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There’s hardly a more gratifying way to make a living on this planet than to open an art gallery, sit in a roomful of beauty all day long and have people walk in, pay homage, and then pay you. To be surrounded by original art, perhaps the highest form of creative expression that human beings can muster, and to sell it as a livelihood… that’s real sweet. So OK. If becoming an art dealer is your deal, then you might consider following a precept or two in order to make that happen.
First and foremost, you have to have a vision, and everything you exhibit and offer for sale should exemplify that vision. Think of each work of art and every artist you present in your gallery like brushstrokes in a painting— that painting representing the full scope and totality of your unique perspective on art. That’s how purposeful your intent has to be. Showing a cohesive coherent consistent selection of artwork is how you establish an identity for yourself and your gallery, and enhance viewers’ understandings of what your gallery is all about. Randomness, lack of direction and inconsistency in your choice of art, on the other hand, assure that you probably won’t be in business long.
Speaking of identities, make your identity yours and not someone else’s. All you do by copying another gallery is to make them look better and you look like a wannabe. You have to step out and stick with it, and if you can’t do that, well then maybe just save it ‘til later. Even if you’ve chosen to show challenging or confrontational art, you can’t do it halfway or be timid about your objectives. Put it out there and be prepared to handle the consequences. Successfully defending the art you sell is at the core of establishing your reputation, and a critical part of the art game. You see, people who buy art want to know why they should buy it from you instead of at the gallery down the street, so the sooner you learn to effectively substantiate and justify the significance your art, the better.
Now in order to accomplish all this, you have to specialize; carve out a niche and claim it as yours. Become an expert at what you do, someone people look to for authoritative opinions and information. Don’t try to know something about everything; try to know everything about something. Collectors appreciate knowledgeable educated informed dealers, ones who know their subjects, ones who understand and can clearly convey the import and significance of their art and artists from multiple perspectives including style, meaning, subject matters, relevance, originality, scholarly or historic import, and so on.
Your goal (the way you stay in business) is to build a hardcore customer base— a dedicated network of repeat buyers. And that base, no matter what type of art you show at your gallery, tends to consist of people knowledgeable about that art and committed to building quality collections over extended periods of time. The longer they collect, the more sophisticated and elevated their tastes become— and the more they come to respect (and gravitate toward) expertise and experience from whatever galleries they decide to do business with. Study the history of any great collector or collection and you’ll see that only a handful of dealers are typically instrumental in building it. You want to be one of those dealers as often as possible.
But the benefits of knowing your territory don’t stop there. The more informed and knowledgeable you are about the art you represent, the better you get at identifying who the best artists are, who’s up and coming, spotting trends ahead of the competition, and in exceptional instances, setting those trends and making the market yourself. That’s exactly what the most influential dealers do; they chart the course that all others follow. Word of your astuteness inevitably spreads, the writers and critics take up the cause, more and more collectors look to you for direction, the art community comes to revere you, and the rest, as they say, is history. But wait; there’s more. The best dealers are also recognized as such by artists. Establishing your reputation among artists is at least as important gaining the respect of collectors. A willingness of quality artists to consider your gallery as a viable venue for showing their art is key to your success. If you can’t get the artists, you can’t get the art. But I’m jumping a little ahead here.
In order to reach this zenith— which takes years, let me assure you— be focused, consistent and directed in how you present yourself to the public. Get known in the art community for showing and selling a particular type of art in a particular price range by serious artists with similar goals, aspirations, and levels of dedication, commitment and accomplishment. People want to know what to expect when they come to your gallery. They want to feel comfortable— like they know what’s going on— and not be whiplashed around from one show to the next, wondering what you’re up to this time. Remember— the large majority of art buyers confuse really easily around art, so keep your agenda as straightforward and undeviatingly themed as possible.
