I’ve previously written about how to apply to galleries for Create! Magazine, and even though it was written over five years ago, you’ll find that most if not all of the information still applies. That said, the other piece of the puzzle is when should an artist apply to work with a gallery. Most artists eventually come to a point in their careers where a mutually beneficial gallery relationship, or several, can boost their visibility, increase their sales, and connect them to bigger opportunities. But no artist should feel like they have to enter in such a relationship.
Artists have much more agency nowadays than they once did and can certainly make all of these things happen for themselves. Not to mention, not all galleries are created equally and if you can’t seem to find one that is the right fit, that shouldn’t seem like the end of the road. So, before listing when in an artist’s career it might be time to look for a gallery partner, it’s worth really considering why you want to work with a gallery in the first place.
When to Apply to a Gallery
As mentioned above, it is a relationship. They’re not coming to save you or do all of the work for you. I’d say that one of the biggest signs that you’re ready to be represented by a gallery doesn’t even have to do with your art, but rather with your level of professionalism and your mindset. If you are willing to help them market your collections, respond in a timely manner when they ask to send work/images/etc, and work together to make sure their clients have a great experience when it comes to acquiring your art, then it’s likely a gallery partnership will be a great fit for you. On the other hand, if you would not be willing to pass along names of interested potential clients, if you don't believe in the worth of the gallery commission, or you miss set deadlines and other commitments, then you’re better off selling on your own.
Let’s switch gears to a few practical considerations. Do you have the funds or means to send your work to the gallery and/or their clients? Have you ‘done the math’ on the gallery commission and your profit when you account for your expenses? Having a sellout show at a local gallery where you simply dropped off your work is much different than shipping your custom-framed paintings halfway across the world only to sell one piece. Be clear about what you’re truly looking for from a gallery relationship before jumping into one.
Is Your Art Ready?
Now that you, the artist, are ready to work with a gallery, let’s talk about your art. At this stage, having top-notch images of your work and a website dedicated to showcasing your work, as well as a polished statement, biography, and resume should be a given so I won’t go into details about any of them here (that you can find in The Complete Smartist Guide book if needed). What the curator, owner, or director who is responsible for bringing on new talent will be looking for is a consistent voice. Notice I didn’t say style. You can vary in subject matter, medium, size, color palette, and much more, but even within the variety, someone looking at the work you submit should be able to tell that all of the pieces were created by you. The distinctive and unique qualities of your work are what will help them sell their clients on investing in you so you should know and be able to articulate what they are!
Second, you want to have enough work to show them so that they can start planning out a collection launch, exhibition, presentation at an art fair, or something else. If you only submit three or five pieces because that is all you have at the moment, that may not be enough. This is not always the case though, so try to gauge how many pieces they might want to consign from you by researching the gallery beforehand and seeing in general how many works are offered at a time from each artist they work with.
Are You Ready?
If you’ve checked all of the boxes so far, awesome. Another major driver for artists to seek out gallery representation is that they have been selling on their own and they want to break beyond their current ‘bubble’ of collectors. This is completely valid and can even be part of how you propose your work to the director. Perhaps you’ve been making steady sales and you have a list of past collectors, but what you’re looking for is growth. They should be able to help with that and you can hopefully work on strategies to make that happen together.
Finally, what will show that you’re prepared to become a gallery-exhibiting artist is that you have the confidence to set boundaries. Artists have come to me time and time again asking if it is normal for a gallery to ask for X, expect Y, or impose a commission of Z. The partnership goes both ways so remember that you have power too. Galleries don’t exist without artists. If it doesn’t feel right, you can walk away before signing on. Always read your contracts and ask questions about anything that you don’t understand. Feel free to negotiate when necessary. Yes, there are some galleries that take advantage of artists and unfortunately, when they are covered in the media it can paint the picture that many or most art dealers are not to be trusted. But they are certainly not the majority from my experience. Know that you can always reevaluate your relationship as it develops over time as well. Sometimes this happens when an artist feels the gallery has not pulling their weight when it comes to marketing or sales. Then, you can focus on finding a new and better partnership.
The Best Time to Apply
Now you might be asking, what about on the gallery side - is there a best time to apply? To this I’d say, if you fit most or all of the above criteria then not really. Try to avoid when they’d be busy, so around the openings of shows and fairs or other events (or when they’d be on vacation!). Otherwise, as long as you’ve done your research, know that you’re a strong fit, and have prepped a professional portfolio…submit away!
Thanks so much for reading, if you found this helpful, you can find more of my writing and resources for artists on my website: www.aliciapuig.com