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How to Find the Right Gallery for Your Art
The most important aspect of approaching any gallery you think might be a good match for your art is to take your time. Don't be in a rush. About the worst thing you can do is show your art to a gallery without having any idea who they are, what their history is, what they stand for, what type of art or artists they represent, what their politics are, what price ranges they typically sell art in, or other particulars with respect to how they do business. If you want to stand any chance of succeeding at getting a gallery to give you a show, represent your art or even notice you, you have to get your knowledge base up to speed, and once you've done that, script and fine-tune an effective presentation that's customized to whomever or whatever gallery you want to make contact with. Simply introducing yourself to a gallery you barely know, out of the clear blue, as a total stranger, and with zero advance preparation-- either online, in person or otherwise-- and asking them to look at your art or give you a show or whatever is guaranteed to get you nowhere.
You have to view the process of identifying and presenting your art to particular galleries as a significant investment in your future as an artist and realize that developing an effective approach takes time. You can't go in with attitudes like, "I don't care where I show as long as I show somewhere" or "How fast can I find a gallery" or "If one gallery doesn't like my work, I'll just go to the gallery next door and show it to them" or "You're a gallery, you have walls, I'm an artist, I have art-- that's a match." Approaches like that are just plain irresponsible and lazy. If you don't invest any time in them, why should they do the same for you? The process of introducing or presenting yourself and your art to any gallery is to make clear how and why you've specifically identified them as a potential venue for your art, why they should consider showing it, and why you care about showing it there.
To begin with, get on the gallery's mailing or email announcement list. This way, you keep up with gallery news, get invitations to their openings or events, learn how they introduce and write about their artists, see what types of art and artists they tend to represent, how they describe their art, how they introduce their upcoming shows, and how they communicate with their client base. In combination with this, go through the gallery's entire website. There, you'll learn plenty more about who they show, what they show and how they present to the public. Understanding where a gallery's coming from, their perspective on the art world and what specific types of art and artists they represent is critical to making sure your art fits with their agenda.
Follow any galleries that interest you on social media, and more importantly, "like" and occasionally comment on their posts. This is of course assuming that you have something genuine and constructive to say, and are NOT engaging with them purely for promotional purposes. Chances are good that they'll notice you, and maybe even check out your social media pages, profile or website. You can learn plenty about how galleries interact with and respond to their fans and followers by doing this, the upshot being that you can more easily determine whether they might be right for your art or not. And they can learn plenty about you as well.
If at all possible, personally visit the gallery. Often you can get a pretty good idea from a visit whether a gallery might be right or appropriate for you. If you prefer to be anonymous, go to one (or preferably more) of their openings. If you're OK with being noticed (or would rather be noticed), go during regular business hours. Look at the art, see how it's labeled, organized and presented, take or read any printed materials they have on hand, and pay attention to the physical details of the space-- layout, offices, library, viewing rooms, back rooms, and so on. Whatever you do, play it cool and resist the urge to start talking about yourself and your art. Consider this a fact-finding mission, nothing more. You don't want to get ahead of yourself.
If after personal/website/social media page visits you still think approaching the gallery is a good idea, continue visiting at least once per show over a period of perhaps three to six months-- or three to six shows. If you're not in a position to physically visit the gallery, regularly monitor their website and social media pages instead and follow their activities there. If you have questions about the art they're showing, ask or email, but limit your interactions to not much more than that. A better idea is to save making contact for later and simply spend time looking at the art, seeing how they organize and present it, what they write or say about it, how much it costs, and so on. Your primary mission at this point is to gather information.
If after all these preliminaries they're still in the running, continue visiting-- at this stage, during regular business hours is preferable to showing up only at openings-- although if you're still not comfortable or prefer anonymity, then stick with the openings. The fewer people there are in the gallery while you're looking around, the greater the chances that personnel will begin to recognize you over time and see that you're taking an interest in what they show. At some point, a conversation might even break out. Equally important, now that you're a regular and a follower, is to constantly be on the lookout for similarities between their art and yours (and their artists and yourself). Be realistic about how you compare, and make sure you're a reasonable match before making any meaningful contact. If you ultimately want to approach a gallery with your art, you'd better have a thorough understanding of what they're about as well as why your art and your calling as an artist match up with their art, artists, agenda and views.
