12 Steps to Get Your Artwork Noticed by Galleries

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About Art Galleries
First some background:  having formerly owned an art gallery, let us give you a bit of insight regarding running a gallery.

Our gallery advertised quite a bit and had a good reputation for treating artists fairly and for paying promptly, so, naturally we received quite a lot of portfolio submissions. While we have no hard numbers for you, there were times that it could have been as many as 20 per week. That may not sound like much, but trust me, running a gallery is a LOT of work. There are paintings to unpack, shows to hang, paperwork to do, artist biography information to organize (and usually to write for the artist), phone calls to make, frames to order, advertisements to design, employee problems to deal with….and when you’re not doing all of those tasks – you’re either with customers or on the phone trying to get more customers.  So at 20 a week, they pile up pretty fast…that would be over 100 after just one month!

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Why Portfolios Get Ignored
So what happens? New artist portfolios are thrown aside into stacks – while they are important, they’re not URGENT. And if something is not urgent, then other tasks tend to take priority.

By the way, a lot of commentators will tell you the answer to getting noticed is sending in very professionally prepared portfolios. It’s not. Being professional is always a good thing, but, frankly, we didn’t care what the portfolio looked like. An envelope full of snapshots was fine (slides were even better) because the determining factor for acceptance was the artwork itself….not the presentation of the portfolio. The nicely prepared portfolios got ignored just as much as the sloppy ones.

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And here’s what makes the situation even worse – if you call ahead about your portfolio, you’re just interrupting someone with all those other tasks to do – so that’s not really a good idea. If you just “walk in” with your paintings…..well you are taking a real risk if you don’t have an appointment. Most gallery owners are not just sitting around waiting for you to walk in with your art. Think about it. Let’s say you had a deadline to finish several paintings for a show by the end of this week. So you’re painting, painting, perhaps dealing with a few other issues, but, for the most part, you have your entire week’s agenda already set. Now let’s say right when you were finishing the most important work….you’ve just gotten into the “zone”, when into your studio, unannounced, walks your framer. He has a stack of 20 new frame designs and wants to spend the next 3 hours showing them to you, discussing them with you, he even offers to take you to lunch.

Image result for african art paintingsYou’re likely to be a bit miffed – why didn’t he call ahead and make an appointment? You’re busy! That’s exactly what it was like when we saw an unannounced artist coming into the gallery loaded down with artwork to show us.  We’re certainly not advocating rudeness, there’s no call ever to be rude . . . but perhaps you can see why it sometimes happens…..and why you shouldn’t just walk in unannounced.

Summarizing the Problem
So, let’s sum up:

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1. If you simply send in a portfolio, it may get ignored, at least for a long time.

2. If you call ahead, you likely will be seen as a time waster…after all you’re not buying art and the gallery has never seen your work.

3. If you just walk in – you’re risking interrupting or upsetting someone….at the very least, you’ll put the person in the wrong frame of mind to look at your work!

4. Email is unlikely to upset anyone, but it’s really super easy to ignore and hit “delete.”

Hmmm. The situation looks pretty dire…so what should you do?

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Referrals are King
Looking back, however, there were a few times when a new artist got our full attention right off the bat. In fact, we were even looking forward to seeing the artist’s work.

Here’s what happened. First, we would receive a call from one of the artists we already worked with. Often, this would be just your standard business type call, updates on new artwork, reviewing sales figures, discussing clients etc. But sometime during that call the artist would say, “You know, Clint, I’m not sure why I haven’t thought of it before, but there’s another artist I know who I really think you should look at. She’s extremely talented and I think you would sell her work well.”

Related imageNow that gets a gallery owners attention. Talented and sells well…what more could we ask for? So, of course, we would ask for more details and usually end up expecting a portfolio in the mail. You can bet when that portfolio arrived that it was opened and reviewed immediately. Not only were we excited about it and expecting it, but we had made a commitment to our existing artist that we would review it and, no doubt word would get back to him if we didn’t act upon the portfolio promptly.

We certainly didn’t accept every artist who was referred in this way….but we did accept a very high percentage of them….much, much higher than “general” portfolio submissions.

It seems that the answer to “marketing” to galleries is just like marketing to customers – word-of-mouth and referrals are king. 

