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So You Want to Be a Gallery Artist?

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This post is part of a series called Careers in Design & Illustration.
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Opening day at Slushbox Gallerys The Geek Strikes Back NerdCore III run by JR and Amanda Linton
Opening day at Slushbox Gallery's "The Geek Strikes Back: NerdCore III", run by JR and Amanda Linton.

Fine artists and commercial artists alike often exhibit their work in a gallery setting. What does it take to become a gallery artist, curator, or owner? What's involved on either side of the art gallery coin? In this article we'll tackle both sides, giving perspectives on creating work for galleries, curating shows, managing a gallery, and more. Consider this your guide to working within art galleries.

Who Is Involved With an Art Gallery?

Galleries and those involved with them vary. What are some of the roles needed to put on a gallery show? I interviewed several artists, curators, and gallery owners to see what was involved with gallery shows they had been involved with in the past.

Artists: OK, no-brainer here. They're the creators of the work on the walls. They're the people who are bringing their visions to the masses. You can't have an art gallery without an artist or two.

Curators: In name, curators put together each show. Sometimes that is their entire role within a gallery. Other times there's a different person creating each event. For those I spoke to, it was common that this role was taken on by the manager or owner of the space.

Managers: For some gallery spaces, managers handle the day-to-day operations of the business as well as employee relations. They coordinate with curators, artists, customers, employees, and the owner. Perhaps they inhabit more than one of these roles or are the owner themselves. In any case, it's like many other managerial positions: hard work, with a high need of organizational and time management skills.

Owners: Like any business owner, their involvement varies. Some owners take on every role they can: the gallery space is their baby and art is their passion. Others may simply be business folk who enjoy owning something that contributes to the culture of the world around them. In any case, owning a gallery takes quite a bit of business know-how, from daily operations to advertising to accounting to keeping a building up to code and more. They're self-employed and an employer, making this a heavy role to take on, but possibly one you aspire to.

And More... There are definitely more people involved in art galleries. The day-to-day operations of the business itself involve many people, depending on the size of the space and whether it's a small gallery within another business or not. What about marketing for the show? And social media management? Depending on the gallery, these roles could be done in-house by curators or managers, or contracted to a marketing agency or freelancer. It definitely varies, but the short of it is there are many roles behind the scenes that get galleries and gallery shows up and running.

DeEtta Harris posed with her piece at Inner State Gallery
DeEtta Harris posing with her piece at Inner State Gallery in Detroit, Michigan.
"Make the art that you like, the art that you want to create and don’t let anyone tell you to create anything other than that." — DeEtta Harris, Michigan-based artist.

How Does Someone Get Involved With a Gallery?

First things are first: how does someone get their work within a gallery or get to create a show themselves? For most of my interview subjects, they started with small student shows or local venues. If you major in art at a university or attend an art school, you'll find you have end-of-semester and end-of-year shows as well as access to calls for art for students (depending on where you attend and the culture around you).

Additionally, there are local calls for art that may be listed in newspapers or on the websites and social media pages of gallery spaces. Many galleries run juried shows where artists submit content and portfolios to be considered for an upcoming show. A great way to get involved is to check out a gallery or gallery space's website for news on upcoming shows and to see who is looking for artists to fill their walls.

Kyla Crawford
Kyla Crawford, bottom right, taking part in Oliver Herring, Areas for Action, Houston (Day 2: Mondrian Miek), 2015. 
"I seek out galleries by getting involved in juried shows and contacting curators and owners for studio visits. I go to openings, lectures and be part the art world. Network, never burn bridges." — Kyla Crawford, Houston, TX-based Artist

In the case of curating a show and learning the ropes behind the scenes, some cities have large art events that look for curators to outfit a venue with art. Some galleries also take on volunteers to help put on shows or simply may be hiring for a position at the gallery (perhaps doing merchandise, framing, or as an administrator). 

In the event you don't personally know a gallery owner that would be willing to hand over the reins for an event, working with galleries in this way or answering open art calls are ways to get involved and become known to curators, managers, and owners within your target community.

The Thrift Show at Glitter Milk Gallery in Grand Rapids Michigan
The Thrift Show at Glitter Milk Gallery in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

"Don't be afraid to submit your work to galleries. Read through their website to see what their submission guidelines are and go for it! Even if they don't respond the first time, submit again after a few months.

"Sometimes galleries are too busy to respond to all of the emails they get or they get lost in the shuffle. Keep showing them new work and progress! Sending an art postcard in the mail too makes you stand out." — Miranda Sharp, owner of Glitter Milk Gallery in Grand Rapids, MI

What Are Shows Like for the Artists?