Two more really important points: First, be relatively exclusive about what galleries you contact. No gallery wants to show an artist who flogs their art to every gallery in town. There's absolutely no exclusivity in giving that artist a show because if they do, they risk having other galleries talk behind their backs, making comments like, "That artist came to us too, and we turned down the work." Second, regardless of what gallery you approach, make sure you have a fresh body of work that has not been shown elsewhere, either already completed or on the way to completion. No gallery wants to show art that's already been shown at other galleries or online and hasn't yet sold. If you don't have a fresh body of work either well on the way to completion or already complete, hold off on introducing yourself or presenting your art until you do.
No matter what gallery you eventually contact, customize your presentation to them. Do not use the same approach over and over again. Know who you are contacting by name, what their title is, and what you are going to say about either them or their gallery (or both) to demonstrate that you have clearly done their homework-- and actually care about who they are and what they stand for. Galleries are extremely good at spotting artists who have not done the necessary prep work ahead of time, and will likely ignore any attempts to introduce themselves or their art.
* If you're younger, less experienced or don't have that much of a resume, stick with galleries near where you live that show mainly new or emerging artists. You might call this "home field advantage." Galleries that show artists from other cities or countries almost always show those artists because they've already made names for themselves where they live and work. You can certainly approach galleries outside of your area, but know going in that geography does make a difference, especially early on.
* To repeat, personal visits, and studying a gallery's website and social media pages are required before you make any kind of contact whatsoever. Review their exhibition calendar, their individual shows, see what kinds of artists they represent, read artist statements and show statements, read about the gallery's history and, of course, see what their policies and procedures are for interviewing artists or accepting artist submissions (some have this information on their websites). Through all this, continue to develop and refine your position on how you fit in-- and why they should consider your art.
* In addition to reading about a gallery's artists on their website, go to the individual artists' websites as well. The more history and background you have on a gallery's artists, the better prepared you'll be to argue your case as to why you belong on their roster.
* Be honest with yourself at all times. Do the artists the gallery represents make art that's similar to yours? Do they have resumes comparable to yours? Have you been active as an artist about as long as they have? Are they in your age range? Do they tend to live locally or are they more national or international? Have you had as much publicity, awards or distinctions during your career as they have? Are you alike (or different) in other ways?
* Is the price range a gallery sells in similar to the price range that your art sells in (meaning not what you price it at, but how much it actually sells for)? Most galleries sell art within consistent and set price ranges, say $2000-$5000 or $10000-$30000, for example, and tend not to deviate from those ranges. So you want to be reasonably sure you can make a case, hopefully based on your resume and past sales, that your art is a fit pricewise.
* If you're really a fan of a gallery, you might think about offering to work there, even on a volunteer basis, assuming you really like and respect what they do. That's a great way to get to know them better-- and to make some general headway in the local art community as well. Maybe offer to help hang shows, do basic office work or pour wine at their openings. Willingness to get involved like this demonstrates not only your commitment to what the gallery stands for, but also to participating in the broader art community as a whole. Galleries like artists who are serious about wanting to be a part of the action. Don't press the issue if they're not interested, though. Simply make yourself available. And even if you do work there but don't end up getting a show, it's still a great way to meet people and get to know who's who.
The payoff of the slow, deliberate and comprehensive approach is that the more time you spend getting to know a gallery, the more certain you'll be about how and why your art fits with their agenda, the more comfortable you'll feel around them, and the better prepared and more confident you'll be when the time comes to finally make contact. Whether or not you ultimately end up showing your art with them, you can be sure you'll make an impression-- perhaps even enough so for them to suggest or refer you to a different gallery if you're not quite right for them, or ask you to come back in six months or a year for another go-around. No matter how you look at it, these experiences will be invaluable in terms of learning how to effectively present yourself as an artist-- no matter who you end up presenting to.
(art by Eric Ehlenberger)