I just wanted to enter a debate that’s out there about galleries. I often hear it simmering, but last weekend nudged me in to speaking out.
I served a customer at Open Studios last weekend. He told me a common tale: they are collectors of art and he listed some of the places they’d bought over the years – festivals, open studio events and art fairs. He emphasised that he made a point of never buying from galleries because of the outrageous commission they charge. At this point I admitted to being an artist and a gallery owner before he dug himself in any further!
In North Yorkshire Open Studios all of us artists pay to be part of it. This payment goes towards the tremendous advertising, the lovely brochures, all the press releases, the signs, admin etc. On top of paying to be part of the selection process, and then again if we are selected, we also agree to pay a commission on any of our sales. During the Open Studios weekends we have to agree to be there, and open, and are largely unable to do any artwork. Many artists send information to their own mailing lists and to the newspapers, redecorate their homes/studios to get them looking ship shape, get childcare cover and so on. It costs A LOT! The result is that I don’t know of any artists who sell their work for any less than they do in galleries. The commission that a gallery takes is in effect going in a different direction, but the costs are still there. North Yorkshire Open Studios do a tremendous job of promotion, but nevertheless they do this because they are paid to do it.
In many local art festivals it is the same situation. In fact a festival very near us charges a hanging fee for work as well as a commission that is more than The Gallery takes. The same goes for art fairs where artists often have to spend at least £300 for a stall. There they take their chances on sales are largely reliant on the art fair’s advertising and press coverage. These organisations are often businesses and at the end of the day they have to make the books balance.
The lazy assumption is that galleries are fat cat middle men. This is often far from the case. Personally, I find I tread a line between showing what I believe to be excellent art that pushes at boundaries, and art that I know is also good but perhaps more commercially saleable. I do it because I love it and my world is art and craft.
My knowledge of the skills involved is excellent – and that’s passed on to everyone who works here and those that purchase from The Gallery. I feel it is my responsibility to assist all of the Gallery’s artists in the development of their careers, often signposting them to competitions, commissions, residencies, festivals and, of course, open studio events. They in turn tell their potential customers that they are represented here, where their work is available six days a week. This makes for a great long term relationship with most of the artists I represent. Many people would be shocked to know that despite being a very longstanding, well regarded independent gallery my take home pay every year is considerably below the national average wage.
So this blog probably preaches to the converted. But y’know maybe I just needed to say it. Artists often need galleries, and good galleries can and should do wonderful things for the artists they represent. It’s fine buying from the artist, but it’s also folly to believe this means you are putting more money their way. By shopping for art in galleries you support artists, keep open often small independent galleries that make the high street just that little bit more interesting.
I’d love to hear what you think, Josie