Advice to an Artist, From a Gallery Director

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It’s hard work running a gallery – wonderful, gratifying, exciting work, but hard work (and I wouldn’t have it any other way)!

I also appreciate how much hard work goes into being an artist (I’m a Jewellery Designer – as well as being a gallery owner – and exhibit at galleries other than my own). Applying to galleries can be a stressful and time consuming process – and yes, hard work!

I wanted to write an article which shone some light on the process, the do’s and the don’t for artists and craftspeople who are perhaps new to exhibiting with commercial galleries – to hopefully demystify the process and make it a little less hard work…

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Ways You Can Be a Gallery Directors Friend – and Make Yourself More Likely to Be Selected to Exhibit!

 

  1. Don’t just turn up! Find out the best way to apply… We have an online Artist Submissions Form, which is our preferred way of receiving material to consider from potential new artists. All galleries will have an email address. Some might prefer you to post or drop in a CD of images and some accompanying paperwork. Find out which is the best method for the gallery you are applying to – if they don’t state it on their website, ask them in an email or give them a quick call.

Please don’t just turn up to a gallery! Whilst many gallery owners love meeting people – it’s one of the reasons they are in the business – you can’t guarantee you’ll catch them at a convenient moment, and therefore you’re lessening your chances of a favourable response to your submission (and at least you’ll likely be wasting your time – and your nervous energy). Arriving with portfolio under your arm and a spiel at the tip of your tongue is almost never the best way to make an approach (same goes when they are representing the gallery at an Art Fair or similar event). The owner of a dynamic and busy gallery (the type you’ll want to be doing business with) will almost always be too busy to drop everything and chat – trust me on this! Gallerists who like meeting potential new artists in person (remember, this might not be their preferred way) will schedule an appointment with you when they can give you and your work their full attention.

2. Find out the name of your contact.  I can only speak for myself, but I always react more favourably to artist submissions where the artist has addressed their enquiry to me by name (it’s on our gallery website, so it’s not hard to find out).

Emails or letters from artists saying ‘Dear Gallery Director’, or similar, don’t make me look on a submission less favourably, but they do make me wonder if the person making the submission couldn’t have spent just a few seconds finding out my name and making their enquiry a bit more personal.

‘Dear Sir’ does put me off somewhat – if the artist has just assumed it’s ‘some guy’ in charge and not bothered to check (I’d be equally discouraged if they’d addressed their enquiry to the previous gallery owner). If you’re going to use fact, check facts.

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3. Don’t Use a Scattergun Approach. It’s as important to you, the artist, to select the most suitable places to exhibit as it is for the gallery to choose the right artists to show – both lead to commercial success and the nurturing of reputations! Research galleries, find ones where you feel your work might fit in best, or where the ethos of the gallery matches yours. You might choose a gallery for all sorts of reasons – from how well they present the work of the artists they represent, what marketing activities they take part in, personal recommendation from other artists you know,  their reputation, or a particular specialism they are known for (media, subject matter, styles, geography, etc).

It’s a waste of your time to quickly fire off enquiries to dozens of galleries, it’s better to court a few and spend a bit more time and effort on the process. Go and visit them in person if you can – not to make an introduction, but to see who and how they hang, and how they do business. Spend a little time on crafting the right approach for that individual gallery. You might not be accepted, but at least you’ll know you’ve given it your best shot. And this approach helps Galleries make the very best decisions too!

4. Present yourself and your work well. If you’ve found what you feel is the right gallery and you’ve done your research, don’t fall at the final hurdle and not present your work to the best of it’s advantage.

Images need to be clear and properly representative of your work. Crop out unrelated elements (though frames and mounts are fine). If emailing images, try to ensure they are not excessively large – it will only clog up the gallery’s email system and cause someone at the receiving end a headache (or your message might not reach them at all). As an alternative, a link to a gallery on your website or an online portfolio is fine – but a direct link, so I don’t have to go searching for the right images. Make sure images are of your most recent and relevant work – the type of work you’d want to supply for exhibition if your submission is successful. Don’t send examples of older styles you no longer work in, or commissions you’re unlikely to ever repeat, or items you wouldn’t want to exhibit (say sculpture, if what you’re looking to sell are your paintings). Help the galleriest to make the right decision, and avoid confusion or awkward conversations down the line.

