Guest blogger Michael Soltis, an artist who has also owned a gallery, shares his insights and experience. This article is reprinted from the current special issue of Mixed Media Art Magazine.
Being a gallery owner was rewarding, exciting, challenging and fulfilled my desire for creativity in ways that nothing else in my life ever has. I loved that my time, energy and resources were being used to promote art and artists and that my contribution to the world was one in which creativity and beauty was shared.
However, I learned that making money in the art business is very difficult. Most people who came into my gallery would say wonderful things about the work, but the percentage of art buyers was very low.
Not only do the buyers need to find a piece that they like but it also has to be the right size and dimensions and most importantly, they have to have a place to put it. And art buyers buy lots of art – so they usually don’t. So you need to reach more people by marketing your business.
You have to spend money on advertising and spend lots of time out in the community, attending events, meeting with people and becoming a well-known (and well-liked) art professional. The ongoing operational costs are massive and if you have employees the costs skyrocket. Art fairs are becoming an industry standard to reach collectors these days and the fees and costs to get you and the art there is not even within reach of many galleries. So I found it very difficult to survive and I have immense respect and admiration for those who do.
Gallery owners are running a business and they need art that sells in order to remain viable. So if they like an artist’s work and it fits in well with their roster and they think it will sell, they will want it in their gallery.
If they like the work, gallery owners will want artists who are professional, who are constantly creating, constantly learning, constantly working and who have a clear vision. They also want an artist who has several pieces ready to ship that are part of a consistent and cohesive body of work that represents who the artist is. So while it’s great to explore different ideas and techniques and I would never discourage that, when a gallerist wants to see your work, make sure you present them with pieces that are part of collection and/or that are in a particular style.
I think the gallery owners that ended up representing me decided to do so because they liked my work and thought it was marketable but also because I was pleasant, professional, and didn’t push myself on them. I presented a singular vision for what I was trying to accomplish. They noticed that I was someone who took my art career seriously, would do what I said I would do, was kind, polite and had a good understanding of their business, and realistic expectations.
As a gallery owner, these are the types of artists I chose, and I typically found them because they were showing their work and it was available for me to find. Getting noticed by a gallery owner requires that you look for as many opportunities as you can to get your work out there.
But always be aware of the environment and context in which your art is shown; it will affect people’s perception. Each artist needs to decide what that means for themselves, but if it doesn’t feel right and you don’t think it puts your work in the best light, don’t do it. It is absolutely crucial to have a good website and online presence (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) Be simple, clean, consistent and professional. You must promote yourself this way – these are invaluable tools and they create a perception.
I have to add that while galleries can generate some sales, I have become incredibly inspired by artists who are able to build their business on their own. I have a good friend who has been painting for over 12 years. She has been approached by several galleries, but has opted to continue to do her own thing. She sets her pricing, she offers reductions when it makes sense, chooses certain design/home decor stores that hold a few pieces and works with an art consultant that represents her to collectors and designers. For the most part, she pockets 100% of her sales and she makes over $100,000 a year out of her studio.
This didn’t happen overnight and she puts in the work – the work of creating and the work of selling. I am really encouraged to see that it is possible to do it on your own. That’s where I would put my focus if I was a newer artist or had a desire to make art a full time job. If you are working hard, getting better and putting the work out there, you will get noticed. But you must be patient.
I was actually with a large online gallery for a year and my work was featured on a site that has daily online art auctions. I didn’t find it effective for my work. Online shopping is a huge business, but I question it’s validity for selling original art. For lower priced works or reproductions, absolutely. But if you’re selling a piece of art for $1,000 – $5,000, unless the buyer is already familiar with the artist, or really trusts the curator, no matter how many pictures you take in different angles, most buyers are still going to want to see it in person.
I know of a few galleries who have opted not to have a brick and mortar space and instead spend their money on art fairs and working directly with designers and art consultants, and the online component supports that. In my opinion, that is a good option and if I were to open another gallery or be represented by another gallery, I would really consider this.
My final thought: I have been an actor and an artist for over 13 years. I’ve had many successes and many failures, and my psyche bears the scars of countless rejection. But every time I go to another audition or face another blank canvas I am convinced that it is my tenacity that will win out. My desire has always been and will continue to be that I am able to support myself and my family through my art exclusively. I know this is a rarity in today’s world but I will never give up. Ever.
If that is your desire, I hope you don’t either. Whether your work is in a gallery or online or in your studio or at an art fair or hanging in a coffee shop, keep creating it. Keep sharing it. Keep getting better. Because it’s just a matter of time. Those who stick to it, succeed. It is possible. Our dreams are possible.
For a special offer from Mixed Media Art Magazine, featuring Michael Soltis’ article and artwork on the cover, see this link.