Let's say you've been invited to participate in a gallery show. Is there a specific theme? Is there a stipulation that it should be new work only? How many pieces are allowed, and what size should your piece or pieces be?

The first order of business for artists is knowing what curators and owners expect from them. Deadlines, themes, number of pieces, size of pieces, and pricing for their piece all need to be sorted out. Often, it's best to sort most of it out before you begin creating for the show. Curators set boundaries and limits for the artists so their job of wrangling everyone and everything together goes as smoothly as possible.

Allison Bamcat posed in front of one of her gallery pieces
Allison Bamcat posing in front of one of her gallery pieces.
"A painting you rushed to meet the gallery deadline will look rushed and may not communicate what you want. Trying to do 3 pieces for a group show where you only need to turn in one may not give you the time to create a considered piece." — Allison Bamcat, Boston, MA-based artist

How will your piece be displayed? If it's meant to hang on a wall, you need to know what the space provides in terms of hanging devices. Most often from shows I've been to or participated in, a simple saw-tooth hanger on the back of a canvas or frame was best. Some artists may want to showcase their work in a unique way. It's up to you to know what the gallery space can hold or handle, as well as if an installation is something you can do. 

In the case of group shows, you're often limited on number of pieces, size, and media. Group shows often have themes to them, and depending on the show you may be working off the same basic theme or idea as everyone else. As such, you'll be asked to work within specific limits, so everyone's work can be showcased come opening night.

Gallery piece by Amber Renne
Gallery piece by Amber Renne.
"If there is a theme I surround myself with inspiration on that theme... for instance if it’s about space then I’m constantly studying photos of space and sketching out illustrations relating to space or space travel until I combine them all in my brain into a new work." — Amber Renee, Indiana-based artist

In the case of solo shows or a show with another artist, you'll likely have more control over how your work is displayed. I've never known a solo show, from my experience or those I interviewed, that did not involve the artist heavily. If you want to create your own wonderland within the gallery space for your exhibit, you'll have to be as hands-on as possible and work together with the curator, manager, and/or owner of the space to make that vision come alive.

Lizs Sailor Moon piece for QPop shops Sailor Moon show
Liz's Sailor Moon piece for Q Pop Shop's Sailor Moon show in 2014.
"I like things to be cohesive and work together as a set and as individual pieces since they are usually purchased individually, that way the experience of the event and all the pieces on the wall together is one “art piece” per se, and the individual painting is another. I always personally find that much more appealing vs miss-matched pieces all on the wall." — Liz Lorini, California-based artist

What Are Shows Like for the Owners?

The other side of the coin is creating and managing the show itself. For the curators and owners I spoke to, they often create shows based on themes and ideas they enjoy and invite artists whose work they admire. 

JR and Amanda Linton run Slushbox Gallery out of Ink and Pistons Tattoo in West Palm Beach, Florida. I asked them about running their business and creating shows. Both agreed that if you're running the business side of things you either have to be good at it and organized, or work with someone who is. Being clear and concise with artists you're working with in creating shows minimizes the setbacks that may occur (missed deadlines, missing submission forms, unexpected art pieces, and more).

The Candy Coated Dreams show at Slushbox Gallery in spring 2015
The Candy Coated Dreams show at Slushbox Gallery in spring 2015.

"Running any small business is HARD. Prepare to learn how to do it ALL. If you know you are not good at multitasking you better have a partner that is. If you are not willing to scrub toilets and take out the trash in the beginning, don't bother opening any kind of shop.

"You will wear many hats until you are A: able to pay other people to do those mundane things or B: are comfortable with allowing other people to know your business ins and outs. There is so much paperwork and organization that needs to happen on the back end that can make your business fail even before it’s running. You have to be organized from the get go." — Amanda Linton

Miranda Sharp owns and runs Glitter Milk Gallery in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I was curious about how she went about curating shows and how she got started with her gallery. While she curates most shows, she's also had guest curators and is quite open to bringing in new talent to do so, especially when it comes to bringing fresh work and ideas to Michigan.