12 Steps To Get Your Artwork Noticed by Galleries
So, having thought this through, as a former gallery owner, here are our recommendations for getting your work noticed by galleries:

1. Identify your target galleries.  Do NOT just send your portfolio to every gallery you see advertised. Look in magazines, look online and identify several galleries that might be possibilities. Each gallery you decide to target should meet the following criteria

a) sell the medium(s) that you work in (photographers should not approach galleries that sell only paintings)

b) represent artworks styles that will draw buyers who would also be interested in your style (abstract artists should not approach realism galleries)

c) Must be reputable – you may have to ask artist friends and do some digging to determine this.

d) Should promote themselves and have obvious strategies for generating leads. This may be magazine advertising but could also be having a high-traffic location, a targeted direct mail campaign, or even email campaigns. This may be difficult to determine in advance, but you will see advertisements and other artists may know how a given gallery generates leads.

After you’ve identified your target galleries, you…..

2. Honestly assess the level and quality of your artwork and the artwork carried by your target galleries. Is you goal realistic? Are you targeting a gallery who represents master painters and you’ve been painting for a total of six months? This is a difficult step, but you definitely need to target galleries who are at the same “level” as you. We’re not saying not to be ambitious, but at our gallery we represented very fine and respected artists and regularly turned away artists who hadn’t yet mastered drawing, perspective, color mixing, etc.

Once you’re comfortable that you’re ready to show in your target galleries….

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3. Go through each gallery’s roster of artists looking for artists whom you personally know. If you really are at the same “level” as the artists in your target galleries, chances are you will have at least met some of them.

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4. If you don’t know anyone represented by any of the galleries, you probably need to do some networking and meet more people. You could also try sending a letter to some of the artists you respect and ask them if they would critique your work – (you should probably offer to pay for the critique). You might be able to take workshops with some of them (that’s a great way to meet master artists and get your work noticed). You might know someone who knows them. You’ll do better by giving something first, perhaps a collector of your work would like one of the other artists works. Call the artist and tell him you have a collector who might be interested in his work and make a referral…..an artist will remember someone who sends him a possible sale!

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5. Ask your artist friend about the target gallery. Once you’ve identified some artists whom you know and/or have developed relationships with you’re ready to continue your quest. Ask your friend what it is like to work with such and such gallery. Do they pay promptly? If you start hearing positive things then . . . .

6. Ask your artist friend if the gallery would like your work. Just ask. This is someone who knows you and the gallery….they’ll give you an honest answer. It will be easier to accept hear the truth from your friend than it will be to get a rejection letter from the gallery. (You can still approach the gallery even if your friend doesn’t think you should, you just won’t have the advantage of the referral).

7. Ask your friend if they would tell the gallery about your work.(Only if they were positive in step 6). If your friend agrees . . .

8. Check the gallery’s exhibition calendar. Identify a time when they are not overwhelmed with some huge show. Your friend will probably know what timing is best. When the time arrives. . .

9. Have the friend call the gallery and casually mention you and your work. This will peak the gallery owner’s interest about you. The goal of this call should be for your friend to let the gallery owner know that you’ll be sending a portfolio and following up with a phone call.

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10. If possible, have your friend send the portfolio. Simply give the portfolio to your friend, ask him to write on a post-it note “this is the artist I told you about” and send it. (Make sure you pay for postage). This way the portfolio will have your friend’s name on the outside, and will get opened more promptly….this step is optional because the gallery should be expecting your portfolio at this point, so just send it yourself if it will be an imposition to ask your friend.

11. After the portfolio arrives at the gallery you will probably get a phone call. You’ve “primed the pump” and the gallery will likely feel obligated to at least give you call. If you don’t get a call after about a week, then you need to call them and make sure they actually received the portfolio, let them know that you are the artist that “so-and-so told you about….”

12. At this point a dialog should open with the gallery. They may still turn down your work, but your discussions will be relaxed, casual and friendly. If they do turn you down, ask them if they know of any other galleries where your work might be a better fit. (We often provided other gallery names because it is difficult to “reject” someone and we did truly want to be helpful. We’ve had many artists thank us for pointing them to other galleries who accepted their work….and that is gratifying).

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Is this too much work? No. Every career is a lot of work and being an artist is no different. If your career is worth it, then the work is worth it.

Sincerely,

Clint Watson
Software Craftsman and Art Fanatic

PS – Here are two alternative methods that also work for getting a gallery’s attention:

1. Enter a juried show that will be hosted by one of your target galleries. You will get your work seen by the gallery owners and get to meet them at the reception. (Of course, this only works if you get into the show).

2. If the gallery has a frame shop, then go get one of your paintings framed. This is a “sneaky” way to get them to see your artwork….it would be very natural at that point to casaully say something like, “This is my work….do you guys think it might fit in with your gallery? If so, I would be happy to send you a portfolio.” (Of course, you’ll have to be willing to pay for a frame for this tactic).


This Post is by Clint Watson,  former art gallery owner/salesperson/director and founder of FineArtViews.

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