myself in Paris, I never thought I would lose my “Art Academy aura”). So yes, you can say it is a vicious cycle that’s hard to penetrate. – Alexandra Mas
“Of course, artists can be successful without a gallery, but it takes more time. The artists are not only making the items they sell, they must do the promoting, selling, shipping, develop collectors, develop curators, etc., that a gallery would usually do or help do. – Steed Taylor
“Yes. I'm pro-gallery, but I don't think artists need traditional galleries.” – Matt Semke
“Galleries have always worked to my advantage. I believe that they have access to some collectors that I wouldn’t. The best galleries that I have worked with are interested in furthering my career (to both of our advantage) and are forward-thinking, looking down the road 20 years. Paying a gallery 40% or 50% percent is fine with me, if they are doing their job properly - representing, promoting, advertising, and spending money and time cultivating clients at the art fairs and various venues.” – R. Kenton Nelson
“I think one of the biggest misconceptions when an artist secures a gallery is that all the hard work is done and dusted, and the gallery machine will just kick into auto pilot, sales and successes will come in waves. NOT! Well don't we all wish, but it's not how it goes unless you've been blessed with some of life's extraordinary good fortune. Galleries are but one avenue on the road to whatever your perception of “artistic success” is and none of it is guaranteed.
I recently met a wonderful and successful artist who has been showing in New York City for more than 20 years at the same gallery and some years ago even had a retrospective at the Whitney. The outcome of the last solo show sold nothing for whatever reason and the work is truly fabulous. NO GUARANTEES.
If you could imagine clutching a big bunch of straws of no particular length, and each one represents options and possibilities, and a different road to a different outcome, then this is what the artist has to grasp. Myself as a sculptor, I plead guilty at various times throughout my career to being just focused on “getting the gallery” and maybe we need to do that sometimes to make us slowly fall back into reality because the waiting game only enhances the struggle.” – Simon Rigg
“Although I am represented by a (physical) gallery and have worked in another (off and on), the majority of paintings that I sell are a result of my ongoing efforts at local and regional marketing. I also have paintings on Saatchi Online but do not “work” at it and haven’t updated my paintings in several years. I am pretty sure however, that if I did actively work at it and promote as the online galleries recommend, I believe that I would sell paintings through them. Also, I have an account on Artfinder, but have not activated it yet due to lack of time. As an aside, I’m working as an artist full time however between painting and preparing for solo shows two years in a row, I haven’t time to concentrate on selling art online. So to answer your question about, do we need physical galleries in order to sell? With social media and online “galleries” so available now, I don’t believe that it’s critical. – Su Horty
“Yes, I think artists can absolutely survive without gallery representation. They must be prepared to understand the business of shameless self- promotion, creative marketing, pricing, communication, self-discipline and time management.” – Kathleen Velo
“I think with tremendous luck and savvy, artists can sell without the help of galleries, possibly now by selling online. I doubt if we can make a living only by selling art in NYC, especially as it is far too expensive to live here these days. Every little bit helps to pay the studio rent, so an occasional sale is always welcome.” - Mary Hrbacek
“Yes, artists can succeed if they decide to make the effort. Having a day job is fine, there are some successful artists teaching, and I don't mean visiting lectures. I think if you have a day job and you are selling, exhibiting and getting coverage (interviews, reviews, articles, etc) regularly, you’re successful. This means that the artist has to become the promoter, the salesperson, the business person, all rolled into one, taking on the traditional idea of what a gallery would do. And many artists either don't want to do this or think that it will ruin their chances of getting a gallery or they're just not very good at it. So they would rather sit around waiting for a gallery to come along making them successful.” – Robert Curcio of Curcio Projects
“Yes. I am living proof.” – Jake Fernandez
“Yes. This has happened to me. I have succeeded without a galleria. Actually, I have two websites and they are very expensive. So artists must spend to get there!” – Robin Mbera
“There are two galleries that buy some of my works and they sell them, but none represent me. I have sold many works, via internet, almost 70 works.
