Being an artist means you create lots of stuff. The challenge is always getting that stuff in front of people who might appreciate or even buy it. There are a few ways to do this.
- Gallery – The most well-known way is to get a gallery to represent you. This can be difficult to do, especially for a beginner. I did some sales consulting for a gallery this past summer, and the owner mentioned that she gets inundated constantly with artists seeking representation! While there is no one right way to connect with a gallery owner, the least annoying way is probably to let the relationship develop organically over time. Get involved in your local art scene, show up to other people’s art openings, introduce yourself to everyone, and organize your own independent shows. As you establish yourself in the arts community, gallery owners may approach you.
Pros: The gallery does a good share of the work for you, handling installation and sales. They will have a built-in network of clients, as well as walk-ins.
Cons: A gallery typically takes 50% of the sale price, meaning you have to price your work up in order to make your profit margin. This will price you out of a good share of the market. Some galleries require you to sign an exclusive contract, which will limit your footprint in the community.
- Art Show / Festival – The second way is to apply for shows, festivals, or art walks. Many of these happen annually in a specific venue or neighborhood. You can always find application instructions posted online several months in advance. Most of these events are juried, which means you have to submit a portfolio to a review committee. There are a limited number of spots available, so the committee has to decide which artists to include.
Pros: Your work will be exposed to a broad range of potential buyers, all of whom are in the mindset of browsing through art. You also get to keep all your profits.
Cons: There is a hefty fee required for most of these events. The fee covers certain amenities, such as a standardized booth or display space. You have to weigh that fee against your potential earnings. Another downside is loss of control — some art shows have their own installers, and they may not hang things the way you like them.
- Retail Space – The third way is to get a restaurant, cafe, or hair salon to show your work on their walls. You will need to approach the owner, either in person or by e-mail, with a portfolio and general proposal.
Pros: You get a lot of exposure to a varied clientele. You also have some control over the way your work is displayed. Depending on the arrangement you have with the owner, you may get to keep all your profits.
Cons: It is not the job of the staff in the establishment to sell your work. The visitors are also not coming in primarily to look at art. These factors might translate to minimal sales.
- DIY Show – The fourth way is to create your own shows. You can rent a space like ChiPRC or even transform a private residence into a pop-up gallery. Recruit some fellow artists so you can split the responsibilities and increase the guest list. You can even ask for donations from guests to offset some of your expenses. This is a great way to make small sales between bigger gigs, and to gain experience and new fans.
Pros: You and your team have complete control of every aspect of the show. The skills you will learn (such as budgeting, marketing, and event planning) will come in handy for the rest of your career. All the profits from art sales are yours to keep.
Cons: There is no gallery staff or festival committee doing the work for you. Even after you do all this work for free, you may not make money on the art itself. If you are working with a team, interpersonal conflicts can arise.
As you gain clout as an artist and build relationships, it may become easier for you to receive acceptance into high-profile shows and galleries. For most of us, however, the road ahead is long and steep, and we may never get to the top of the hill. I have been working at this business for over 10 years, and I still consider myself an “emerging artist”.
While you are taking this long and slow journey, celebrate your accomplishments, and take each let-down as a learning experience. Cultivate the things that work, and let go of the things that don’t. Experience will be your best teacher and guide.
Now get out there and create your experience!