An Artist Statement is often expected – and welcomed – by galleries, but if you don’t have one please include some sort of meaningful and helpful statement about your work. I want to know why you make the work you do, what inspires and interests you,  about your methods and processes, your specialisms, where you exhibit and have exhibited before (if anywhere), where you have studied (if anywhere). Spend a bit of time crafting this –  but don’t worry, it’s only supplemental to the images you send.

If you send an Artist Statement (or similar document) by email as an attachment, make sure the recipient is going to be able to read it – don’t presume on what software they use or figure they will find a way to open the document, if you want it read make their life easy and have your document read, send it as a PDF file (universally readable – and as a bonus you’ll have more control over how it views at the other end).

Remember we need to know the basics too… Where can we get hold of you? Where can we see other examples of your work? What is the general price range of your work? Where else do you sell?

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5. Mind your language… Again, I can only speak personally, but I vastly prefer when artists keep flowery art-speak to a minimum. It has its place to explain important ideas around your work, but don’t try to use it in a less meaningful way (to sound ‘professional’ or ‘part of the scene’). Language has an important role in including or excluding people from enjoying art and taking part in the ‘art scene’, and at Inchmore we’re dedicated to inclusivity for anyone interested in art. Our house style avoids art speak as much as possible, and we love it when artists enthuse passionately about their work in language all-comers can understand and engage with (and that, of course, makes sound business sense too!).

Also, you don’t need to ‘sell’ me your work – the images and information you have sent me will tell me everything I need to know to make a decision around how the work might fit in at the gallery and my ability to represent you to both our advantage. I want to hear your drive, passion and business-savvy, but keep it grounded and real.

6. Don’t chase too soon… Gallerists are incredibly busy people, constantly bouncing between clients, artists, suppliers, other business associates – and their accountant! Often they are involved in their own creative practice too, or have staff to manage or other businesses to run… Give them a little time, just out of courtesy, before chasing for a response to your submission. It’s highly unlikely that they will ignore the material you have sent them, but they may have real problems looking at it (and making a decision) within a day or two of it arriving. As a rule of thumb I’d leave a submission at least a fortnight before considering getting in touch again.

Don’t forget that galleries run on their own timetable of exhibitions, deadlines, etc – it’s likely they are planning what and who to exhibit some time in advance and therefore timescales might be stretched longer than you imagine. They are also, though, sensitive to the fact that artists need lead-in time to make work available to them – they will let you know in good time if they’d like to exhibit your work.

If you do chase, an email might be received better than a phone call – you’re not asking the Gallery Director to call up information from memory (at a time when they might be busy with customers or other things).

I always respond to artist submissions, but if you don’t get a reply from the gallery you have submitted to (despite a well-timed, polite chase) then perhaps this tells you something about that gallery, and if they are type of business you want to be represented by?

7. Be good with paperwork… Every Gallery Director knows you are about the creativity and that you’re not in this business for the admin, but unfortunately (for Gallerists too) it’s an essential part of the job. Galleries rarely create admin procedures where they aren’t needed, so if you’ve been asked to submit a form or send some images of your work formatted in a certain way, it will be needed and will be important.

If you’re not sure, don’t hesitate to ask for help – the gallery will be delighted you’re co-operating with their systems and be only too happy to explain, suggest or help.

Don’t forget, where you are dealing with one set of paperwork and a few images, gallery staff are dealing with dozens of sets of paperwork and perhaps a few hundred images… One way to make yourself a big friend of the gallery (and increase chances of being exhibited again in future) is to be an admin-superstar by doing everything exactly as it’s required of you (and making their lives easy)! Trust me, they’ll always choose you over other artists who aren’t as professional about admin.

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8. Deliver what you say you will, when you say you will… Different galleries will have their own procedures, but at Inchmore we have a handing-in window of a number of days before we hang any new exhibition (this is always clearly communicated to artists when they agree to take part in any exhibition).

We can’t really accept work before the window begins, because we’re already storing work from the current exhibition (though in certain circumstances we’ll try to be a bit flexible). We  definitely can’t accept work after the end of the window, as by this point we’re actively involved in the time-consuming, complex and strenuous process of actually hanging the exhibition (as well as very busy doing pre-exhibition promotion, updating websites, etc).

If an artist doesn’t deliver work on time (or at all, or supplies different work / less work than promised) it can cause all sorts of very last-minute headaches – from physically finding work to fill the gaps on the walls, to having to amend promotional material… You’ll always have your galleriests devotion and heartfelt thanks if you’re known for being reliable and suppling exactly what you promised, when you said you would.