I think it would be better (for me) not to take care of the sales of my works. I would be interested to be represented by some art gallery, but I have sold my works to people in many countries.” - Raquel Sarangello
“I am a figurative painter with gallery for hire as my side business. Yes they can and through our gallery I've seen many artists making money by selling their works without gallery representation.” – Diana Krilova
“I once heard that in Berlin group of artists hired a gallerist/curator to represent them and it seems like an interesting idea. I'm not sure that artists can survive without a gallery. Even experts in branding/marketing like Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons do need a gallery. An artist can only make a decent living when they become a brand and some gallerists are experts in that. It's very rare to find an artist with either the expertise or even the intention to get there.” – Lorenzo Belenguer
“Yes, according to your definition of a successful artist. My wife is a professional with a good income. I just completed my dissertation and am looking for work in higher education after working for 18 years as an elementary school teacher. Although I am represented by a dealer, I do not yet have brick and mortar gallery representation. However, I have a few appointments set up with gallerists in New York City. I have been selling primarily through social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram.” – David Rufo
2. How are you surviving as an artist without a gallery? How are you selling your work? What specifically are you doing - legally and morally - to survive and thrive as an artist in 2017? What advice do you have for other artists?
“I am doing very well. You have to diversify your business. Offer a few options that are comfortable within the scope of your expertise.
For some people, it is selling prints or teaching private classes or selling paintings. For me, I've made a very good living selling my own paintings, working on commissions for clients and large scale projects. I've also had successful promotions, books and prints which have provided a stable income for me.
My advice is to do as much as you can, but not so much that your quality suffers. You can only spin so many plates at once. From my experience, 3-5 divisions in your business are enough to create stability without getting overwhelming. Remember that being an artist is knowing that your career is about the long game. Things change, economies shift, businesses redefine themselves. Be open to change and shift your business to accommodate those changes. There was a time when the internet wasn't around early in my career and people laughed at me when I built my first website. Now I do business around the world every day. Learn what works for you and do it better than anyone else and you will be rewarded well for it.” – Eric Armusik
“I sell my work through a variety of programming efforts. I show regularly with a cooperative gallery - unusual in that we do not have to “Pay to Play” as we are a committee attached to a church. I've sold 2 or 3 things through these shows - not big sales, but enough to develop new relationships.
I program at least one art fair per year and the same thing happens with this kind of effort; I meet new people, I sell work (varies year to year how much sells) and I also meet other arts professionals with whom I work to build relationships (Designers, art consultants, etc.). I maintain a monthly newsletter, which keeps my work in front of a group of designers and curators. This year, my studio output is much slower. I'm using the time to reflect on what is next, and to put some effort into a non-profit, having just joined their board of directors. There may not be a direct line to income, but doing this work at this time “feels right.” I'm not worried about income.
I think it's important to share information, to help other artists as much as I can. To be kind. This can be a wicked industry, but that's not the experience I wish to have. I think there is a certain mystery to successful marketing. Sometimes A doesn't lead to B. It leads to M or Z and then you often have to figure out how to get back to B, or even if it's necessary to get back to B. Sometimes inspiration in the marketing arena is as important as inspiration in the studio.” – Karen Fitzgerald
“LOW OVERHEAD - Money from art usually comes in fits and spurts, but bills and expenses are often consistent and usually monthly. Having some of the major expenses in life reduced or nonexistent, the inconsistent money will not be detrimental. I worked corporate jobs for many years to set up my life so I could survive as an artist. My living space is paid for; I’ve got a healthy amount in savings and I’m frugal. It’s not easy, but doable.
TAXES - Schedule C, the business form for a sole proprietor, has a wide variety of deductions that reduce the profit made from art and can reduce income from other sources on a 1040. Artists have a labor-intensive and heavy-overhead business, take advantage of this at tax time.
LOVE WHAT YOU DO - Reconnect with the reasons you became an artist and make art. I see being an artist as more of a calling than an occupation, so it’s important for me to keep connected to my love of it. There’s a saying that, “Creating is loving something so much you want it to be in reality.” That is so profound and central to how I see my relationship with art. Embracing and remembering it helps me through the difficulties of being an artist.” - Steed Taylor
“I'm surviving by my career. I create animations and videos for an Major League Baseball Team. They challenge my creative capabilities and I genuinely enjoy going to work most of the time. It took a long time of working less engaging jobs to get here.
I have to provide income for our family and I can't imagine ever making the jump to full-time artist. I invest nearly all of my free time in making art and maintaining my web/social media presence. This has exposed me to so many eyes all around the world. It's the best gallery to show work in and it should be every artist’s priority.
