Exploding a myth

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

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4 thoughts on “Exploding a myth

  1. As an artist who sells her own work and is represented by various galleries including Josie ‘s in Masham I am deeply appreciative of having other people selling my work. I don’t have to sit for hours, awaiting customers, engage them in will they, won’t they conversation etc. Instead I can make new work and reprint my old. Sometimes I do sell my own work directly – I was at Saltaire a couple of weeks ago, I am thinking about Art in the Pen , the Great north Art Show demands a day of its artists in Ripon . When I do I thank my lucky stars that fir the most part I can be sold through other people’s labours. Of course I keep my prices consistent – if I sell my own work at least I get a bit of money for all that exhausting selling work.Thank you Josie and all the other people with galleries who sell my work. Great article too.

  2. I haven’t got a clue about how to sell my artwork and I’m terrible at it when I try. I haven’t got much time as it is and I would love to be able to use that time making art instead of trying to become a marketeer. An experienced gallery owner will understand what you’re trying to achieve and will work with you, directing when necessary and offering often invaluable advice. They have the experience and knowledge of the market that I just don’t. That’s a skill that takes a long time to build up and, added to the costs of running a gallery, is what earns the commission. Of course there are differences between galleries and between the integrity and motivation of the owners but that’s the same in every sector, including artists! You soon hear through the local art grapevine which are good to work with. Also, if there weren’t galleries, finding a good piece of art would surely be like trying to find a needle in a haystack?! I wouldn’t get anywhere without gallery support and am enormously grateful to Josie for helping me to show my work. The fact that she is also an artist puts her in a perfect position to look after you and to know the market you want to reach. I can understand why art buyers think they can / should go directly to the artist but it’s down to a lack of understanding of what’s involved in actually getting your work out there and of the important role (for both the artist and the buyer) that a good gallery plays. I think Josie’s article spells it out really well.

  3. Having worked for The Gallery for many years, I know a lot of things about selling my work that I am positive I would never have learned on my own. I have a great advantage having worked for a gallery, as I have come to realise some really important things about selling work which were a surprise to me at the time (for example, setting your prices too low can be just as damaging as putting them too high). As with any kind of creative endeavor, having someone else’s opinion, particularly someone with a good knowledge of that subject, is priceless, as it allows you to distance yourself and learn not to take things too personally.
    I personally found that my time at art college taught me nothing about how to make a living from my art, so had I not had the experience of working in a gallery, and knowing a lot of artists, I would be just as lost about how to get started as many people I know.
    Of course, there will be plenty of galleries in existence, run by people who are simply out to make money, but as Victoria mentioned above, this is true in any sector. Many of the galleries out there are independently run by people who are either artists themselves or have a passion for art, and if they are anything like Josie and the rest of the staff at The Gallery, they are bursting with useful advice for artists and more than happy to share it.
    The fact is, being a great artist does not automatically make you a good business person, so building a relationship with someone who is will be beneficial for both people. And if someone is only interested in making piles of cash, I imagine there are easier ways than running a gallery!

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