9. Collect on time… Being located in a huge old church means we have good storage space at Inchmore, but still it’s very easy for storage areas to become clogged with work from previous exhibitions that artists have left with us (sometimes for several years)! Again, you’ll only win hearts and favours by collecting your work within the allotted collection window after an exhibition.

If your work is sat in a storage cupboard somewhere it’s not working for you (making you money, or raising your profile), so it makes sound business sense to collect work promptly.

When dropping off and collecting work you’ll seem super-organised if you’re able to communicate a day and time when you’ll be calling (some galleries may even insist on an appointment system) – and if the gallery staff know you are coming they will make sure they’re available to deal with you (customers allowing), so you’ll save your own time too!

10. Present your work well (again)… When delivering work make sure you’ve protected it well in transit so it arrives safety with the gallery. Some galleries will want to keep hold of the packaging you’ve protected your work with, whilst other prefer to strip it off (and give it to you to take away) and apply their own packing for handling / storage.

Ensure you’ve created a detailed delivery note (your own, or the gallery might be able to provide a generic one – we do) and bring along two copies (one for the gallery to keep, and one for your records). It should be a list of the work being delivered, but also include wall prices, price minus commission for each piece, quantities, title and materials for each work – and pictures of the works, if included in the document, are a great help to the gallery!

Also make sure your work is finished well. You might have been rushing to get work completed in time, but we really can’t accept work into the gallery that’s still wet (and might get damaged, or damage something else)! Mounts, frames and the sides of box canvases should be finished to a professional standard, and canvases / frames should be ready for hanging with suitable hardware. Jewellery, ceramics, etc should have any accompanying packaging or information cards. Work needs to be clearly identifiable when out on display – you’d be surprised, we do regularly receive canvases with no artist name or signature. If you’d rather not permanently mark your work in some way, a sticky label somewhere discreet is fine.

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11. Remember not to take things too personally… I understand, making art is a highly personal process – but as a Gallery Director, let me tell you that a lot of the decision making process when selecting new artists to exhibit is about ignoring our personal feelings and being strictly business-like.

Whether we like the work is an essential part of the decision making process – ultimately this drives us to select work that’s coherent to the gallery style and brand, and work that we can authentically and passionately promote – but it’s only one small part of the process.

If your work has been rejected by a gallery, it could be because of any of these reasons (or more)…
– You don’t fit the gallery style.
– You already exhibit at other galleries which are too geographically close, and the gallery likes to vary its offering against that of other nearby venues.
– The gallery has no more space at present for new artists.
– The gallery can’t accommodate the type of work you produce (they don’t exhibit photographs, they can’t physically handle large sculpture, etc).
– Your work wouldn’t show well in their setting (the scale doesn’t suit the space, the lighting isn’t the best for showing glass, etc)
– The subject matter isn’t right for the gallery (your work is too ‘seaside’ and they aren’t near the coast, etc).
– They feel your work wouldn’t sell well to the established market they have (they don’t have a market for equestrian paintings, ceramics are very slow selling, etc).
– They already have an artist / artists showing work very similar to yours.
– The selling price of your work doesn’t fit with the established price range for the gallery (too low, too high).
– The selling price of your work is too low and there’s no room for the gallery to make a profit through helping you sell it.

You might also find that there’s something in the way you do business that you could tweak – you could work on your marketing skills and being more confident talking about your work, you might need to take better images or improve your Artist Statement, build a better website or be more snappy and prompt dealing with business correspondence – there’s always improvements we can make in the way we do business or market ourselves.

Loving an artists work or liking them as a person is only one part of the equation – I have to feel confident that their business is ready to work with my business. And I have to have a strong hunch that working with their business makes sense for both our businesses. 

I’d love to accept the submission of every artist who approaches the gallery – because I like people, and I like artists, and I’m a nice person who doesn’t like turning people away – but I’d be an irresponsible business owner by doing that. I wouldn’t be helping either myself, my business or my artists. So remember for every rejection email you receive, there’s a gallerist feeling maybe a bit akward, pondering decisions – and that it’s definitely nothing personal!

I hope you found this useful and you can use some of it to make your life as an artist easier – if you know someone who you think would find it useful too, please consider passing it on (using the sharing buttons below)!

And if you’d like to apply to exhibit with Inchmore Gallery, you’ll find our Artist Submission information here.

Above all else – keep creating and sharing your work!
Without artists there could be no galleries!

Jane Owen Inglis, 
Gallery Director, Inchmore Gallery