Occasionally, people reach out and inquire or buy something. I'm not making much money off my art, so maybe I'm not “succeeding,” but I am continuing my art. I've also had really good luck selling my work in coffee shops, bars and restaurants. They are easy to approach, take less of a cut (if any) and they're usually flexible with set up and tear down dates.” – Matt Semke
“The galleries that I have, but don’t continue to work with are interested only in selling work, and the artist is simply “the flavor of the month” (used car salesmen, at best). Small thinkers.
I never sell work directly to a client. This keeps me from being in an awkward, “selling out of the back of my station wagon” situation. If a client/collector wants a painting that I have on hand, I notify one of my galleries and determine percentage paid. If a client wants a painting that is somewhere else in the world, I will send them to that gallery and they “close the deal.” The galleries know I will do this and it makes for a good trusting relationship.
With the internet and social media, the artist can cultivate, grow, and maintain a good portion of our client/collector base, and direct them to our different galleries for shows and sales using a more professional representation. This makes the artist and gallery invaluable to one another. – Kenton Nelson
“One of the best venues to show your work that's becoming increasingly popular are studio shows where groups of artists get together and share the costs. Late last year, I showed with 23 artists at a studio in Harlem on what can be only described as the coldest night of winter and the average count was about three hundred and fifty people consistently walking through. My approach was not focused on sales, although it would have been nice. My focus was exposure and the constant feedback from that show has been extraordinary and ongoing.
Exposure is thinking about all of the places where your art can be seen and talked about. A few years ago, I approached a friend of mine who has legal offices in New York City where a lot of people pass through on daily basis. We came to an agreement and I placed several sculptures there on loan amidst their own wonderful art collection. I'm not fussed that they have not sold; that was not the point, but they have been seen and enjoyed by an awful lot of people at a prominent New York City address.
Artists need galleries just as much as galleries need good artists, but you as an artist need to compromise along the way by creating options to increase your exposure and as that exposure starts to grow, so will galleries that take notice - that may or may not lead to some form of representation. The art world has changed drastically and we all know that there are no rules of engagement anymore. Artists are forbidden to make contact with most galleries which is pretty funny because galleries need artists. I get all of that as wave after wave of artists search for transparent yet illusive success.” – Simon Rigg
“Apply to local and regional, as well as online, art shows and keep searching for new artist opportunities. Don’t just enter the same shows, year after year. Also, visit galleries and ask for their help in directing you to other galleries that they think might be a good fit. This brings an artist to the attention of that particular gallery yet takes the pressure off of them by having them recommend other avenues.
Stay in touch with the galleries that you contact, but don’t annoy them by stopping in too often. Take advantage of the online galleries. Network with other artists.
One artist who bought one of my earlier paintings, now works for a gallery. I sent her a show announcement (via email) last year and she then contacted me to stop by her gallery and show them some paintings. They put my paintings in their last holiday show and have since offered to take more paintings when I have them available after my upcoming solo show.
Also, put jpegs of artworks in a signature format when communicating with everyone via email. At minimum, have a link to one’s website in the signature. Do Open Studios. A lot of artists sell prints as a bread and butter income, however I have chosen not to go this direction. I would imagine that it can be profitable however, if worked. Always be on the lookout for opportunities because each step will lead to the next step and it slowly builds. The key is to keep at it. Hope this helps!” – Su Horty
“I sell work when I have independent gallery exhibitions, during open studio events, through my local network of artists/friends/supporters, during and after workshops and presentations, and when I get really ambitious, when I reach out to those who have expressed interest in the past.
That being said, I don't sell a lot of work and I’m generally okay with that. I worked as a full-time educator in the arts for almost 25 years and absolutely NEEDED to have an art practice in order to thrive as a human being. I have always felt blessed that I could do two things I love: make art and teach art.
I developed excellent time management skills and was able to work 2-3 hours every day, in addition to my full-time job and maintaining my studio practice. Notice, I said “maintaining.” I was also a full time single mom, so promoting, marketing and selling work was not a goal - making art was the necessity. At this point, I am fortunate to teach very part time and have a healthy studio practice. I think I have established a cycle of making art/promoting art/selling art/and reflection that works for me.