The opening of Buffet at Glitter Milk Gallery in June 2015
The opening of "Buffet" at Glitter Milk Gallery in June 2015.
"I wanted to create an environment locally where artists could display lowbrow subject matter at a top notch level. Like something you'd see in LA but happening in the Midwest. It's really great to give a larger audience to local artists and to bring international artists into my city." — Miranda Sharp

Keep those plates spinning and you'll have no trouble putting together fantastic gallery shows. Figure out your theme, marketing materials, artists in the show (making sure all of the information they need has been sent out), costs of putting on the show, opening and closing schedules, and additional events for the show itself (catered openings, live band performances, art demonstrations, merchandise shop, artist signing, etc.). Of course the list goes on, but as with any event, planning, preparation, organization, and passion are the keys to success.

What's the Business of Selling Work?

How do artists price pieces, and how does the gallery make money? They're both important questions to consider on either side of the coin if you're involved with a gallery. 

For starters, as the artist, a percentage of your sale price will go as a commission to the gallery. It varies from gallery to gallery, and they will definitely let you know, but I've found anywhere between 20% and 40% to be common. As such, when pricing your work, it's important to consider materials, time taken to create it, and the percentage going to the gallery if it sells while on display. Some galleries also charge an application and/or entrance fee to artists, ensuring they are able to fund the show on top of what sells during the show's run.

Galleries want the art to sell, so artists have to consider their demographic as well. If it's a gallery in a high-rent area, pieces can likely sell for more than a space in a low-income area. It's also important to consider who will see the work: is the opening a big event, do they have high traffic and sales in their online store, or are they popular on social media? Having an idea of the likelihood of pieces selling can influence prices as well, though often it's a personal choice on where artists place the value of their work.

Mary Kinsoras pieces for an Alice in Wonderland-themed tarot card gallery show
Mary Kinsora's pieces for an Alice in Wonderland-themed tarot card gallery show.
"The nice thing about galleries is you have a freedom to do what you want within the theme, the difficult part is making sure it caters to the audience looking at it." — Mary Kinsora, Michigan-based artist

Galleries may also have merchandise shops in addition to the show itself. Artists can sell prints, owners can retail related goods, or additional items can be made for the gallery itself or their online store. Often, galleries hold off on adding a new show's work until a short time after the opening. That way an opening is exclusive and special for those attending. Many galleries, though, allow work to be purchased online from a current or recent show, giving the artist and gallery more chances to promote the work and sell their pieces. 

Lizs piece for the Sugar high Club show at Slushbox Gallery in 2014
Liz's piece for the Sugar high Club show at Slushbox Gallery in 2014.
"If I don't know any of the names on the list I am usually reluctant because names are usually what bring people in to view the art and buy pieces, and it is also a good clue if the price range of the show will match with how I price my work since my artwork may be too expensive for smaller boutique locations and casual galleries." — Liz Lorini

This just scratches the surface of pricing, marketing, and selling work. Each venue, group of artists involved, and location is different. From those I spoke to about their work selling in galleries, it really depended on current trends, how they catered to the gallery and their demographic, and whether or not their work was something someone wanted to collect. There is no simple formula to pieces in a show selling, but experience and the shared experiences of others can help give you a good idea.

Words of Advice From Artists and Owners

"Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, often times mistakes can be quite lovely, or at least a lesson" — DeEtta Harris
Painting by Crystal Mielcarek
Painting by Crystal Mielcarek.
"Smaller shows with no fees for entry are great starting places, larger shows with fees and tons of artists applying can be discouraging at first because they cost you upfront and there is always a chance with a juried show that you won't be accepted. The more shows you do the more people will remember your work and the likelihood that larger shows will start taking you increases." — Crystal Mielcarek, Michigan-based artist
Gallery piece by Amber Renne
Gallery piece by Amber Renne.
"As an artist you are always changing and getting better at conveying the theme or emotion you want to communicate visually. I believe the more you work at doing this in your own visual language the better chance you have to be noticed for your work." — Amber Renee

Conclusion

So you want to be a gallery artist? Or own or operate a gallery of your own? There's a lot to consider aside from putting art up on a wall, and it's all well worth the hard work and dedication of those involved. Gallery artists need to know their voice, artwork, and demographic in order to make a career out of creating work for collectors and fans. Owners and curators need to understand the current art trends as well as what sells around them in order to create a successful business. Having a passion for what they do and building a fan base for their gallery is a definite must as well.

It takes hard work and effort on all sides to bring ideas to life on the walls of a gallery. Get involved in the community around you. Go to gallery shows, student shows, and pop-up shows at venues within your community and start networking with artists and curators. Your work or vision may be perfect for an upcoming show, and the only way you'd know is by getting yourself and your work out there.

Many thanks to the artists that took the time to answer my questions and give us a peek into their lives and experiences within galleries. You can check out their work or gallery spaces in the links below:

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