To repeat— be aware that success does not come instantly. You have to build a reputation. You have to prove yourself show after show after show, and convince those in the know that you’re not only committed to your vision, but that you have the wherewithal (intellectually, talent-wise, and financially) to play it out. That means you’d better have enough funds and a respectable enough exhibition calendar to stay in business for at least six months, preferably a year, in case operating at a profit doesn’t come quite as easily as you initially thought. Without this kind of cushion, think seriously about postponing your debut. You’ll be on the radar from the start; people will be watching. Make sure they’re impressed by everything they see right from the get go.
As previously touched upon, having a successful gallery means cultivating a dedicated following and collector base— true believers— and increasing that base the longer you stay in business. A gallery is not a social club for your friends, artists you know, people you went to art school with, or those droves of lip-servicers out there who adore you in theory but not in practice (in other words, who show up at your openings, drink your wine and buy nothing). A surprising number of galleries rarely advance beyond the concept of a clique— the owners, their inner circles, and select assorted sycophants. It’s almost like the entire point is to show art for their own elitist exclusionary benefits, and then inevitably, to go out of business.
In order to prevent that kind of a flare out, you have to care about the outside world, cater to the outside world, and convince the outside world that you have something to show and something to say about it— something worth taking notice of and caring about. Your gallery is a business, not a place where you do your friends favors, have parties, hold court, and limit participation to a privileged few. Somewhere along the way, you have to blend fresh new paying customers into the mix and learn to filter out all those parasites who may love the scene and talk a great game, but who have no intention of supporting you, financially or in any other tangible manner. That’s the only way to survive.
Yes, your goal is to welcome people, not put them off. And one of the most effective ways to do this is to speak about your art in language anyone can understand. Remember— the large majority of people are not educated about art and have nowhere near the depth of understanding that you do. So keep it simple (there’s plenty of time to get complicated later, once you’ve established rapport). No matter how internally gratifying it may be to flaunt your knowledge or fling the lingo, and go completely over someone’s head with what you know, realize that though you may impress them in the instant, you’ll ultimately scare them away. Nobody buys anything they don’t understand; avoid that scenario at all costs. Your job as an art dealer is to continually broaden your audience. Play to the same crowd over and over again and sooner or later, they’ll buy themselves out. Collectors wax and wane, so continually be on the lookout to replace those who stop or slow down with ones who are just starting out.
As for the content of your conversations, it better be more than vapid platitudes like, “Just look at this art. Don’t you love it? Isn’t it amazing? It surrounds you with beauty. The artist is so brilliant.” Talk about what your gallery stands for, the objectives you believe in, and why you got into this business in the first place. Talk about why your artists are worth paying attention to, what their art represents, what it conveys, why it’s worth owning, what concepts or ideals it embodies, and how it enriches, enhances or makes life better, more meaningful or whatever. Stay on point and make sure whomever you’re speaking with understands that you’re selling more than pretty things— much more. You’ll never close a sale by telling someone, “I really like it, and you will too.”
At all times, be sensitive to whomever you’re speaking with. Try to care about them almost as much as you care about you. Rather than give the same spiel over and over again, figure out who you’re talking to as soon into the conversation as possible— particularly with respect to what their knowledge base is and what they want to hear— and then stay within the confines of those parameters. There’s nothing people find more irritating than gallery owners and personnel who launch into elaborate and arcane analyses of their art at the drop of a hat, possibly— though I’ve never quite figured it out— with the intent to overwhelm and stymie them into buying something. Intricacies may fascinate you, but make sure that fascination is shared.
Likewise, keep all literature, descriptions, press releases and announcements, show statements and artist statements clear, clean, easy to read, and in plain basic accessible language that anyone can understand. This gives people a certain level of confidence around your art— like they have a grip on what’s going on— and most importantly, a chance to decide whether or not they want to know more… and hopefully see more. Intimidating people at the outset gets you absolutely nowhere in terms of cultivating a loyal fan base, and generating the cash flow necessary to stay in business.
