Art galleries are, of course, a strong option when reviewing possible exhibition venues. But not every gallery is the same: aside from individual differences, there are a few different types of galleries, each with its own business model and mode of operation. Let’s take a look at a few central types and their comparative benefits for you as an artist.
The most prestigious in the art-dealing world are Commercial Galleries, who represent a selected range of artists and sell their works for a fixed percentage of the profit (which can be quite high – 50% is considered standard in many galleries. Keep that in mind when looking at your options!) From a commercial standpoint, these are almost ideal: they cater specifically to likely clientele and basically do the all the hard work for you – from pricing to advertising to creating a loyal customer base. Developing a relationship with a commercial gallery can be a major step on the way to success, but remember that your ability to get yourself into such galleries depends on the perceived monetary value of your work, usually derived from the current trends in the art world. You may also want to wait until you gather some experience in art shows, and an enthusiastic client base as proof of the popularity of your work, before approaching such a gallery.
While commercial galleries seek profits from selling works of art, Promotional Galleries work on a different business model altogether: they require payment from artists wishing to show their work in the gallery, and are therefore willing to take the risk of showing work belonging to artists who do not yet have a significant client base or much of a public profile and who have not already received notable exposure. They usually demand significantly lower commission than commercial galleries. Promotional galleries vary significantly in the level of service they provide: from little more than providing gallery space to a full range of promotional services. When approaching such gallery (or being approached by one, as is often the case), ask about their past success promoting artists like yourself; speak with artists who have been represented by them in the past to ensure their experience of the gallery’s professionalism was positive; make sure that there is a selection process involved; check that the services they provide are those you are looking for; and most importantly, insist on a written agreement detailing the services they provide.
Rental spaces, like promotional galleries, require payment from artists, but their function is different: instead of “renting” yourself a place in an existing gallery, you get a space for a certain time period which you can use to set up your own exhibition. Rental spaces require hard work – in most places, you will have to do everything yourself, from organizing the space to advertising to manning the space and talking with customers – but if you’re interested in developing experience in these areas this can be valuable.
Another option that exists in certain places is Co-op, or Co-operative Galleries, also known as artist-run initiatives. A co-op is based around a group of artists who maintain a gallery which shows all of their work by sharing work and expenses between members. As in the case of rental spaces, the artists themselves pay for the venue, but here the price is shared between the members. In such galleries, the artists usually divide the rest of the work, too – working in the gallery, promoting it and in many cases even organizing community activities such as art workshops and the like. Some co-ops may require a commission upon sale, while others will collect only a membership fee. This method can give you valuable experience in different aspects of running exhibitions, while also providing a certain amount of support. This is a good option for “team players” who feel comfortable sharing both profits and responsibilities – though bear in mind that such relationships can become difficult to manage.
There are also Institutional Galleries, which are owned by public institutions (such as museums, universities, city halls, etc.) and hold exhibitions for the benefit of the general public. Their aim is more cultural than commercial, and exhibits are usually not for sale. For you as an artist trying to succeed commercially, an exhibition in such a gallery is not directly profitable, but it can give a great boost to your reputation among art lovers and the general public, as well as an impressive line in your resume. While they usually focus on well-known artists, such galleries sometimes wish to contribute to the community by presenting promising local artists; try to be on the lookout for such opportunities.
Of course all of these types of galleries have a spectrum of providing different levels of service, and this is also something to research when looking at individual galleries. The important thing when deciding which option to go for is to think seriously about which is most appropriate for you at this stage in your career.