I don't have to get my full income from my studio practice, but I also feel artists are morally obligated to put their work out into the world in one way or another. Artists have a gift that should be shared.
The advice I give my students who want to “be artists” is to follow their passion, but be prepared to work almost constantly. In addition to developing their artistic vision and skills, they need to learn to promote their work, be creative when seeking venues for their work, understand basic marketing and social media, stay focused, and don't freak out when they are feeling lonely and isolated. It is part of the process.” – Kathleen Velo
“I am lucky to be married. My husband supports me as an artist. I am fortunate to show my work often. When I do, if the show is not in a gallery, I will send out a price list to my contacts. This is one way to sell art. I am ambitious for my art.
There are paintings that are crying out to be painted. I think that if in my mind I push too hard to sell, I chase away my goal, so I have decided to basically feel that selling is my goal, but it is okay too if I don’t sell. I need to feel this way to take the edge off my desire to sell. I hope I am making myself clear.” – Mary Hrbacek
“If an artist doesn't have a gallery or galleries, they need to have multiple outlets that can be selling their work like: art consultants, interior decorators, architects, furniture designers, agents/dealers, etc. Those are more “traditional” places. Now, there are many online opportunities: auctions, curated sites that are selling and promoting, sites that secure artists commissions, sites that connect artists with patrons and collectors, and other crowd funding sites Also, artist fairs and doing pop-up exhibitions that can be very good. But, the artist has to do all of the work that a gallery would do.” – Robert Curcio of Curcio Projects
“Private art dealers and word of mouth. Do the best work you can, period.” – Jake Fernandez
“Good communication skills are vital. There is a lot of noise in social media these days and artists who sell tend to talk in-person or over the phone to art critics, editors, journalists, collectors, you name it. Sending auto-emails and Facebooking won't do, human contact is important.
Artists who also tend to do commissions and are prepared to travel on short notice are generally selling better. Teaching or giving private lessons is always a good way to earn some cash.” – Diana Krilova
“… Artists that do well are very proactive and aware of how the system works. My piece of advice to artists is to develop the full potential of social media, digital networks and partnerships with developers and the media.” - Lorenzo Belenguer
“My advice is to have an income stream that you can live with. For a day job, do something that you are somewhat passionate about or that fits nicely within your skill set so you feel there is value in addition to the income. Figure out a way to work on your art EVERY DAY - even if it is for a few minutes. I accomplished this in two ways:
1. When I was going to school at night to get my teaching certification, I worked as a bank teller during the day. The job was low pay and uninteresting, however, I made it interesting by creating a mini-studio in one of my cash drawers. In the drawer I used paperclips to apply Testors model paint to paper bank receipts. I also used markers, pencils, as well as torn bits of paper money as collage elements. I created a large series of works this way over the course of a few years.
2. In order to spend time with my family, I switched from my basement studio to developing a working method wherein my studio existed within our family dinner environment. My supplies fit into tool boxes and I work on un-stretched canvas or watercolor paper that fits on our dinner table. This allowed me to be with my son as he did his homework and my wife as she read after dinner. I could also roll up the paintings and put away the tool boxes when I finished at night.
“I use social media (Twitter, Linkedin, Facebook and Google Plus), my website, repeat collectors, word of mouth and friends of friends, etc.” – Jon Coffelt
3. Art dealers and galleries ... We want you to thrive. We want galleries to succeed, but what do you think about all of this? What do galleries need to thrive in 2017 and beyond? What do you need from us?
“As a gallerist, I can say that artists who sell don't forget to have price lists with contact details at their shows. It is so annoying to see good works in the gallery and not have anyone to tell you either the price or contact details of the artist. Please make your artworks with quality materials! Please reply to your emails and check messages on your Instagram. And please do your research - check who might be interested in your work, be friends with artists whose works you like and keep in touch with interior designers. After all, we are all in the same pot.” – Diana Krilova
Well, there you have it. I must say that while I totally respect everyone who responded, I didn’t expect such powerful answers. What has been said here is enlightening, inspiring and quite practical.
It’s my hope that you will share the link for the page with artist friends who are struggling or trying to keep a positive attitude in the face of daunting challenges.
Being a creative person can often be lonely and isolating while you’re trying to figure it all out. However, it’s my hope that this survey gives you the added information, inspiration and confidence to keep going.
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