Speaking of cash flow, let’s consider one of the most critical aspects of gallery survival— sensibly pricing your art. Be able to explain your prices in language and reasoning that ordinary everyday people can understand (notice how I keep repeating this phrase?). Talk facts, like maybe how the artist sells consistently at these price levels, that the last show practically sold out, the artist has a museum show coming up, he recently got picked up by a respected gallery in New York, or interviewed in a prestigious magazine… or maybe something as simple as how long the art takes to make or how painstaking or costly it is to produce. There has to be some sort of concrete rational reason for your prices. You can’t pull numbers out of a hat; you can’t get all cosmic and weird; you can’t dismiss serious inquiries by saying that’s what the art is worth, take it or leave it. Potential buyers want to feel like they’re spending their money wisely. Only then do they buy.
Keep your pricing consistent. Don’t have one show where everything is $500-$1000 and the next where everything is $8000-$12000. Buyers will wonder what’s going on. Here are the kinds of responses you’ll get if you do stuff like that—
“How come these are so much more expensive than the last show?”
“You mean if I had waited one more show, I could have bought something for $600 instead of $6000?”
“I thought I could afford your art. What happened?”
“I thought you sold expensive art. How come everything’s so cheap all of a sudden? Can’t you sell expensive art? Are you in financial trouble?”
Even if they don’t say these things, you can bet they’ll be thinking them. You see, you may understand the differences between various artists and works of art, and how things get priced, but most buyers have a far more difficult time. Only a small percentage of them are capable of understanding fine-line price distinctions. Plus you’ve got to keep prices in the same range from show to show because regular buyers like consistency. They come to your gallery with certain expectations about how much they’ll have to spend in order to add a nice piece of art to their collections, and you have to stay within those expectations. Minor price variations from show to show are generally OK, especially if you can easily and clearly explain them, but the greater the discrepancies, the more you risk either confusing or alienating your clientele.
Assorted odds and ends:
* Continually build your mailing and email lists. You want steadily increasing numbers of people to be informed about you and your gallery. At the same time, keep your announcements to a minimum (no more than one or two per month), and within reasonable proximity to the dates of your shows or events. For example, don’t send out an announcement for an October opening in May. It’s irritating, it makes no sense, and for sure it gets lost in the shuffle.
* Join local museums, arts organizations, dealer associations, and show up at significant arts events and fundraisers— not everywhere all the time, but certainly at those institutions and organizations that are germane to the type of art you deal in. Support local non-profits, donate art (or other cash equivalents) to fundraiser events, and if possible, eventually hold such events at your gallery. You want to become recognized in the art community, you want to learn who the significant players are, and you ultimately want the right people to recognize you. You don’t always have to socialize if you’re uneasy or in unfamiliar territory. Just show up with some level of regularity. People will see you over and over again, you’ll see them and sooner or later a conversation will break out.
* Go easy on pressure tactics. Never nag or be constantly trying to sell something. When someone starts thinking about buying, they usually make it pretty clear. Answer people’s questions, be attentive to their needs, and let them take things step-by-step. You want to make sure they’re at least somewhere near as interested in buying the art as you are in selling it before you go for the throat.
* If a critic or reviewer says something you don’t like, that’s the way it goes. Never remove them from your mailing list, criticize them back, or tell them they’re no longer welcome in your gallery. That’s just plain stupid. You come off like trying to control your own press, write your own history. And the press always has the last word anyway; they have the platform and the profile. You don’t. If you’re going to open a public venue, then the public has a right to comment on whatever you show. If it’ll make you feel any better, people don’t remember the content of reviews anywhere near as well as they remember the names of the galleries that are the subjects of those reviews. Plus the more they hear and see your gallery’s name, the more inclined they’ll be to stop by and see what the deal is. And remember— all press is good press (assuming you’re not committing extreme transgressions). The worst thing someone can write about you is nothing at all.
In closing, NEVER lie, misrepresent, over-embellish or otherwise juke the art and artists you show and sell. The last thing buyers want— especially neophyte collectors who are just starting out— is to get all excited, go to your art opening, listen to your pitch, love it, buy your art, and then find out at some point down the road that what they bought isn’t what they thought it was. This is not only bad for you and your gallery, but it’s also bad for all galleries everywhere, because now they have one less collector to sell to (and probably their friends as well). So keep it on the up and up… and onward and upward you’ll go.